Mexico City, 1962
I was sharing a piano bench with my teacher, Mr. Ortega, when he pulled a small paper from his leather briefcase at his feet.
“Poncho, please take a look at this. It’s a piano competition for kids your age. It’s in Stalingrad.”
Unsure, I responded. “Stalingrad?” I knew it was in Russia. I knew that.
Mr. Ortega continued, “You’ll need a letter of recommendation that I will write for you, and you have… to have a vinyl record made.”
I just stared down at the paper with my teenage cool attitude, “Si.” Not sure what this was about.
“Your English is passable. They will not speak Spanish. You’ll be bueno.”
Even though my parents supported my piano playing, I doubted they would spend the money making a record, plus fly me to Russia. But surprisingly my parents were all for it and my mother announced she would finally have this one vinyl record of their son playing piano…unless I became a famous concert pianist. Centerfield for the New York Yankees was my hope. My mother said, “You could be both.” That is a Mexican mother.
A week later a strange white man with a goatee wearing a French beret brought microphones, a huge tape recorder and black cord which he kept neatly wound on the floor in a round puddle. My mom said the man was a “Bohemian.” I didn’t know what that meant.
I played my Chopin number several times, the Bohemian listened on ear- phones, head down, staring at black wagging needles on the tape recorder. When I was satisfied with my playing, he said, “Que Bueno” and packed up and left. Five days later there were two 33 1/3 vinyl records in plain, brown jacket with my name scribbled in pencil on the cover.
I sent off the record carefully packed and letter of recommendation and forgot about it. School was out, piano lessons were over for summer and it was time for sports and girls.
Six weeks later my dad read the letter out loud in the kitchen, my mom at the stove flipping some tortillas with her quick fingers in a sizzling pan, me holding a bat and glove. I had been accepted to the Rachmaninoff piano competition. I looked down at my ball and said goodbye. Piano lessons would fill the rest of the summer. Maybe my mother was right; I was destined to become a great concert pianist, not a playboy baseball player.
The flight from Mexico to New York, and then on across the Atlantic took 24 hours and I don’t remember much except holding the white gloved hand of a beautiful Pan Am stewardess in a powder blue uniform, as we strode through La Guardia airport. She spoke Spanish and eased my apprehension at so much strangeness all around. Even though I was too old to hold hands like a baby, I didn’t say a word. She was pretty.
Arriving at dawn in Stalingrad I was a walking zombie and my tired eyes could barely focus; and maybe for the good as we drove through the city. All I could see was a drab colorless world of gray buildings and empty streets. I knew I would never get a taco in Russia. I thought maybe I was the first Mexican ever to set foot in this faraway land.
The next night all the kids, there were 18 of us, mostly from the Soviet Union, East Germany and eastern bloc countries, I was the only kid from the Americas, standing in a welcoming reception line. Many of the kids spoke some English I could understand and I didn’t feel lonely or afraid. I was the only brown faced person in the room. The girls from Slovakia were the whitest I have ever seen a human person.
Then Boris approached with two boys. He was taller than I was, very white and had violet blue eyes. His face was angular and slanted to a sharp nose. I stuck out my hand, and before I could say anything Boris attacked.
In good English, Boris announced that the Mexicans culture was inferior to the Russian. I lived in a country of burros, dirt floors and banditos who spoke broken English. Apparently what he knew of Mexico he had learned from watching movies. The only thing a Mexican could play on the piano…he scrunched up his face… was “Mexican peasant folk music.” He had played the piano since he was three, younger than Mozart. No Mexican could win this piano competition. It was not possible.
I was stunned and didn’t know what to say or do. I had never been attacked like that, or my country. Finally, Boris said to me, so all the kids could hear. “What do you have to say for yourself?” He glared down closely at my name tag and grinned … “Poncho? Isn’t that something you wear in the rain.” The boys behind him laughed. All the other kids turned to me. All I could think to say was the bravado cliché of a fourteen old boy.
“Boris, I’ll let my playing, do the talking.” He scoffed in my face and left with a laugh, the two bodyguards in his wake. The girls said I had just met, “Boris and the Bolsheviks.”
The next day was practice day and all the kids crowded into the tiny piano practice rooms. In the hallway I walked down the dozen rooms and listened and reality tapped me on the shoulder and punched me in the stomach Boris was right. Every kid I listened to was better at piano and their selection was far more difficult to play than mine. When my turn came to practice, I saw Boris pause at the door window and he listened, laughed and walked away.
That evening the program was posted for the two-day elimination round, only six of the 18 went on to play in the concert hall. I played the very last on the second day. Boris quickly announced that the committee had seeded us by skill, he played second the first day. I didn’t try to defend myself. Boris was right. I was crushed.
The recital hall was in a windowless basement that sat about 100 people. The three judges sat at tables below the raised stage with a shiny black, grand piano. One of the judges was a small pudgy man with round spectacles and an ill- fitting brown suit. The other judge was a Russian woman who came from stout peasant stock. The third judge chain smoked. He held a cigarette over his head in one hand while he scribbled notes with the other hand.
On the first day of preliminaries there was not a piano player less than great. The more I listened, the more my confidence went into a death spiral. And when Boris played he was a far better player than I was.
After supper, I sat in my room and didn’t even go to practice. I was defeated before starting. No Mexican could win this competition, so why try.
The next day I took my music sheets and sat in the first row of seats with the other kids waiting to be betrayed by my piano playing. And the music gods were determined that day to prolong my pain and anguish for their amusement. Piano strings broke, most likely from all the hard playing the day before and the third time they had to send out for a new string and when my turn came we were three and a half hours behind schedule. A saving grace was at the end half the audience had left, but not Boris and the Bolsheviks, who sat in the last row, staring out with supremely confident smiles, like ballot counters, in a Communist election.
I had a morbid thought that the only way out now was the Americans drop an A bomb on Stalingrad.
Then I thought of my music teacher Mr. Ortega and what he told me one time during lessons, according to him, I was playing flojo, or lazy. “Make the music your own. Playing the piano is an art and you need to make your own. Phrase it.”
“Phrase it? I didn’t understand.”
He played with a flourish the opening to a Chopin composition. Then he played it slower accenting different cords. “Poncho, if you wanted to impress a girl, he put his fingers on the piano keys and then froze. Mr. Ortega knew any talk of girls with a fourteen-year-old Catholic boy was dangerous and he could be an accessory to a venial sin. But what he said was safe with me. I didn’t know what he meant.
“Por favor, think of the…circumstances…when you play.”
“…he circumstances. Si.”
“If the listener wants to dance you play dance music. If they want to hold hands in the moonlight you play…” Mr. Garcia stopped knowing again not to go there was a young Catholic boy.
Back in the basement I looked over at the judges and saw how very tired they were from two days of music, and from the bombastic playing the kids did to impress the judges. Then suddenly in my desperation I knew what to do or would try to do.
When my turn came I marched up the stairs and stood next to the piano and announced I was changing my music selection. The startled woman judge was yanked from her exhaustion as she fumbled with some papers, her eyes scanned to the bottom of the page “Yes…Poncho…play what you want.”
I sat, looked down at three very tired judges and began playing.
Now if you were to compare the piano compositions of Chopin or Rachmaninoff, their music is a 9 on the scale of difficulty. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is a 2. The sonata is a practice piece for younger players and many times it is their chosen song in their first piano recital. I knew the piece so well I looked out at Boris and he had his hands covering his mouth to hold back his laughter. The Mexican taco lover had chickened out and played that. They all had played that song as six-year-olds.
Now schmaltz is a Yiddish term meaning “rendered chicken fat.’ And so, I “schmaltzy” up the Moonlight Sonata and played it as dreamy as I could. I held the sustaining pedal longer and played the song with as much “rendering” as I could possibly ooze between every note.
Then I glanced down at the woman judge, and she was slumped deep in the chair, eyes close, shoes kicked off, her head gentle to one side. Another judge had his arms folded, his head down, and his eyes closed too. The smoker judge stared out into space with a serene look and a Mona Lisa smile.
Next morning at breakfast the finalists were announced and the 6th and last contestant was the brown little Mexican kid…me. When I was walking out of the dining hall I heard Boris arguing with the judges, he didn’t make the finals, ranting with hands waving in the air. He shouted the Mexican kid played a song that was so simple for a child to play. One of the judges remarked, “But he played it well.”
I did go on to the piano finals. I didn’t win, but I played well enough.
When I returned to piano practice next school a year older with Mr. Ortega, he asked how the competition went and did I learn anything from the experience.
I told him with the infinite wisdom of a now 15-year-old, “It is not what you play in life; it’s how you… phrase it.”
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com