Vaughan – Why do you keep pretending?

Why do you keep pretending?

The notes of the piano sounded strong and firm, though they were soon swallowed by the well insulated walls of the small practice room. There were many of these small rooms in the music school, giving students a place to practice without having to worry about playing over each other. Even after hours they were open to students to use, the Dean feeling strongly that the students schedules should be made a top priority.

The rooms were not generally claustrophobic, but two adults and a piano did make it feel a bit crowded. Even more so when one of the adults was as large as Michael Shaw.

Vaughan sat at the piano, fingers playing across the keys.

“You see how my fingers are moving? Try to make each one a singular motion, and follow through until the note comes the way you want it.”

“I see.”

The young man was also perched on the bench in front of the piano, looking far too large for it. Despite his greater size he was nearly hanging off the edge of it, and shifted regularly to try and keep his seat. It would have been comical if he hadn’t had such a gentle demeanor. Vaughan found it sweet, in a way, though he wished the young man had more confidence in himself.

“Come now, Mr. Shaw,” he said, fingers hovering just over the keys. “All that shuffling around is distracting. I’m not going to bite you, so scoot yourself over and sit properly. Posture and positioning are just as important, and you can’t play well if you’re about to fall on the floor.”

“Oh! S-sorry, I just- I didn’t want to impose.”

“I’m here to teach you, it is not an imposition. Besides,” his look softened a bit, taking pity on the young man, “if I was bothered I would tell you. You shouldn’t always feel the need to apologize for everything. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Michael’s cheeks took on a slight colored tinge, but he nodded. After a few moments, perhaps needed to steel himself, he shifted over so he was more center on the bench.

“There we are.” Vaughan smiled, and went back to playing, though he kept it soft, so they could keep speaking.

“It’s a bit like typing on a keyboard. If each keystroke isn’t firm you end up with a jumble of letters.”

“I’m not very good at typing either, I’m afraid.”

“Then perhaps you should also practice that. Don’t fret, no one starts out perfectly. The key is to keep trying, and practice as often as you can. Now, let’s go on.”

He played a short ditty, exaggerating his fingers a bit to show off the motions. Micheal was staring intently at his hands now. Though he’d agreed to meet him for this extra lesson he couldn’t help but be unusually aware of the weight of his gaze. The young man didn’t look at him with contempt, like many of his other students, nor with the pity he sometimes caught in the eyes of his fellows.

It was relaxing, in a way. He was so used to sussing out the intent behind how people looked at him, but Micheal was so open and earnest, it was impossible not to know what he was thinking. Part of him worried for someone so young, who wore their heart so on their sleeve.

Another part of him worried he was getting a bit too used to having Michael Shaw around.

The notes died away. Drawing himself up, he forced a smile.

“And there you have it. When you practice, try it slowly at first, until you get the proper motions down. You’ve got the talent, now you’ve just got to refine the skill.”

“I’ll try my very best.” Michael turned those gentle brown eyes of his on him and it was hard to draw his gaze away.

Michael looked like he had something else to say. It took him a moment, but when he went on the words rushed out of him as if a dam inside had broken, leaving Vaughan to pick out what he’d been trying to say.

“Sir, would you play one of the Bluemenfield pieces you were telling me about?”

He blinked. That was bold for the young man, but before Michael could try to backpedal he smiled at him.

“For you, I don’t see the harm.”

Michael smiled, and for just a moment he couldn’t help but stare. It was brilliant, and seemed far too rare for his liking. He laid his hands on the keys, and once again began to play. He felt at ease there, with Michael sitting beside him, and more relaxed than he’d felt in a long time.

The light bloomed into music in his mind, and flowed down his arms into his hands. For a few moments his fingers danced. For a few moments the old days were there, bright and shining.

The music came to a sudden, jarring stop as pain lanced through his hands. He drew them close against his chest as the muscles and joints cramped, desperate to hide them as his fingers curled in like the legs of a dead spider. He drew in a sharp breath as the spasms took him and quickly turned away.

“T-that’s enough for today.”

He could still feel Michael behind him, the young man hovering close.

“Are you all right, Professor Williams?”

The young man sounded concerned, but it was hard not to hear it as pitying.

“They’re just-” He swallowed his words, along with a lump of desperation clawing its way up his throat. “Hand cramps, that’s all. I can’t play anymore right now.”

“I understand. Thank you for playing for me. It’s always wonderful to hear you.”

There was nothing but honesty in the young man’s voice, but it was like a kick in the gut. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and his expression twisted. He turned back, eyes cold.

Michael’s smile faded to a look of confusion.

“What’s wrong?”

Vaughan was sure he was red in the face. Everything inside was boiling over. “Why do you keep pretending you’re interested in me?”

“What?” Michael looked startled, as if he’d been struck.

“All this! Wanting to know about my favorite music. Asking for these extra lessons. Is it just so you can make fun of me?” It was irrational, and part of him knew it deep down. Michael wasn’t like that. The young man didn’t have a mean bone in his body.

“N-no, sir, I…” Michael looked like he felt trapped, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights. Vaughan hated himself for causing him to look that way. Every time a spasm came he felt worse and worse, as if his body were trying to admonish him.

Then, suddenly, Michael’s expression shifted. Instead of the wide eyed panic that had been there, a gentle calm seemed to settle over him.

“I would never pretend with you, professor.” His deep voice was soothing, taking the edge off his madness.

“You’ve always been kind to me, and you’ve been the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

Surely that couldn’t be. Vaughan didn’t feel like he was kind, and he’d never felt like much of a teacher. Teaching was for those that couldn’t do. It was the only thing he was fit for. But, looking up into Michael Shaw’s eyes, he couldn’t find that self-loathing or that hatred. If this young man could believe in him, maybe he wasn’t quite as wretched as he felt.

“I believe you.”

Michael smiled.

For the moment, it felt like enough.

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Vaughan – Etude

“What does the music tell you?”

It was late and the halls of the college of music were mostly deserted. The school kept odd hours, the current dean thinking it supportive to allow students more access to the practice rooms when they felt like using them. Vaughan Williams had stayed late, grading papers. He found it easier to read them in his comfortable little office, rather than taking them home.

He’d packed up the last of his things and was heading out, when he heard the sound of a piano floating down the hall. That wasn’t unusual, but he knew this music well, having heard and played it many times before. It struck a chord, since it was exactly the kind of music he couldn’t play anymore. Curiosity got the better of him, and he followed it, peeking his head in one of the classrooms. A tall young man sat at the piano, with his back to the door.

Even without being able to see the face, Vaughan had no trouble identifying Michael Shaw. He was the only student of his who looked as if he belonged more on the football team than in a music hall. But though he might look like a jock, Vaughan had quickly learned he was a gifted, if still budding, young musician. He’d rather taken a liking to him.

He must have made a sound, as the music suddenly stopped and Michael turned to him with wide eyes. “Professors Williams! I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

Vaughan waved a hand. “It’s no bother, Mr. Shaw. You have every right to be here.” The young man bobbed his head in understanding, though he didn’t say more. Vaughan cleared his throat softly, feeling a bit awkward. Michael shifted nervously on the bench. It was a bit comical, in a dark sort of way, given the young man was probably half a foot taller, and twice as heavy, as he was. There was something about Michael, something gentle, and he felt bad for making him anxious.

“That was Blumenfeld, wasn’t it?” He asked quickly, hoping to diffuse some of the tension.

“O-oh yes. I looked up his music after the etudes we listened to in your lecture on Monday. I was… entranced by them.” He voice was almost shy, as if he were speaking of something taboo.

“He’s one of my favorite composers. You have very good taste, Mr. Shaw.” He offered a genuine little smile, one he would not have given any of his other students, Michael looked down a moment, seeming embarrassed. He moved on quickly, lest the young man flee the room. “Every piece Blumenfeld wrote tells a story. You close your eyes and see the pictures flowing through your mind. It’s glorious. Everyone takes away something different.”

Michael seemed bolstered and looked at him, piercing him with those earnest brown eyes of his. “What does the music tell you, Professor?”

“Oh, well-” The rather sudden question caught him off guard, and he froze. It wasn’t that it was inappropriate, but that he’d asked that same question to another, in another time, and another place.

It had been one of his finest debut nights. He’d picked a series of spectacular pieces that had showed off his range and skill. It had been fun, though the meet and greet afterward had been dull. At least, until he’d been approached by a grinning, and frankly beautiful, young man around his own age. He was not the sort of stuck-up, fussy patron one usually found at these events. He’d been charming, full of light, and chatted with him as if they’d been in a pub, rather than a concert hall. Instead of offense he’d been intrigued, curiosity having gotten the better of him eventually.

“I can’t help but wonder why you chose to attend. You don’t- well, you don’t strike me as the type.” He realized that probably sounded terribly rude, and gave the other man an apologetic look. “Forgive me, I meant no offense.”

The man laughed, not seeming bothered, and it put him at ease. “To be completely honest, my mother won tickets in a contest. My father’s out of town, so I’m the lucky winner. I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Give me maths all day long, but I can’t tell Mozart from Beethoven. But, watching you play, I rather want to.” Vaughan couldn’t help but grin. There was something about this man he liked very much.

“You don’t have to bother with all that in order to enjoy it. You just have to relax and it tells a story all its own.” He felt bold, and fixed the other man with a slightly playful look. “What does the music tell you, Mr. Suave?” His question drew a hearty laugh.

“I have no bloody idea, but I know what it tells me about you.” The man’s smile was very attractive, and Vaughan couldn’t help momentarily letting his eyes trace the curve of his thick brow, the way his throat moved under his umber skin. “It tells me you’re daring, graceful, good with your hands. And that I’d very much like to ask for your phone number.”

Vaughan felt heat come to his cheeks but was pleased by the praise. He rather liked this forward young man. “You are bold, Mr. Jahani,” he said, giving the other man a mock offended look for a moment, before it broke apart into a laugh. “But you’re also very right. I think you’ve earned my number, provided you do one little thing for me.”

“And what would that be, Mr. Williams?”

“Give me yours in return.”

“Professor? Professor Williams?” The voice cut through his mind, in the same moment he felt a pressure on his shoulder, and a hand gently shaking him. He blinked, the world coming back into focus and he looked up into the concerned face of Michael Shaw, hovering over him. He looked concerned.

“Oh, I, uh- Mr. Shaw, forgive me.” It was his turn to stammer, feeling very out of place. The memory had swallowed him whole, and he must have looked a right fool standing there, slack jawed. He paled a bit. He shouldn’t have stopped in. “My mind left left me there for a moment. It’s nothing to worry yourself over.”

Michael seemed to realize his hand was still on his shoulder and he practically jumped back, stammering his own apology. “Please forgive me Professor, I didn’t mean to invade your personal space.”

Vaughan drew in a soft breath. Despite his discomfort he felt bad for Michael. He’d asked a perfectly innocent question. It hadn’t been his fault his memories wouldn’t let him be. “It’s all right. I appreciate your concern. It’s late, and I think your question deserves a proper answer. Why don’t you stop by during my office hours, the next time you’re free? I’d love to talk to you about it.”

Michael’s worry seemed to fade, and he smiled. It was a rare sight, but a welcome one. “I-I will. Thank you.”

Vaughan offered him a smile in return, and gathered himself up. “Good night, Mr. Shaw.”

“Good night, Professor.”

Vaughan – Those Who Cannot Do

An overheard remark

No one in the small theater made a sound, outside of the occasional shuffle or shift. Every ear was tuned to the music, every eye to the figure on the stage. The somewhat lanky man at the piano almost seemed oblivious to having an audience as he played. His sender fingers moved expertly over the keys, filling the space with beautiful music.

This was no grand theater. The setting was, instead, quite intimate, holding perhaps fifty people. It was no surprise, given the school held practical exams here every year, when the audience might consist of only a few teachers. It was full to the brim tonight, though, and the notes of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 flowed from wall to wall. The acoustics gave the sound perfection, the hands that played gave it its soul.

The pianist was a slender man, somewhere in his 40s. The majority of his audience wouldn’t know him, outside of his name on the instructor roster. They didn’t know who was was teaching their children. Right now it hardly mattered, as the notes rolled by in his mind, his fingers deftly following. He knew every key, intimately, had caressed them so many times. His touch was firm, but light, as they moved over the keyboard. He’d often joked in the past that one should play as if they were touching their lover. Never to his students though. Best not to be misunderstood.

It was open house night at the university. Most places didn’t do this sort of thing, but Amherst was a prestigious private school, and parents liked to be sure they were getting their money’s worth. All the teachers were there to answer questions, but it had been a long held tradition for the programs in the performing art’s school to put on a small concert, to demonstrate the talent of the teachers.

The school sometimes brought in famous guest teachers, though most were obscure names, that only those that moved in musical circles would know. Then there the current player, Vaughan Williams. A study in what could have been. He should have been famous, could have been, but these days he was among the obscure. He would not be the only one performing that night.

He’d always hated these show-off nights, parading their skills around for mummy and daddy. It was a teacher’s relationship with their students that mattered, not how well they could appease their parent’s checkbook. But it paid the bills, and he could argue. He didn’t really care if these people knew him either, simply giving all of himself when he was at the piano. The music flowed, this piece one of his favorites, and something very familiar. He hadn’t picked it because of how much he loved it, though. Given the importance of this night, he’d hoped the slow nature of it would save him some potential embarrassment. Before arriving he’d done everything he could, massaging his hands, resting them over warm steam, taking his pills.

The world, it seemed, had different plans. He knew it was happening the moment he felt the first twinges, and inwardly he cursed, as if he could will his body to obey his mind. He tried his best to relax his hands and arms, without affecting his playing, but as the moments went on he could feel the muscles in his hands tightening, the pain starting to well up. It happened quickly, and in the worst way. A painful spasm tightly cramped both hands, producing several, very noticeable, sour notes. Everyone would have heard them. He was a professional, though, and instead of stopping dead he fought to get his hands back under his control, all the while inwardly pushing back anger at the betrayal. He slowed his playing, keeping at that pace until the pain passed. He refused to stop, or start over. He wasn’t an amateur.

Eventually, the cramping eased but lingering pain remained, his hands and wrists gently throbbing. It affected the rest of the piece, and he was grateful when it was done, much as he hated to admit it. The audience clapped but it sounded little more than polite to his ears. Perhaps it was just out of pity. He remembered the enthusiastic applause of years past, and felt his stomach turn. Vaughan only just resisted the urge to be sick. He’d already marred the night, best not to get himself fired by throwing up on the stage.

Returning to his seat he sat, back ramrod straight, as the next teacher took the stage. It was Darlene, a woman who’s playing he loved to listen to, but he was hardly paying attention. Instead, he was wondering how many phone calls the dean would be getting the next few days. He tried his best not to feel, possibly imagined, stares on the back of his neck, and surreptitiously began to massage his aching hands for the rest of the performance.

It was a mercy to get out of the theater, but that only meant he’d be forced to look those people in the eye. Vaughan moved through the crowd quickly, trying not to make eye contact as he headed for the toilets. Maybe he could give himself a few extra minutes by hiding in there. He just barely made it in before he began to shake, closing himself in the handicap stall, with unsteady hands.

Before he could do anything else, the door opened and two men walked in, chatting about the performances. Not at all surprisingly, his name quickly came up, along with the words ‘incompetent’, and ’embarrassment’. Anger suffused his body as they talked about him, laughed at him, stripping away the love he felt for his art, and his life. What did they know about him? About his life? If it were up to him he would never have had to take this job, teaching little privileged snots about music. He did his best to stay silent, though part of him very much wanted to burst out of the stall and punch them both in the face.

“Well, you know what they say Chris,” came one of the voices, “those who can’t do, teach.”

“In this case he shouldn’t even be doing that. What a disgrace.”

The two men finished their business, and left, once more leaving him alone. The first man’s comment had cut him deep, turning his anger into despair. How many times had he told himself that, while trying to play despite his broken hands? How much pity had been tossed his way before he’d given up, and come here? Now he was nothing, just an errant comment between two strangers taking a piss.

Moving over to the sink, he got the hot water running and settled his hands under them. He resisted the urge to turn the water up so hot it would scald the skin. Self harm wouldn’t change anything. Instead he let the tepid warmth soothe his aching muscles and joints.

He tried not to look at himself in the mirror, not wanting to see how wretched he likely looked. Keeping his gaze down only made him focus more on his hands. There was no winning in this scenario. Those sour notes played over and over again in his mind. His life shouldn’t have been this way. He should be playing the Carnegie, not begging for approval from rich bastards. His vision blurred for a moment, and he roughly wiped his sleeve across his eyes, as if it could banish the unwanted tears.

He stood there for awhile before eventually turning off the water. He lifted his hands, and looked at them. Most would have called them beautiful. They were well shaped, slender, deft, well groomed. But upon looking closer, one could see the scars that marred his hands and wrists. He hated them. Each and every mark upon his hands, his tools, was a constant reminder that his professional music career was over.

He’d lost everything in the accident. His hands, his art, the love of his life. He tried to think of what Nasir would have said about all this, he’d always been the more optimistic out of the two of them, but the thought of the other man was too painful. Seven surgeries, and months of physical therapy, hadn’t been able to fix what about six seconds had destroyed. Eventually, he’d been able to play again but never like before. It was a miracle, the doctors had said, that he’d managed to get the range back that he had.

Some bloody fucking miracle.

He gripped the sides of the sink and willed himself to breathe. One little comment shouldn’t be enough to break him. He’d been through worse, clawed his way back up out of a pit, with broken hands. Surely, he could face a few hours more with those bloody bastards. Dean McManus would back him up, deal with any calls. She’d always understood. At least this year he had a few promising students, those who really cared about the music.

Chin up, habibi. Nasir’s voice cut through the mangled mess of his thoughts, along with the memory of his beautiful, smiling face. Despite all the pain, despair, and the darkness swirling around in his soul, he couldn’t help but smile very softly. Even after he was gone, he always knew how to help ease the ache in his chest.

Giving another his gift felt like cold comfort, sometimes, despite how selfish it made him. It might be all he was good for anymore but, he had to admit, it was something. For now, that would just have to be enough. He might not be able to do anymore, but he could teach. May as well show them how good of a job he could do.