The all-Neopian symphony orchestra was preparing for its first concert of the year. Every season, the denizens of Neopia came from far reaches to hear the masterpieces elegantly performed by the orchestra. It was late in the Month of Storing, and the musicians were to perform in just a week, in front of a vast crowd in the Altador Colosseum. Gathered in a dimly lit practice room, the bickering players’ voices flooded the room. One common trouble was on their mind: their conductor had allegedly been sick with the Itchie Scratchies for the past two weeks, and none of the musicians had met him yet!
Two of the violinists in the orchestra, Adalea Gio and Lars Gio, who were brother and sister, were arguing over a composition. “This section is meant to be played softly, but we’re the melody of this section, and we can hardly be heard over the flautists and cellists! We should be playing mezzo-forte, if not louder!” Ada, a Wocky, vehemently prodded a page of sheet music as she spoke.
“Never disobey the sheet music!” Lars retorted. “We should be playing slowly and quietly so the flutes can be heard, Adalea.”
Adalea glared. “You know I prefer ‘Ada.’”
Lars smirked. “Why do you think I called you Adalea?”
Let us avert our attention from the bickering siblings. Vivian Achino, a cellist, was conversing with Anne Dante as she practiced a solo piece for the concert. “What do you think our conductor will be like? We’ve never had him for a concert before.” As Vivian attempted a trill, a loud pop interrupted her song. “There goes my C-string,” she sighed, and leaned her cello on the ground to repair the broken string.
“I’m not sure,” Anne, a Xweetok violist, replied. “I haven’t so much as heard his name, let alone seen him. Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet him today.”
“I doubt it,” Larry Gateau, another violinist, interrupted. “He hasn’t shown up to a rehearsal for weeks. Why should he show up today? How do we even know he’ll show up to any rehearsals, or even be at the concert?”
“Don’t be so negative,” Stacy Kato, who sat next to Anne, snapped. “Why would he volunteer to be our conductor if he couldn’t be at the concert?”
Larry Gateau mumbled an indignant retort and resumed practicing.
Across the room, we find Mary Dulce, a shy Acara harpist, was plucking away at the strings of her instrument. Preston Quinton, a fast-talking Lutari who played the flute, was attempting to woo her from a distance. Mary ignored his waving and winking and focused her eyes intently on the music stand in front of her. “Stop that!” Arial Kaus, who sat in front of Preston in the woodwind section, gave him a punch in the arm.
“What was that for?” Preston moaned, rubbing his arm.
“She’s bothered by you, if you must know,” Arial replied, with chin high. “Stop trying to get her attention.”
“If you’re jealous, just tell me,” Preston remarked, with a smirk that was intended to be suave on his face. Arial gave a snort of disgust and doubled the size of his bruise.
Jonathon Keys, a Blumaroo native to Roo Island, was pounding harshly away on the ivory keys of his piano. When he lifted his fingers after the last note, red fingerprints remained; Jonathon had been enjoying a Raspberry Kolache before playing.
Allena Gretto, an introverted clarinet player, had been watching Jonathon with admiration from afar. She gave a sigh, only to gasp with surprise when she heard Heidi Brass, the Mynci who played the trumpet for the symphony orchestra, give a high-pitched laugh of amusement. Ally turned and glared at her. “Keep to yourself!”
“You’re always staring at people. The time you spend spying on them outweighs the time you spend practicing!” Heidi cackled. Regaining her composure, she defended herself by saying, “I sit right next to you! How could I not notice?”
“Don’t tease her, Heidi,” commanded Lois Brass, Heidi’s older sister. Lois was the sole tuba player of the orchestra. “You think I haven’t seen you spying on Lars from back here?” Blushing brighter than her red fur, Heidi covered her face with a music book as Anne giggled.
Amidst all the commotion, a voice rang out. “Everyone! May I have your attention, please?” It was the concertmaster violinist, Grace Notala, addressing the orchestra. The Gnorbu musician cleared her throat as the room quieted and began speaking again. “I have been informed that today will be the day our conductor will, at last, present himself to us.” She rolled her eyes, only half-believing it herself.
Unfortunately for Grace, her message only provoked more noise and chaos. Everyone asked questions at once. Lars tried to quiet everyone, but his voice was drowned out by Preston’s inane chatter. Vivian demanded to know if the conductor had been genuinely sick. Heidi and Jonathon shouted two different questions simultaneously as Grace raised her hand for silence.
Once the shouting had subsided, Grace resumed her spiel. “The truth is, I don’t know anything about this conductor. I have never worked with him before. We have had some contact, but not enough for me to answer any of your questions.” Mumbling and whispering once again overtook the brief silence.
As soon as Grace had sat down again and opened her violin case, the click of an opening door echoed audibly throughout the room. The minute sound caused all others to vanish; conversations ended in mid-sentence as every member of the orchestra turned to see the conductor enter the room. Mary’s fingers were frozen to the strings as she stopped playing to stare. Ada’s bow was still perched on her E-string. Slowly, a coated figure stepped into the room. A black bowler hat obscured the stranger’s face, but a long yellow tail trailed behind the mysterious newcomer. Grace rose to warmly greet the man, but he held up a hand to interrupt her. Being a few inches taller than Miss Notala, the stranger had to lean over in order to whisper in her ear. After a few seconds, Grace nodded, despite the look of uncertainty in her eyes. The figure rose, produced a wooden box, painted black (which he handed to Grace), and whispered more quick instructions to her. Grace began to utter a question, but with a tip of his hat, the man exited the room.
No one spoke for a few eerie moments. You could almost hear the tension in the air. Preston was the first to break the silence. “Was that our conductor?”
It wasn’t long before others joined in.
“Why did he leave?”
“What’s in that box?”
“What was with the bowler hat?”
It took a fair amount of effort for Grace to restore balance to the orchestra. “That wasn’t our conductor.” She sighed, and, saying nothing else, lifted the box so the others could get a view of it. “He gave me this. He said something about our conductor being inside it?”
Confusion gently rippled about the room. “Maybe he meant our conductor is on the inside? Like, in our hearts?” Arial guessed.
“You sound like you’re from a cheesy film,” Preston snorted. “That man was clearly insane.”
“Well, open the box, Grace!” Jonathon demanded, with the agreement of the other musicians supporting him. Grace grudgingly fumbled with the lid of the black box, which soon opened, accompanied by a squeak of its hinges.
Everyone was baffled when a tiny speck jumped out of the box and onto Grace’s music stand. Ada spoke out first. “...Why, it’s naught but a little Squippit!”
Turmoil flowed freely throughout the room. “Is this some kind of joke?” Vivian demanded. Anne approached the Squippit, only to have it jump onto Grace’s shoulder in fear. The petpetpet audibly fluttered its wings, creating a buzzing sound.
The woodwind section was all shouting at Grace, while the violinists conversed with one another in confusion. They came to the conclusion that either Grace was insane, or their true conductor (whom they believed was the veiled man who had given the box to Grace) was insane. Exasperated, Grace realized it would be minutes before the room was calm. She fled the room with the Squippit still perched on her shoulder.
In the hall outside, Grace slumped against the wall and sighed, rubbing her aching forehead with one hand. Letting herself slide to the floor in a sitting position she plucked the Squippit off her shoulder and into her palm. Sighing again, she spoke to the miniscule creature. “Why would the conductor give me you, instead?”
The Squippit violently fluttered its wings, but did not rise.
She gave an amused smirk. “You’re insulted? What, do you think you’re the conductor?”
The Squippit vibrated its antennae.
Grace smiled a bit, but the noises of the chaotic practice room echoed in the hall, causing her smile to vanish in a hurry. “Thanks for trying, but we need a real conductor.”
Once again, the Squippit fluttered its wings, this time even faster.
Grace gave the Squippit nothing but a confused look.
The Squippit rubbed its antennae together, creating a high-pitched noise that sounded almost like a high note being played on the violin. With an impressive leap, it jumped onto Grace’s ear.
Grace was in disbelief. “That sounds like a high C... and it’s not sharp or flat at all.”
The Squippit hopped quickly up and down and played the note louder still. Grace held up her hand for the Squippit to hop onto, so she could speak with it face-to-face. “I have an idea.”
That evening, after the other musicians had left the practice room, Grace Notala was seated in a chair, violin on shoulder, sheet music directly in front of her. The Squippit was seated on her music stand, carefully observing the piece Grace was to play. After a few moments of this, the tiny petpetpet began hopping up and down rhythmically. “Is that the beat I should play to?” Grace asked. The Squippit clacked its antennae together once, with a look of affirmation in its eyes. Grace raised her bow and began to play to the Squippit’s beat. On the second page, Grace struggled with a particularly hard sequence of sixteenth notes. The Squippit increased its jumping pace and rubbed its antennae together, creating a series of staccato beats. Captivated, Grace watched as the Squippit continued to play successfully for the following measures. Shortly after completing the page, the Squippit stopped its song, exhausted. Its high-pitched notes had not mimicked a violin exactly, but they were the correct notes nonetheless, played to the correct rhythm, and that was better than Grace had done in her attempt at the second page.
“Okay,” Grace said, reaching into a folder and producing another piece. “Try this one out.”
The composition Grace had selected was a humourous piece that was to be played considerably faster than the overture they had just played. The Squippit, after considering the piece for a short time, attempted to play it, but he could not change the position of its antennae quickly enough. In resignation, the petpetpet turned to Grace and made a gesture of his antennae in her direction. Taking this as her cue, the Gnorbu violinist executed the piece nicely, with the Squippit excellently behaving as a metronome. Grace smiled at the Squippit. “Maybe you’re not that bad of a conductor after all.”
The following morning, with the rest of the symphony orchestra back in the room, Grace, smiling warmly, allowed the group no time to practice before making her announcement. “Everyone,” she began, beaming, “I’ve found our conductor.”
Some cries of “Thank goodness!” and “Finally!” were heard around the room, ceasing within seconds of Grace raising her hand for silence.
“Now, I don’t want anyone to say anything about our conductor until after we’ve played our first piece,” she said, producing the shoebox which was given to her the previous afternoon. The Squippit quickly jumped high into the air after the lid was lifted, fluttering its wings in the air for a brief hover. Grace laughed a little. The Squippit was trying to show off.
Although there were some protests, they were quiet when Grace set the box on a stool in front of a music stand at the head of the room, without a word, and sat in her chair. The Squippit clicked its antennae together to show everyone the beat of the piece, and on the fifth click, the symphony orchestra reluctantly began playing.
The first few measures of the song consisted of nothing but strings, so the Squippit simply turned itself to face the string section. As soon as the harp was to begin playing, the Squippit jumped across the room and onto Mary Dulce’s head, much to the amazement and amusement of the brass section. Taken aback for a moment, Mary was a moment late for her part, but caught up with the music easily.
Soon it was the flute’s turn to join in the overture. The Squippit gave another great leap across the practice room, landing on the head of Arial, who instantly began piping. The Squippit continued this process, jumping onto Vivian’s head when it was time for the cellos to rest for four measures. The petpetpet was able to spring onto Lois Brass’s head and, less than a beat later, be on the head of Jonathon, who was on the opposite end of the room. During all this jumping and moving about, the Squippit was still clacking its antennae together to keep the rhythm, occasionally leaping back to the front of the room so all could hear. A few times during the song, he would even jump over to the violinists or violists and rub his antennae together, helping them keep track of their notes and timing. Finally, at the end of the song, the Squippit gave a mighty jump to land on the head of the percussionist, who played the last two beats on his drum.
The Squippit humbly hopped back to the stool at the front of the orchestra. Every player was in awe. They had attempted to play the same song without a conductor a few times, only to fail miserably. This was the best full practice of a song they had had the entire month. “How can he remember the entire piece?” Lars inquired. He seemed to be the only one not impressed with the petpetpet’s performance as conductor.
Grace rose, letting the Squippit jump onto her head. “I have no idea. I don’t even know how he learned to be a conductor. But I’d take him over any pet available.” The rest of the musicians strongly agreed. Tilting her head to allow the Squippit to jump off, Grace raised her violin. “Next piece, everyone. The concert is approaching.”
The Altadorian Colosseum served as a concert hall for the event, with a stage in the centre where Yooyuball matches normally took place each summer. The setup of chairs for the musicians on the stage was unusual; typically, chairs were arrange in a semi-circle when the orchestra played, and the audience all sat facing the same direction. This was the first time that the orchestra had formed a circle with seats, the conductor’s area being the centre. With this setup, the entire Colosseum could be filled with guests, and still everyone would be viewing the musicians.
The concerts’ regular attendees were, for the most part, not an easy group to please. It was mostly comprised of only the wealthiest Neopians, each of which had seen many concerts just like this one. Their expectations low, the aristocratic audience assumed they would once again leave the Altador Colosseum yawning.
The bland beige programs that were handed to each concertgoer did not give away too much information. Grace figured since the conductor didn’t exactly have a name, he shouldn’t be in the program. Instead, the front of the folded programs simply read: “The All-Neopian Orchestra Autumn Concert – Featuring a Special Guest Conductor – Concertmaster, Grace Notala.” This only brought about criticism among the audience. “Tsk! Not even listing the conductor’s name?” “That Grace Notala must think she’s more important than the conductor.” “Does this concert even have a conductor?”
Shortly after 7:30, the lights in the stadium dimmed, and beaming spotlights were pointed at the stage. The musicians were all in their places, each dressed in black. Grace, who was clothed in a sparkling black dress, stepped onto the stage with her violin and bow in hand, walking straight into the centre where the entire orchestra could see her. After a bow to the audience, who gave a short half-hearted applause, Grace turned to the orchestra and played a few notes on each string; the musicians followed suit. Instead of taking her seat after this ceremony was completed, Grace set her violin and bow on her chair and lifted a black box that happened to be on stage. Grace produced a microphone and, opening the box, announced to the audience the identity of their true conductor – a Squippit, a mere petpetpet.
The audience was confused, to say the least; their reactions were similar to that of the orchestra when first presented with the knowledge that their conductor was as tiny as a marble. A loud voice from the back of the Colosseum shouted insults at the orchestra, and many believed Grace was simply joking. It wasn’t long before a cruel member of the audience started booing, which encouraged others to join in the heckling.
The Squippit was anxiously fluttering its wings in Grace’s hand. Grace and Anne exchanged nervous glances, but, after a reassuring buzz from the Squippit, Grace placed the tiny conductor on his music stand, and took her place in the string section. Amidst the shouts of the angry concertgoers, the musicians were able to hear an audible rhythmic clicking coming from centre stage.
Click click click click, click click click click -
On the ninth count, Grace led the orchestra in the beginning of the overture. The Squippit kept the beat going as the violas and cellos joined in two measures later, and fluttered its wings in the direction of the brass section, to warn them that they were to start playing in ten beats. By this time, the audience had quieted, and was staring in utter fascination as the Squippit performed marvelous leaps across the stage, touching the head of the harpist for just a moment before springing over to the trombones. After a rousing trumpet blast which echoed in the musicians’ ears, every member of the orchestra flipped to the second page at once, creating a gust of wind which blew the Squippit off course, into Lars’ music stand. The audience chuckled as the petpetpet leaped up and continued to conduct as if nothing had happened.
Finally, it was time for the final section, the section that Grace had been unable to teach the orchestra herself. Steady streams of sixteenth notes were melodically pouring from the piano and harp. The flautists had perfected their accidentals. The violas played charming half notes, and the violins were preparing for the big finale with a tense pizzicato part. At last, all the sounds came together to form one harmonious sound which echoed throughout the stadium. The song ended.
That evening, the janitor of the Hall of Heroes complained to the City Hall for the terribly loud and long cheering and applause coming from the Colosseum’s direction. “I could hardly hear myself mop with that racket!”