My relationship with my violin has been a tumultuous one. Once upon a time, I actually couldn’t get enough of music. I wanted to play every instrument I saw. I fell in love with the sound of violin and chose that one to study officially with teachers, but I taught myself to play piano and flute as well. I’d spend hours in the music room of my parent’s house just lost in the notes.
But Wednesday night, when my partner came home to find me polishing my violin, his eyes widened with surprise as he exclaimed, “You really do love your violin!”
It’s true. It’s like a dirty little secret of mine. However, you would never guess that I love my violin anymore if you saw my normal interaction with it.
Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to play.
It probably started when practicing became an obligation that didn’t allow me to choose to play because I wanted to. It got worse when family members started demanding performances, regardless of how I felt.
But it was perfectionism that eventually obliterated my memory. It was like a tumor, taking over my mind. I was taught that I had a responsibility to always do my best for God. As a high-achieving preteen, my brain translated that to mean “the best,” aka perfect.
As anyone who has touched a violin will know, it is messy—not the instrument for perfectionists. I came to fear it. It symbolized my inability to be the best for God—therefore my unworthiness of love. Practice became a tormented game of trying to never mess up. When I failed, I punished myself to try to show God that I was serious about trying to be my best. There were days when I would leave my room with my legs covered in bruises (all above the knee where I was guaranteed they would be hidden by the modesty rules). My violin was my shame.
But I still had a love for music, which I nursed on the piano that I kept mercifully free of my perfectionistic expectations. My senior year, I got a teacher who managed to coax me out of my shell during my lessons. He approached his teaching playfully, interspersing hilarious stories and outrageous exercises in with the more serious technique.
“Sing out, Louise!” he’d tease, launching into a story about Gypsy.
I would try just a bit harder because, with him, I remembered that it was fun . . . until I practiced again with myself—my biggest critic and biggest punisher.
Perhaps if I had stayed with him long enough, he would have been able to break through my shame, but the following year I went to Bob Jones University. I wanted to leave violin as my hobby, not my career. However, my parents pressured me into a music minor, adding the guilt of wasting their years and money for lessons to my fear of failing.
My first teacher there spent the semester ensuring that music became as boring as possible, systematically breaking down any expression or individuality. It was like it was her mission to seek out any positive influence from my other teachers and destroy it.
Stripped of my joy of music, I went on to another teacher. She was exacting to a terrifying degree. Whereas before, my teachers would give me a technique to learn and allow me to practice it for a week before expecting any progress, she expected me to master everything in her half hour of teaching. I not only dreaded practice; I feared lessons. I left crying so often that the teacher in the class I had after lessons eventually stopped asking if I was okay when he saw my red face. I could no longer goad myself into playing better by hurting myself. I froze up in terror every time I picked up my instrument. My technique regressed, and with it, my desire to play.
“Some people just don’t have it in them,” she finally told me. From then on out, she took no interest in my progress whatsoever, and my fears that I was an utter failure at violin were confirmed.
I dropped the minor, but the damage was not so easily forsaken. Even my beloved teacher back home couldn’t recognize my playing. Eventually, I put my violin in its case and walked away.
I spent the first year of my marriage thinking I was going to give up violin for good. When my partner gave me a new electric/acoustic violin for Christmas, my excitement was almost immediately overshadowed by worry that I wouldn’t be worth the expense.
I started practicing again, but there were months where I couldn’t even stand to touch the violin.
It wasn’t just that I was afraid of playing in front of others. I was afraid of playing . . . alone. Somewhere down the road, “playing” violin became a performance, even in the privacy of my own home.
So how does one learn how to play again?
Well, I got off to a good start by not playing when I didn’t want to. I saw my four years of sporadic interest as a sign that I was giving up . . . until my interest began to grow again and the desire to play came more often. In the last few months, I’ve managed to have several afternoons where I lost myself in music for a few hours.
I’m also teaching myself to make mistakes and giving myself permission to explore–turning my violin into my toy. Perhaps it seems backwards to deliberately give myself something to mess up on, but it’s the very permission to mess up that frees me to find my instrumental voice.
But the most important element in learning how to play my violin again is claiming my right to it. Playing isn’t about pleasing or impressing others. It’s not about making money. It’s about me. I do not need to prove that I am worthy of love or musical investment. It’s enough that I enjoy playing.