Cleo in 3⁄4 Time

By William Reeves

An old piano with a chipped key.

It was always about the eighty-eight black and white keys, the foot pedals, the rhythm, the synchronicity between the left hand bass clef and the right hand treble clef notes. It was about the chords, the sharps, flats, naturals and the time signatures. It was never about the drama. She left that to others. Her passion was directed inwards. The crescendos and decrescendos were all hers to appreciate alone, inside her head, filtering up through the touch of her fingers.

Cleo could not recall any time when she was not practicing, playing, teaching or performing on the piano. Her mother was an excellent piano player in her own right, and served as Cleo’s first teacher. But once her mother became aware of her daughter’s amazing  raw talent, it was decided that she should have her own tutor. Cleo’s love of the piano now became a priority in her life, and her tutor didn’t have to work hard to make it so. It came naturally.

Cleo was short for Cleora. She was the second of four children, including two brothers; one older and the other, the youngest. A younger sister was third in line after her. It was 1940 and Cleo was a senior in high school. In the outside world, things were getting pretty bad over in Europe. But everyone believed that FDR would keep the country out of any foreign war.

Her father was a well-educated man. He had completed three years at one of those schools from which a degree would mean a ticket to success. Unfortunately, some crisis at home meant that graduating would have to be deferred. Knowing that he would never return, her father took the required tests to become a Math teacher. Needless to say, trying to raise a family of six on a teacher’s salary was not easy. He became a bitter man.

As Cleo’s senior year moved towards conclusion, her tutor, whose name was Mrs. Butler, insisted on contacting the Juilliard School of Music in New York City to consider her protégé for a scholarship. One month out from graduation, the school requested that Mrs. Butler accompany her student to come in for an audition. To say that they were both thrilled and nervous was an understatement.

Since Cleo was also an excellent student her final exams were the least of her worries. Her straight A’s had her in the running for class valedictorian. But she couldn’t focus on any of that with her audition just a few weeks away.

They decided on three of the four pieces she would play for the judges. The flowing emotion of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata were always safe choices. As an allegretto they selected Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 – the Rondo alla Turca as the third piece. But they were still having trouble coming up with the final piece since Mrs. Butler wanted Cleo to play something livelier and more upbeat, which would illustrate her full range of talents on the keyboard. Although they thought it might be risky, they finally agreed on Scott Joplin’s Elite Synchopations. You never knew how judges might react to a piece not written by a classical composer. They decided to take the risk anyway.

On the day of the audition, Mrs. Butler picked her up and drove them to the Newark train station. Her tutor was quite confident since Cleo had never missed a note or a beat in any of her previous recitals. Then again, this was the recital of all recitals. Cleo’s future was right in front of her. All she had to do was to relax and play her best.

Cleo played perfectly. As she played, Mrs. Butler focused on the judges. She was looking for approving facial expressions and whether or not they were closing their eyes to savor the notes, allowing them to flow through their musical senses. There was a feeling of exhilaration in the room.

On the train ride home, Cleo confided in Mrs. Butler that there were times she thought she might be sick to her stomach. Not while she was playing, since the adrenaline had taken over, but during the brief interludes between the end of one piece and the beginning of the next. Her tutor put her arm around her, smiled, and told her that was only natural. All performers feel that way.

Their gamble paid off. The letter of acceptance arrived two days before her high school graduation, with a copy sent to Mrs. Butler. Cleo’s future had revealed itself. They both wanted to celebrate, but there were still some logistical matters to discuss with her father.

Cleo’s father was a reserved and stoic man. After congratulating her on the acceptance, he asked if her admission covered all of the related expenses. When they reviewed the letter together, he pointed out that, while she was being offered a scholarship, it did not include any funds for room and board. He asked if she planned on commuting into New York and did she know how much it would cost?

The discussion went on for some time. Her father reminded her that her older brother’s college expenses had depleted the family’s reserves. And her younger brother would be the next to enter college. Her father stated firmly that they could not afford the additional expenses of Julliard while saving for her brother. Juilliard was out of the question. He made it clear that she was a young woman who would soon graduate with honors from high school. She could easily find a clerical job and help out with the family expenses. Clearly, she understood that it was more important for her younger brother to attend college than for her to pursue her music.

She cried it out in her room. Sacrifices had to be made. Cleo was part of the greatest generation. She just didn’t know it yet.

Category: Featured, Fiction