In the moment before 14-year-old Yurie Lee lays her spindly hands over the piano keys, teacher Fifi Hut stops breathing.
As the teenager exhales, the teacher does too.
The first notes of a Chopin etude resound and Hut begins to breathe again, in time with the music.
At the crescendo, Hut exhales rapidly. At a missed note, pain creases her expression. As the heavy-hearted piece ends, sadness drifts over Hut’s face.
“I am playing every note with them,” Hut says. “Just before they play a wrong note, it’s like I’m sending them a message: ‘G-sharp, G-sharp!”’
So goes the mental and emotional tango between teacher and student this week at the Greater Spokane Music and Arts Festival.
More than 2,000 artists, dancers, singers and musicians are judged by experts in their fields. Entrants are as young as 6 and as old as mid-20s.
Although there are hundreds of teachers and thousands of students, Hut and her entourage stand out. There is something distinctive about the way they interact that makes other students and teachers notice them.
Hut was a concert pianist until she got systemic lupus, an incurable disease that left a tremor in her left hand.
That was five years ago. Since then, the disease has ravaged her body, ruining her joints, her skin and her back. She was hospitalized with kidney problems last week.
Losing her career was devastating. But it made her second job, teaching, all the more important.
“I just love my students so much,” she says. “They help me stay young. I walk in the door and what a light they are.”
She walks - slowly - on crutches. She rented an electric wheelchair this week to get around Gonzaga University’s campus.
Eight students from Hut’s studio in Boulder, Colo., traveled to the competition this year. It’s the 50th year for the festival, the 26th year for Hut and her students.
“It’s the best festival there is,” Hut says. “It makes them work very hard and polish their pieces to a high level.”
Hut teaches 23 students at a time. She interviews them, but does not make them audition.
Her oldest student is Ann Liu, a high school senior who will attend the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
Her youngest students are five-year-old twins who began lessons three months ago and progressed through two years of study.
Yurie Lee is also very good, Hut says. But she is cynical beyond her years and often afraid to admit that she is actually talented.
“You don’t go into a competition saying, ‘I’m going to win,”’ Lee says shortly before her competition in the romantic class earlier this week. “I’m not as well-prepared as I could be.”
Her first performance gets her into the playoff. Her second one does not win first place. Still it is good enough that she will advance.
Hut brings her students together with other students who share their love of the piano. They are bound by what they have to sacrifice to practice up to five hours a day.
Everyone in the studio is close, Lee explains. They watch each other compete and offer condolences or congratulations. They know each other well enough to match different selections to different personalities.
This week Hut has daily schedules printed on color-coded paper. They all rise at 5:30 a.m.
Within an hour they are at Music City downtown to practice.
They finish the day at the same store with more practice. Hut wants them in bed by 9:30 p.m.
None of students balks at the rigid schedule. In fact they are grateful.
“It’s nice to be able to practice,” Lee says. “It’s great that she takes the time to make sure we can all do that.”
Rarely does Hut mention the word win. It wouldn’t matter to her if the whole group went home empty-handed.
Etched in Hut’s mind is the time she overheard a teacher at an international competition bragging about his student: “She pulled one out for me today,” the teacher said.
The memory makes Hut bristle.
“You don’t teach the students for yourself, you do it for them,” she says. “They create enough pressure within themselves.”
Hut used to be married to another performer. One evening the couple figured out that the world will support about 55 concert pianists at one time.
She looks around the auditorium at her students and the others and sighs.
“You see all these students growing up and you wonder what they will do,” she says. “The only reason you should play the piano is if you absolutely feel like you can’t live without it.”