However hard I tried I could not get it to add up. My outgoings were more than my income. All because four piano pupils had given up at the end of the autumn term without giving me any notice. Even if I took them to the small claims court for breach of contract it would take months to get the money they owed me and in the meantime I would be £500 short over the next three months. I would advertise for more pupils but it was the beginning of January and it might be several weeks before anyone responded. Everyone would be paying off their Christmas bills and have no money for extras. I would be alright by the end of March. I was sure to have found more pupils by then and, in any case, I had extra work in the diary for that month. The trio I was in was booked for two weddings and I was the official accompanist for the local music festival.
In the meantime I would have to cut back. There would be no going to the pub, theatre, cinema, concerts or the opera. (How would I manage without the opera?) I could eat less. Musicians are not thin because they are so wrapped up in their art they forget to eat, it is because they cannot afford to. I needed a stiff drink but it was only ten o’clock in the morning and anyway I now could not afford alcohol. I would have to make do with a strong coffee.
I went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. I gazed out of the window at the bare plane tree swaying in the breeze. I was dreaming of winning the lottery when my phone rang. “Is that Valerie Jenkins?” I thought I recognised the man’s voice but I could not place it.
“I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Paul Anson. You played for my choir a while ago.”
It was five years ago and I did remember. I had never forgotten it. My friend Marianne who usually accompanied his choir had broken her wrist in a car accident so she asked me to deputize for her. At the time I was glad to. I had left music college two months previously and was trying to establish myself as a freelance pianist in London so I needed all the work I could get. The choir was rehearsing the Messiah for a concert at Christmas in the Albert Hall. I knew the Messiah well so I had not hesitated to accept.
Paul continued, “I need a rehearsal pianist for the next two months. My regular man has broken his leg.” What was it with this man? Did all his pianists end up in plaster? “We’re performing the Matthew Passion on Good Friday. I need someone as good as you are.” If I was so good how come he had not offered me any work in the last five years? No, this was code for I’m desperate. No-one I’ve asked so far wants the job. “The rehearsals are on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9:30,” he told me. “In the same church hall you came to before.” I was free on Wednesday evenings.
I had turned up at that church hall five years ago full of enthusiasm, keen to impress and confident I could do a good job. The choir was large, nearly one hundred singers, mostly students, professors and people connected with the local university. When I arrived I found Paul sitting on a high stool at the conductor’s rostrum going over the score. He looked up when I introduced myself, nodded, said ‘I hope you can play the Messiah,’ and returned to the music before I could answer. Not the most friendly of receptions but I assumed his mind was on the rehearsal and as long as someone was at the piano it did not matter to him who it was.
He began with the Hallelujah Chorus. Within a few bars he began to shout. “Watch the beat, watch the beat.” The choir and I found this difficult as there was no discernible down beat. His right arm waved in a circle like a wind turbine. Behind the music stand he became a monster. His face went red and he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, dark patches of sweat appeared under the arms of his shirt as he stamped his foot to give the beat.
“Why aren’t you playing staccato?” He glowered at me over the piano lid. Because it’s not marked staccato in my score, I thought to myself but did not say anything, just played it staccato. My mind was racing trying to keep up with his instructions; my hands shook so much I fluffed all the semiquavers and I was shouted at again.
Fortunately after that I was left in peace while he turned his attention to the tenors. “You bloody tenors,” he yelled when they missed an entry. I heard a sharp collective intake of breath from the choir; everyone stiffened. I managed to make it through to the break without either collapsing or running out into the High Street. I needed the money. I had to put up with it unless he sacked me. In the break I took my cup of tea and hid behind the upright piano where I could not be seen. In my hideaway I overheard some of the choir chatting.
“He’s so rude.”
“What right has he to swear at us like that? We’re supposed to be here to enjoy ourselves.”
“He thinks he’s another Solti but he’s not, he’s only an amateur. I think his day job is in the Physics department.”
“He’s not even a professor, only a technician.”
I returned to the present when Paul said the magic words. “The pay is £25 an hour. There are ten weeks of rehearsals.” That would be £50 a week extra making £500 in all. It solved my immediate problems; my income would match my outgoings. All I had to do was put up with being shouted at and humiliated in front of a hundred people for two hours once a week for ten weeks.
I had more experience now than five years ago. I was tougher and harder so was it likely that I would I have the same sleepless night before the rehearsal as I had before, waking up gasping for breath and shaking with fear? I had lost half a stone in weight then as I had been unable to eat on the day of the rehearsal. But he had not sacked me; I had stuck it out and earned my money. The choir made me feel I was appreciated when they gave me a standing ovation and a large bouquet at the end of the final rehearsal. If I had been that bad would he be ringing now and asking me to play? “I do hope you can do it,” he said.
I remembered the relief five years ago when his baton came down for the last time. I had felt the same sense of freedom at the end of term when I was driven away from boarding school by my parents. Paul was waiting for my answer.
“Thank you for asking me,” I said. “I’m very sorry but I can’t make Wednesday evenings. I am very booked up at the moment. I do hope you find someone,” and cut off the call before I changed my mind. In the past I had always managed to find work when I needed it. There was no need to think this time would be any different. I made my coffee and went back to my calculations. I knew it was not worth putting my nerves through the mincer again for £500. I would rather starve.