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The Tempo of Rain

The window screens fluttered in the wind. The gas logs hissed like a whisper that I couldn’t quite make out. The drumbeat on the metal roof fell into a rhythm. Andante? Adagio? What is the tempo of rain? Suddenly, I am 17 again. I am living on a dormitory floor with an inordinate number of music majors, most of them small-boned and large-eyed, delicate and fragile at first glance, as if the music had drawn out their marrow, used it up, and left the vessel empty and startled. I used to stand in the courtyard and watch them in the practice rooms – long straight hair hanging down the sides of their faces like swing chains, curved shoulders holding arms that angle into wrists into long pale fingers. When all the rooms were full, each one occupied by an earnest talent, the row of windows look like frames on a strip of film, no color, just lights and darks, no distinction among faces. The sounds, of course, were anything but the same. Some of the occupants caressed the keys, coaxed the notes out of the piano; others attacked with vengeful spirits, exorcising some invisible demon of time and talent. Different composers, keys, tempos all came pouring out the windows together and, yet, did not sound discordant. I went to the practice rooms a few times myself, took my three years of piano lessons and my John Brimhall arrangements for easy piano and tentatively entered a place I did not belong. Only on Saturday night when the music majors, as a body, left first floor Porter a ghost town was there a place for me, a scratchy tumbleweed. I never stayed long. My uneven, tentative attempts were too hard, too loud for a Steinway. My fingers were always tired, discouraged, and embarrassed at their ineptitude. I felt like an unworthy priest entering the Holy of Holiest, certain I would be struck down and dragged out dead by the cord tied to my ankle. Leaving, though, walking out into the stillness and quiet of a near-deserted campus, sheets of music shoved up under my arm, hands stuffed into my pockets, I was lighter, less bound than I had been. Music will do that. Sometimes, in the late evening, when the sun had long since drifted to bed behind the lake, I would stand outside and listen. Once I wondered what would happen if all the thick white squares of acoustical tile laid out on walls and ceiling were ripped down, whether all the music would escape. Whether every measure played over and over until it became as unconscious as breathing, every andante and adagio, every piano and forte would come spilling out through the doorways, into the hall, and up the cavernous stairwell, echoing off brick walls and steel handrails, rising like heat through the empty floors above. Whether all the sonatas and nocturnes, the preludes and etudes and concertos would explode out the open windows, rush into each other and become a whirlwind around the fountain before moving up the loggia steps in one direction, down the hill toward the lake in another, grasping at loose sleeves and hair, filling ears and eyes and open mouths. And, then, having spent itself, dissolve into the whisper of an April breeze. Even now, in the rhythm of the rain, I can hear it – the music mixed with distant laughter and the sound of glasses and silverware in the kitchen on the third floor, the music and the sound of the wind in the camellia bushes, the music and the water in the fountain splashing lazily into itself, the music, the music, the music. Copyright 2023

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