November 8, 2009 at 11:02 AM
The morning orchestra class ended in its usual manner: the teacher concluded, the students shuffled, the bell rang. There I sat, practicing my first movement of a Bach Partita in the high school orchestra room between classes, when suddenly I became painfully aware:
This is not in tune.
Up until that point, I'd assumed I knew that I was in tune. Certainly, as the concertmaster, I'd spent my fair share of time hollering at everyone else to fix their notes when things went sour during orchestra rehearsal. This time, however, my own notes had met their match against the stumbling stone that is unaccompanied Bach, his tight-fitting structures exposing a chink in my youthful armor. No, this doesn't sound right. This doesn't sound good. Not good at all.
I stood up and immediately felt a ripping sensation in the backside of my jeans. That didn't sound good, either. I sat down again, reddening in the face, aware of the fact that I now had a large tear right where I least needed it. While all my classmates were stacking chairs and stands, I sat perplexed, until finally I was all alone, in the middle of the room with my music stand and Bach in front of me, thinking about the large hole in back of me. Perhaps I could tie a sweatshirt or something over my backside to cover the embarrassment for the remainder of the day. Reconsidering, I sent someone to call my mother. My next class, music theory, thankfully took place in the same room. The bell rang, the students changed, and class began--all while I sat there with Bach and the hole in my jeans.
...If it was true that I wasn't as in tune as I once thought I was, could it be possible that I'd strayed further from the truth than I'd previously thought? For the first time ever, I glimpsed the future that lay before me, one of various pitfalls and shortcomings in my musical career as a violinist. Up until that point, I'd been invincible. It never even occurred to me that I was anything but the best musician, hands down, destined for fame and legacy. But that day, Bach held a mirror and gently posed a question: Are you sure about that?
College careers have an unkind way of rigorously funneling young adults into strict agendas and deadlines. They seldom make space for retrospective revelations that need time for personal adjustments. A senior in high school either needs to strive forward under the cloak of self-perceived greatness, or step back while other more confident musicians grab the scholarships and enroll in the conservatories. Halfway through my senior year, my own introspective epiphany could not have come at a worse time. Though I can't deny its necessity in the long-term--in the perspective of musical progress, it was the best--humbling experiences best not happen while applications are due. And certainly not between first and second hour, when theory assignments are due.
Twenty minutes passed as I waited for a change of clothing to arrive from home. Jeans never rip at home, I observed. At last, a friend appeared at the door, holding up a paper sack. Thank goodness! I ran to the restroom to restore my backside to normal decency, relieved to be able to resume my studies with a less precarious posterior.
As unsettling as the gaping hole in the backside of my pants had been, the brevity of the encounter snuffed like a candle wick against the burning horizon that Bach presented that day. In fact, to this day, I reach to cover that which Bach has laid bare.
Great story, Emily. A demonstration of the old adage "when it rains, it pours." I can see how you fixed the problem with your pants. What did you do to fix the problem with Bach?
Needle and thread, needle and thread...
Emily- could you shed some light on your senior year epiphany? I'm a senior right now and would like to know if I might have an epiphany soon too.
I think my own high school experience was personal, so please don't assume this would happen to you. But basically, I went through an eye-opening phase where I suddenly began hearing everything that was wrong with my playing but lacked the tools to fix anything. Before, I'd avoided receiving any criticism whatsoever and succeeded at just about everything I set my mind to do. Right at the time of the scholarship auditions, I lost my confidence. One of them was so bad I woke up that morning barely able to recite my own name, much less my repertoire. Once I got to college, it only got worse, and by the time the end of my freshman year rolled around, I felt so much anxiety about performing that I'd all but quit practicing. I ended up with a degree in education. If only I could have found someone to show me I had the ability to overcome those obstacles, I think I could have succeeded as a performance major. Instead, I took eight years off from the violin before going back and figuring out how it all went wrong and how I could fix it. Now I play in a symphony and teach a full studio, so maybe we can just call it water under the bridge.
Didn't a Disney have a song about your unfortunate problem? "The (Bare) Bear Necessities." Glad you were able to grin and bare it. More seriously, you handled that situation with applomb.
Thanks for the post! This is really great writing by the way. I think it's good to reflect and remember our past learning experiences; even better to share them with others. I guess it's those ups and downs that make us who we are in violin and in life. One of these days I hope I will be brave enough to write about my own sordid evolution in the profession of violin playing and teaching.
I thought you played violin not a BARASS instrument
That kind of self-awareness about one's playing is so important. It's fascinating that it came upon you so suddenly. I can see why it was such a shock.
I'm older than you and still trying to develop that kind of self-awareness. I rarely have an epiphany, on my own, that something is out of tune--I need the tuner, or my teacher, or someone else, to tell me. Or lately it's become a matter of translation: what I first hear as "screechiness" is really an intonation problem. So maybe it's finally dawning, slowly.
But I also never had anything like that confidence you describe, when I was younger. It seems to be coming on me (when it does) in middle age, gradually, hand-in-hand with the self-awareness. I think you put your finger on it: the self-awareness has to be coupled with the maturity and the tools to attack the problems you become aware of.
Emily - while your experience was personal, your story is a constant reminder and inspiration to the folks on v.com; even a meandering, difficult sort of journey can lead to a very full and rewarding professional life as a violinist.
Emily, I didn't quite mean to say that I wanted an experience like yours, I was just curious as to how you experienced your epiphany. I hope that I don't have one quite as bad as yours.
It seems to have all worked out in the end though! Good for you.
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