A clock ticks in the quiet of the studio. Isako knows instinctively that it is almost time for her lesson to be over but doesn’t dare check. She makes sure to stifle her yawn. Dr. Nakahara is strict about social niceties.
“Yes, that was much better.” Isako’s shoulders slump subtly in relief. She nods politely at her teacher’s comment. “Just be sure to continue practicing with the metronome this week. And I still think your left hand could be lighter in the passages we talked about. Well, I see that someone’s here to pick you up. I think we have to be done for the day.” Isako moves to pack up her music.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” her teacher exclaims. “I’m planning another duet recital for this year. I’d like you and some other students to play the Dolly Suite by Gabriel Faure. Have you ever heard it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, it’s absolutely charming. Here’s a copy for you. I’ve marked the ones I’d like you to practice. I hope you have fun with it.”
“Would you like me to play primo or secondo?” Isako asks.
“Hmm. Let’s have you on primo.”
“Okay. Thank you, Dr. Nakahara. Have a nice day.”
“You’re welcome. Goodbye, Yuko.”
It’s only after she’s closed the door that she realizes that Dr. Nakahara hadn’t told her who her duet partner was going to be.
Yasako stares. Isako is her duet partner. Of course it’s Isako. Yasako hadn’t even known who Isako’s teacher was when she joined Dr. Nakahara’s studio. Well, now she knows. This must be the universe’s nice way of telling her to grow up after worrying all day about meeting someone new. She gets the message. She’s not worried anymore. She’s delighted.
“Well girls,” their teacher proclaims, “since both of you are named Yuko, I couldn’t resist assigning you two together.” Wait, Isako’s name is Yuko too? “Your strengths also complement each other’s nicely. I already have the duet bench set up, so we can get started right away.”
Their staring match is aborted as Yasako willingly takes her seat. Isako follows a beat after. Their socked feet brush briefly when Yasako remembers that she’s responsible for the pedals. She hears her old teacher’s voice in her mind: “Just like dances, duets gave young boys and girls an excuse to touch each other in a socially acceptable environment. So don’t be so stiff around your partner. You’re supposed to touch. It’s supposed to be that way.” She feels Isako’s eyes on her. Dr. Nakahara opens their music.
“Alright then. Let’s start with Dolly’s Garden, shall we?”
They make eye contact, then Isako cues her with her wrists. They begin perfectly together on the very first try. Dusk has fallen, and the only light in the room is from the lamp near the window and the desk light shining over the music stand. Its yellow glow casts their shadows onto the shelves of music behind them. Dr. Nakahara had left the window open, and Yasako thinks the piece is perfect for the warm summer evening.
The applause dies quickly in the small room. Yasako squirms slightly on the cramped couch. At least she gets a good view of both pianos from here. Plus, she was basically sitting next to Isako. Sort of. She was the one sitting closest to her, anyway.
“That was lovely, quite lovely. You have a very nice technique. Thank you for that performance. Now, let’s get to the good stuff, eh?”
The studio was cramped because Dr. Nakahara had invited a piano professor from a nearby university to give a master class. He was a tall, slender man with bright eyes and neatly slicked back salt and pepper hair. His purposeful air contrasted with his breezy manner of speaking. He seemed very kind. Yasako liked him.
Isako had just played him the piece she was working on— a Beethoven Sonata in C major. It didn’t quite match her cool demeanor. She seems to sit on the piano bench more stiffly than usual as if to compensate.
“What I want to give you is a better sense for the phrasing and direction of the melody, and I find that this goal is best achieved through lyrics. Singers understand how phrasing works because they have to breathe. Now, the piano doesn’t have to breathe, but you have to breathe. Let’s start right here at the very beginning, see? For this opening melody, I don’t want you to think about notes. Instead, I want you to sing.” He turns to look Isako straight in the eyes. “I really really want some cream cheese. I really really want some bagels,” he deadpans, then swiftly moves to the other piano to demonstrate.
He plays the first several measures while singing with energy, “I— really really want some cream cheese! I— really really want some ba-gels! I— really really want some more! I— really really want some more! I want some more right now!”
Isako looks pained. Yasako giggles. The professor looks up and catches Isako’s expression. He moves to clap her on the shoulder. “I know,” he says seriously. “Once you hear it, it can never be unheard. You’re welcome.” Yasako giggles harder. Isako glares.
The couch cushions were too warm. After suffering through scores of nonsensical lyrics which this hyper man had apparently come up with on the fly, she had finally been allowed to rejoin the audience, and Yasako had taken her place in front of the piano. Although she had staunchly refused to sing herself, it had still been Isako’s most embarrassing master class experience. Yasako’s laughter hadn’t helped matters. However, their roles were now reversed. It was time for Yasako to take her turn in the hot seat.
Except Yasako wasn’t having it nearly as bad. So far she had only been taught several useful tricks for improving her technique. Didn’t this professor believe in equal education opportunity? But karma hadn’t abandoned Isako just yet.
He regards Yasako thoughtfully and says, “I think you need some lyrics too, not necessarily to feel the phrasing, but to feel the emotion. Chopin was very emotional. You need an inspiration. You need to press the weight of your feeling deep into the keys.” Isako smirks. How the tables have turned.
“This could be a song about heartbreak. Have you ever fallen in love? What is your name? Yuko? What a lovely name. Have you ever fallen in love, Yuko? Well, perhaps you are a little young. But someday you will. Okay. Let’s say instead that someone has fallen in love with you. They might say something like this.” He clears his throat. “Yu—ko, I long for you, my— love out-pours for you!” he sings. Oh, no, Isako thinks, I was so wrong. The tables are still very against me.
“Now you try!” the professor encourages. Why.
Yasako’s eyes flick to hers. “Yu-ko, I long for you,” she warbles, “myloveoutpoursforyou.” Her cheeks are pink. Curse their shared name. This couldn’t get anymore awkward for either of them.
“Hmm. Not quite there. Let’s try that again. I’ll even sing it with you to make it feel more realistic.”
Isako really wants to leave.
“Is this Isako?”
“Yes, it's me.”
“Oh, hi Isako! It's Yasako.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Oh. Um, I was just calling about our duet.”
“So, we should probably meet up to practice before the recital.”
This conversation was taking much longer than needed. When they had exchanged cell numbers, Isako had thought it was understood that they would be contacting each other for the express purpose of arranging a practice.
“How about Friday? We can meet at my uncle's house. He has a baby grand.”
“Great! Um, I can only make it in the evening. Is 5 okay?”
“That's fine. I’ll text you my address. See you then.”
“Okay! See you! Goodbye, Isako!”
Aunt looks at her curiously after she hangs up, but Isako ignores her.
Yasako looks up from her phone nervously. Isako narrows her eyes at her in suspicion.
“Um, my mom just texted me,” Yasako offers. Isako waits. “And she’s running late. So she won’t be here for a while yet? Is that okay?”
Isako huffs. It isn’t as if anything can be done about it.
“Do you want to practice more? Or we could do something else?”
Isako considers. Honestly, practicing their duet wouldn’t make much of a difference at this point. The pieces are pretty easy, and she and Yasako sync well with each other. She wants to get outside of the house, but it’s dark and raining. On the other hand, they can’t just continue sitting next to each other in awkward silence. “We can hang out in my room, I guess.”
“Okay!” Yasako readily agrees. She smiles so easily and so frequently. Isako doesn’t really understand people like that. Why smile at every little thing? And what reason is there for her to smile now?
Halfway up the stairs, Yasako pauses. “You know, I thought it was funny,” she blurts as Isako turns to see why she isn’t following anymore. “At the master class. You played Beethoven, and I played Chopin. But it seems like it should be the other way around. It seems like you’re more suited for Romantic music while I’m more suited for Classical.”
This is true. Yasako’s playing is more calm and precise, but Isako secretly enjoys pieces with more emotion. “You’re right,” she responds and continues up the stairs.