That year we decided to give drama production a rest and stage a concert instead. Called “An Evening with Kindred Spirits,” the concert was a platform for boys and alumni members to express their talents in the arts.
There would be no Guest of Honour, no VIPs, no prizes for the best performances etc. Concert tickets would be sold at a token price so that everyone could be in the presence of good sounds and good words.
Among those who came for rehearsals was a secondary one Chicken Little of a boy. He was playing JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major on the school chapel piano during one lunch break when I “talented scouted” him.
Why him? Surely there were other more accomplished student pianists in the school.
That afternoon as I sat on the last pew watching him so dead serious playing Bach’s piece, I knew there & then in the “Sanctuary of the Holy Presence,” of SJI that I had found the opening act of “Kindred Spirits.” Piano Boy had to be in the concert, regardless of his musical competence.
A concert needs a host or a master of ceremony. A tall, and articulate secondary 4 student from one of the top classes auditioned for the role and became the Concert Host.
Piano Boy and Concert Host were not from the classes I taught. So our interactions happened mainly at rehearsals after school.
When I was “reminded” that Concert Host came from a prominent family, I took the chance to remind him that his driver or security officer would have to follow our rehearsal schedule and not the other way round. He agreed without hesitation.
As the concert date drew closer, the auditorium was charged with creative energies of budding deejays, singer song writers, pianists, flutist, drummers, poets, actors & production crew from different streams and old boys’ network.
With each rehearsal, Concert Host soaked up the limelight and flourished. Being the progeny of a public figure and having to be constantly on his best behaviour lest it brought disrepute to his father, Concert Host had finally found a legitimate outlet for his wit & candour.
Meanwhile the reverse was happening in Piano Boy.
His carefree days of playing the slightly out of tune piano in the quiet corner of the cosy chapel had now morphed into a waking nightmare of practices on the baby grand piano under the blinding stage lights of the school’s Performing Arts Centre.
Even though Bach’s prelude in C Major was less than 2 minute long, it might as well have been 2 hours for Piano Boy.
He started making more & more mistakes on the piano. He started looking grey and withdrawn. It was as if the black gleaming piano was sucking the life force out of him each time he sat next to it.
One specially challenging day, Concert Host and I stood by the stage curtain and watched Piano Boy struggle with Bach.
“Ms Ong I’ve heard better piano performances of Bach than this,” Concert Host shook his head in disappointment and disbelief.
The 16-year-old shining Master of Ceremony was getting impatient with the not so promising 13-year-old pianist.
I felt a tinge of hurt on Piano Boy’s behalf, but Concert Host was not wrong either.
“Of course you would have heard better than this,” I concurred with Concert Host.
“But don’t forget, not many boys come from background like yours where you have the best resources and exposures. Don’t you think given Piano Boy’s age and simple upbringing, it’s quite remarkable that he’s been faithfully coming for rehearsals with the big boys, and trying to play on a baby grand?” I added.
My words could have some impact on Concert Host as I could sense his body tensing even in the backstage shadows. Maybe I had offended him.
In the rehearsals that followed, I noticed Concert Host watching Piano Boy, and intervening at certain points to show him how he could play Bach’s prelude better. He no longer saw Piano Boy as the stumbling spoiler that messed up the flow of “his” show, but a younger and braver friend needing some encouragement.
One day he taught Piano Boy to remove his shoes so that he could connect with the pedals below better.
“If you could feel the pedals, you would feel more confident when you play. Your shoes are getting in the way,” Concert Host explained to Piano Boy in an almost fatherly tone. I felt this special moment was for my eyes only.
And so it was with each shoeless rehearsal that Piano Boy regained his footing and his smiles returned.
On the opening night, Piano Boy’s mom met me for the first time. The beaming mother introduced her family as people living in HDB (public housing). Then she thanked me in a mixture of English and Mandarin for the practice and exposure her son had gained in the past few months. She didn’t expect her shy boy to have such discipline & boldness.
The concert turned out well for everyone. The more flamboyant performers got the accolades they were looking for, while the more reticent ones were proud of overcoming shyness and stage fright.
And I will always remember the murmurs of surprise, followed by a velvety hush of appreciation that filled the auditorium of over 500 when Piano Boy gave his all to the 2 minute piano performance.
When the show ended, Concert Host came to check if I needed help with clearing rubbish in the dressing room.
He then went on to pick up things from the floor and took the trash bags out.
I was a little stunned when he literally snatched the trash bin from my hand even as he was still holding his blazer in the other.
“You better go now,” I urged him. “I can settle this easily. Your driver must be wondering.” He had stayed longer than he normally would and I didn’t want his driver to worry.
“Don’t worry about the driver, Miss Ong. I’ve told him to wait cos I’m helping my teacher,” the young man assured me as his eyes sparkled kindly.
Concert Host was born privileged. But his parents didn’t turn up for the concert like Piano Boy’s did. Also he never quite knew when people treated him well was it because they really liked him, or was it because of his father? And credit to him, he didn’t look away when his blinkers were pointed out.
Calling out people for being privileged, and showing sympathy for the underdog is not difficult. But consciously checking our attitude regardless of who we’re dealing with requires more effort. And two boys from two very different backgrounds have shown me how.