Sunday, July 22, 2012

Color Series: Black

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

Halfway through my first year of graduate school, my grandpa died. It was sudden; we had all been at my parents’ house for Christmas and had a lovely time. New Years’ Day he had a massive heart attack. He was unconscious for several days before he died. My mom flew to Nebraska during that time, my sister went along for support. I wanted to go, too, but everybody thought it was important that I head back to school in order to start the semester on time. So I flew back to Chicago and waited.

When I got to Nebraska a few days later for the funeral, it seemed as if everybody had already settled into their roles, everybody knew when and where to pitch in. I wanted to help in some concrete way, but there were a lot of people around, and it was hard to know where exactly to step in. My one job was to play 3 minutes of music for the funeral, and that felt like a meager thing to offer.

I played in a haze. My hands were cold, I felt numb all over, but I kept myself together because that’s what I know how to do when I’m performing. I spent a few days with family, remembering, crying, even laughing a little. And then I tried to return to life as usual.

The loneliness hit hard when I went back to school. I spent hours every day in a practice room, and all I could think about was how insane it felt to be alone in my tiny room, surrounded by other human beings alone in their tiny rooms, all honing our craft, learning how to communicate, and all very much alone. I felt like I was doing anything but communicating. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was working towards any more. After years of trying to make music my entire life, in the face of death it suddenly looked like nothing.

I started violin lessons when I was 2 ½, but with two free-lance musicians/music teachers for parents, I was surrounded by it from the beginning. Music has been a part of me since before I can even remember; a part of my family, an essential to growing up. For years, though, it was one thing among many. Through high school there were always books to read, stories and poems to write, languages to learn, pictures to draw. Things that drew me in, absorbed my time, my energy, my passion. When I went to college, though, I decided to make music my career, and I went from taking it for granted to thinking it was the only thing I had room for in my life.

I have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing approach to life. Choose one thing and black out all the rest. Put on blinders. I knew music was a tough field, and I convinced myself I had to give up everything else in order to “make it.” After my grandpa died I realized I didn’t want to—I couldn’t, in fact—give up everything for music. I wanted relationship. Family. I couldn’t let music get in the way. I didn’t want to feel the pull between family and career, and I figured if I let go of all my aspirations for one, the other—family—would be all I needed. And so I traded one pair of blinders for another.

My life has not been wasted. Neither has my education or skill. But I’m old enough to see that my story isn’t going to go the way I think it is, either, and music never faded completely into the background the way I thought it would. I both tried to make music my life, and tried to walk away from it. Neither, it turns out, is possible. Somehow it is deeply a part of me in a way I do not understand, nor do I always know how to handle. I’ve learned since my grandpa’s funeral that sometimes just speaking from the heart—gathering up the pain, the love, the hope, and everything else, and offering it up in a piece of music that goes beyond words and deeds—sometimes that is the thing that is needed. It is not such a meager role to play, after all, and it’s what I have to offer.

“You who see, tell the others,” my English teacher wrote in my yearbook at the end of my senior year of high school. Over the last few years I have started to think of that as a call-to-arms for the artist, the musician, the writer. It is a tall order, a high calling. And here I am, a mom and (very) part-time violin teacher living in a small town in the Midwest that’s awfully short on gigs. The opportunities that come these days are precious. They are also few and far between. Maybe that will change, and maybe it won't. But maybe I have a small part to play. Hopefully there are things I can see, things that I can share from this precise point. I'm finding strength in discovering this is still something I can do. That I can be a mom, a wife, a teacher, maybe even a writer, but I have a voice as a violinist, too, and I can once again embrace it. I want to be done with trying to black out certain parts of myself.

Somehow they fit together.

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  1. Thank you for re-posting this. Really encouraging!

    1. I'm glad you found it encouraging! Thank you for reading!

  2. Karen, I've known you for 2 years now but never actually heard you play. I think the parents and students in your classes would love to hear you. We may not be a particularly fancy gig and I know of at least one little boy who will be bursting to talk to you right in the middle of it, but reading this just makes me realize how much I want to hear you play. Would you maybe consider playing a piece for us during a group lesson? Or even a piece of a piece?

    (I have heard you play Twinkle and it is lovely, by the way. I'm just not sure that it is a good demonstration of the scope of your skill!)

    1. Janice, thank you. I'd love to play for my students. I never want to take away from lesson or class time, because there's always so much to do, and it's so not about me. But maybe there's a place for it. And--it looks like there are some other opportunities for me to play this fall, and I will be sure to let all of you know!

  3. My daughter's group teacher (in Minneapolis) says that one can tell what book a player is in by the way he/she plays Twinkle. (But we do love to hear her perform other pieces too!)

    I love this reflective post. I blacked out my life as a clarinetist after getting married and having babies. It was just too much to keep up reeds, an embouchure, and skill. My husband had little appreciation for it and knew I could not contribute enough financially to justify continuing. I miss it. I often feel like an amputee. But it's not wasted. With my children in music lessons, it's a black area lightening up to gray.

    1. Tracy, thank you for sharing this. It is so hard to figure out how to balance family needs with our own, and every time it looks like I have it figured out, something changes. I truly hope your black area continues lightening. I understand how much your music is a part of you.


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