Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2021 finalist Raya Ilieva! Raya finished 5th grade this past school year. Her story is called “Curtains” and is about overcoming stage fright. Enjoy!

by Raya Ilieva

I adjust my black tunic for the fifth time in under a minute, tugging nervously at the small, tasseled belt. My heart is hammering quickly in my chest, and there are about a million butterflies fluttering around my stomach. 

I’m at the back of the theater, along with the rest of the Wright Youth Orchestra, and my bandmates are milling around, talking, laughing, joking. How can they be so carefree? I shudder and resist the strong urge to press my hands against my ears. 

Tilly and Maria are gabbing loudly by the for-now empty snack table and comparing violin bow resin. Jack, Kade, Chris, and Emmett are lobbing a––hopefully empty––juice box around the room and screeching like banshees as they do so. A tight-knit circle of girls––all of the ones who play string instruments and trombone––is whispering and giggling in one corner. 

I’m alone, and I guess I brought that upon myself. I’m tucked into a corner, arms wrapped around myself, obviously trying not to be seen––and succeeding. 

You might think that I’m completely miserable in orchestra and doing it only because my parents want me to. But that’s not true at all. 

I love music. I love it with all my heart. It’s in my blood and my bones and my soul. I don’t know what I’d do without music. And it was me who begged and pleaded to start lessons; me who created a fancy slideshow to persuade my parents to let me join the youth orchestra at Wright College; and me who practices for an hour each day. 

It’s just that concerts make me so nervous. My hands start getting cold and clammy, my stomach flutters uncontrollably, and my heart races. I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if I made a mistake, and I usually don’t perform as well as I do in practice and rehearsal. 

Memories swirl into my head, one after the other, faster and faster, overwhelming me. 

My very first concert. I was supposed to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But . . . I never got the chance to, because I spent the entire time staring woozily at the inside of a toilet bowl, spilling my lunch. 

The one in the middle of summer, right before third grade. Heat stifled the auditorium and the bodies packed together radiated humid air. My white, lacy dress was itchy, hot, and uncomfortable. I did get the chance to play but stopped ten times during my song to adjust my dress and fan my face. 

Later, as I got older, the mistakes were less prominent, at least to everybody else. I can remember at least three times that I missed my solo cue and couldn’t start at all because it would have thrown everything off. And a bunch more when I just didn’t . . . start. Nerves grabbed my hands, glued them to the keys, and wouldn’t let go. My mouth sealed shut and went dry. 

I shudder as the nerves hit me full-force, like a frothy ocean wave. I’m drenched in sweat and practically shaking. I rack my brain for solutions and finally remember that in my lesson two days ago, I asked my teacher what she does to calm down before a performance. She told me to take ten “square” deep breaths: inhale for three seconds, hold for three seconds, exhale for three seconds, and hold for three seconds, visualizing a square as I do so. I try that now. 

It helps, but only a little bit. The worried thoughts still cloud my head, so I look towards the stage. A small set of stairs on each side leads up to its ebony-black wood surface, scarred with small marks and scratches from when various props, chairs, and risers have been dragged across it over the years. Right now, a three-tiered riser and two rows of chairs are set up in anticipation of the concert, with a music stand in front of each place. A microphone stand is in the front for solos, although the mic is missing as of now. Huge spotlights hang down from the ceiling, and I can just imagine their blazing, bright light beaming down at me.   

But the thing that captivates me the most is the curtains. Deep burgundy, velvet drapes fold dramatically on themselves, brushing the floor and pooling in fabric puddles. They look elegant and sophisticated and majestic. 

Suddenly, I see an unnatural ripple break the stillness of the curtains, as if an elbow has jabbed them. The curtains shift twice more and then settle back. Definitely a person. I dart my eyes around the auditorium, making sure that no one is looking at me, and then scurry up the stairs, around the stage, and behind the curtains before I can lose my nerve. 

My suspicions are confirmed. Standing with her back pressed against the wall is Jasmine, the only girl who plays cello. 

She looks surprised to see me but waves and smiles. “Hey. Dahlia, right?” 

I nod. 

Jasmine answers my unspoken question, “I come here because it’s always too loud in auditoriums. It’s kind of like my place to recharge.” 

I smile. “That’s really cool. I hope I’m not intruding. I just get . . . really nervous. And a quiet space like this is really welcome.” 

“Totally fine. I’m happy to share.” Jasmine gives me a sweet smile. 

I join her leaning against the wall, and we fall into a comfortable sort of silence. I notice my heart rate slowing down and take another deep breath in. I already feel calmer. 

All of a sudden, the concert doesn’t seem like a looming disaster anymore. I’m still a little bit nervous––who wouldn’t be?––but it’s not the crippling anxiety that I usually feel. 

Because let’s face it: this is a middle school concert. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. If I do well, that’s great. If I don’t, that’s okay too. There will always be more. 

I find myself grinning against my will and sigh contentedly. Jasmine gives me a funny look. I blush scarlet. 

“Sorry. I just suddenly . . . don’t feel as nervous anymore.” 

She smiles again. “This place has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?” she asks softly. 

We gaze out at the stage together. 

I don’t know Jasmine very well. She’s in the string section and I’m with the woodwinds. And we don’t interact much. But somehow, through this shared experience of being behind the curtains, in the wings, we’ve bonded a little bit more. 

“Musicians! Everyone! I need you all sitting in the auditorium!” Ms. Katz, the director of the middle school orchestra, shouts above the din. 

Jasmine and I exchange one more smile, then slip from behind the magnificent curtains. I brush their impossibly soft and smooth fabric one more time before following Jasmine down the stairs. 

I don’t know how she does it, but Ms. Katz somehow gets us all to sit in the first three rows of the auditorium. She gives her usual pep talk, but this time, I pay more attention to the words. 

“Musicians, you all are ready for this concert. I know that. You’ve all practiced and rehearsed so many times, and you sound beautiful. There is nothing to be nervous about. You know these pieces inside and out. Just play as you know how to, and remember: have fun!” 

With that, and a signature Ms. Katz megawatt smile, she dismisses us with a wave of her hand to go get our instruments ready. 

We crowd in a hurrying stampede, sprinting up to the stage and running behind, to the very spacious room in the back. Each of our instruments is there, along with our bags and any other stuff we might have brought to the concert. 

I take a swig of water to calm the surfacing butterflies and wipe my sweaty hands on my leggings before picking up my flute case. I gaze at the three gleaming silver pieces for a minute, nestled in their places in the midnight-black velvet lining. 

I lift out the body and foot joint, putting them together with a gentle twist. Next goes the head joint, fitting securely into the body. The same as always. I take a breath and raise the flute to my lips, running through the fingerings of my two solos without blowing. I find a quiet-ish corner and start to warm up, blowing simple long tones and exercises before advancing to more complicated pieces, and, finally, the songs we’ll play today. I go over my solos multiple times, even though I’ve already memorized them. 

Finally, I think I’m ready, and just in time: the audience is beginning to file into the auditorium. I can hear shuffling, low murmurs, and the bang of velvet seats snapping open. Shiny programs and heavy coats rustle as people settle in. 

I take apart my flute, swab it, and put it back together; it needs to be in prime condition for the concert. I wipe down the parts without keys with a soft cloth and hold the whole thing gently. I’m ready.

Ms. Katz leads us out onto the risers and chairs in order. I sit down in the front row. I’m first chair flute. My back is ramrod straight against the hard plastic of the chair. I line up my sheet music neatly on the stand and take a deep breath. 

The curtains are drawn, so I focus my attention on them. They still fascinate me in the same way, and I take comfort that for now, they protect me from the noise, the bright lights, and the beady eyes of the audience members. 

All too soon, Ms. Katz steps out from behind them and introduces us. She says a few meaningless words, and then the curtains are swept to the side.

Spotlights brighten and scorch the top of my head. The stark contrast between the lit-up stage and the dim audience hurts my eyes for a few moments before we get started. I try to draw on the feeling of being in the wings, but it doesn’t come. 

I’m panicking. I’m going back to the old me, the one who dreaded concerts. My head starts pounding and my hands shake, holding my flute. I barely notice the music that has begun to surge around me. 

The memory of my worst concert ever floods me. It was the most important one yet, with guest famous classical musicians as judges. They sat in front of the stage, staring at us with eyes of steel. They had suits, ties, and fancy dresses; shiny shoes and gelled hair. Just their presence there was foreboding, settling a pit of dread into my stomach. 

I couldn’t start playing the group piece. My lips refused to open; my hands stayed gripping my flute. I unfroze enough to try to start my solo, but when I began, the only thing I heard was a shrill, squawky note as all of my prior knowledge of flute playing flew out the window. It was absolutely humiliating. I ran offstage as fast as my legs could carry me, choking back tears until I was down in the dressing room. I’ll never forget that.

The worst part about that concert was that I had been really, really looking forward to it. I remember dancing around my living room, singing about the concert. Mom told me not to get too excited, though I didn’t heed her warning. My hopes were so high that as soon as I flubbed, I felt the worst I ever have in my life: like a failure. Like someone stupid who didn’t listen when they were supposed to, who did the exact opposite of instructed and suffered the consequences. 

And the song––the song I was supposed to play was so pretty. I still have the sheet music for it, though it’s probably much too easy right now and I fear that even looking at it will spark those awful emotions. 

But the piece was a waltz of sorts, one that sounded gorgeous when all of the violins stopped squeaking and the trumpets got in tune. I still remember that the melody always made me feel happy but a little bit wistful, as if remembering better times and wishing they could be experienced again. I long for happier times right now, a bit of joy to pull me out of this dazed, anxious stupor. 

The music swelling around me pulls me out of my mind and I miss my entrance cue. My face burns crimson. I’m first chair flute. I need to prove that I can stay there. I try to refocus, turning my gaze to Ms. Katz, who is standing at the front of the stage, fiery red hair swirling around her head as she waves her baton gracefully through the air. I find the next place to go in and begin to blow, moving my fingers across the keys in motions I’ve done so many times before. 

The flute calms me. I focus on the silver keys, and on blowing so that I get a clear sound. Our first song is a slower one, with many long, drawn-out notes. Getting these right is important. 

I like this first one because the notes are low and sad, weaving a melancholy harmony. I close my eyes for a minute, just focusing on the air going out of my lungs. But all too soon, the song ends, and the applause is deafening. I can’t let myself get distracted, so I gaze intently at my sheet music, searing the notes into my mind. 

The second song is jazzier and much faster. It’s also where my first solo is. The beginning goes alright, simple melodies piercing the air. 

I stand up, knees weak as I grip my flute, and the pianist surges into the intro for my solo. I’m at the microphone now, looking out at a sea of dark faces and folded hands. I raise my flute to my lips. And I play. 

Rippling my fingers over the keys, I segue into a bubbly string of notes, going from high to low and back up again. My breath lasts forever and each note comes out pure and sweet. I sound better than in most rehearsals. 

After my solo finishes, I practically float back to my chair, barely noticing as the rest of the concert flies by. At the end, the cheering and clapping lights me up from the inside. They are clapping, I think, for me. And I didn’t mess up. 

I can’t wipe the grin off my face as I descend from the stage and go to greet my parents and older brother, Jackson. My mom pulls me into a crushing hug, smelling of rose perfume. 

Dad claps me on the shoulder and gives me a wink and a smile.

Jackson gently takes my flute from me and murmurs, “Awesome job, little sis.”  

Mom hands me a flower: a dahlia, my namesake. It’s a beautiful shade of orange, fading into coral pink at the center. Delicate petals layer upon each other and the whole flower is balanced on a thin green stem. Wrapped around the stem is a shiny cherry-red ribbon. I hug Mom. “Thank you! It’s beautiful.” 

My family leads me over to the snack table, chatting all the while. 

“You crushed that, D! It was amazing!” Dad gushes. 

I giggle. 

“He’s right, Dahlia. You were fantastic. You looked so poised, so pretty. Especially on your solos,” Mom tells me.

I blush and can’t help smiling.

“Can’t remember the last time you actually performed well at a concert. Wow!” Jackson, always brutally honest, jostles me with his elbow and grins. 

“Jackson! Take that back!” Mom scolds, then turns to me. “Dahlia, that is not true.” 

“No, no. It is!” I laugh. 

By that time we’ve reached the snack table. There is a very large assortment of sugary sweets: cupcakes, brownies, blondies, cookies, you name it. Various parents have placed fruits around the checkered table cloth: tangerines, small bunches of grapes, and little containers of strawberries (half are chocolate-dipped). Juice boxes and lemonade are the drinks. Jackson reaches out and grabs a cupcake, stuffing it into his mouth. 

Mom slaps his hand. “Jackson! Performers only!” 

He just grins and says through a mouthful of cupcake, “Too late.” 

I roll my eyes and grab a plate. I load it with a red velvet cupcake coated in chocolate frosting, a container of chocolate-dipped strawberries, and a bottle of lemonade. I hand my plate to Mom and grab my flute from Jackson, still clutching my dahlia. I make a quick stop in the room behind the stage, to pack away my flute and grab a jacket. I tuck my dahlia safely into my backpack, then join my family outside to eat.

As we’re finishing up, I spot Jasmine sitting with her two dads. I slide out of my seat and tentatively approach her. She notices me and smiles, waving me over. “Hey! Dahlia, you were awesome.” 

“Thanks. You too!” I pause before continuing. “Hey, I just wanted to thank you for showing me the place behind the curtains. It really helped.” 

“No problem.” 

We grin at each other. I think I just made a new friend. 

In the car driving home, I’m still smiling. This is the first concert that I actually performed well in. And it was fun

Now, I always hide in the wings, behind the curtains, before concerts start. And I haven’t had a bad performance since, all thanks to Jasmine and those deep red curtains that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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