At about 1:00 pm today, as I crossed the crowded third floor of my college’s West Building, I saw that the school symphony was about to perform. I immediately looked for my friend, a girl who I knew would be in one of the violin sections. We were stand partners for a year and a half when we were in high school, a memory which is bittersweet since that orchestra was one of the only things that kept me sane during that time of my life. I suppose it would sound cliché or gauche to say that I hated high school, but that statement doesn’t go far enough. I loathed the experience with every fiber of my being. With the exception of three or four teachers who seemed to genuinely care about me as a human being, it was all a pointless exercise in state-mandated tests, gym-class bullying and the popular image I could never attain. I lost the closest friends I had, felt unable to express most of my opinions and was generally ill-equipped to sink to the levels of “normal” adolescent behavior. It’s no wonder I started getting migraines when I was fourteen, although (somewhat) blessedly they did not become frequent until college.
Back to the concert: I caught sight of my old stand partner, but she didn’t see me. I browsed the program, vaguely impressed that the orchestra would be playing Swan Lake. Just looking at the rows of chairs, the eager musicians outfitted in black, furiously sawing away at their pieces while waiting to tune instruments, brought back a surge of memories and emotions. In high school I knew that the orchestra was the only way for me to truly be part of a group – a family, really. I suppose ego played a role in the experience since I was concertmistress for six consecutive semesters (and for good reason), but I have never been egotistical in performance. Musically, I always suffered from a hideous case of perfectionism. I am painfully aware of when I am not playing something the right way and am usually uncomfortable with presenting music that is not up to my own high standard. I can remember many, many times before concerts when I would psych myself out and worry terribly, but at least whenever I got out on stage I played fine and never forgot any of the pieces I ever had to memorize for recitals.
I was always pleased to get attention for music. I delighted in being told that I was a great violinist, even though I knew it wasn’t true. The sentiments were real, but most of those compliments came from students and teachers who didn’t know what really talented young violinists sounded like. I did and do. From ages thirteen to fifteen I was in a fancy Manhattan after-school orchestra – I had to audition, pay high fees and everything – and many if not most of the other violinists there were far better than I was. I always felt distinctly out of place, the middle-class Brooklyn kid daring to mingle with prep kids from the Upper West Side. I deferred to their abilities, both in talent and performance, and truth be told I was glad never to be in the spotlight. Just being in the group, playing at world-class venues – Alice Tully Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and seven appearances at Symphony Space – made all the hard work worthwhile.
I was always very proud that I had started playing when I was five, and always worked with a private instructor in addition to the orchestras. But I knew that I was never cut out for a career in music, so that was never one of my goals. It was disheartening, therefore, that for the past two and a half years I felt listless when playing the violin. I’m sure that there are many young people who cease taking music lessons once they start college, but I felt a horrendous guilt at wanting to stop. My mother, much like my aunt did with her children, pushed me into taking lessons in order to revive the joy of her father’s violin-playing. I wonder if it ever occurred to five-year-old me to resent the concept or reject playing outright, though I doubt I would have spoken out anyway. I wanted to make my mother, my teachers and everyone else happy. I wanted to have a talent, something I could say I was definitely good at.
There is an exact moment that I can pinpoint as being the zenith of my musical career: when I memorized Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thaïs at age seventeen. I recall the last official week of high school, when I lugged my heavy violin case to school and performed the piece for some friends in my orchestra class, then three more times for my English teacher, my former Latin teacher and my economics teacher. I even previewed the first few memorized lines of some Rachmaninoff for my English teacher, since he had given the Massenet such warm praise. There was never a day before, nor another since, when I felt more gloriously, glowingly confident about my achievements on the violin.
By summer 2011, I had begun to feel the strain of no longer wanting to play. I had made the decision not to join my college’s orchestra – for many reasons – and as a result my freshman year went by swimmingly. For my own teacher’s lessons, however, I knew that my time spent practicing had decreased dramatically and my patience for the violin, which was never much to begin with, had worn thin. It was no fault of my teacher’s, who is a dear man and had been one of my conductors in the aforementioned Manhattan after-school orchestra, but I wanted to quit the violin.
I kept going after being goaded into continuing, but by November 2012 I was barely playing at all when I was at home. By December I was beginning to feel the physical effects of my psychological torment; I got migraines more and more often. By January I was getting them nearly every day. I would have terrible crying spells, feeling that I had failed myself and others by no longer putting effort into the violin. When I finally got up the courage to stop my lessons, I felt awful about it but could not deny how good it felt to no longer bear the weight of it all. Plus the frequency of my migraines lessened.
I had to leave the college concert after the first movement of Swan Lake. It was beautiful music, albeit with violin sections whose bowings were all off-kilter, but I could not stay for too long. It hurt too much to remember what it was like to be in orchestras and experience those highest highs and lowest lows.