Lisa Criss Griffin: Surviving The Challenge

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Surviving The Challenge

by Lisa Criss Griffin

Drew climbed into the luxurious charter bus and found a comfortable window seat. She stowed her violin safely before she slipped into her chosen chair. She was blissfully unaware that the next sixteen hours would be pivotal in how she would choose to play music for the remainder of her lifetime. 

Dawn had barely broken. Drew stifled a yawn as she watched the purple clouds on the horizon lighten to a honey pink while her fellow Youth Symphony members trickled aboard the bus. She was only a high school sophomore. Almost all the other players of this year’s phenomenal Youth Symphony were juniors and seniors, with only a couple of token sophomores sprinkled in due to their talent. Their orchestra was one of the best the city had ever produced, and they were hoping to win the regional competition this year. Today’s charter bus would take them to that very competition in an adjacent state.

Drew already learned the value of self-confidence during her first year in the high school orchestra. She had been randomly placed in the back of the first violin section of her school’s orchestra at the beginning of the school year since she was new. She was in the process of challenging players for their seat positions within the section, and was steadily moving forward. The last violinist she had challenged was her current stand partner, Erik. 

The challenge involved a blind audition so the judge would not be able to identify either of the violinists during the contest. They both played the same piece of orchestra music for the judge. Drew knew she had prevailed as soon as she finished playing. So did her stand partner. He was a senior, and it was an understatement to say he didn’t take losing his seat to a sophomore well. He challenged her several times later in the year, but never regained his chair from Drew. The remaining four violinists in front of her in the first violin section were all seniors and more advanced, so she was delighted to retain the fifth chair.

Drew had also auditioned and secured a coveted chair in the first violin section in the citywide Youth Symphony, much to the dismay and consternation of some of the older players. Her audition for the Youth Symphony had gone extremely well, and she was placed in the seventh chair, first violin section. This had caused quite a stir among the older violinists, and she had to earn their respect by playing well. She did play very well and was grudgingly acknowledged by the other players.

Except for Erik, her stand partner from high school. His audition had placed him several chairs behind her in the Youth Symphony. She could feel his eyes burning holes of resentment into her back during rehearsals. She had always been respectful towards Erik, but he never accepted that she was the better musician. 

Drew was quite hurt by Erik’s attitude at first. Eventually she put up an impersonal but polite emotional wall between the two of them. Her apparent indifference to his frustration only seemed to infuriate him further. She would be terribly glad when he graduated. She got along well with everyone else, so she chose not to dwell on his unhappiness.

“Is this seat taken?”

The husky masculine voice startled Drew out of her reverie. She looked up into the face of the Concertmaster of the Youth Symphony. He was a senior, an enormously talented violinist and totally gorgeous. Drew had hidden her silent crush on him over the past year, along with most of the other girls in the orchestra.

“Uh, why…no,” Drew stammered in disbelief.

Joe was enormously popular with everybody in the orchestra, and she could not believe he had chosen to sit with her. He had two violin cases with him. She supposed he brought a backup violin with him as a precaution. Joe was playing the incredibly beautiful violin solo that was woven throughout their competition piece, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. He played it as well as any professional violinist she had ever heard, and Drew was blown away by his talent every time they rehearsed the music.

Joe slid into the seat next to her after stowing his violin cases on the floor between them. He released a sigh as he sank back into the comfortable seat cushions. He turned and looked directly at Drew.

“So, my name is Joe. And you are…?”

“Drew…my name is Drew.”

“You play first violin with us, don’t you?” 

Drew nodded, shocked he was aware of her existence.

“You look awfully young. Are you a sophomore?”


Drew felt her cheeks grow warm and was instantly humiliated; she was blushing. 

“Well, it is going to be a long trip. Tell me a little about yourself, Drew.” 

“I…uh…go to North High…”

“Oh yes, I have several friends from North. Your high school orchestra is one of the best in the city.”

“I like it,” Drew said hesitantly.

“How long have you been playing the violin?”

“Since I was five,” she replied.

“Five? You were only five? Well, that explains some things.”

“What do you mean? What things?” Drew asked, almost afraid to hear his answer.

“I hear you are really talented…I mean super talented.”

Joe smiled at the incredulous look on her face. 

“Thank you,” Drew whispered. “You are an amazing violinist…”

Drew hoped she kept the depth of her hero worship out of her voice as she replied. She could not believe he was even aware she was alive, much less cognizant of anything about her. She returned his smile and relaxed a little. He seemed really nice, and so far this trip had exceeded any expectation she had harbored.

They chatted lightheartedly over the next few hours, discovering they had several interests in common. Drew found herself growing quite comfortable in Joe’s presence, even though he was older. 

The group stopped for lunch and everyone had just reboarded the charter bus. Joe leaned down as the bus returned to the highway and pulled one of his violin cases onto his lap.

“Hey Drew, you want to help me have some fun?” 


Joe opened his violin case, pulled something out and slid it under his jacket. He returned the case to the floor. 

“Let me have your Coke.”

Drew handed Joe her partially consumed soft drink, unsure what he wanted it for. He poured something into her Coke bottle from the flask under his jacket. He handed it back to her with a wink.

“What is this?” she asked.

Joe laughed and smiled into her eyes.

“Just a little something to help us relax and enjoy our trip, Drew. You’ll like it. Trust me.”

Joe took a swig out of the flask under his jacket and looked back at Drew with a grin. She was staring at the Coke bottle, torn between saying no and being uncool, and being accepted as one of the cool kids by somebody she had idolized all year. 

She smiled back at Joe and took a sip. Gawd, it was AWFUL stuff! It burned going down her throat and she stifled a gag. Tears stung her eyes as she sucked in a cleansing breath. Joe took another drink. 

“Come on Drew, bottoms up, girl!”

Joe took another swig as he encouraged her to take another sip. She did, and a small warm glow began to spread through her body. They continued their easy banter as the bus rolled down the highway. Drew finally put her Coke down. She felt a little dizzy, and kind of sleepy. Joe had been talking nonstop about nothing in particular, and that suited her just fine. He finished his flask and put it back in the extra violin case. 

Joe leaned over and looked into her light blue eyes.

“You know, Drew, you are an awfully pretty girl,” he slurred slightly. “And you are so nice, a lot nicer than I thought you would be. I like you. I like you a lot.”

“I like you too, Joe. But I feel kind of dizzy.”

Joe chuckled as he slipped his arm around her shoulders.

“Yes, I suspect you do.”

“No, really Joe. I hope I don’t get sick.”

Joe removed his arm quickly.

“Well hell, Drew. Don’t do that. Geez!”

Drew laid the side of her flushed face against the cool window of the bus. She sighed in relief. It felt like heaven.

“Look, I’m sorry, Drew. I really do like you. And I think I owe you an apology.”

“What? I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

Drew moved her face to a cooler section of the window, the buzzing in her ears increasing.

Joe sighed and reached for her hand. His hand was larger than hers, and warmer. He captured her hand between both of his.

“Look at me, Drew.”

She turned her head, thankful for the cool window against the back of her head. Joe’s soft brown eyes were full of genuine remorse.

“I want to apologize to you. I feel like such a jerk. If I had known you before this trip, I never would have agreed to do this.” 

“Do what, Joe?”

“Oh…hell! You probably know that Erik is a friend of mine. And it is no secret that he is really pissed that you successfully challenged him for his orchestra chair.”

“So?” Drew replied.

“Well, I am so embarrassed I agreed to do this. The plan was to get you drunk so you couldn’t play this afternoon. I hope I was not successful. You obviously don’t drink. I always drink, and I didn’t know you. I am so very sorry. And I am rethinking my friendship with Erik for setting you up like this. I hope you will forgive me, Drew. Damn girl, you are pretty, talented and so…damn nice. I am very, very sorry.”

Drew groaned and turned away, determined not to cry. She was sure everybody on the bus knew what Joe and Erik had done, and were watching to see how she would react. She leaned her face back onto the cool window. She didn’t deserve this. She had earned her spot, just like everyone else. Drew pulled her blue sweater closer around her shoulders and leaned into the side of the bus. She closed her eyes to shut out the humiliation. The motion of the bus and the sound of the tires on the asphalt were oddly comforting. Before she knew it, she fell asleep.

Drew’s eyes fluttered open as she came to. She was surprisingly warm and comfortable. She slowly became aware that she was securely snuggled up against Joe’s chest, his arm over her shoulders, cradling her protectively. Joe was also asleep. She gently lifted his arm and slid back over into her seat. She felt much better, and was grateful there didn’t seem to be any lasting effects from the spiked Coke.

The bus slowed and turned into the parking lot of their concert venue. Drew looked over at Joe, her heart still hurt from his betrayal. She was a forgiving soul though, and he had seemed genuinely remorseful. She hoped he would be able to play well today. No matter what had happened between them, she looked forward to hearing him play that solo. Drew put her hand on Joe’s arm and shook it gently.

“Joe. Hey Joe. We are here. Wake up, Joe.”

Joe opened his eyes and spent a moment focusing on her face. He rubbed his hands through his thick, dark hair and then stretched. The charter bus came to a gentle stop. The musicians began gathering their carry-on items in preparation to disembark the bus.

Joe reached out and caressed the side of Drew’s face gently with a tender touch of his hand.

“Play beautifully, Drew. I hope you will forgive me.”

Joe leaned forward and brushed his soft lips across her face in a tender apology. She could taste the liquor on his mouth as he kissed her gently in front of everybody on the bus. He pulled away and gazed into her eyes, the sincerity of his apology reflected in the depths of his sad brown eyes. Drew smiled at Joe and met his gaze bravely.

“Play beautifully, Joe. I love listening to you play. I always have.”

The bus began to empty. Joe picked up his violin cases and made his way down the aisle. Drew grabbed her violin case, but waited until the line thinned out before she left the bus. She changed into her concert outfit along with the older girls backstage. There was just enough time to get dressed and tune up their instruments before they were to be onstage. She was grateful there wasn’t really time for anyone to ask her about that kiss. Her lips were still tingling from the gentle pressure of Joe’s lips. She would never be able to forget the look in his eyes afterwards.

Drew took her seat onstage along with her fellow musicians. She was sitting in the outside chair of the fourth stand, and had a clear view of the audience. There was a table of judges, and several other groups of high-school musicians who were to take the stage after they were done playing. She loved every note of Scheherazade, and couldn’t wait to lose herself in the beauty of the music.

A hush came over the crowd as Joe walked across the stage towards the podium. Drew was completely surprised as he lightly touched her shoulder while passing by her chair. The caress took her breath away. He took his seat after tuning the orchestra. Their conductor raised his baton and with a decisive downbeat, the orchestra began to play Scheherazade.

The performance was instantly magical, as if an exotic genie had been let out of his lamp and cast a musical spell over them all. Drew felt herself swept up in the emotion of the piece as the lower strings and brass rumbled the walls of the venue. Vibrations from the powerful orchestration shook every cell in Drew’s body as she played her heart out. It was an incredible emotional high, and everyone on the stage felt it.

Drew heard Joe playing his beautiful solo part. His violin sang…the haunting, melodic voice of his instrument cascading across Drew’s heartstrings in a tone she had never quite heard before. It was as if he was speaking musically just to her, calling out to her heart to forgive him. The melodic voice of her violin joined the others, answering the solo violin’s passionate plea with a chorus of rich harmony. 

The Scheherazade took on a life of its own as they continued to play. The lush music spoke eloquently in a universal language about love and love lost, in a way everybody listening could feel and understand. Raw emotion filled the concert hall, pulsating and twining around the hearts of the audience and drawing them further into the musical magic. The solo violin finished weaving the end of the intricate melodic story as the Scheherazade drew to a close. Drew faded her last note into a faint whisper, her body quivering imperceptibly from the intensity of the beauty of the music. 

It was then that Drew came to a decision. She loved playing in an orchestra almost more than anything else. But she would not be part of the nefariously destructive ego competitions that plagued orchestras. She didn’t need to play that game, and she sure wasn’t going to be a part of it in the future. 

Perhaps it meant playing in a different type of group, style or setting in the future. She would have to see. But nothing was worth losing the indescribable joy she always experienced while playing music. Absolutely nothing.

Copyright © 2020 Lisa Criss Griffin
All rights reserved

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