On Air

I was twenty feet up a rock-climbing wall the night the competition was announced. The athletic complex played the college radio, but I normally drowned it out with my own music I let run through my head that was actually good. But that night was my friend Blair's first night as DJ, and I'd promised to tell her how she sounded, even though it killed me to listen to the stuff she had to play. So I had actually, and rather unfortunately, been listening when the competition was announced. It was so simple even someone who barely knew what music was could enter: write and record a song of any genre, and submit it to the station. Finalists would be picked, and then students would vote to decide the winner, though I doubted any know what a good song is. I would get a nice little cash prize, and my song would be played on the radio once a day for two weeks and then whenever it was requested after that.

Right away I knew I had it in the bag. Music had always been my life. It began with the little karaoke set from when I was six, which still lingered somewhere in the attic back home, the paint faded and the microphone broken. Then there had been lessons for piano, voice, guitar, and countless other instruments; then leads in school musicals and solos in choir recitals; and finally I had gotten into the fabulous Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio with no problem. So now I was in college, a double major in Psychology and Music Performance, and so caught up in the thought of how it would be to hear my song on the radio, because there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to win, that I let go of the rock-climbing wall.

I didn't go far thanks to the harness, and the rare mistake didn't bother me like it normally would have. Upbeat rock music blasted in my head as I rappelled as quickly as I could down the wall. I headed to my dorm room in a near-sprint.

After I got out of the shower, I wiped the fog off the bathroom mirror. Remembering my childhood habit with a grin, I picked up my hairbrush and pretended to sing the song that was stuck in my head. Every chance I had gotten when I was little, I had pretended to be a musician. Using the microphone from my karaoke machine, I'd sing all of my favorite songs in the full-length mirror in my room. I'd dance, imagining I was on stage, and sometimes I'd pretend to play the guitar. I put on concerts for my parents, and when I'd finish they would clap and tell me I had the prettiest voice or sang like an angel.

My dad took me to work with him one day. He was a news anchor, and I was jealous he got to be on TV every day. After he was done recording for the day, we slipped back into the studio. A few people were still around, and the lights were still shining on his set. My dad sat at his chair, while I stood in front of him but a little off to the side.

"Good evening, I'm Leo Goddard. Today we have a special musical performance by Faye Goddard," he announced in the newscaster voice he used on TV. Dropping the role suddenly, he jumped up, cheering and clapping crazily.

I couldn't help laughing, but soon I managed to pull myself together as he stopped and sat back down. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, imagining I was in front of a crowd of millions of screaming fans. Smiling to myself, I began to sing. When I was done I opened my eyes, and my dad began clapping again. I turned around and beamed at him, as he came out from behind the desk to swing me into the air and wrap me in tight hug.

"You're talented Faye, and I'm so proud of you," he told me, unwrapping his arms a bit to look me in the eyes. "You are and always will be the best. Don't ever forget that, and make sure no one else does either."

"Don't worry, Daddy," I had replied. "I already knew that."

He laughed and hugged me tightly again before setting me down. "Good girl. Now let's go see who has candy in their office."

My parents were always telling me things like this. I was their perfect little princess, and they thought I was the best at everything. If I wanted something or they thought I deserved something, I got it. And of course they were right.

"Humility, Faye, humility," my high school music teacher Mr. Everett once said to me. He had been my mentor, teaching me to take advantage of my natural talent with daily practice after school. It was during one of these practices a few days after I had, not surprisingly, won the school talent show that he said this, after I played a new piano piece nearly perfectly like always. We were in one of the practice rooms and, as he leaned against the side of the upright piano against one of the walls, I sat at the piano bench. The music notes faded away into the silence of the room, and I looked up at him expectantly. It was the first thing he said to me, and I had frowned slightly because I didn't know what he meant.

I sat at my desk after showering. My roommate would be studying abroad for the next month, and I appreciated the silence. I had a notebook and paper with bars for music in front of me. The only light in the room was from the lamp on the desk, but it gave my room a golden glow that I loved. I smiled in anticipation, opened my notebook, and picked up a pencil.

I knew I wanted to write a rock song to rival some of the greatest, and I knew I would, of course, be singing. And since I had sung so many songs and I listened to so much rock music, I knew writing this would be as easy as playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb". But as I began brainstorming, the music that was normally stuck in my head stopped. Suddenly the world was quieter than I'd ever known it to be. I tried to think, but nothing came, not a single word. I closed my eyes, to block out anything remotely distracting, and concentrated hard, searching for something, anything. Even the stupidest idea would have been welcome, just to confirm that my brain was capable of functioning. But there was nothing; my mind was blank.

I forced myself to relax with my eyes still closed, listened as I breathed in and out, and tried to allow the ideas to just flow in. None did. Tentatively, I probed my mind for the smallest inkling of an idea, the faintest chords of music, or the barest whisper of lyrics. My probe was met with a white wall. But it wasn't like I knew there was something just out of reach. There was just nothing, like music had never been a part of me.

I groaned and rested my head against my arms on the desk. I couldn't believe this was happening. I had always been able to do anything, and it shouldn't have been any different with this. The word "failure" popped into my head, the first since I had sat down, and that one word pushed me over the edge. That word could never be applied to me. I was the best, and this song should have just proven that. Suddenly I just couldn't take any more, so I shot out of my chair, searching frantically for my I-pod. Finally succeeding, I jammed the headphones onto my ears. Choosing the loudest song I had, I turned the volume all the way up. The loudness made me gasp, but I was happy not to be able to think, even if I'd wanted to.

For the next two weeks, I had no contact with music outside of classes. The notebook and music paper were right on the desk where I'd left them; I went to the library for a desk. When I wasn't studying or in class I was sleeping or at the climbing wall, ignoring the college radio station. My friends didn't come see what was up, probably assuming I was practicing for something major. I was quiet, deflated, and not at all like my usual wild and animated self.

Eventually I couldn't stand it and caved. It was late afternoon on a Saturday, and there was nothing to do. I had studied, practiced, and rock-climbed. With my hair wet from the shower, I was sprawled on my bed, just breathing and staring at the ceiling. Bored of doing nothing, I sat up, and my eyes were drawn to my CD collection, which was rarely used since I had gotten my I-pod. I shut my eyes quickly, but it was too late; I hungered for music, and wasn't going to be satisfied until I heard some.

I rifled through the stacks of CD's, but didn't feel like any of my favorites. Then I came to a CD at the bottom of a pile. It was in a clear case, and the disc itself was blank and grey. The artist or the album title wasn't on it anywhere, and I had no idea where it had come from. I had to know what was on it, so, after a couple of minutes of searching for my old CD player, I put my headphones on, sat on the floor, and began listening.

It was exactly the kind of music I hated, but, for some reason, it sounded better than anything I'd ever heard. A woman sang lightly, beautifully, her words gentle caresses. She was accompanied by a piano and a guitar, their sound intertwining with the songstress' honeyed voice, and I felt like I was floating on air. The music seeped into my pores and mind, and I closed my eyes and let it wash over me. Soon I was following along on a pretend piano, unaware of anything but the music. A song finished and I opened my eyes, suddenly sure of what I needed to do.

I went over to the desk and sat down. Soon the pencil was in my hand and I composed as the music continued to play. The CD ended at some point, but I didn't notice, the song I was composing having overwhelmed the other music a long time ago. I just composed, feverishly, well into the night. And when I was done, I flopped into bed with my I-pod on and blasted classical music, even though I usually listen to it so quietly I feel like it's all in my head.

The day my song hit the airwaves, I was in the campus bookstore. It had been my favorite place since I had first visited Oberlin. It sells both books and music, in shelves and shelves that overflow. There's a café, where local bands sometimes play, so the whole store smells like coffee. The ceiling is a growing patchwork of CD and book covers, and the entire front of the store is floor to ceiling windows, through which you can see the park across the street.

All of my friends and I had come here to hear the finalists for the competition, since the bookstore played the college radio. We were all sitting around a table in the café, listening as the sixth of ten finalists was announced. So far mine hadn't been one of them. I wasn't worried, though. If it was good enough, it would make it, and if it wasn't, it wouldn't. It was that simple. But all the same there wasn't anything that would have made me happier than hearing my song on the radio.

We sat in an apprehensive silence, some of us working, others reading, but most just staring at cups of coffee. Sometimes curious glances were thrown my way then quickly removed, most of them probably expecting to see me fuming silently since my song hadn't been played yet. But I sat rather impassively with the barest hint of a smile, listening to the song that was currently playing and admiring its lyrics. It ended, and our friend Blair gave the song's name.

The next song began playing, and I went numb in shock. I recognized the piano introduction as my own. I hadn't allowed anyone to hear the recording, so my friends didn't realize it was my song until I began singing. They all looked up at me in surprise and excitement, some with their mouths literally hanging open. Almost giddy with relief, I couldn't help laughing at their expressions.

None of us said a word as my song continued to play, my clear voice and the resounding piano notes an almost physical presence in the room. As the last notes of my song faded, my friends sat in a stunned silence that seemed to permeate the whole bookstore.

Then they all began talking at once, congratulating me and praising the song. I continued to sit at the little café table, unable to do anything but smile.

"That was "On Air,"" Blair announced, as the next song began to play.