I’ve been playing the violin more or less consistently for about nineteen years. I’m still not as good as I would like to be, or as I imagine that I could be, and so I am still practicing and taking lessons. Compared to writing “lessons,” music lessons are far more affordable, which may be why I waited until after graduate school (and college) to get back into them. To be fair, I did take a couple music classes in college, but I didn’t particularly work well with the instructors I had (I think I was still too immature to listen to their criticism, which was far different from the criticism I received from my private instructors prior to college). My high school did not have an orchestra (just a band), which was ok really because I learned to play by working with my own degree of sound.
When I first learned to play, I often practiced at a level of sound which was comfortable to me. And since my ears were closest to the instrument while playing, I didn’t see the need to play beyond a range that depended only on my ability to keep the bow moving up and down the strings. This ability extends from a section of the bow called the frog (the black bit held in the right hand) along a ribbon of chalky horse hair to the white, sharply curved tip. As a kid, I loved the bow, but did not understand its full potential. I loved the fast swishing sound I could make when I swung it in the air (without the violin). I loved the little screw at the end that tightened and loosened the bow hairs and changed the curvature of the wooden stem. I liked that the bow had its very own place inside my case.
Above all, I understood (and loved) that the bow worked in concert with the violin and that I, likewise, had to work both arms and both hands simultaneously to make my signature, quiet sound. Even then (as a ten-year-old beginner and aspiring virtuoso), I imagined I was a better player than I actually was. I was jealous that other people (other girls my age or younger) also aspired to play violin. This instrument was my dream, one that wavered as soon as I realized how much work I was going to have to do.
I came to a point with my violin career (coincidentally around the time I was also becoming a teenager) when I had to choose it. That might sound strange. Hadn’t I already chosen it? Wasn’t it already my self-professed “dream,” the foundation of my fantasies for fame, fortune, and—at last—recognition and appreciation? My clear, ringing, and still quiet sound was going to take me either to the first chair of an orchestra (based, preferably, somewhere fancy like Chicago or Berlin) or to that sacred place beside the conductor occupied by the soloist.
I soon realized my dream did not quite match the reality in which I had to decide between more years of lessons or a crippling sense of guilt and failure if I quit. I continued to play, not because I was exceptionally talented, but because I knew I needed to prove to myself that I could stick with something, even as the dream that had started the pursuit settled firmly into a reality of hard work, failure, rejection, hardship, self-doubt, and modest accomplishments. I continued because I didn’t want to let myself down.
This was a really important decision, because it effected all future choices and decisions, all major turning points (so far) in my growth as a person and artist. From age 10 until about 18, I didn’t particularly like writing and didn’t consider it would or could be something to pursue in college. Even so, there were attempts at stories and little chronicles of what my brother and I and our neighborhood friends did during the summer. And I kept a journal (with a kind of vain attempt to imitate Anne Frank, whom I adored) but I became less and less consistent as I started high school. By then I was writing essays longer than three paragraphs and reading big books and learning a cacophony of random vocab words that—I was told—would be important for a couple of standardized tests that I would have to take in order to attend college. These years were the start of a gradual collection of the skills and practices which would eventually lead to another, collegiate turning point: declaring a major.
The decision to write, like the decision to play violin, was accompanied (again) by that crippling sense of guilt and failure if I quit pursuing a dream that, when confronted with reality, I could not fully realize. I knew that I wanted to be a writer because I had something to say. I still did not yet know what that something was (it develops and changes over time, and I’m still working out how to say what I need to say). I was, at this point, writing at a degree of sound that was comfortable to me. My work did not have great range, sweeping dynamics, or particularly unique articulation, but I was just beginning to practice writing and that was ok. A writer is always learning, always practicing, often without the prospect of either the position of first chair or soloist. Writers work as individuals who can become too cloistered in our own degree(s) of sound (which is why reading is so important—trying to get outside of ourselves for a bit—and why writing workshops are also so important—learning how to critically assess the work of other writers). We write because we need to write and we practice a lot (the practicing never ends, in fact) so that we can grow and expand our range of sound.
One lesson recently, I was working with my violin teacher on a certain piece by Bach. He spoke about decoding music (musical notes are a kind of universal language like math, symbols marking sounds and rhythm), but, more than that, playing to a degree at which the listener will understand what you want to express.
“What are you trying to say?” he asked me, rhetorically. The music on the page is a script, a guide. Each note a word. Each rest a comma (longer rests are dashes or periods or sometimes question marks). We could look at time signatures, he said, as the lengths of sentences. Or we could talk about “phrasing” in the music and the way phrases are repeated, patterns that emerge in the notes, in the rhythms. But then you have to decide how to take all that information and utilize it so you can shape the sound for a listener.
When I write, I can sometimes forget that I’m writing for a reader. When I play violin, I see the listener and there is pressure to impress him somehow. I did not see that playing the violin is like writing until my teacher asked me that question. He thinks about this question always when he plays and, by pointing out all the similarities between music and writing, he wanted me to do the same. He doesn’t know that I write, but that’s ok. I had tried to make violin and writing separate—and they are, in a way—but they are actually very connected. The choice to do violin was already the choice to write and vice versa. If I had not decided to stay with violin, would I have become a writer? There doesn’t have to be an answer to this question, but I do think that the decision to write (and to stay writing, to continue practicing this craft) would have been much more difficult if I had not pushed myself to stay playing.
The dream that I had, which was mostly jealousy-based now that I think about it, didn’t necessarily end. It changed when I was confronted with reality. I think the same is true with my writing career. A dream emerges and it’s immaterial and flimsy until you make the decision to practice. My teacher always encourages me to practice more and better so that I can lock a concept into place. And that’s exactly what practice is—locking in a routine, pruning back the bad habits until you are free of the restraints that hinder you from saying what you most want (and need) to say.