If you knew me last fall, then you know I wasn’t really myself at all. There’s only so much unrelenting stress and pressure and 80-hour work weeks a person can take before they become more zombie than human. I spent a lot of time alone at the office listening to Pandora—so much so that in the month of November I maxed out my free 40 hours of music after about 13 days. I have two main Pandora stations: one is called “Guys with Guitars” and features my normal cast of crooning male guitar players. The other is just called “Classical,” and plays an eclectic mix of Broadway musicals, movie soundtracks, and straight-up classical music—quartets, concertos, symphonies.
I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I was at the office late one night and this song came on to my Classical station. Normally when I’m working and listening to music, the music becomes background noise, something to help me tune out everything else and focus on what needs to get done. But as this song progressed, it started to break through the work fog. I would pause every once in a while to just sit and listen to the music. This song featured the most heartbreakingly beautiful violin solo backed by a full symphony orchestra. It was both familiar and like a revelation, something I remembered from a different lifetime but couldn’t quite identify. Eventually I stopped trying to work at all, and at the climax of this song I had tears in my eyes. Not much could penetrate the shroud of stress, exhaustion, and misery that I was wrapped in, and this song was beautiful enough to make me pause and take a breath. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
The song was The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. On Pandora you can’t control what songs the station plays, and I desperately needed to find another way to hear it. Some kind soul had posted a video on YouTube of a Dutch violinist who played this song live with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I probably listened to this song at least twice a day through the month of November, once in the morning and once at night. I didn’t get tired of it. Every time it made me take just a moment to listen and be still, at least for a little while.
The song didn’t leave me even after work calmed down in the month of December. I finally pinpointed why The Lark Ascending was so familiar—a friend from UNC Symphony Orchestra reminded me that we played this our freshman year. I started thinking more about Ralph Vaughan Williams in general. I remembered back when I played viola regularly in high school that I had a whole set of Vaughan Williams viola solos. They were beautiful too. I continued to listen to my Pandora station, and every time a song came on that I had played and loved in the past—Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, Copland’s Appalachian Spring—nostalgia hit like a wave.
I stopped playing viola my junior year at Carolina. I had played every year of my life from the summer after 3rd grade through my sophomore year at UNC. Starting in the 6th grade I took private lessons with a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I perfected solos for Solofest and played in All-State and All-County competitions. I played in the high school pit orchestra for Hello, Dolly! and Annie Get Your Gun. I practiced almost every day. By my senior year I achieved the goal that I had craved since the 6th grade, when I first decided to take my playing seriously—I was the principal viola player in our high school orchestra. I wasn’t a gifted player. There are some people to whom music comes naturally, who have a true feel for playing. I wasn’t like that. But I did love playing, and what I lacked in raw talent I made up with dedicated practice. Even my senior year I wasn’t the best player in our section—there was a whiz kid sophomore who was definitely better than me. He was a future music major in the making. I most certainly was not.
When I got to UNC I knew I wanted to play in the Symphony, but I was looking forward to not taking it seriously for once. I didn’t practice outside orchestra. I sat in the back of the section, a somewhat novel experience. Ahead of me the music majors angsted over the perfect bowings and fingerings and hitting every note just so. I leaned back and let them figure things out. Sometimes I was that obnoxious kid in the back of the section whispering during rehearsal. Sometimes I air-bowed so I wouldn’t mess up the rest of the section with the wrong notes (rather than actually practicing the music so I could get it right). Don’t get me wrong—I could play most of the music pretty well, and I hardly ever missed a rehearsal or concert—but it was a different level than what I was used to in high school. It was no longer important to be the best—I was just playing for kicks.
Fall semester my junior year I had a night class that interfered with orchestra. Spring semester I was studying abroad. Senior year I was trying to write an honors thesis and on the fencing team. There was no way to fit orchestra into the mix. Then I graduated and started working. My viola sat in my closet, untouched and unremembered. Every once in a while I had a twinge when I thought about it gathering dust back there, but there just didn’t seem to be an opportunity to pull it out, and the longer I went without playing the easier it was to forget why I had loved it so much.
The Lark Ascending brought it back. I started thinking about playing more and more. I dragged my viola out of the closet one day in December. The strings were loose, impossibly out of tune. Half the hair had fallen from my bow and littered the inside of my case like massive cobwebs. It was like a fist in my gut to see my instrument in that state of disrepair. Just pulling it out of the case confirmed what I had started to suspect throughout the months of November and December—I was ready to play again. For Christmas my parents got my viola tuned up and my bow re-haired. With my instrument resurrected, all I needed to do was find a place to play.
My new home is with the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. I started playing with the orchestra last month. It’s like having to learn to read and listen to a language I once knew intimately all over again. Sometimes it feels so familiar and the notes flow and it’s like nothing has changed, and the next minute I’m back to air-bowing and trying to remember how to shift and use vibrato and play in 2nd and 3rd position and decipher the obscure notations in the score. It’s maddening and challenging and I love it. I don’t think my viola will be going back into the closet anytime soon.
This week’s synchroblog prompt was music. You can read the others here: