I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. What I am is a woman who has struggled much of her adult life with depression. And while certainly not medically qualified to diagnose or prescribe, I may have found my own personal antidote. Having thrown numerous darts at the depression board – medication, exercise, binge reading – I’ve only recently discovered something that may well be an effective antidepressant. My violin.
I began studying violin when I was seven years old. I still remember the first time I moved from open strings to positioning a tiny finger on the board. Ouch, it hurt! My tender fingers were no match for the seemingly razor-sharp strings. But I persevered, playing through grade school, junior high, high school, and college. I even stuck with violin while pursuing a graduate degree in voice and the first few years of my professional life as a New York City Opera chorister. Sadly, violin soon took a backseat to other pursuits and I am embarrassed to admit, my instrument languished for over three decades. Without initially realizing it, I had lost a fundamental part of myself. I was always the girl with the violin. It was an appendage, my identity, a constant companion. Yet I had spent 30 years with my violin literally sitting on a shelf. It had become yet another symbol of an abandoned youthful dream.
A few years ago, through the encouragement of friends, I unearthed my violin and began the arduous process of getting back into shape. I can only equate the effort to losing 30 pounds in middle age or scaling Mount Everest when the most exercise you typically get is walking to the refrigerator. It was absolutely humiliating. My bow bounced as if on a trampoline, my intonation was cringe inducing, and my timbre was one small step above chalk on a blackboard. Yet again, I persevered. In relatively short order I started to have the sensation so marvelously expressed by Sweeney Todd when he’s reunited with his razor and cries, “At last, my arm is complete again!” Having the violin under my chin was utterly natural and familiar. The sensation sublime. I was the girl with the violin once again and my body responded in kind.
There’s something about the physical and mental challenge of violin playing that offers the endorphin boost of exercise coupled with the cerebral thrill one gets when completing the Saturday NY Times crossword. (Okay, I’ve actually never had that feeling, but it’s got to be great.) Don’t get me wrong. I was still far from being able to play the way I had in my youth. Nothing can make one feel as clumsy and uncoordinated as the violin. But once good tone emerges, or a shift is smooth, or the vibrato actually sounds like vibrato, there is a sense of accomplishment that defies description.
With my friend’s encouragement I kept trying. We got together and played violin duets – an activity that took us through the first few months. Then we added a violist and cellist. I was a nervous wreck prior to our first quartet rehearsal – and with good reason. Clearly the weakest musical link, my saving grace was that I provided the home in which to rehearse, food to eat, and wine to drink. Hence, I was not voted off the proverbial island. Our quartet, aspirationally dubbed the “Jewel Tones” in honor of our favorite concert attire, recently celebrated our second anniversary. We meet, on average, twice a month. Our get-togethers are as much about socializing as music making, but the ratio seems agreeable to all. We’re serious about working through repertoire and improving as we plug through early Mozart and even venturing into Beethoven. Our quartet has been “auctioned off” at local fundraisers as background music for various events. And we are getting better. (I have even stopped alerting the group when I go into second position, something greatly appreciated by all.)
When I turned 60 last summer, I had my pick of ways to celebrate… fancy dinner, day in the mountains, breakfast in bed. I opted for an evening at home with my quartet. I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate this milestone than by making music with friends. Quartet night is something I look forward to. Our foursome has become a vital part of my life. I find great comfort in playing music simply for the sheer love of it. And an interesting byproduct of playing again is that I am attending more live concerts – often with my quartet colleagues – and listening to more music than ever before.
So, back to the depression part. I went through a rough patch lately and worried that my violin would deepen the feelings of sadness or remind me of what was lost. On the contrary. Regardless of the emotional impact of the music I chose to play, I felt better having played it. My violin did not betray me. It sat, faithful, waiting, and whenever I needed to remind myself of who I was and what I could do, it was there. Ready. Willing. Again, to quote Sweeney, “My faithful friend.”Tweet
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