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
I am so happy that you have found peace in once again getting to know your violin. Although I have never had to fight depression, I can well understand the depth of satisfaction that comes out of playing again. I loved hearing about your renewed relationship with your violin, the music, and the people who now join you. I am so glad to hear it has made such a difference!
I came back to my violin after a 47 year break and have really loved rediscovering this special companion.
Good luck, and congratulations,
This was a great article, not only for its encouragement for older players, but it has been proven that learning to play an instrument can ward off early dementia.
Yes! I can relate to this completely. We were looking for a winter antidepressant equivalent to gardening for me and my husband noted that on the (very) odd occasion he had seen me play my eyes lit up. So began my humbling return to the violin after more than 15 years. Wednesday nights at orchestra are the highlight of my week. If I'm feeling a little blue then generally some fiddling works wonders.
I loved this article.
I am in my late fifties and just decided to learn to fiddle. I am practicing every day for 35 to 40 minutes. I am learning the Irish style of fiddling irish tunes. It makes me very happy and I am better than I was 3 weeks ago.Thanks for writing such a great piece.
Continued best wishes on your musical development!
What an inspiring article. Although I've never suffered from depression, I do find enjoyment from playing the violin - after 40 years of its absence from my life. I joined a group of instrument players (about 20 members, all Chinese) last year, taking part in rehearsal and shows to the public. A few months ago, I moved to another city, I had felt lost as I didn't know anybody who loved music in this smaller city till I found an amateur orchestra of 30 members (with all orchestral instruments integrated in it)on-line and joined them (all Europeans) a few days ago. How wonderful it is. I'm 67 years old and believe my retirement life is filled with the brightest sunshine.
Thanks to all of you for your kind and inspirational comments! They are greatly appreciated!
Diana: What a great story. Thanks so much for sharing. You are an inspiration to me and to many others, I am sure.
Your story has much in common with mine. Violin associated thoughts and ways of thinking, stressing, pushing myself, devaluing my accomplishment, etc. contributed to depression. Learning another instrument over 40 years later helped with identifying and grieving old hurts, began healing memories and changing destructive patterns. I realized that I hadn't forgotten everything and purchased a violin. I'm so grateful to be able to play again!
I will be 89 soon and have spent 81 years playing the violin,it is who I am,. It has been my friend,my mistress my wife, all over the U.S.I am thankful for it and music.we are fortunate to have it to make our lives meaningful!
Lovely... Thank you for sharing your story, knowing this and relating to it in my own way helps me break through my own personal struggles while give me the courage to forge ahead in life and play again :-)
I love this story! I will say, though, that you weren't crazy to be concerned that playing the violin might deepen your depression. I played when I was younger, and back then I found that to be the case: violin playing as a teen did not make anything better. If anything, it made it worse. Fast forward 20 or 30 years, though, and everything changed. Playing the violin as an adult amateur is a completely different experience. Like someone said above, it became a way to come to terms with past hurts and griefs, and to heal. And I also find that practicing is good for making headaches go away.
25 year break and gradually clawing my way into some semblance of playing level. I now how to play as well as my children, BUT I am much healthier when playing several times per week
Thank you so much for your stories. I am 65 years old and have decided to take up my violin again after playing it when I was in 6th grade! I find myself being impatient in wanting to perfect my skills. I have dealt with depression all of my life and my teacher's words of praise for the smallest accomplishments such as playing the correct note or small piece is priceless. I feel terrific after each weekly lesson. I don't know why I waited so long for doing this.
I am literally overwhelmed by the kind and gracious comments I have received on this blog. I am particularly inspired by those who started playing late in life. I am also moved by how many of us in the "60 and above " crowd are looking for ways to bring meaning to our lives through music. I am grateful to Laurie for this website, within which we can meet and share experiences!
So glad that music has brought so much joy to you. I too can't imagine a better way to spend a birthday than playing chamber music with friends. (Or any other day as well.)
Like you, I have returned to playing violin in my "old age". You might enjoy joining an orchestra. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the New Horizons Orchestra. There are chapters all over the United States. Besides the joy of making music together, we have formed friendships. I look forward to our weekly rehearsals, and it gives me a reason to practice, because I don't want to play badly among my friends.
Hi Diana ~ Natalie sent this to me and I loved it! I am trying to get back to the piano, and this may be the nudge that I need. Thanks for sharing, and I hope things continue to go well for you. ~ Mary McAfee Sealing
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May 26, 2017 at 08:27 PM · Diana, so pleased that the violin has helped to make you well. There is a link between mental health problems and the creativity that goes wth the arts. It took courage to tell your story and thank you for sharing it with us.