Once, in a fit of teenaged passion, I sold the possession most dear to me to buy my first car.
That’s right, some lucky person paid pennies on the peg box for my precious fiddle and bow, and I, being eighteen and desperate for freedom, hardly thought twice about it.
What I did think about was this: I didn’t want to be the well-behaved repressed violinist anymore. I didn’t want to push anymore toward some unattainable standard of musical excellence, and I really didn’t want to keep falling short. I wanted road trips and nights out with friends that bled into endless dawns. Gas pumps and freeways and the as-yet-undiscovered great wild beyond.
I’d been playing the violin earnestly for about seven years at that point, and I’d worked very hard to try and catch up with my musical peers, many of whom had been sawing away at the Suzuki books since they were in diapers. I’d bounced around between a few teachers, and there were definitely holes in my technique. But there were also many practice hours under my fingers, a heavenly sophomore year in high school at a performing arts academy that had me giddy with Holst and happiness. My life during those years was a blur of concerts, orchestra rehearsals, and music lessons. Occasionally the glimmer of a potential professional music career appeared in the wings, though she was always accompanied by the specter of inadequacy shaking its finger at me to scuttle back to that practice room and get better.
When I gave up the pushing, the strain, the intense self-criticism, I’d like to say it was a relief to let go of my dreams. I’m sure in some ways it was. But this releasing was also a door I closed to a part of me that hasn’t been expressed in quite that way since. A part of my artistic self stepped away from that life, and if I didn’t realize it then I now know this as the first time I would break my own heart.
I have a peak memory from the mid 90s that I haven’t allowed myself to access much until recently. I was 16 or 17 and participating in the Las Vegas Summer Music Festival. The festival was a magical, exhausting mash-up of professionals and maturing students playing and performing together, and, naturally, falling secretly, madly in love, if only for a handful of weeks. It was the most thrilling time of my then short and nerdy life, and I loved the festival with all of my being. Many of my arts academy chums were in the orchestra with me, and that particular year I had a budding crush on a recalcitrant member of the percussion section who was at times so rebellious he’d miss his part entirely after waiting for over ten minutes to come in.
I felt, maybe for the first time, that I was where I was meant to be. One of those rare snapshots in life that almost don’t require your participation they are already so perfectly formed.
During an afternoon during dress rehearsal for the upcoming concert, I stepped out of my well-behaved self and into an experience that has never left me. The orchestra had been hashing its way through a difficult passage in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 and the conductor called for a short break. My pal, Melissa, and I decided to take a walk around the empty concert hall and found our way up to the mezzanine. We sat looking over the edge as our fellow musicians filtered back to their seats. It was delicious to pretend for a moment that we were here simply to listen to them rather than worry about playing our parts in the whole.
The conductor returned and there were our two empty seats still far below. Melissa and I glanced at each other and without a word decided to stay put and listen. I wanted to be with the music in a different way for a moment without having to think about the rhythm challenges that had been tripping up half of the violin section all morning. I wriggled back into my cushioned seat, free.
Almost as if our crush-worthy conductor knew we were listening, he made the decision to begin from the top with the opening of the first movement. The regal French horns announced themselves and then the waltz began, sweeping me away into the thrill of this mysterious work. I’m sure the orchestra had its rough patches, but all Melissa and I heard was its indescribable beauty. The magnificence of all of them playing the whole first movement through like a horde of dervishes taking flight.
And as we sat listening I became aware I was witnessing the singular most musical moment of my life. I wasn’t anywhere near my instrument and yet my whole being was vibrating, my reason for playing rising up from the stage to meet me and making gooseflesh of my skin. The why behind my impetus to create music was answered within the span of those 20 minutes, the question itself growing more and more absurd. How could you not want to make that? Breathtaking, incredible that. When we returned to rehearsal it was with a new reverence for the doing bumping up against an odd satisfaction that there was nothing left to be done.
Some twenty-five years later as I’m considering taking up the violin again, I can hear that rehearsal very close to me. Tomorrow I’m going to visit a respected luthier in town to try out a few instruments, and this time I’m asking myself a different sort of why. Why play again when it has been so long? Wasn’t once around that particular challenge time enough?
I’m not sure what is tugging at me, but I am getting curious about the pull. Maybe the curiosity will be the difference, the why. Or the yes that got stalled somewhere between now and then. There could be some other unanswered questions still waiting to be asked and some new answers, the sound of them song enough.