JOANNE BALL’S CARNEGIE HALL DEBUT
In 1956, a number of students from Mr. Askew's grade twelve history class visited New York City. One of those students was Beck's pianist at the time, Joanne Ball. While she was there, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall.
To anyone else it was just another ordinary Wednesday afternoon. But not to me. After months of anticipation, my dream-of-a-lifetime was about to come true.
Breathless with nervousness and excitement, I thought: “Every musician in the world has fantasized about this moment. Now here am I, Joanne Ball, finally seated at the magnificent concert grand piano on the stage of the world-renowned Carnegie Hall.”
As I placed my trembling fingers on the keys and dared them to play even one note, I couldn’t help thinking back to how it all began.
I was just six when a family friend sensed my unusual interest in music and recognized the very special gift I had inherited from my dad - the ability to pick out tunes on the piano by ear. Wanting to encourage this, she urged my parents to take me to “A Song to Remember”, a film about the celebrated composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin.
When the day arrived, I found myself totally mesmerized by the beautiful music being performed on the screen. Chopin’s brilliant “Heroic Polonaise”, played with such energy and passion, set fire to my imagination. By the time it ended, I had become obsessed with a new dream. Someday I, Joanne Ball, would play the same piece in a famous concert hall on a grand piano like the one I had just seen.
Within weeks I began taking lessons. I may have kept one eye on the clock and a baseball glove beside me as I practised my scales, but the dream remained fixed in my mind. When I saw the film, “Carnegie Hall” a couple of years later, I knew I had found the place.
A decade would pass before I walked into Beck’s grade twelve history class one day to hear my teacher, Mr. Askew, announce he was planning to take us on a trip to New York City the following April.
New York City? New York City! That’s where Carnegie Hall was! My mind began to race. And then scheme. Checking my bank account, I knew I would be able to save just enough to cover the cost.
It took eons for the next five months to pass, but we had finally arrived two days earlier, taking excursions to such places as the United Nations and touring Manhattan by boat. Now we were ready to enjoy our one free afternoon.
Alone in my hotel room, I studied a map and marked the route I needed to take to reach my destination, scared half out of my wits because I had never been in such a big city, much less ridden a subway before.
I turned down an invitation to go sight-seeing with a friend, at the same time resisting the urge to reveal my plan. After all, going to a concert hall that focused primarily on classical music just wasn’t the thing to do when you were a teen-ager. Besides, this was a quest I wanted to pursue alone.
Leaving the hotel, with the butterflies in my stomach in full flight, I located a station entrance and boarded a train. After what seemed like forever, it finally pulled into the Seventh Avenue exit I was looking for.
As I emerged from the subway, my eyes surveyed the street until they fell on a rather decrepit, dirty-looking old building.
“It can’t be that one,” I thought to myself.
But as I drew closer, sure enough, the sign, CARNEGIE HALL, came into focus. This was the place of my dreams?
Walking up to the entrance doors, I tried them one by one, only to discover they were all locked. After waiting this long, had I reached the end of the road?
For a few moments I considered abandoning the whole idea, but I couldn’t ignore the disappointment welling up inside. When would I ever have another opportunity like this?
I decided to look around the corner of the building. And it was there I discovered a small, nondescript side door. Holding my breath as I approached it, I wondered if it was locked too.
I grasped the handle and pulled.
The door opened.
A feeling of exhilaration swept over me as I stepped inside, followed by enormous relief that no one was there to question my presence.
What I did hear, as I stood and listened, was a wild cacophony of sound from an assortment of musicians practising in the small rooms above, exactly as the film had portrayed so many years earlier.
Fearing someone would appear and demand I leave, I quickly tip-toed along the corridor. In no time at all I found another door with the sign, AUDITORIUM, above it. If I’d been nervous before it was nothing compared to how I felt now.
I opened it and peered inside.
The only light offering even a brief glimpse came from the corridor behind me. All I could see was a few rows of seats and the stage, with a large grand piano sitting in the middle completely covered in a dark cloth.
Once again I was so close, yet so far.
Knowing I didn’t have much time to decide, I weighed my options.
My eyes measured the distance from where I stood to a small set of stairs leading to the platform, looking for any obstacles that might be in the way. If I moved quickly enough I could make it.
Flinging the door open as wide as it would go, I made a dash, reaching the steps just as it closed behind me, cutting off the light. With great caution, I crept up one by one, on my hands and knees, until I reached the top. When I knew I was safely away from the edge, I rose to my feet.
I was now standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall in the pitch dark!
Feeling my way to the piano, the only thing I heard in the cavernous silence was the pounding of my own heart. Now that I was here, would I have the courage to play? What if the police came and arrested me for trespassing?
I took hold of the cloth and rolled it back just far enough to expose the closed lid over the keys. What I really wanted to do was hurl the covering onto the floor and raise the top of the piano as high as it would go! But I knew I’d never be able to close it quickly enough should someone appear all of a sudden.
As I reached for the lid, one last terrible thought leapt into my mind. “What if it’s locked?”
With yet another huge sigh of relief, I felt it give way under my grasp.
Looking at the row of white keys, (which I was sure, were glowing in the dark,) I wondered how many famous musicians had actually played this same piano.
I positioned the bench in just the right place. It was firm but covered with soft leather, unlike the squeaky old wooden stool I practised on at home. As I sat down, I didn’t know whether I was more overwhelmed with awe or nervousness. It was time to play, or close the piano and flee.
My anxiety melted away as my hands touched the keys and sounds emerged, With all the gusto an 17-year-old is capable of mustering, I struck the first chords of the polonaise I had loved all these years, oblivious to everything but the thrill of my dream becoming reality.
Almost at once my worst fear came true. Lights snapped on and a man, who I assumed was a security guard, came bursting into the auditorium.
“What the hell do you thing you’re doing there!” he shouted as he stormed down the aisle toward me.
I flushed with fright and embarrassment. How could anyone possibly understand, let alone excuse such a blatant intrusion.
His disapproval was clearly visible as he reached the foot of the stage.
Fumbling for the right words, I knew the worst he could do was haul me off to jail. But I also I knew I’d be equally upset if he asked me to leave before I accomplished my mission.
I told him my story, then watched and waited in the silence that followed while he weighed it in his mind. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he said the words I longed to hear.
“Okay. You can play for a few more minutes. I’ll sit and listen. By the way, why don’t you take the cover off the piano and lift the lid up all the way so I can really hear you.”
I wanted to hug this guy!
There were no more obstacles, nothing left to fear. I could play my Chopin polonaise with complete abandonment, on the magnificent grand piano in the world’s most famous concert hall.
While I removed the cover and raised the heavy lid, he took a seat about half-way back in the auditorium.
I began to play again, self-conscious at first because someone was listening to me now. But soon, the black and white keys under my fingers and the astonishing sound radiating from the instrument stretched out in front of me was all I was aware of.
The spirit of Frederic Chopin lived once again! And all creation had stopped, with me, to dance the great polonaise.
As the last chord echoed throughout the hall, I did not want this moment to end.
To my amazement, my listener, who had been very quiet until now, called out: “Would you play a couple of my favorite songs – Somewhere Over the Rainbow and You’ll Never Walk Alone?”
Placing my hands on the keys once more, I thought my heart would burst. The air filled with the sweet melodies of those two unforgettable songs.
When I finished, my ‘audience’ rose to his feet, and with tears running down his cheeks, gave me a standing ovation.
I stood, and like all great artists, put one hand on the piano and gave a bashful but gracious bow.
Then I raised my head and took a long long look around this great hall, where decades of glorious music still resonated from rows of worn plush seats and horse-shoe-shaped balconies. I, Joanne Ball, was standing on sacred ground, where generations of great performers had shared their gifts - their place of dreams as well.
As he approached the stage again, I believe this gruff but gentle person understood how very much this precious time had meant to me.
We exchanged words of mutual appreciation as we closed the piano together, making sure everything was just as I’d found it.
After we shook hands and said our good-byes, I left the stage and made my way towards the door, with the lights still shining brightly as I exited.
When I re-entered the ‘real’ world, it was one of the most beautiful spring days I could ever remember.
I sit at my own grand piano now, almost five decades later, and hold two letters I received in 1991: one from Judith Aaron, executive director of Carnegie Hall, telling me how much those associated with the hall enjoyed my story and thanking me for sharing it with them on their 100th anniversary; the second, a letter I received from Gino Francesconi, the hall’s archivist, explaining my ‘audience’ was likely the house manager, John Totten. He also writes that for many many years, the unlocked side door was one of New York City’s best kept secrets!
Copyright JO SORRILL September 9, 2004
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