A lesson in music

Susan Bekker is the de facto leader of Toten Herzen. The others might disagree, but they all wait for her directions. In Malandanti she is learning to sing, but her ambition comes up against Russian composer and unwilling voice coach Dmitri Neved.


Before the band came into the studio Susan was allowed one hour for her singing lessons. The arrangement worked for now, but one day her vocal ability would become alarmingly proficient and threaten the status quo. The day of judgement, however, showed no signs of arrival, Dee’s reign at the microphone wouldn’t be threatened for at least another month or two, or three. Possibly several years, Neved had spat out in a fit of frustration three evenings ago.

His patience hit the limit again. “Here, from here.” He patted Susan’s stomach with backhanded force.

“I don’t have lungs there. . . .”

“Not your lungs, your diaphragm, pump the air pressure upwards from your diaphragm. Breathe out.”

She breathed out.


She breathed in.

“Deeper. You’re not blowing out candles on a cake, in spite of your age and the inferno they’d create. Breathe like you’re trying to force me out of the room.”

Susan blew.

“Don’t blow, breathe!”

“I don’t know the difference.”

Neved placed both hands on Susan’s waist and squeezed her like a huge tube of toothpaste. “Do you feel that? Can you feel the pressure upwards on your chest, your ribs?”

Susan gasped. “Yes.”

“You’re like a bag of cement. There’s absolutely no flexibility in you.”

“No wonder you don’t have any students.”

Neved twitched, rocked on his heels and rearranged a few sheets of paper on the mixing desk. Almer’s abandoned newspaper had been moved out of the way, but Neved couldn’t move it far enough. The gory headline, the deaths at Red Tarn, dominated the front page. Now the paper lay, back page up, on a cabinet at the back of the room.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

“Don’t apologise.” Neved took off his glasses for another habitual cleaning. “I’m out of practice. I suppose I should be grateful to you for making the effort. You are trying, at least. The boredom must be terrible.”

“No, I’m not bored.”

“Not you, the others. Have you been able to do anything productive yet?”

Susan nodded, eager to move into the live room and play a selection of riffs, motifs, melodies, a combined overview of progress so far. Neved listened wearily, wincing at the demonstration. Five minutes later, leaning against the piano for intellectual as well as physical support, he slipped off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“You’re not impressed, are you?”

“I can’t say I’m impressed.” He sat at the piano, opened the lid and stroked several keys. “Do you feel aggressive?”

Susan answered the back of his head. “All the time actually.”

Especially last night. Neved preferred to run through the octaves than speculate on how last night ended on the summit of Helvellyn. The temptation to learn more surrounded him. Headlines in the papers, on the radio, on television, contained in Almer’s running commentaries when he came back from Keswick, on the astonished lips of the locals down in Grange. Neved was under siege. “Look, look and listen.”
He moved on from aimless scales and started to shake and shudder, his whole body heaving as he clattered the keys of the piano, notes rattled off like bullets from a Gatling gun. “This is how you play, Susan.” He yelled above his maniacal performance. “More, more, must play more . . . I am a rock goddess . . . must play more. . . .”

Susan laughed. She wasn’t supposed to laugh, but she couldn’t fail to see herself in the floor rumbling, wall vibrating display.

“So, how would you play aggressive?”

“Aggressive? For god’s sake, why must it always be aggressive?” Lena was aggressive. Her answer to every problem was a calculated act of violence. “Assertive,” he said, “confident, play with confidence.” The music reflected his concentration. Strong, precise, perfect notes danced to the gentle movement of his hands. The emotion rose from nothing to an enormity that consumed the instrument, consumed the player, but Neved hardly moved as he provoked the notes, louder and louder. The piano made a sound as violent as a mountain storm, but he retained control, his back straight, his arms fixed, his fingers hunting down the next note, the next key, driven along by an unseen pressure, an unseen force working upwards out of him, into the piano.

When he finished Susan was alongside him. “I see what you mean.”

“Do you?” He closed the piano lid and walked out of the live room, out of the studio, out of the house.


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