At the beginning of 2015, I didn't make any New Year's resolutions. Instead, I made a promise to myself: "Honor your artistry." I wrote it on my white board and looked at it every day.
You see, for years, I desperately wanted to be good at the violin. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to have the status of being good, but I now see that I didn't have a clue what that actually meant. This new mantra was a huge departure from my old ways of thinking. It meant that instead of freaking out about what chair I was in orchestra, and who was playing more advanced repertoire than me, I actually had to listen to my sound, and produce something meaningful. After an eventful year including orchestra auditions, learning video game music by ear, playing a gig that was almost completely improvised, and a whole lot of Kreutzer etudes, I arrived at a place where my technique and my musical imagination were beginning to merge. I felt, in short, like an artist.
Of course, once you accept the universe's call to be an artist, that does not mean you have arrived. For me, it meant that I no longer had the excuse of "Oh, I have so many tension problems in my playing..." "My teacher just completely redid my technique and it feels weird..." "I need to completely change my setup to play well..." While these excuses were valid at various points in my life, they certainly weren't relevant anymore. Stepping up and accepting responsibility as an artist meant finding a way, no matter what, to have a higher goal than just playing the notes right. Being good at the violin didn't concern me anymore. Figuring out what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it, was my new priority.
I am learning, over and over again, that music enables us to transcend our circumstances. If there's one thing 2016 has taught me so far, it's that being an artist means being an artist every time I play my violin. It doesn't mean being an artist only on the days when I've done the perfect exercise routine, eaten the perfect healthy meal, and had a great night's sleep. It means that every time I touch my instrument, I have to be able and willing to make something special happen. To say something meaningful. To connect with the audience, to say something without words that maybe I need to hear even more than the audience does.
The first month of 2016 immediately tested the strength of my new artistic commitment. Was I really able to perform, even when I felt like it the least? Two weeks before a solo recital that I had scheduled, my uncle died. The choice to travel to attend his funeral was an easy one, even though it meant postponing the recital. I had been looking forward to this recital - it was my first solo performance in months and my first true attempt at bringing authentic emotionality to repertoire that was technically accessible for me. I'd scheduled the recital carefully, so that I would still be rested from winter vacation, before the busyness of my teaching schedule kicked in. Playing a recital when coming off a two week holiday, where you have slept well, relaxed with family, and had all the practice time you need, is very different than ... the experience I had. I got back to work the week after the funeral, and was disoriented and sad. Finding my "professional mode" for my students took more energy than normal. But, the recital happened. I somehow managed to conjure the various characters I had spent so much time creating, and I had the strange experience of listening to the recordings afterwards and loving my own sound, perhaps for the first time in my seventeen year relationship with the violin.
The next week, my apartment building almost burned down. It was a surreal experience. I woke up in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke, the sound of alarms going off, and firemen banging on the door, telling me and my roommates to leave the building. I learned that the first thing I grab when the building is on fire is, in fact, my violin. I climbed off our second story balcony with my roommate to escape the building, since the hall was full of smoke. I was functional in the moment, able to think clearly - but the next day I saw a video of the fire, and I freaked out. I couldn't believe that I had been asleep in the building when the video was taken. I was happy to be alive, grateful my home was unharmed, but shaky and not able to sleep well for the next week.
Four days after the fire was the quartet concert I'd been looking forward to for months. I'd written the grant, practiced my part, and rehearsed with my colleagues. Playing in a string quartet is one of my absolute favorite things to do. I love being inside the music, the deep sense of connection with the other musicians, and the spectacular repertoire written for four string players. But, I felt like crap. I had had to teach for eight hours during the day, both my regular classes and make-up lessons from the day I missed to go to the funeral. Two hours before we were supposed to walk on stage, I was curled in a ball, exhausted but unable to sleep, completely drained. I knew I somehow needed to summon the emotional energy that the music would demand from me, that my colleagues and the audience deserved, and that I wanted to be able to give. Once again, connecting to the music, and committing to do whatever I needed to do to create the sound I wanted, saved me. My chamber partners' passion and performances helped give me the energy I needed to give the music. The audience loved it, and it was a great performance.
During a concert, the audience doesn't know - and frankly, it's none of their business - what's going on in your personal life. (Although, I suppose any of you who have been in the audience this past year know what's been going on with me now...) When I walk onstage, not feeling my best or having a bad day doesn't give me permission to play with less passion, with less energy, or as if I'm only interested in getting through the performance so I can go home. That's not how performance works. In the moment, the music has to be more important than anything.
I am fortunate to be friends with and know the stories of many professional musicians. On the friend level, I know just how tired and stressed they are. I know that they're juggling teaching careers, multiple performances, and caring for their families. As someone who sits in the audience at their performances, I am blown away by the music they create. This is a lesson my students are learning, too. Through a series of unfortunate scheduling events (also known as the fact that I didn't realize I needed to check the SAT testing schedule when choosing recital dates), I've had three teenage students have to perform in studio recitals after taking the SAT. They spent the morning taking the test and then came directly to the recital. I was so proud of them for fully committing to their performances, and for how beautifully they played, even when I knew they had to be physically and mentally spent. Some of my younger students, as well, are already committed to making music despite their circumstances. Those of you who frequent the blog have read Lindsey's tale of finding creative ways to practice even after breaking her bow arm. Another of my students performed in a recital while ill and with a fever. I had been noticing her smooth tone, her strong memory, and how much improvement she'd made over the past few months. It wasn't until I talked to her and her parents afterwards that I found out she wasn't well. I'm sure that there are more stories that I don't know, too.
It may sound as if music is all-consuming, all-demanding, and completely uncaring about the people who create it. I'll be honest - it feels that way a lot of the time. But the moment I step onstage, the moment I find myself inside my sound and let the music take over, I have energy that wasn't there before. I find the courage to stand in front of the audience, exactly as I am, far from perfect but willing to express myself through all the means at my disposal. And I have found that loving music has given me far more than it has taken from me.
Sometimes the most valuable lessons are the ones that it's the least fun to learn. I could not have written this blog post six months ago. What I can do now with my instrument is beyond anything I ever imagined when my only goal was to be good at the violin. I am new to this whole 'artist' thing, but I am excited and curious to see what the future brings. And most of all, I am grateful that music has pushed me beyond my technical limitations, helped me find emotions and feelings when I feel empty inside and enabled me to rise above both the big and little things in life to create meaningful art in the world.
For an audio version of this post, please visit the original post on my website.
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