The Victory I Won

Alexie 1

The Victory I Won

by Alexie Koh

A February 2024 Monthly Story Challenge Winner

Most Inspirational Essay

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A cool Italian breeze drifts in through the open window. I look around, my eyes expecting the familiar white walls and polka-dotted curtains of my bedroom at my family’s California house. But no—I am in a different bedroom, this one in the Airbnb my family is staying in for a week. There is a small wooden desk, a marble drawer, a bed with crimson sheets and pillows where I yearn to flop down and let sleep take control of me. I need all the rest I can get because tomorrow will be long, eventful, and inevitably tiring. But first, I have a lesson with Iskandar, my violin teacher, to ensure that I’m ready.

We are here so I can participate in the Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition, my first in-person competition. Kids from all over the world—the USA, China, Japan, Germany—will compete. I have practiced for close to four hours every day in preparation, but still I feel a twinge of self-doubt. My age category is for those 11 to 16 years old, and I, at the age of 12, will be one of the younger ones. How am I supposed to compete with someone two, three, or even four years older than me? Do I even stand a chance? I am hoping that some last-minute tips and suggestions from my teacher will help polish up my playing even more.

Tomorrow is the first of the competition’s two rounds, and I am to play two short, virtuosically challenging pieces: Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 15 and Henryk Wieniawski’s Caprice No. 3. During my lesson, which goes exceptionally well, Iskandar and I are pleasantly surprised to hear all the time and effort I’ve spent practicing pay off. Iskandar says that I am very well prepared, and I feel a glimmer of hope. Maybe things would be okay after all.

At nine the next morning, I am walking with the other contestants to the backstage area of the theater where the competition is being held, a lady with a clipboard and pen leading the way. I have woken up at six to do some last-minute practicing, and my body still hasn’t accepted the fact that I have gotten out of bed. The air is cold and crisp, making me shiver. My thin white cardigan, sleeveless dress of golden satin that falls just below my knees, and golden ballet flats are not sufficient to combat the chilly morning weather, but I can’t let that bother me now. I have a competition to focus on.

Once backstage, I unpack my violin, get tuned, and wait. The fingers of my left hand are wrapped around the neck of my violin, while my right hand gingerly holds my bow. A jittery sensation hits me like a wave. It feels like butterflies. Like a brewing storm. Then the word to describe it dawns on me: anxiety.

I can hear the contestant before me wrapping up her piece. Then comes the sound of applause. A girl walks off the stage, and I walk on.

Standing in the spotlight, I raise my violin to my shoulder, lift my bow to the string, take a deep breath, and let my fingers dance. They know exactly what to do, precisely what notes to play at what time—I’ve trained them well. I close my eyes, and when I open them, I’ve finished playing my first caprice.

One down, one to go. You can do this, I tell myself as I begin my Paganini caprice. The octaves are not as in tune as I like, causing me to worry for a second. Is this little mishap going to affect the judges’ decision? Oh, well. It’s over now. Nothing can be done, I tell myself. You did your best. Just keep going. I make it to the second part, which starts out shaky because of my nerves. My heart is pounding and my legs are trembling, but I finish my caprice strong. I hold my bow in the air, a smile on my face. The judges begin clapping, and an overwhelming feeling of relief and joy surges through me as I take a bow.

I return to the backstage area, pack up my violin, and head to the foyer of the theater. My parents and my teacher are already there. My dad hugs me and whispers “great job” in my ear. My teacher gives me a big high-five, and my mom just smiles. I feel as light as air, as if a heavy weight has just been lifted from my shoulders. For now, my stress is over.

But my happiness soon turns to grief when I find out that I didn’t advance to the second round of the competition. I sob for a good whole 20 minutes in shock, disbelief, and utter devastation. I feel like a failure—as if I have disappointed my parents, my teacher, and most of all, myself. I just want to scream, to hit, to throw, and to disappear from the face of the earth.

Worst of all is perhaps the fact that I have accepted the invitation to perform at a concert featuring a group of violinists who have come for the competition. The concert will be held at someone’s “house,” which happens to be a luxurious palace within walking distance of our Airbnb. I am to perform Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantelle, a piece I know very well and love very much. I have truly been looking forward to the concert at the palace because performing the Sarasate is always a fun, exhilarating experience. However, now I tell my parents and my teacher in a small, sad voice that I don’t feel like going.

“You don’t have to,” my teacher says. But deep down I know that he really wants me to.

My parents just sigh and take me back to our Airbnb. I sit on the edge of my bed and stare at the floor. There are no more tears; I have gotten them all out. Now I just feel defeated. Empty inside—like there is a big void, or maybe a black hole, in the middle of my chest.

I also feel hungry.

I ask my dad to toast up some bread with salami and mozzarella on top. In a daze, I amble over to the dining table and sit down. My dad slides a plate of food in front of me and takes a seat in the chair next to mine.

“I don’t wanna go,” I say, nibbling on a piece of bread.

“I think you should,” my dad replies, smiling.

“Why?” I ask.

My dad just shrugs.

Then something clicks. Yes, I am feeling horrible, but there is also something else. Determination. I know I have to pick myself up, put the past behind me, and move on. I slowly get up from my chair.

“Okay. I’ll do it.”

Fast forward a few hours, and here I am, waiting for my turn to perform. I hug my violin to my chest and smile. My pink evening gown is sparkly lace from the waist up and has a ribbon sash with a small, sequined bow tie. The skirt is made of some type of fabric that flows elegantly around my feet as I walk. Wearing it, I feel like a princess. And you know what else I feel like? I feel like someone who has overcome a mental hurdle. Someone who has been defeated but has gotten back up, brushed themselves off, and kept going forward. I feel powerful and triumphant, as if I’ve just won a victory in a battle against myself. I am making a comeback, and I will emerge stronger than before. What has pushed me to perform at this concert is one simple fact: if I miss this opportunity, I may very well regret it in the future.

And I don’t know it at the time (or maybe I do), but I am about to give one of the best performances in my life so far.

I can hear the performer before me wrapping up her piece. Then comes the sound of applause. A girl walks off the stage, and I walk on.

Standing in the spotlight, I raise my violin to my shoulder, lift my bow to the string, take a deep breath, and let my fingers dance.

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