Musician and Wannabe
EMMA PEEKED BEHIND the heavy black curtains in the wings, the narrow gap of space revealing another girl onstage. In the sharp beam of light, her daisy-white dress—along with the ivory keys she was playing—shone starkly against the piano’s glossy black wood and the ebony curls in a ponytail coiling down her neck. Naomi Lin’s hands quickly jumped between two ends of the keyboard, linked by quick successions of scales. It was the same ten-page piece, brimming with thick arpeggios, that had taken Emma months to practise and twice as long to perfect and memorise, but Naomi made the music sizzle in the air, projecting rich, three-dimensional harmonic undertones that filled the hall. Flawless, as always. Like any musician, Emma recognised this as the fruit of stacked hours of heavy toil, but it wasn’t hard to understand why Hong Kong news headlines dubbed this pianist a “prodigy.”
Deep breath, deep breath. But Emma clutched her stomach, trying to rub away the dull pain. Remember, you don’t have anything to lose. Even if you don’t win, all you’re missing out on is another fancy title to brag about on your resume. There are plenty of other opportunities out there.
But it wasn’t just about winning. She could feel her inner voice whispering from the darker crevices of her mind, the part that came most alive when the window blinds hung heavy and darkness barred the room from the outside world.
Focus, Emma. Now was not the time. The girl recited the things her music teacher, Ms. Yang, kept nagging her about: dynamics, articulation, pedalling, holding my breath during that particularly hard phrase, relaxed shoulders...
Waves of applause reverberated through the hall. Some people even stood up and whistled. Emma snapped her head back towards Naomi as the other girl bowed, before striding across the lacquered wooden stage towards her. Emma gave a mini thumbs-up.
“You did well,” she whispered.
Naomi pushed aside the red curtain. “Thanks, but I made so many mistakes. At least I got it over with.” She sighed deeply, rolling out her shoulders as if shaking off the stress. “Anyway, want to get ice cream after this? Mango?”
Even the thought of her favourite flavour made her gut flip. “I have a stomach ache right now.”
“Are you okay?” Naomi furrowed her brows.
“Yeah, I’m good.” Emma forced a weak smile. Despite the pain, the girl sheepishly indulged her friend’s concern. “If I drop dead, at least I won’t have to look at my score.”
“Kidding, kidding. Just hoping I don’t crash in the middle of my performance. That would be a mortifying way to go.”
“Maybe it’s nerves,” Naomi offered. “But I’m sure it’s nothing a future full-time musician can’t handle.”
“If it ever happens,” she reminded her friend. Contrary to her words, though, she could see an image of an older her and Naomi sitting side-by-side, compiling music together on a laptop. “Not all of us have it in the bag already.”
The edges of Naomi’s smile sank. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
Did I say something wrong? Before Emma could open her mouth to speak again, the PA system blared: “Let’s all welcome our next competitor on stage, Emma Chan!” Polite clapping ensued.
The girl glanced back at Naomi in the shadows, and saw her friend grinning again. “Break a leg,” Naomi waved.
Emma nodded in acknowledgement. She smoothed out her indigo dress, then brushed the curtain aside.
Rows of red cushions extended into the black void of the auditorium, hundreds of lurking shadows waiting. At least neither her parents nor Ms. Yang were out there in the abyss to witness her failure. Only the faces of three strangers perched at the table below would be visible tonight, scrawling notes that would determine her fate.
One step at a time. Emma plodded toward the black and white instrument, ignoring the bile churning inside her stomach. She sat down on the black stool, and took a deep breath. In. Out. But the action had no effect. Even as the chilly air pricked her skin, making her hairs stand on end, she felt like a ghost, watching her body being pulled by invisible strings.
She could barely believe that she managed to make it across the stage. Had I bowed already? Yes, she had. Emma closed her eyes, and placed her hands on the piano. For a terrifying second, she thought her fingers would lock up and forget their roles, but as soon as she pressed the first note, the feeling vanished.
The girl swiftly performed a sequence of ascending arpeggios and pressed the final note. A pause, then she led into an upbeat waltz. Each muscle swayed back and forth in practised motions, bobbing up and down with the dynamics, easily settling into the familiar rhythm. Now it was only a matter of keeping her head clear of distracting thoughts. Almost immediately, she felt the urge to glance at the judges’ expressions, but she forced herself to stare down at the black and white keys. Her spirit dove underwater when the harmony slowed, then soared along with the accelerating tune, like a dolphin leaping out of the ocean.
So far, so good. The music matched the grand auditorium—the focused, beaming lights, the rich, velvet curtains. Fitting for a ballroom Waltz. For a moment, Emma wondered if Naomi liked dancing.
Her left palm suddenly brushed against the keys, momentarily losing its place in the piece. The melody on the right was blind without its partner, echoing aimlessly in the expansive concert hall, unable to reach the audience’s core. Emma scrambled through scraps of memory for a clue, but her recollection had been scrubbed clean.
Oh god, oh god, oh god-
When her left hand reunited as the accompanying harmony, it was a beat slower than her right. Variant notes clashed together, like fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. The music was no longer in sync, but under attack from warriors firing on opposing sides, with the girl caught in the crossfire.
Emma bit her lip. She fought for control over her hands, but that only quickened her fingers as the song gushed towards a climax.
Stop rushing, you idiot!
The girl waited for the refrain to end. After a brisk pause before the next section began, a fog seemed to lift. Emma touched the instrument with crystal clarity, as the melody and harmony reunited with a new theme, before lingering on a final note.
Emma stood up and bowed, and the crowd erupted into applause. But they must have noticed. One of the judges wearing glasses muttered something to another, who shrugged in response. The third wrote furiously on paper. As the girl trudged backstage, there was no question that she had already lost the competition, each footstep echoing a loud thought in her mind.
Why do I even try at all?
The awards ceremony afterwards passed in a blink. Nervous hushes hung in the atmosphere, as the judges dropped generic speeches as usual about how proud they were of everyone’s performances, how tight the competition was, and other vague remarks. What really mattered was that when the two friends left the building that night, Emma walked out with a disappointing score on her paper that ripped apart her hopes of impressing Ms. Yang—while Naomi walked out with a trophy, off to show her parents who were waiting outside.
“Congrats on getting second place. You deserve it,” Emma squeaked.
Naomi shrugged. “It was alright. I was really bad with dynamics and the pedal control... I honestly thought you would win. You practised a lot.”
She’s only trying to be nice. “I heard the top five score ninety- five and above.”
“Then again, a lot of people were competing,” Naomi added. “How much did you get?”
“That’s still good though! I got, like, seventy? The first time I joined. It was a few years ago,” Her friend faltered. “Man, I’m getting old.”
“Still old though. I’m nearly two decades old!”
“Well, when you put it that way...” Emma tilted her head.
“You know what, I didn’t come here for an existential crisis.” “It’s a risk you have to take if you’re friends with me. You
“Be glad we’re friends, then.”
Naomi chuckled, shaking her head, and a peaceful silence lingered. The two girls walked side by side in laced dresses, down a red carpet, while soft piano music echoed in the background. Not that there was anything wrong with that—Emma always liked the possibilities, though not her chances.
The calm in her mind didn’t last long. In two years, they would both be applying for university. If Emma wasn’t winning competitions, what would make her stand out from everyone else? What college would choose Emma over her major-award- winning friend? If I can’t do music, what could I do? Will any of this be really worth it in the end?
Emma shivered. But now, she wondered if it was just the usual Hong Kong humidity that made her clothes cling so uncomfortably to her skin. Just where had the time gone?
“Over here!” Naomi waved, rushing toward a pair of people, holding up her trophy to show them. The two had similar features to their child, from the woman’s long, flowy black hair to the man’s lanky body and small nose, matching their daughter’s.
“You need to work on your dynamics and pedal control,” Mr. Lin said sternly, as soon as the girls got within hearing distance. “Just look at the first place winner. You can hear a very clear difference.”
“I didn’t practise as much. It was the last few days of summer,” Naomi groused. “I wanted to relax a bit.”
“You had the whole summer to practise.”
“Okay, second place is still alright,” Naomi’s mother cut in, eyeing her husband. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but it’s alright. We should get ice cream to celebrate.” Mr. Lin just shrugged.
“Sure!” Naomi brightened again at the mention of dessert. “Are you coming, Emma?”
“Nah, I’m good. I don’t feel like it.” Emma scanned Naomi’s eyes. She knew her friend didn’t like disappointing her parents, even though she pretended to shake it off.
“Well, alright,” Ms Lin nodded, a bit sceptical. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride home? We can just drop you off on the way, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.”
“Oh, no thank you. I’m okay. It’s not a long ride home on the MTR.” Half an hour was actually a bit much, by Emma’s standards, but she didn’t want to bother Mr. and Mrs. Lin.
“Take care then,” Mr. Lin said.
“See you at school tomorrow!” Naomi chimed as the family started walking toward a nearby McDonalds, disappearing amongst the crowd.
Like a trigger being released, a sigh of relief escaped Emma. What was wrong with her? One moment, she yearned for the fond touch of her friends, but the next, the crush of warm voices and probing eyes became suffocating. Now, the girl was lost in the sea of scurrying people, heading back home where she’d rather be anywhere else.
God, she needed a distraction.
Carefully unzipping her bag, Emma plugged in her headphones and browsed the latest song addition from Hu Sheng Wei, one of her childhood idols who had inspired her pursuit of music. The girl couldn’t help but smile. The instrumentals were upbeat with ferocious guitar strums coupled with a steady backing piano track, and she always had a soft spot for the black and white instrument. Idly, the teen clicked on the description, and after scrolling through links to his social media accounts, two sentences caught her interest.
It read: To my princess Adriana, who encouraged me during hard times when all I wanted was to quit. I have never been in love before, so I want to get this right.
Man, if only someone would serenade me like that. Emma smiled at the thought. Naomi wasn’t that type of person.
She stuffed her hands in her pockets and trudged down the steps of the MTR station, slinking through the masses of people and muttering “excuse me” whenever she bumped into someone. Inside, convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Circle K along with bakeries sprawled in a neat line, the smell of donuts and cookies
wafting through the air. Blue paint shimmered on the wall. Emma’s thoughts wandered back to the competition. Was it because she wasn’t practising enough? She tried squeezing in one to two hours per day, but her music teacher Ms. Yang mentioned the greats put in at least three to four. Lang Lang played eight hours per day nonstop, after all, and he wasn’t one
of the greatest pianists of all time for nothing.
Emma crouched in a corner near a billboard and unzipped
her bag, rummaging for her wallet. The motion of a perfume advertisement sliding sideways caught her eye, now replaced with an image of...
Hu Sheng Wei? As in the Hong Kong singer who won two Grammys and about a hundred other awards? The same person that started a platform to teach free music lessons so the craft could be accessible to anyone, no matter their background? It felt like the strings of fate were tugging her into a new life.
Emma’s breath caught, her gaze scrabbling hungrily for details and etching them into her memory. The stout man wore a tophat and pointed towards the audience on a black star, with several children’s heads tilted toward him, as if looking for something beyond the horizon. The words “Prove Your Passion” glinted in gold letters in the centre of the piece with the “Hong Kong Young Innovators Competition” in a smaller font below. Beside Hu Sheng Wei’s head was a logo, a serpent crawling around a shield, as if ready to strike, which Emma recognised as Viper, a rising coding platform that was often mentioned at her school.
Small scribbles of the competition dates and where to search for more information sat snugly in the corner. Emma grabbed her phone and took a picture before the ad disappeared.
But the teen couldn’t stop her fingers from shaking from excitement. Hu Sheng Wei hosting competitions wasn’t anything new—he had been doing it internationally, inspiring kids to learn music, for quite a while. It was one of the reasons Emma looked up to him in the first place, other than him being locally-bred. So, him returning to his roots and finding rising stars in the fray was more than just a pleasant surprise.
She scanned the poster for more information. Positioned near the children’s shoulders, flashy numbers boasted a “$10,000” prize, along with a “face-to-face with celebrity Hu Sheng Wei.” The latter was the real main course of the show. She could be one of those nobodies training under the wing of a world- famous mentor, only to become a celebrity overnight. Her career would skyrocket and she would be set for life! She could already imagine the interviews, the awards, the new generation she’d inspire, just like the man standing before her.
Hopefully Naomi doesn’t know about this. Immediately, Emma wished she had suppressed the thought. Yes, Naomi Lin had appeared in several news publications praising her talent and had won all sorts of prestigious music awards since she learned to walk. But Emma was her friend. She knew Naomi would squeal at the opportunity, and even if it meant that Naomi would end up commanding every spotlight capable of glowing, Emma would rather be buried alive under these doubts than do her wrong.
Even so, Emma stared at her lacklustre reflection, glinting under the glass. Donned in a flowy indigo dress, her only remarkable feature was the dishevelled golden brown hair resting behind her shoulders. Even her oil-black eyes were a common attribute in Hong Kong. The aspiring musician was just another face in the crowd. What chance did she have competing against Naomi?
A familiar chorus rang in her head—an iconic song by the Hong Kong band Beyond, “Boundless Oceans, Vast Sky.” It went: “Anyone can abandon the weight of their hopes and ideals, but I’m not afraid to crawl if there’s only you and I.” Maybe, just maybe, this could finally be her chance for a life bigger than this city.