“Cello Champion,” by Deborah Copperud

Jun 26th, 2024 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

The morning after Astrid sprains her sternum at the Baptist Indoor Beach Party, I arrive at orchestra rehearsal with my cello. I tighten my bow and swipe its horse hairs across a crumbling mass of dark rosin. Orchestra is my favorite class. I relish every early morning musical moment before enduring the rest of my sophomore schedule. I take my seat in the second chair of the cello section next to Milo, who plays third chair and can barely read music. The first chair, which belongs to Astrid, the virtuoso of the 1995-96 Trojan Orchestra, sits empty.

Milo points his bow at the vacant seat. I shake my head. Milo, the worst musician in our section, has no authority over who sits in the top cello spot. I’m at least three Suzuki books ahead of Milo, and I have first chair dreams, but I’m no substitute for Astrid. I work hard, but Astrid is a prodigy. I am dependable and ordinary, like scrambled eggs. Astrid is a perfect omelet flipped from the pan to a bone china plate by a French chef. Besides, Astrid isn’t absent. She sits in a corner, icing her injury and assessing us with her perfectly pitched ears.

Before straining the ligaments in her rib cage, Astrid coaxed heartbreaking, vibrato-laden tones from her school-issued instrument. On top of that, Astrid sings every choir solo. She stars as Anne Frank in the fall play. She’s an All-State tennis star. She aces all the Advanced Placement exams. She reads every novel in the British and American literary canons, then moves on to Russian classics. Her clear skin glows, her blue eyes sparkle, and her dark hair falls in flattering, face-framing waves. Astrid’s innate talent intimidates me, and I lack the brazen confidence it would take to move over. I covet the first chair, but I don’t deserve it. First chair isn’t simply occupied. First chair is earned.

Asking Astrid for permission to sit in her seat is out of the question. Astrid never talks to me, even though we share a music stand and sit close enough together that I sometimes, accidentally, graze her knee with the end of my bow, leaving a sliver of rosin dust on her jeans. I wish we could be friends. I yearn for musical camaraderie. It seems like everyone else in our rural southwestern Minnesota town is only into sports. I want an orchestra pal, someone to listen to Nirvana’s Unplugged album with me and swoon over the grunge cello. I want a friend who appreciates the shrine I built in my bedroom to honor Yo-Yo Ma. While the rest of the student body listens to AM radio announcers drone play-by-plays of professional sports games, I’d love to tune into classical public radio with someone who can appreciate the swell of a symphony, the tenderness of a middle adagio movement, and the complexity of a Debussy composition. Astrid is the obvious candidate for my imaginary cello friend club, but she ignores me and my cello obsession.

Astrid’s genius mystique has cowed me since elementary school, when mythic stories circulated about her intelligence. The first time I met her was in a summer tennis class taught by a couple of high school varsity team racket heads. At our first scrimmage, I missed every one of Astrid’s confident serves. We shared a birth year, but Astrid skipped a grade ahead of me in school.

“Third grade is easy,” she bragged, then thwacked the last point over the net. I dragged my clumsy feet across the court to retrieve her winning ball.

Out of all of Astrid’s gifts, I resent her musical family the most. In the green room before the fall play premiere, I watch Astrid’s glamorous older sisters surprise her with bouquets of exotic flowers. The sisters traveled home from their elite colleges, where they both study music performance, to applaud their talented baby sister in the lead role on opening night. Their mother teaches piano lessons at their home, where a shiny baby grand dominates their living room. Astrid’s family probably discusses deep musical topics around the dinner table, like the merits of Alberti bass lines and Picardi thirds, terms I only encounter in my well-worn music dictionary.

Neither one of my parents can name a single classical composer, except for, “The guy who wrote Moonlight Sonata.” I surprise my parents with my requests for lessons, orchestra camp, and a public radio tote bag. They support my musical enthusiasm, up to a point. They aim to raise an arts appreciator, not a performer. In my family, music is an acceptable hobby that I can use to round out my application to college, where my parents intend for me to choose a practical major that will lead to a steady job and stable pay.

I work hard to overcome my music theory-starved upbringing. My fingertips develop rough callouses from practicing scales and arpeggios. I take private lessons with a college professor in the nearest city. On the weekly drives to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I resent the surrounding flat farm fields, which mock my artistic pretensions with their level, agricultural practicality. My sensitive heart craves dramatic mountain vistas and crashing ocean waves, which is what I imagine all classical musicians get to see on their commutes from elegant brownstone apartments to architecturally significant concert halls. Realistically, I probably won’t even qualify for admission to a mediocre music program at a state college. Not like Astrid. Astrid possesses the talent to someday transcend her humble hometown and succeed as a professional musician in a major, cosmopolitan city.

Until the Baptist calamity.

Every winter the local Baptist pastor attempts to save our small Minnesota town’s youth from boredom-induced sin with an indoor beach party. The pastor imitates Old Testament God by declaring, “Let there be sand!” Then a landscaping crew covers the church’s gymnasium floor with beach-grade gravel. The sand wards off devilish pop culture indulgences, like Enter the Wu-Tang profanity, MTV’s Spring Break semi-nudity, and Bartles and James wine coolers. At the party, a couple hundred rural Midwestern kids take off their shoes and ignore the lack of a real shoreline. I sit on the dirty sand and watch my athletic classmates participate in beach-adjacent competitions.

Astrid displays her effortless excellence by pushing a barbell that weighs ten pounds more than her petite frame above her chest for fifty repetitions. The next morning at orchestra rehearsal, Astrid tells the conductor about her victory. She won the barbell championship! But she sprained her sternum. Now her chest hurts too much to play the cello.

For weeks afterward Astrid attends rehearsal, but she doesn’t play. Instead, she sits in the corner and flaunts the Dostoevsky and Tolstoy translations that she reads for her self-directed Russian literature study.

Without Astrid’s perfect musicianship, the orchestra sounds like the musical equivalent of a ragtag underdog baseball team seeded last in a round robin tournament. The second violinist taps his right foot out of step with the conductor’s baton. The violas never remember to check the key signature. Milo only plays his open strings. Without Astrid’s lead to follow, I play timidly. My negative inner monologue rags on every note: too loud! Uneven triplets! Flat C sharp! Weak vibrato!

As the spring concert approaches, we prepare a program of easy symphony classics: Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The conductor moves me to the first chair, “just until Astrid recovers.” As I sit in her exalted seat, I look for glimmers of approval or disdain, but Astrid’s gorgeous face is unreadable.

I realize that Astrid acts like she doesn’t care about the first chair because she doesn’t care about the first chair. She doesn’t have to. She succeeds at so many other extracurricular activities that the orchestra makes up just one small sliver of her overall success pie. This realization untethers me from the judgment I have been projecting onto Astrid.

I’m free! I can ignore her! So what if I’m not a classical music star shooting out of the Midwestern prairie? I have a great work ethic, I’ve logged hundreds of hours of practice, and I can keep time with the conductor’s baton. I know that I’m not bound for Juilliard, but I’m good enough to lead a two-cello section in a middling high school orchestra.

On the night of the spring concert, the orchestra waits in the school foyer to make our gymnasium entrance. We listen to the concert band oom-pa its way through a John Philip Sousa march. The trombones and baritones blast; the flutes and piccolos trill. Chilly March air travels through the entryway when the varsity basketball coach arrives late. He pumps his fist at us and bellows, “Let’s go!”

The bleachers erupt in applause. Some mom shrieks, “Way to go, Cooper!” as if her trumpet-playing son just aced a lay-up. My hometown audience prefers team sports to symphonies, but they’ll cheer for anything.

I stride across the gymnasium in a pair of swishy black dress pants. I sit in the first chair and nod at the conductor. We play the first two musical selections without stumbling. Our mistake-free performance surprises me. We sound better than we did at our dress rehearsal.

Then performance adrenaline sets in. Milo air bows. The second violinist lags a step behind. The viola section plays the wrong notes. Astrid observes the performance from the bleachers, a copy of Anna Karenina in front of her face.

I sweat like a wrestler pinned by his opponent. My heart thumps like a dribbling ball pummeling a basketball court. My negative inner monologue appears like a water station in the middle of a distance race and offers me Dixie cups full of fear and inadequacy. I’m only here because of Astrid’s foolish foray into weightlifting. I never earned first chair on my own merits.

The school mascot, a giant Trojan helmet painted on center court, catches my eye from underneath my cello’s endpin. The stoic image reminds me that, in my sports-obsessed town, even the most unathletic students learn lessons about victory. Maybe the unrelenting school spirit binds to the air molecules inside the classrooms. Maybe my classmates shed sportsmanship onto their desks like dandruff. Maybe the lunchroom staff pumps grit right into the chicken patties, boils noodles in Gatorade, and wrings the gym class sweat towels directly into vats of beef barley soup.

The mascot on the glossy gym floor reminds me that talent isn’t everything. Sometimes lucky circumstances determine winners. Sometimes players fracture wrists, strain hamstrings, or suffer concussions. Sometimes sports stars rely too much on raw talent and not enough on discipline. I stop feeling inferior. Am I talented? Maybe not. Am I competent? Hell, yes. Hours of practicing scales and warm-ups prepared me for this moment. I earned first chair, fair and square.

We careen toward the end of the concerto. The second violinist’s toe taps faster. The first violins race to catch the counter melody. The entire ensemble wobbles in and out of allegro. I lock my eyes on the conductor’s baton to mind meld with her fixed beats. I play louder, deliberately, which signals the violins to stop rushing. For the first time in his life, Milo plays in lockstep. We corral the upper strings with our steady bow strokes, forcing the unwieldy violas and violins back to the correct tempo. Just in time for the last bar of the concerto, the entire orchestra synchronizes. We land on the final note and lift our bows in unison as our conductor ends the piece with a baton flourish, like a three-point swoosh in the last second of a ball game. Then she raises her arms and one eyebrow, which means, “Stand and receive your adoring applause from this most unsophisticated, albeit enthusiastic, audience.”

The audience whoops and claps. We stand. I glance at Astrid. She doesn’t look my way, of course. But she sets aside her hardcover and joins in the applause.


Deborah Copperud is a writer and podcaster in Minneapolis, MN. Her work has been published by Racket, Blue Earth Review, and Great River Review. She co-hosts the It’s My Screen Time Too and Spock Talk podcasts.

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