Before the sun rose, Octavia was awake. In smaller, provincial towns like Ponyville, this fact would have aroused concern and confusion; in Canterlot, it was normal.
The ponies in the mares' dorms at the Celestian Music Conservatory always awoke early, because the more hours you practiced, the better you were. It had taken a great deal of practice for the ponies to achieve the level of skill they needed to audition for the conservatory. Once they were accepted, the hours they needed to practice increased exponentially. Their sacrifices came with great loss, but also with great gain - their student body was the finest in the entire realm, and it was said that even the legendary seaponies envied their exquisite music. They were the only outside group of musicians that Princess Celestia called upon for royal performances, and they were the only school from which she drew her official Court Musicians. When the Court Musicians could not perform, it was the students of the Celestian Music Conservatory who filled their roles - an opportunity every student dreamed of experiencing. Many fables were passed around of Court Musicians who suddenly took ill, and the subsequent rise to fame of their student replacements.
Five AM was the typical wake-up time for Octavia, walking the knife-edge between exhaustion and success. She knew of other mares who were able to wake up even earlier, and who could even stay up all night when a deadline for an important audition loomed. But her hooves shook terribly when she got too tired, leaving her unable to perform the delicate leaps between octaves, much less the flowing, virtuosic runs of her concerto solos. She also tended to go a little flat when she was tired, an unforgivable faux pas.
From five to five-thirty she bathed in the communal mares' bathroom, then combed her mane and tail on the walk back to her room. She had shared a room during her freshman and sophomore years, but now she was allowed a room by herself, allowing her to spend her mornings in utter silence. Too much noise clouded her concentration, and considering how much time she spent practicing, she needed every spare moment of silence she could get to recharge her ears. There was a similar mood of thoughtful silence permeating the communal areas; there were not many friendships in such a competitive student body.
At precisely five-thirty-five she finished breakfast and began to rehearse, carefully tuning her cello before beginning with her scales and warm-ups. Her exercises mostly came from a book called "The Practical Vocal Method" by Vaccai; she considered it one of her secret weapons in the competition amongst the other cello players. Vocal warm ups ignored the difficulties of passing from string to string, since all notes were sung from the same throat, obviously. In playing the vocal exercises, she was forced to work against the natural difficulties of playing a stringed instrument, improving her playing by leaps and bounds.
At seven-fifty she put her cello into its case, tucked her book-bag around her shoulders, and hefted her instrument to class. Her Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule was Advanced String Repertoire at eight, then a quick lunch break at noon (half of which she spent practicing), followed by History of Music from twelve-thirty to three (the specialization this quarter was the Romantic Period), quintet rehearsal from three to five, and finally orchestra rehearsal from five to eight, finishing out her day. Quintet rehearsal was interesting, of course, but everypony in the Conservatory knew that the orchestra was where the real competition happened. And in Octavia's case, her primary competition was Rosin.
Rosin was a lovely mare, of course; smart, talented, and driven. She had heard her laughing in the lunchroom, occasionally, but she was all business once she hit rehearsal. She was first chair, and although she had been placed in a higher ranking than Octavia (who was second chair), she didn't consider her a better player. To admit that would be admitting defeat, and slumping backwards into failure. So she simply practiced longer hours, demanding more grace, more musicality, more whatever it was that Rosin had that she didn't. One day, she knew, she would be first chair; but for now, she had to be the best damn second chair that she could be, and wait for her opportunity.
An opportunity that would come today.
Tremolo, their conductor, passed around a thick stack of music, pausing in each section to divide up their parts. "The Princess is in need of a quartet for the Grand Galloping Gala."
He announced briskly, ignoring the excited whispers as he continued. "The Boccherini Quartet has been called away on other official business. The music is not exceedingly difficult, so she's seeking four new players from our conservatory. Today's first hour will be spent auditioning: we're only in need of cello, piano, harp, and Sousaphone. Strings and winds, go and take some sectional time."
As the other ponies filed out quietly, Octavia ran her eyes over the sparse music she'd been given. It was disgustingly easy; simple waltzes and a few traditional Equestrian trotting tunes, nothing to really challenge her. The challenge, then, would making them as musical as possible, and more lovely than Rosin would be able to make them. There were other cellists, of course - third, fourth, and fifth chair - but she knew who her real competition was.
The much-smaller group of ponies didn't bother to move their stands closer together; all were too busy pouring over the music, making small pencil markings in the appropriate spots, trying to decide where it was best to crescendo or rallentando in turn.
The representative from Celestia's Court Musicians arrived about ten minutes later, looking over the small group before he began calling out names. Groups of four at a time were called up to perform, leaving the others hovering just beyond the periphery, listening anxiously for any misstep, any flaw they could correct when it was their turn to be called up.
Octavia wasn't called up until the second round - understandable, if they were going by chairs. As Rosin stepped down, Octavia took her place, doing her best to slow down her heartbeat with long, slow breaths. A panicky heartbeat meant twitchy hooves, which would ruin her chances of winning the prized spot. As she began to play, she drew out her bow strokes into long, buttery lines, smooth and supple, as graceful and even as if she had sung it. Each sforzando and crescendo were executed with perfection, keeping in mind the overall mood and tempo of the piece, as well as the volume of the other musicians. Her tone was warm and rich, rolling through the air like a wave, crashing over her unimpressed listeners in alternating patterns of joy and sorrow. In all, she considered it an excellent performance, especially considering the short amount of time she'd had to prepare.
But the Court Musician did not seem exceptionally impressed, and as she stepped down three rotations later, rubber-legged, she couldn't help but find fault with her playing. Her sforzando had been too loud, it had overwhelmed the piano's solo, probably. But her second attempt had started too softly, trying to counteract the loudness of the previous movement. And Rosin had much smoother octave leaps, besides - Octavia had been shaking during the entire first run, it had probably sounded amateurish and horrible to the Musician judging them.
They went through five more runs, alternating out different members of the quartet each time. Finally, after a brief discussion with their conductor, the Court Musician came to stand on the conductor's podium, resting his hooves on the extra-wide music stand.
"The four players for the Grand Galloping Gala," he began, his tone professionally neutral, "will be Masters Locrian and Opus, and Misses Snoozaphone and Octavia."
The rest of his pre-prepared speech fell on deaf ears, in Octavia's case; she was too thrilled to listen very well, what with her blood rushing in her ears. Her. They'd picked her over Rosin, she would be performing at the Grand Galloping Gala - and not just for the members of Canterlot's upper class, she would be performing for the Princess herself. As her hearing slowly came back, picking up right about when the Court Musician began discussing attire and compensation, she made her mind up, once and for all.
This would be her big break. At this Grand Galloping Gala, she would prove herself to the Princess and the rest of the court. She would break out of the Conservatory, and ascend directly into the Princess' Court Orchestra. And after that - who knew? Perhaps starting as a lowly third or fourth chair, she would slowly work her way up in the seating chart, soon performing regular concertos with the orchestra accompanying her, perhaps even traveling across Equestria to bring music to the Princess' loyal followers. But make no doubt about it, this would be her moment in the spotlight, her moment to shine and to make her mark in the world.
In short, this Grand Galloping Gala was going to be her best night, ever.