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In Ithaca, instrumental music formally begins in third grade. So this past fall, I was so excited for my son to start in strings. See, when I was in fifth grade, I picked up a violin. When I was in middle school, I switched to double bass. And by the time I graduated high school, I’d played in all-state orchestras, scored tops in multiple solo and ensemble competitions, and earned scholarships to prestigious music camps across the country. Music (among other artistic pursuits) was my life. I thought, for my son, this is the beginning of his life! How thrilling!
But it was pangs of jealousy I felt when I went to the music shop to secure his viola. “I was in the orchestra in school, but I didn’t pursue music in college… so I missed out,” I explained to the woman who fitted him for his kit. I always wanted to play cello, I went on, but our school was lacking in bassists, and the orchestra director wouldn’t approve my switch.
Of course, the music shop girl had no sympathy. “You could always rent a cello yourself,” she shrugged, ticking through our paperwork to ready Sullivan’s viola rental.
She might as well have slapped me—I was standing there with my chin hanging in stunned silence for a whole minute.
Because that hadn’t occurred to me. I’m a grown ass woman and I don’t need permission. If I want to play cello, I get a goddamned cello and I make that shit happen[1. Even though variations on this theme prove to be true over and over, I continue to be shocked when I get to do what I want.].
The point is, I got a goddamned cello and I’ve been playing it. I’ve even combined it with other things I like—coffee, wine, Instagram. It’s awesome, I’m having a blast.
I sound horrible.
Here’s the thing about learning something new as an adult: it’s really hard to go back to being a beginner. It’s really hard to be present in practice—which is what art requires.
Self awareness is a burden. My son is terrible at music—and I love him so I can say that[2. If you say it, I’ll break your teeth. Seriously.], but he doesn’t know that, so he loves it.
I know I suck, which stirs up feeling of shame. And as an adult, I feel programmed to run, run, RUN away from shame. I start to worry that my neighbors will hear my screeches, that some good-intentioned houseguest will ask me to play for them, and I’ll have to explain that I sound like a goat being (ok, gently!) castrated.
It’s challenging to be open and vulnerable. Two things I definitely don’t like being[2. Cancer. Scorpio rising 15°.]. But two qualities that are a necessity to learning anything. I have to be okay with YouTube videos of six year old prodigies. I have to work at pushing away expectations that I should just know, that I should just do, that I should just be... I have to be present with myself and the cello and the music and just be okay with where I’m at.
The alternative is that I miss out, right? I did that the past decade and it wasn’t fun at all.
Truth be told, it’s not been completely awful. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I picked up reading music again. I was also glad to find out that when my finger slipped out of tune—that I can self-correct with some measure of grace. Other parts of being a cellist—achieving that warm, rich, smooth cello tone, which I think is key to really enjoying the sound you make—it seems that will take some time and practice.
That has to be okay. I have to breathe in and out and reaffirm that this is all just fine. It’s amazing, actually. And I’m blessed to have this opportunity to pick up right where I left off—on a whim I had as a child. How fucking lucky am I?
It’s been a recurring theme the past year or two—that by trying new things[3. Remember that time I moved to a wacky commune even though I have crippling social anxiety?], by doing things that scare me[4. The whole motorcycle license thing—that prompted the title of my memoir-in-progress, “Didn’t Cry, Didn’t Die.”], by jumping in[5. I’m pretty sure I became an herbalist recently. WTF was that about?] and going to my darkest places, I find out more about the stuff I’m made of.
I wonder how deep I can go now, and how much of my soul I’ll recover in the process.
I wonder, if I started instead to run to shame with open arms—if I wallow in it. If I just let go of trying to please everyone, trying to look perfect, trying to be an ideal of myself that isn’t even true—what would I become?