To Win the Prize

Playing the piano had become a nightmare for Ailsa Marshall.

Ailsa Marshall was in her second year at the famous Birmingham Conservatoire in England, and nothing seemed to be going right. She couldn’t sleep or eat properly, and her memory consistently failed during complex piano pieces.

She considered giving up, but her tutor persuaded her to enter the second-year piano competition—the David Brook Prize—an annual event sponsored by the former student’s parents after he was killed in a car crash.

“I didn’t expect to get through the preliminaries,” Ailsa explains. But the judges recognised a special quality to Ailsa’s music, and she was given a place in the finals.

The finals were to take place in the famous Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham, but finding a time to practise in the hall was difficult. Ailsa’s teacher was finally able to find a vacant space, but it was on a Sunday.

“I’d rather not practise on that day,” Ailsa told her.

“Is it because of your church?”


“Couldn’t you compromise just this once?” she persisted.

“I’d really rather not, thank you.” Ailsa was equally persistent.

To Ailsa’s relief, a Saturday slot became available just in time. “I didn’t feel I could ask for the Lord’s help and not keep his Sabbath holy,” she says.

As the big day approached Ailsa became increasingly nervous, and her eating problems returned. The family was very worried. Because of urgent commitments, Ailsa’s dad could not get down to Birmingham, so they did the next best thing.

“I drove down from Cleveland to stay with family friends and asked the head of their house, Brother David Cook, to give her a blessing,” Sister Marshall recalls.

David’s wife Jean remembers, “It was a most unusual blessing. Every bit of Ailsa that needed to perform well was mentioned—her fingers, her foot, her mind and intellect, and her nerves.”

“It left me with a feeling of complete composure,” adds Ailsa. The feeling stayed with her throughout the performance.

“Ailsa’s music was breathtaking,” comments Jean. “Her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude was incredible.”

When the results were summed up, Ailsa was awarded joint first prize. But perhaps even more special to Ailsa was the compliment David Brook’s father gave her. “I’m thrilled you chose those particular pieces of music. They were my son’s favourites, and you played them as he would have done.”

[photos] Photography by Anne Bradshaw