Your hands lift from the keys and the final chord resounds in the sanctuary of the church. You shift your feet nervously, attempting to not touch the pedals; faintly you hear the men at the bellows of the organ cease their work, panting heavily. Your palms are covered in sweat and your heart hammers within your chest. I played as best I could, you tell yourself, but the mistakes and missed notes echo in your head. But I could have done better, too, you think unhappily. I should have played better! Then you remember not to berate yourself too much; playing from memory is never easy.
You are about to turn on the bench and take a bow, thanking the judges for their time when something heavy but soft and reeking of sweat strikes your cheek. The impact surprises you and a surprised shout leaves your mouth. Glancing around, you seek whoever projected such a missile, which has fallen to the side of the bench. It is a wig. You are about to pick it up when heavy footsteps grace your ears. The ground seems to tremble beneath your feet and suddenly you feel very small.
Suddenly he is upon you, grasping your shoulders and hair and he hauls you off the bench, his firm hands gripping you with such force it is a wonder that bones are not broken. You don’t have to see his face to know that pure rage is radiating off him, as if he is the sun and you are a mere sunflower or insect. “You fool! You useless waste of space—you are an embarrassment to musicians everywhere! Ashamed am I to call you my student—why? Why can you never perform as you are expected?” His voice is like thunder and his words are like stinging thorns.
He turns you around to face him and suddenly he strikes you across the cheek. Surprise mixed with pain is the sensation you feel, at least upon your face; inside your head you are stunned. You are too shocked to contemplate this sudden assault and abuse but you can do nothing to prevent his hand or words. He is a giant and you are but a crumb of an atom.
Again he strikes you, this time on your ear. You are ashamed as tears form in your eyes before descending your reddening cheeks. Why would he do this? Your teacher, whose wit has split your sides; your teacher, who has advised you during times of distress or uncertainty; your teacher, whose hands have graced the mightiest keyboard requiring strength and precision, or the smallest of keys with a soft and delicate touch.
Where then is such delicacy and tenderness? Again he strikes you and shouts, his voice echoing in a hall where notes had previously. “You are a waste of time and talent! Why can you not perform in a satisfactory way as I desire of you? How can you humiliate me like this? You are a useless student! You are unfit to be a musician! This must be your desire, but I can see no gift you will bring to the world. You should aspire to be a cobbler instead! Go! Be on your way and make shoes instead of music; a boot without a sole is less of a concern than your incompetence.”
All the while he shakes you by the shoulders, his black eyes filled with utter fury. At the end of his speech riddled with insults he once again strikes you, and you fall to the floor in an ungraceful heap. Your head rings with pain and more tears fall from your eyes but you try not to weep loudly. Faintly the smell of wine lingers in your nose as Bach walks away, snarling and exhaling like a taunted bull. He exits the room, not even bidding his fellow judges a good day.
On the floor you remain, looking up at the table of judges before you. Some seem perplexed by the outburst of Bach–either perplexed or uncomfortable, their eyes avoiding yours; other seem nonplussed unmoved and you wonder if this is normal behavior from the cantor. A couple of the judges give you sympathetic glances. Apart from their expressions, they all seem to the be same person; pale old men with graying wigs. They have a vague semblance to vultures who are about to devour a lonely, unprotected baby animal.
Under their eyes you remain fixed to the floor. Shame fills you then; shame at having given a poor performance (but by the standards of whom? you ask yourself) but also the shame at having been beaten and berated in public. In public, yes, and in front of men who had most likely never played an instrument nor had the privilege of studying under Bach himself. Your shame is replaced, then, by a greater misery. My teacher…how could he do this? Why would he treat me thus?
Your heartbeat has calmed down but your nerves are on edge and your face still hurts. Your hair is askew, in your face, wet with tears. Slowly you rise from the floor and regard the wig which lay by the organ bench. What teacher strikes his students? Are all beneath him treated so? His children? Anna Magdalena? you wonder, incredulous. Trying to muster some dignity, you take a deep breath before looking at the judges.
“I thank you for your time,” you begin and hate yourself for the wavering quality of your voice. Instantly you begin shaking with nervousness and shame, cursing yourself for your weakness. If I had played better, then maybe Bach wouldn’t have treated me like this, you think and wish you could say. “May God bless you this day,” you intone as a farewell. Making your way outside, the clouds roll overhead and rain falls. You lift your face to the heavens, and the bite of water which falls is cold and harsh, but you are grateful that no onlookers can discern rain from tears.