Saturday, September 7, 2013

Me as a Violinist: Crappy, but Happy (Mostly)

When I was 12, a family from church asked me to play the violin at their son's baptism.  It was a relatively minor thing: I was to play the descant to one of the most popular songs in the hymn book while the congregation sang along.  I had done it before, so I blew off practicing even once with the pianist.  As we began, I played only one note before I realized something was disastrously wrong.  At first I thought the problem might have simply been that the piano and I hadn't tuned to each other (I know, I know--any musician reading this is cringing at how awful it was that I didn't even bother to do that), but then I realized that the problem was much worse--we were in different keys.  I did what I could to transpose what was written into the correct key, but the panic at having to do it unexpectedly, plus the initial missed notes, threw off my performance and resulted in disaster.

Unfortunately, I have lots of stories like that.  There was the time (age 15) that I didn't practice at all for an upcoming orchestra seating test where we would have to defend our placement within the orchestra by playing selections from the repertoire for our upcoming concert. The conductor started at the top of our first violin section and asked the top two musicians to both play, and then the rest of us voted with closed eyes for who we thought had played the best.  The idea was that a stronger performance by a person seated lower in the section could bump someone out of his or her seat.  This continued down to me, seated squarely in the middle of the first violins.  In one of the most humiliating moments of my life, I played so poorly that I was bumped all the way to the bottom of the section.  I can still remember the shame burning my cheeks--and the tear I was unable to prevent from escaping--during my next lesson as my teacher berated me for embarrassing him with my poor showing.

Clearly, I do not have what it takes to be a professional.  Beyond my lack of discipline and the satisfaction I find in achieving middling results, I suffer from crushing fear.  A conductor for a youth orchestra I auditioned for once told my mother I needed as much audition experience as she could get for me because I had been "shaking like a leaf."  I play only in church these days, a venue renowned for its combination of high support and low expectations, but I still sit down after a performance with shaking hands and a rapid pulse.

But.  BUT!  There is something to be said for what I have experienced when public performances haven't ended ignominiously.  The nervousness that can be so paralyzing heightens the senses, and when a beautiful arrangement, dutiful rehearsing, and skillful accompaniment all come together, there is an indescribable sense of joy.  At the risk of being obnoxiously melodramatic, I would even say I feel synergy with the universe.  That crescendo in feeling that comes with the most expressive music--that is the closest thing I have ever felt to pure unadulterated bliss.  It sounds self-aggrandizing, but I move myself.  There is nothing like being in the middle of an orchestra or a choir and hearing the sound rising all around you while knowing that you yourself are an integral part of that beauty.  In all of my limited experience, it is the closest I have felt to heaven.

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