I trudged up the gravel driveway, head down, body aching under the black case slung over my shoulder. Guitar lessons would have been more enjoyable had they not been right after karate. Today, karate had been an intense training where we’d spent the class holding planks while being told we were “lazy” and a “waste of time.” I was used to it by now, but I still wasn’t in the mood for struggling through a guitar lesson.
The front-gabled roof and wide eaves of the Swiss cottage-styled home rose above me. Tulips and daffodils lined the white stucco and black trim. Strategically placed mirrors made the garden appear fuller and more luscious. “It’s a neat trick,” I’d thought, making a mental note to tell my mother about it as I traversed the cement path that led to the music studio. An old guitar hung on the porch, once a useful instrument, now simply a decoration. I pushed the door open without knocking, the creaky hinges mingling with the melody of Julio Sagreras and my sigh of relief. The music had this way of washing away all the stresses of the week, and for a moment, I was at peace.
As always, Helga sat across from her student, listening attentively. Legs crossed under large billowing skirts, accented with a vibrant scarf, and a pair of vivacious boots—a gypsy, far from home, but never forgetting her heritage. Her eyes brightened when she saw me, and I shot her a smile as I waited for my turn. Listening to Morgan playing through her pieces, I began to feel that familiar jealousy creepy into my stomach. She’s a year younger than me, but with the advantage of starting at eight-years-old instead of fifteen, she’s five grades ahead and plays exquisitely. It was embarrassing to come after someone like that. If I couldn’t improve drastically in the next few months, Helga may also decide that I’m a waste of time.
“How are you, my girl?” she said, pulling me out of my reverie, her accent flicking the words into swirls of honey and paprika.
“Good,” I said, even though it wasn’t true. My music found it’s home on the stand and my guitar on my knee. I took my time tuning my instrument, fiddling with the pegs until Morgan shut the door behind her.
I passed Helga my notebook and she flicked through to the next blank page. She wrote the date in her big, looping cursive, then looked at me. “G Major, four-note tremolando.” Off I went. As I moved onto my pieces, my eye was drawn to Beethoven’s portrait hanging above the built-in oak shelves, which overflowed with sheet music. His face was stern, eyes so intense and formidable that I caught myself internally apologizing for the butchery my fingers were doing with his Fifth Symphony. My fingers began to fumble over the strings. The words shouted at me from earlier that day trickled into my mind, picking up speed like a typhoon. Unable to handle my failure any longer, I clamped a hand over the strings. “I’m sorry. I’m terrible.”
“You’re not terrible and you don’t need to be frustrated. We learn from our mistakes.”
I waved my hand in a flippant motion. “Yeah okay, but I’m sure he”—I gesture to Ludwig, still wearing that menacing glower—“would be rolling in his grave if he could hear me. Good thing he couldn’t. Do you suppose he’s still deaf in heaven? If he’s not, he probably wishes he was after hearing me.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “I did my dissertation on Beethoven, and it’s true, he was an angry man, but that would have nothing to do with your playing.” Her smile faded and she gave me a meaningful look. “I don’t ever want to hear you speaking about yourself that way. Those are lies from the outside, they have no place here. Tell them to go away! You are gifted, and an excellent musician. Enjoy the struggle. That’s what music is about.”
My eyes fell to the floor. “I’m just never gonna be as good as Morgan. I don’t understand how you can listen to her, and then waste your time on me.”
“You are different people, at different places in your musical journey. How could I compare you?” Setting my notebook in her lap, she fixed her wide, intense eyes on mine and I had the overwhelming sensation that she saw my internal struggle. “I love our lessons together. Do you want to be here?”
“Do you enjoy playing?”
Nodding, I sat up straighter. “I really like it.”
“Then you could never waste my time.” A lump swelled in my throat. The knowledge that I mattered to her, that she wanted me here even if I stumbled through scales and studies like a drunken jester. She noticed my emotion and averted her gaze back to Beethoven’s portrait. “Don’t be a Beethoven.”
“Huh? But I thought he was the best!”
“He may have been the best composer that ever lived, but he thought everyone despised him. His abusive father made him believe he could never be good enough,” she recalled with a smile. “He once conducted a symphony and, at the end of the performance, would not turn to see the audience’s reaction, he thought they’d hated it because he couldn’t hear the applause. The first flutist physically forced him to accept the standing ovation.” Her voice was comforting, I could’ve listened to her talk for hours. I grinned as she continued. “Beethoven was German,” she said, shooting me a cheeky smirk, “but us Austrians like to claim him as our own.” She reached for the old metronome, and I cringed. Getting my fingers into position was hard enough without the relentless tick, tick, tick of the swinging pendulum. “Alright, let’s play through that Fifth Symphony again. At home you should practice each piece once with the metronome, twice without.”
Through the doily curtained windows, I saw dusk beginning to fall. The walls were a coppery orange and had a way of absorbing the light. She flicked the lamps on. “This old house was never wired properly,” she muttered. The bulbs clicked and buzzed, fluctuating from bright to dim, making it difficult to read my music. One of the more mature students had started bringing a clip-on reading light for her stand, turning it into a large insect with glowing antennae. My eyes were young, so I didn’t mind having to squint, but most of the time I wasn’t looking at my music anyway—she was constantly pushing me to play by memory. I played through the symphony to the rhythmic ticking of the metronome, but this time when my fingers fumbled, I pushed that demeaning voice out of my head and played on. When I’d finished, I gave her a dazzling smile. “I did it!”
“Bravo!” She clapped her hands. “Even when you made a mistake, you pressed on. That is what makes a good performance.”
The door creaked as the next student came in and I felt a dash of disappointment. “Such a good lesson deserves a sticker,” Helga said, bringing my attention back to herself. The sticker sheet crinkled as she slipped a long fingernail between a glittery horse and the cellophane. “Unless you’re too old for stickers?”
A giggle erupted from me, and I shook my head. “Maybe a little, but I like them.”
“Me too.” She winked at me and pasted the holographic pony on the corner of my notebook. “Would you perform your piece for us?” She asked, gesturing to the waiting boy.
Nerves crept up my spine and my palms became hot and sweaty. He was far more experienced than myself, but the encouragement in both their faces made me pause.Music is meant to be shared, that’s what Helga always says. The feeling of inadequacy didn’t belong here and instead of succumbing to it, I told it to go away. “Okay.”
“That’s my girl!” She beamed.
Despite my shaking hands, my fingers went to work, flying across the strings without hesitation. I closed my eyes, feeling the music, allowing it to embrace me. When I’d finished, there were tears in Helga’s eyes as the two of them applauded.
“I’m so impressed with how good you’re getting!” The boy said, grinning widely. “I remember playing that piece, it was hard!”
I found myself grinning as I began packing up my things. “Thanks! Yeah, it’s tricky.”
Helga stood and pulled me into a hug. Holding me shoulders, she looked between the two of us. “This community we have, this place to share our music, it is so important.” Touching my cheek, she lowered her voice, “I am so proud of you, my girl.”
A warmth spread throughout my belly, and goosebumps trickled down my spine. “Thanks, Helga. See you next week!”
Allie Guilderson lives on Vancouver Island, BC with her loving husband Zachary and their three children—Charlotte, Kashlyn and Harvey. As a child Allie’s father would read them novels such as CS Lewis’ Narnia, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. However, her fondest memories are of the tales her father invented on the spot, which inspired many of her own short stories in elementary school. She hopes to pass on the same gift to her own children, as there is nothing more magical than losing yourself in a book.
Writing has been a creative outlet for her since childhood but evolved into a serious venture in 2021. Guilderson has had a few literary successes since this shift in perspective, with a story published with MONO Fiction, and another with Enceladus Magazine. In early 2022, she had three pieces longlisted with Globe Soup’s writing contests.
2 thoughts on “Don’t Be A Beethoven – by Allie Guilderson”
Dear Allison, l simply loved your writing “Don’t Be A Beethoven”
Your story drew me into your world. I felt myself right there next to you through the struggle and on to the victory. Recounting every word of encouragement from Helga. She saw you as you!Never to be compared to another. Wonderful Wonderful!! You captured me!! A great teacher is like nothing else in life and Never forgotten. Thank you for that emotional journey!! I LOVED IT. XOXOXO ❤️
I enjoyed everything about your story Allie. A good teacher can make such a difference in who we become and how we mentor others on our journey.