Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2019 finalist, Collin Goel! Collin finished 7th grade this past school year. The story he submitted is called “The Guitarist.”
This has to be one of the best moments of my life. I applied for the prestigious California State Guitar Solo Contest and was accepted as a competitor. I poured my heart and soul into the solo I wrote and submitted, and, after five months of anticipation, results were being posted today. The closer the deadline, the slower time seemed to move. I was in my guitar teacher’s studio, with both my parents, all praying for me to win. Finally, the clock struck 12:00 pm, the exact time the results were supposed to be out, and I reloaded the webpage for the last time before seeing the results. I won.
I imagined this moment dozens of times. Everyone would be ecstatic, their eyes tearing up with joy. From that moment on, since I won a high-school level contest in middle school, I would be a top candidate for whatever music college I would eventually apply for.
However, the actual moment wasn’t how I imagined it. My guitar teacher high-fived and congratulated me, my parents hugged me, and that was that. We walked out into the quiet street. I had also imagined that the weather would be perfect. That was most definitely not the case: it was pouring, as it had been all week.
“Andrew, do you want to go out for lunch?” my mom asked, rushing to get to the car to avoid the rain.
“Yeah, sure,” I responded.
She began to ask me where I wanted to go, but, at that exact moment, three shots rang out. People scattered. A soundtrack of screaming and yelling was interrupted by the occasional shot. I froze, unsure what to do until my dad pulled both my mom and me down. I once read a fantasy book in which you were paralyzed when you looked at dragons. At that moment, I realized that that sensation was not fictional – it was instead very real and happening to me right then and there. I couldn’t think. I caught a tiny glimpse of the shooter’s lower body, but that was enough to see him walking over to where we were, hiding behind a car. Everything happened in slow motion. He was about to walk up to the other side of the car and shoot all three of us. I fully accepted death as my destiny.
The contest now seemed so petty. What was the point of getting into a top music program if I didn’t live to 14? I fully took in the scene, expecting it to be the place where I died. The smell was of rain, with a slight hint of blood. All I could hear was rain, the occasional scream, and the steps of the shooter. At that moment, though, the police came. A glimmer of hope entered my mind as I watched people in blue jackets pouring out of cars, with blaring sirens now drowning out any other sounds. I was thinking please, please, please, stop the shooter before he gets to us! The shooter began to turn the corner around the car, seeing all three of us. The police raised their guns at the shooter, and the shooter raised his at us and got off two final shots.
It’s been four months since Mom and Dad died. Time’s supposed to heal even the deepest wounds, but it hasn’t touched mine. Every time I close my eyes, I’m taken back to that day. I hear the deafening crack of the gunshots on either side of me. I remember the metallic scent of the pools of blood, but, most of all, the all-consuming despair. I remember the dreadful feeling of wanting to do something, needing to do something, but to no avail. Needless to say, I haven’t exactly been my best in these past four months.
It’s a warm, way too warm afternoon in New York City, right in the middle of summer break. Whenever it gets this hot, I try to get out of the house as much as possible. My aunt dislikes turning on the air conditioning, ever. She will happily sit in 105ºF weather, which I find a little unreasonable.
I was playing my guitar down in the subway, the only place where I could play without a permit, hoping to at least earn some money while I was out. If I was living back in San Francisco, I’d probably be hanging out with friends, maybe playing soccer, but unfortunately, I had no friends. It was kind of difficult to pop into school right at the end of the year and try to act like everything was normal, especially when your parents have just passed and you were still dealing with the shock. Instead, I’ve been playing the guitar constantly.
Back home, my happiest memories were in music. Every so often, my mom and dad would put on a mini-concert for me, singing and playing the guitar. Whenever I play, it brings back those happy memories and gives me a slight break from the depressed state I’m in. Whenever I’m at my worst, just picking up my guitar makes it a lot better.
Just as I was practicing some B.B King riff for the hundredth time, I started to hear another person start to play around the corner. For the first few minutes, I didn’t mind them. The subway was a popular spot to busk, so it was common for someone to be playing. However, as they started to get warmed up, I realized that they were extraordinarily good. Whomever was playing amazingly, pulling off incredibly difficult technical maneuvers with ease. Every note they played seemed to fit perfectly into place. I got up and started walking towards them to watch. As I turned the corner, though, I was distracted by a bright red poster saying in big, bold, white letters: “3rd ANNUAL NYC GUITAR COMPETITION”
I remembered the previous guitar contest I had entered before my life went haywire. Different sides of me erupted into a debate. I completely forgot about the improviser. I wanted to get back on my feet and start doing things again, but, at the same time, I didn’t. I was at a crossroads, where I had two options, that seemed equally enticing to me. I could either have things remain where they were and fix everything later or go to an extreme to fix everything now. I knew what I had to do.
So far, the contest hasn’t been what I expected. When I called the number to sign up, everything was pretty standard. They told me it was a similar layout to the contest I had played in previously. You have to play a song featuring one guitar, and whomever has the best song, as decided by a panel of judges, wins. The song has to be original. However, the prize was to be kept a secret, which I found slightly odd.
I got to the site of the contest a few weeks later, in the basement of a large theater. Everything had an old, musty smell to it. I found about three dozen people seated, facing a stage, which then had two people on it. I didn’t recognize one, though I found him to look kind of like Kurt Cobain. He introduced himself as Steve. To my surprise, the other person was the amazing guitarist I had heard in the subway. Unlike the previous person, he didn’t say anything, instead just standing awkwardly.
I was to play last since I was the last one to apply. My plan was to play the song I had written for the contest back in San Francisco. I had spent the few weeks practicing and knew I could win. I don’t want to brag, but that song was amazing. The person in front of me was in the middle of his performance. Everybody before had played very well. All songs were unique, and I heard everything from country to jazz songs. I found metal with only one guitar to be quite amusing to listen to. It didn’t sound very aggressive without the drums, it probably didn’t get that many points.
At that moment, I was facing a dilemma. The guitarist was playing a song that sounded similar to the one I was going to play, and, if I went through with it, the judges would think I just copied the previous person; I would surely lose. That wasn’t an option. The only way I could prove myself would be if I won. My heart was racing. I could not lose this, I had already lost too much. I decided that I just had to improvise and hope for the best— which I knew wouldn’t be the best strategy, but at least it was something. The person in front of me had just finished. It was my turn.
I stepped up, trying to summon the courage to go for it. Sometimes I get into the right mindset and can play extremely well, good enough to outshine anyone. However, just as often, I play terribly, badly enough to flop. I needed the right me to show up. I stepped onto the stage, was given the go-ahead to start and began to play. I was going for a hard-rock-esque song, and praying that it would work out. I concentrated and kept on playing. We were expected to play for around three minutes, so I had time.
About thirty seconds in, something clicked. I felt myself entering the zone. The strings seemed to feel twice as light, every note I played slotted right into place, and my fingers were always hitting their mark. Nothing I did could go wrong. My improvisation ended with a dramatic conclusion, and it was over. I put my heart and soul into the song and it paid off.
Deep down, I knew the results before they were announced. Honestly, I didn’t understand how it went that well but it did, and I wasn’t complaining. I knew I won before they even announced it, and now it was time for the announcement.
“Now for what you’ve all been waiting for!” announced Steve. “While some of you know him, others are probably wondering who this guy behind me is. This is Eric Mayfield, and he is the lead guitarist for the band Polymorphic. He’s renowned as the best guitarist in the underground rock scene. The prize is free lessons with him for a year.”
I had heard of Polymorphic. They were an extremely technically difficult rock band, and I had difficulty playing even their easiest songs. In order to be their lead guitarist, this guy had to be amazing.
“The winner,” he continued, “of this esteemed award, is,” he looked down at a slip of paper, and read the name “Andrew Bridgeman!” I was right, I won! “Congratulations, Andrew!” Steve directed me to shake hands with Eric.
“I honestly can’t believe you improvised that,” Eric said.
“You could tell?” I asked.
“Yeah of course,” he responded. “You’re a guitar prodigy, you know, I know very few adults who could do that.” My face started to turn red.
“Anyways, Andrew, I’ll try my best to help you. What are some songs you want to play?”
“Literally any Polymorphic song, for starters. I’ve tried to learn a few on my own, but they’re too difficult,” I said. I was about to name a few others, but he asked me,
“Tell me, have you tried to play one of our songs?” he asked. “You know what, don’t tell me, because I already know the answer. You have to at least try to play the song before you decide that they’re too difficult. Anyway, I have to go to practice, so nice to meet you, and see you soon.”
It was early Saturday morning, and my first lesson with Eric was quite odd. He mostly just asked me a bunch of questions, occasionally using answers I gave him to help me understand important ideas he taught me. His style of teaching was strange for me. We didn’t use our guitars at all but instead talked about abstract ideas surrounding them, for example, how the intervals between strings affected playing. I pondered this as I walked home. I didn’t know what was to come.
It was nine or ten lessons in, and all of our lessons had been different. One lesson, we just shredded scales the entire time, while in another, we covered theory. I remember that in school, I learned that during Samurai training, the prospective Samurai had different lessons, ranging from physical training to meditation. I felt like a Samurai.
On that particular day, he asked me something I had refused to think about since my parents’ death. My future. I always imagined life as numerous different pathways that led to a bunch of different futures. Each choice set me onto a different path. Last year, I was doing great, and any pathway I wanted seemed to be open. I was doing amazingly well in school and was loving guitar. But then, the day of the shooting, it was like a bulldozer came in and demolished all of my pathways. I forbade myself from ever looking to the future after that.
“I want to get as good as I can at guitar, then get into Berklee College of Music, get a degree in music, and continue as a musician. Maybe get famous,” I told him.
“That’s fair,” he said. “For the next year, I’ll focus on getting you to become the best guitarist you possibly can, alright?”
Summer had finally ended, and I was not looking forward to school. But, it was step one to getting my life back on track. But, while it had slightly lessened, my despair was still there. I couldn’t let go of my pain. No matter how much I wanted to, and no matter how much I knew I should, I couldn’t. I think deep down, my heart connected the idea of grief and sorrow to my parents. Letting go of my sadness would mean letting go of them, and I couldn’t do that.
Over time, the best I had learned to do was to distract myself, mainly through playing guitar. But distraction isn’t enough. You can’t just run away from your problems and expect them to go away. I was at a crossroads. I knew I needed to try to move on, but I couldn’t.
I stayed shy and remote in school. I sat alone during recess and lunch, and sat through my classes, barely paying attention. Lessons with Eric were the bright spots of my week. I was good at something, not just good, but great. A legend in the field believed in me. I was excelling in everything he taught me and was improving rapidly. My skill in guitar came from my ability to improvise, but, up until I met Eric, my improvisation was just having a hunch of which notes to play. Working with Eric helped me to go beyond that. For every note, I knew exactly which notes to could play to get whatever effect I wanted.
During this week’s lesson, Eric made me a surprising offer.
“Look, Andrew, you want to become a musician, right?” Eric asked. “In order to make it like that, you need to get famous. You have an advantage right now because you’re still young. No one cares about an adult who plays a great song, but if a kid plays an amazing song, then they go viral.”
“Yeah, true,” I responded.
“There’s a concert coming up, where a bunch of different artists are being featured. If you want to, you could be one of them,” he finished.
“W-wait, really? Yeah, of course. Thank you so much!” I stammered in disbelief.
“Don’t thank me, I promised to help you. I’m helping you. Now, the concert is in a little less than a month, and you’ll need some original music, so get on it.”
I was ready. I had been preparing pretty much nonstop for the past month. Every spare moment, I was writing a song. The only times I had gone outside were for school and guitar lessons. Every other second, I was in my room, listening repeatedly to recordings, practicing, or trying to come up with new melodies or riffs. While I had ended up with just four or five songs, I could have probably made five whole albums from all of the songs I rejected. All of the songs were perfect, except for one glaring weakness. None of them were happy. I tried to make a happy song, I really did, but I couldn’t. I physically could not channel the emotions I needed in order to write a happy song. However, there was no time to dwell on that. The concert was in an hour.
I met so many amazing musicians in the past hour, people I had idolized for years. Everything felt like a dream. It was finally happening. Not only was I meeting some of my biggest inspirations, but I was doing it while performing alongside them. I had requested to be the last performance out of eight. I wanted to play just as well as the last time I performed and wanted time to warm up. I went over all of the songs in my head. Not having a happy song was starting to really bother me. While I didn’t want to be the kind of artist who always made the listener cry, this was less about the music, and more about the representation of my life. I wanted to be able to write a song where I could let go of the grief, but I was unable.
While I wanted to let go of all of the pain and sorrow, I didn’t want to let go of my parents, and it felt as if those emotions were tied to my memory of them. I wanted to prove to myself that I could get back on track, which was why I needed a happy song, but I couldn’t. The seventh act was concluding, and now it was my turn.
I stepped in front of the hundreds of people. The first thing that caught me by surprise was how incredibly bright it was. The stage was illuminated by dozens of lights, all pointed at me. If I looked slightly above the crowd, I bet I would have been blinded. The second thing was the noise. I underestimated just how much noise hundreds of people who had just listened to an aggressive metal performance, all crammed into a tiny auditorium could make. I took a deep breath. I was ready.
I played my first song, putting everything I could into it. The next song was more of the same. Another melancholic track, though with a hint of energy. It went just as well, but I still wasn’t proud. The crowd loved both of the songs, but it wasn’t enough, I was struggling internally. I needed to prove to myself that I could let go. I needed to prove that my parents were not just sad memories. I changed my plan. Instead of having another mournful song, I decided to do what I had always done best – improvise.
I took another deep breath and started. My senses started to blur. Everything faded away, and I knew nothing, except for what I was playing. The crowd disappeared. I was just playing to myself inside. I closed my eyes, and the image of my mom and dad playing music together made me smile. I channeled the love I felt for them and from them into this song. Everything went perfectly, and the happy emotions multiplied. It was just as good as I had imagined it. For once, everything went exactly how I dreamed it.
Someone in the crowd recorded my performance that night and posted it online. It went viral. Everything was beyond my wildest dream. I was now all across the Internet, and being complimented for my ability. Everyone had loved it, just as Eric had predicted.
After that night, how I thought of my parents changed. Instead of viewing all of my memories with them as sad because of what I had lost, I also remembered the happy times that had brought me to music. I regained my lost energy and felt hopeful again.
It was a cold, rainy day. I was making my weekly commute to Eric’s studio. Everything seemed normal until I arrived. Then there was Eric, his head in his hands, waiting outside of the studio. When he saw me, he came up to me, with tears in his eyes.
“Andrew, I have Stage IV brain cancer, I’ve been told I have a month left,” he said. Woah. Everything I had built up in the last few months collapsed. Eric, the person who unwittingly guided me through my worst moments, who was the only bright spot in my life, was going to die. Why did life choose to do this to me again? All of my pain and suffering was coming back.
The next week was pure torture. I had made a few good friends, but I pushed them away. I had started the habit of posting videos of me playing online, but I stopped. All of my pain resurfaced, but this time Eric wasn’t there to help me.
I was on YouTube one night, and I saw the video of me playing that happy song. I clicked on it and experienced it for the first time since I played it. By the end, I was crying, bawling, a mixture of tears of sadness and joy. I realized how far I had come because of Eric. I had actually felt joy again, when I thought I could no longer feel any. I couldn’t think of Eric with only sadness. I had to remember my time with him as a happy time that was going to come to an end.
Wondering how to support the youth writer in your life? We can help! Check out our cheat-sheet below which will help you have creative, writerly conversations with your Young Inkling—even if you’re not a writer yourself.