<< -- 6 -- Jenna Orkin THE LAST CLASS
Boulanger sat in her wheelchair looking other-worldly, as the blind sometimes do. Mlle Dieudonne leaned over and whispered that we'd arrived.
'Good afternoon,' Boulanger said. 'We will begin by conducting in 4/4 time. I will give you the tempo: Bah, bah, bah, bah.'
She intoned a moderate tempo, conducting. We followed her lead.
'You must not vary the tempo no matter what else happens,' she went on, conducting steadily as though the beat were a pendulum which, having been set in motion, would continue, unchanging, forever.
Her own hand returned to her lap as we continued conducting.
'For next time you will study the first three exercises of Hindemith. We will also study Bach Cantata Number 4. What beat are you on?'
'Two,' someone replied.
'No! That was three! You are slowing down!'
She gave us other exercises which were designed to cultivate independence of the various compartments of the mind: dividing a beat into 3, 5 or 7 equal parts doing one beat with one hand, another with the other and still other beats with each foot. We aspired to have the right hand not know what the left was doing. They were tasks essential for a conductor and any good musician but felt more like disciplines demanded of the Buddhist priesthood.
The next time we saw Boulanger was three weeks later. Mlle Dieudonne led us into the bedroom where Boulanger lay in a pink bedjacket on a cloud of lacy pillows.
'Les élèves sont arrivés,' Mlle Dieudonne said, bending towards Boulanger's ear. ('The pupils have arrived.')
Mlle A came forward from the corner to adjust the pillows. Boulanger's hand moved in the outline of an attempt to raise herself.
'I am honored to make your acquaintance,' she said to us. 'Do you play piano?'
We looked at each other in confusion. Did she think she was addressing only one person? Several of the students were primarily conductors. Others played violin or cello. One played French horn. One sang. I was the only one whose first instrument was piano. The third member of Boulanger's entourage, Louise Talma, pushed me forward.
'Yes,' I said.
'Play the first Prelude of Bach.'
'Do you mean the C Major from the Well-Tempered Klavier?'
Copyright © 27 February 2005
Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA