It’s the 1970’s and I am 17 years old. I just arrived in Fontainebleau yesterday. I’m off to a great start. Upon my arrival I missed orientation. My first morning here was spent running around half naked in the hotel lobby trying to explain in French that there was a bat in my room.
I’m now preparing to go to the palace to play for an audition, which I knew nothing of prior to last night. My piano teacher had sent a recording of my playing to Nadia and I was accepted on that basis.
With the exception of a bratty protégé, age 7, I was the next youngest student here by at least 5 years. I am terrified!
I walk to the palace, a short jaunt across the street, and find myself trying to negotiate the cobblestones as I make my way to the right wing. I had never been in a palace before and now I was going to perform in one!
Upon my arrival I check in. I am hear Beethoven’s Appassionata, echoing through the great stone hallways. It’s an extraordinarily difficult piece, which oddly enough mom played for her senior recital. I’m blown away while shrinking in my shoes.
I was directed to a practice room where I might warm up. I did so only briefly because I was so embarrassed at how simple my piece was compared to the others I was hearing. I will be playing the Beethoven sonata in g major. Big deal!
As I sat outside in the cold stone hallway awaiting my turn I suddenly felt very humble. What on earth was I doing here? I can’t even figure out key signatures at a glance and I’m going in to play for this legendary woman who survived the occupation in WWII, started this school with Maurice Ravel and Stravinski and trained Aaron Copland. She‘s gonna laugh at me!
“Blossom Broulliard…” I hear my name called. “You ready? You’re next. Go in. They are waiting for you.” I felt like I was going to the gallows.
I walk into the studio to see a concert grand piano, a beautiful large mahagony table with four or five people seated at it. In the center seated very erectly was Nadia Boulanger, a formidable somewhat gaunt figure of 93 years, with lenses as thick as coke bottles, wearing a gray suit and carrying a cane. Age had only sharpened her and she was clearly the most brilliant one in the room.
Seated next to Nadia, in stark contrast, sat a beautiful, petite, lady with snow white hair wrapped in a French twist, who’s spine had given way over the years as she sat hunched somewhat over. She had the most enchanting smile and eyes, like two pools of cool blue water. This was Mlle. Dieudonne. Translated, her name means “God given”. Nothing could have been more true.
I’m sure it was quite clear that I was terrified. Mlle. Dieudonne smiled at me reassuringly and it was almost like I was granted a monentary reprieve.
“Alors, Mlle Brouiliard, you are a student of Sister Ignatia Downey?
“Zees is wonderful. She is a very gifted teacher. How is she doing?
“She is well.”
“Alors, Bon. She is a good friend of mine. Zo what are you going to play for us today?”
“Beethoven Sonata in G major.” I say sheepishly , almost apologizing.
I was terrified. I took one look at mlle Dieudonne who smiled at me as though to say, “it will be fine. Go ahead.”
I understand now why Sister Ignatia used to tell me to practice even when there was no piano in sight. I used to play this piece on table tops and my thighs all the time. I imagine it was for moments like this, enabling one to go on automatic pilot when in a state of terror.
I couldn’t believe it. I got through it.
“Do you have something else to play for us?’
“I can play the Mozart Fantasy in D minor”. I like this one much more but had not been playing it as long.
I finished and there was a moment of silence.
“But you play beautifully! Why are you so sacred? Sister Ignantia speaks very highly of you and now I understand why.”
“Please play me a g# Minor scale”. Uh Oh… I had only started studying with Sister Ignatia as a freshman in high school. While I had other teachers prior to her, she stripped me of everything I had learned to date and started me with children’s books in an effort to teach me technique. She had once been a student of Nadia’s and was also my mom’s teacher at one time.
Unfortunately, she taught me the scales only in relation to the circle of fifths. It took me a moment to figure it out and I became quite flustered.
“You don’t know this scale??”
“I do Mlle, but only in relation to the circle of fifths.”
“Then you will learn all your scales while you are here. I think you should stay and study with me in Paris. Would you like that?”
WHAT??? Are you KIDDING ME?
“But I though thtat classes were held in Fontainebleau…”
“They are. But I think you have a wonderful talent and I am asking you if you would like to come back after the school session and study with me in Paris.”
I can’t believe my ears. I’m completely blown away.
“Don’t you want to be a great pianist one day?”
I started to shake and could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
“But why are you crying?” Fair question.
“I am so honored Mlle. I don’t know what to say.”
“You see, I love the piano. But I really want to be an actress and to sing and dance.“ Now the waterwooks start to flow.
“It is so kind of you to offer. So many people would love to have this opportunity and I am not as proficient as they are. They are playing all these really difficult pieces.
“I’m soo grateful. But I don’t want to waste your time mlle, because as much as I love the piano, I really want to act and sing. If you want me to go home, I’ll understand. I’m sorry for wasting your time. I can go home if you like.”
“I understand. You will stay here and study. You will learn your g# miner scale and you will be a great actress one day!”
“Really? I can stay?”
“Of course. Dry your eyes. You are very gifted. Please give my best to Sister Ignatia when you see here. I will write to her this evening and tell her how well you played for me today.
You could have knocked me over with a feather! I was ebullient when I walked out of that room. It turned out that the purpose of the audition was to determine who would study with Nadia and who would get Monsieur Pinchaud as a piano teacher. Needless to say, given my confession, I was given Pinchaud. But I was ok with that.
Other students stared at me, no doubt wondering why I was in there for so long, considering how simplistic my piece was compared to the concertos they were playing. I never told anyone what transpired. They would have resented the hell out of me for not only being offered, but for turning down the opportunity of a lifetime.
It was foolish that I didn’t even consider it. It never even occurred to me to call home and ask. I was also thinking about finishing high school. I knew that had I stayed, I might have painted myself into a
corner that I didn’t wish to be in. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. A good reason!
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