Some of you may already know this about me; some of you may have no idea! But I’ve gotten a lot of requests lately to post about my favorite classical music, composers, pieces, genres, etc.
I’ve politely declined all of these requests, & there’s a simple reason for that. Why? It’s because, when I was at a birthday dinner for my sister in late April, Mozart came on in the restaurant. I started shaking. I went inside myself. I didn’t want to talk, interact with anyone, or be there anymore.
It’s because, when I was in the car on my birthday, driving home from a doctor’s appointment, the Bruch Violin Concerto came on shuffle on my mama’s phone. I started crying, hunching over in the front seat, my body heaving with sobs.
It’s because when I look at any photographs of myself holding a violin, playing the violin, or, God forbid, see a video of myself playing the violin, I cannot contain my sadness. I cannot contain my grief. It feels, every single time, like my heart is being ripped out of my chest.
Because I “quit” violin this spring. Not actually quit – I’ll still have to play, take lessons at my university, & I will be continuing as a music major (under a different category with several other cognates) – but I had to give up on my dream of being a performing violinist.
Here’s some back story. When I was 4, my parents gave me a violin, & I started lessons with the Suzuki method. My parents are not musicians, but they are lovers of classical music, & they took me & my siblings to the symphony from a very early age. One of the first musical memories I have is going to a performance of the Four Seasons, led by Itzhak Perlman (even if you’re not knowlegable about classical music, chances are you know his name). I continued going to concerts. I continued lessons. By age 12, I was set on being a professional violinist.
Yes…this seems young to make up your mind about a career, right? Well, with music (dance is similar) early decisions are crucial. When your body is young, your muscle memory is best, you’re at your most flexible, & you’re able to learn quickly & effectively, provided you have a teacher who’s giving you correct technique & support.
So…yes! By age 12 I’d pretty much made up my mind that this was the career path for me. I never doubted myself. I practiced for up to 5 or 6 hours a day (that was when I was preparing for an audition, a concert, or just a tough lesson), I threw completely threw myself into the world of classical music. I went to concerts. I studied various techniques of various famous violinists. I read books about violin prodigies, such as Midori, Itzhak Perlman, & so many others. They fascinated me. Their music fascinated me. Their art fascinated me.
I also had to juggle a high school career with my side hustle of rigorous musical preparation. It was particularly difficult by junior year of high school. I had ACTs, college applications were looming – but most importantly, I had my music school auditions the next year – & I needed to be absolutely perfect. I needed a scholarship, I needed a good school, a good teacher, & support. I probably slept 3 hours a night. I fueled on caffeine & adrenaline. I’d listen to recordings of “my” concerto (the one I’d play for my auditions) at 1 am & at 1 pm. I’d record myself. I’d listen to my own recordings obessively. I’d fix my mistakes. When I couldn’t, I’d kick a wall. I yelled a lot at my own hands. But they always ended up doing the right thing.
In the second semester of my senior year of high school, I was jetting all over the country to various auditions for various music schools. I got accepted at quite a few with financial aid – for several, I got a full scholarship (I ended up at a school that offered me a full scholarship). I was relieved, I was happy, I was elated that it was over. I had given up 14 years of my life for 4 seven-minute auditions. & I nailed more than one.
I came back home, hopeful & happy, & ready to sleep. I went to a party about a week later with my mama. There were a lot of musicians there. There was music being played, cake being served. I remember I was wearing a black t-shirt dress, some high heel leather boots, & black lace tights (it was cold outside). I remember a lady coming up to me & telling me how beautiful my figure was. I remember feeling a throbbing pain in my abdomen. I ignored it. That’d been going on for years. It was just part of my norm…right?
Two days later, I was writhing on my bed, screaming in pain, asking for help, unable to function. I never knew what a 10 on the pain scale was until that moment. I was taken to the ER. No one knew what was wrong with me, except that I had a high fever, extreme pain, & some sort of infection. I was put on some morphine injections & hardcore antibiotics – antibiotics that burned my veins, made my mouth taste like metal, made me throw up when I had nothing to throw up. I was in there for about two & a half weeks. I was a zombie. I remember getting calls from my violin professor, telling me that I had recieved a full scholarship for my school of choice. I remember crying, & turning my face into the pillow. How could I be happy? I had no idea what was going on.
I was diagnosed with severe Crohn’s Disease in May of 2015. I got the phone call from my doctor on the morning of my prom. I went anyway; I don’t remember a lot of it. I was trying to be normal…what was normal??? Who was I anymore??? I tried to laugh it off when people asked me what had happened; why I hadn’t come back to school; why I’d gotten a home tutor to get my grades in order for graduation.
A few weeks later, I graduated high school. I still couldn’t really walk from pain, but regardless, I limped onto the stage to accept my diploma. I attended my university orientation in a wheelchair. I got through the summer, but there was pain – both emotional & physical. There was anger. There was sadness. I had no idea what was happening to my body, & why I was the Chosen One. However…I was determined. I knew that I had my dream, & I knew that I could do it. I picked myself up off the floor, & prepared to move into my freshman dorm.
Freshman year was difficult. I had pain, I had nausea, I had weekly trips to the hospital for iron transfusions & various biologic medications. I was put on chemo pills. I went to my morning classes, but I left often. I joked & said I was always thirsty. Instead, I was quietly being sick in the toilet bowl of the school’s basement bathrooms. But I always walked back to class. I always went to lessons. I performed more than once. & I played my heart out. My passion never left. I put my pain into my playing, & it was more emotional & raw than ever before.
I got through freshman year. I ended up with a 3.6 GPA, despite the hospital visits, the surgical procedures, the absences, the pain, the nausea, the blood, the crying on my bathroom floor at 2 am because nothing was working, no medications were helping, what the fuck was I going to do????
I ended my freshman year. I picked up my things & went to the Mayo Clinic with my mama. We hoped to find some new treatment that would get me out of my flare. We seemd to find something that did the trick. I was “better” last summer – I wasn’t cured, but my inflammation was less severe, my pain less frequent, my weight was “normal” (normal means something different to those with chronic illness than to those without one). I did a lot of interesting things. I shaved my head! I went to Aspen & Breckenridge in Colorado. I’ve never felt so free – but at the same time, I was still going through pain. I started feeling depressed. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what, exactly – but something was off.
I started sophomore year with high hopes. I was in a better living situation, I was excited to begin new repertoire, I was ready to perform; to put my all into my music, to pour my heart & soul out to the audience until it was right at their feet, just waiting to be picked up.
And….some of that happened. Everything seemed “pretty okay” for the most part. I was having a lot of issues with mental illness – with depression, anxiety, even suicidal ideation. This is commonly correlated to a chronic physical illness. & it sucks. Yet, still – I kept up my grades, I kept working, I kept practicing. I knew I could do it.
Slowly, I noticed my weight was starting to go down. I don’t like to talk about numbers on a scale because I get a lot of comments about how my body is “goals” – & it is not. It is unhealthy, & I cannot do a lot of things because of the low energy, fatigue, pain, & high heart rate that goes with being underweight. But over the course of 4 months, I lost about 20 pounds. I was a walking, breathing skeleton. I don’t know how I kept going, but I did. I truly have no idea how I found the energy to play concerts that contained hour-long symphonies, rehearse a sonata with my pianist for at least half an hour, & also try to go out on the weekends (that ended pretty quickly).
Finally, the final straw made its appearance, & it broke the camel’s back. Since Christmas time (December 2016) I’d been having some “weird” hand issues, as well as some knee & foot issues. I charted this up to my low weight – there’s a lot of achiness & bone pain that comes with being underweight – but as time progressed, I noticed that my hands (& my feet) were not just painful – they were swollen. My knuckles looked knobbly. The tips of my fingers were blue, because my circulation was cut off. Within a few days of noticing this, I was in a full-out flare. I couldn’t open a door, tie my shoes, eat a meal with a fork (or a spoon) – & I definitely couldn’t walk to classes. &, obviously, I could not play the violin.
I visited a rheumatologist (a joint doctor) to see what was up. I already had an inkling, but in a few moments, she confirmed my suspicions.
Inflammatory arthritis in relation to Crohn’s Disease.
What’s that mean? Well, essentially, my Crohn’s Disease was not (& still is not) under control. In fact, ever since I was first hospitalized in March of 2015, I have been in a “flare” (that takes too long for me to explain – if you don’t know what it is, google it! There’s some very good articles that explain it very clearly & concisely). Because I’d been in a flare for so long, the inflammation in my digestive tract (where Crohn’s Disease originates) had slowly started to spread to other parts of my body – namely, my hands, my knees, & my feet.
I was put on a set of prednisone (steroids) & also given injections of cortisone in the actual knuckles of my hands (yup, it’s as painful as you might guess). The prednisone worked for a hot minute. But I knew it wasn’t a long-term solution…& my doctor knew that as well. As soon as I heard the words “inflammatory arthritis in the hands” I knew the game was up.
I went home, & I just sat on my bed for hours. I thought about the years I’d spent on the thing I loved the most. I thought of the time, the money, the love my parents had given & spent to make my dreams reality. I thought of my own time, my own tears, my own happiness, the performances I can never & will never forget, the joy of being told “you’re something special. You give something to the audience that not many people can do.” I sat quietly. I took my violin out of its case, & I cradled it in my lap. & then, I called my mama, I asked her to come up to school, & come visit my professor with me.
I told him the game was up. It was over. The diagnosis I got was a confirmation that I could not continue playing at the level that I wanted to. I’d spent hours crying, screaming, hitting my hands because they did not do what I wanted them to do. What had been so easy just a few months ago was now nearly impossible without experiencing excruciating pain. I couldn’t continue like this. I’d injure myself further, & I could not listen to myself deteriorating in performance quality.
He listened, & he understood. He asked me what he could do to help. I said that if I could have one more performance, before it was impossible for me to perform at the level I wished to perform, that would be the wish I’d like granted. He said “of course.” We set a date. & I prepared to the best of my ability.
I decided to play the Franck Violin Sonata (1st & 2nd movements). For those of you who might not know a lot about classical music, Franck wrote this sonata for his beloved friend & virtuoso violinist/renowned pedagogue Eugene Ysaÿe as a wedding gift. The piece was presented to Ysaÿe by Franck on the morning of his wedding. Ysaÿe learned the piece within a few hours & performed it at his wedding reception.
Although a wedding is a joyful occasion (hopefully) Franck’s sonata is somewhat controversial in that it is not always a “happy” piece – in fact, there is a whole movement that is nothing but intense, emotional turbulence. Not exactly a wedding march. The first movement has a gentle and sweetly reflective rocking theme & is the thematic core of the entire work. The second movement, my favorite movement of the sonata’s four movements, is turbulent, emotional, & extraordinarily difficult to play. It’s made me laugh; it’s made me cry. I love this piece with my whole being. I’ve performed it several times, & for whatever reason, it speaks to me. I wanted my “final performance” to be of a piece that held emotional significance for me.
& so, I prepared, I prepared, I cried because my hands weren’t really doing what I wanted them to do – but when the day came, I was ready.
And so, I did what I had to do, & it hurt more than any other performance I’d had to play – both physicallt & mentally. My hands were already not cooperating with me. I had to make amends for what I couldn’t do. Still, I think it’s the best I ever performed.
That’s ironic, because I no longer will be able to express myself in the complex, emotional way that I was able when violin was part of my daily routine. But I had more to share & to give to my audience than ever before. That’s why it’s the best I played. Yes, I slipped up…yes, there were things my hands just wouldn’t do anymore. But emotionally, it was probably the best-rounded performance I’d ever given.
That’s a damn shame. Even as I type this, I’m looking down at my hands. People continue to tell me not to give up, to keep on trying to “do it!” Guess what: I can’t.
I wish with all my heart that this was not true. My hands simply can’t do it anymore. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to term with, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair that I have to deal with my body aging when I’m just 20 years old. It’s unfair that I had to give up on something that I love most because of an illness I did not ask for.
I don’t like to think of what ifs, because they’re unrealistic. I can’t help but wonder about what might’ve happened if I hadn’t been sick – if I hadn’t been hiding symptoms & pain for years, if I hadn’t brushed away the things I should’ve ran to my doctor or my parents for – would I still be playing? Would my disease be under control?
I don’t know. Maybe. The possibility that it would breaks my heart, & brings me guilt – so I try not to dwell on it too much. That doesn’t stop the violin from popping up in my dreams, though – more often than not, I’ll be sitting in a concert hall, listening to a faceless performer play something I’d always wanted to play, & now never will. I’ll wake up crying.
“What’re you going to do now?” is a common question among those who’ve accepted that I’m “moving on.” Truly? Truly…I have no fucking idea. I’ve learned a lot about myself these last few months. I’ve learned that I have more capabilities; I’ve learned that the 4-6 hours a day I would spend on my instrument can no longer apply to it – but the dedication, ambition, determination, creativity, & refusal to give up have stayed with me. For that, I am infinitely grateful. Because of the years I spent throwing myself into my music & my violin, I know that I will be able to keep going. I will even be able to keep ahead. These last two years, especially, have proven that.
I do not give up. I do not look at my choice to stop violin as giving up (usually…sometimes I’ll feel super bad about it & think of it as such). It was a choice I made for my health, for my dignity, & for the sake of my own sanity. There is nothing more frustrating than discovering your fingers & hands have slowly started to betray you…at the ripe age of 19-&-a-half.
Will I ever truly get over my choice to stop? No. I don’t believe I will. Will I always cry when I hear a certain piece, or be unable to talk to those around me if a classical piece starts playing in public? No, probably not. I think that I will be able to attend concerts in the future; I might even enjoy them. There will always be that twist of the knife – but music is now part of my blood. Just because I’m not going to be a violinist doesn’t mean I can’t stop music from affecting me in both emotional & physical ways. Even if I tried, I couldn’t stop that from happening.
& so, I’m continuing on, continuing school, continuing life. My violin case sits under my bed. I’m staring at it right now. It looks lonely. It feels lonely, to think of my violin sitting in there. It feels even lonlier when I think of the fact that the violin will no longer be an emotional outlet for me; that its therapeutic qualities – for me, at least – have trickled to a halt.
It feels torturous when I think about the dreams I’ve had, the dreams I continue to have, about playing something, or playing somewhere, or worst of all: being unable to play, locked in a room with a performer, having to listen to them play something I wish I could.
But this will not come to an end overnight. It won’t come to an end in 6 months. The violin has been the focal point of my life for over half my life. Something like this doesn’t just stop when you want it to. It’s in my mind, my bones, my blood. I hold my makeup brushes “weirdly” – & always have – because of holding a violin bow. When I throw my arms up in the air, my left arm crooks into that special position. When I hear a certain pitch, I’ll think of a note – think of a piece that starts with a note. I can’t erase these things from my mind or my body.
I don’t think I want to. It hurts every time something like this happens – it hurts because it’s a reminder of what I had to leave behind. But studying music was (& is) so amazing. No…I can’t “do” what I did before. But, although these little behaviors that I’ve picked up over the years with no thought are sometimes painful, they’re painful in a sweet way. They’re a reminder that this will always be with me. I was worried that I wouldn’t be thought of as a musician once I stopped telling people I was studying violin – because it is a crucial part of my identity.
I realized I didn’t have to tell people. It doesn’t matter what other people think. I know how many years (& tears) I spent on my music. I know how deeply it affected me. I know that it has changed me, shaped me, even – from a very early age. I will never be able to get rid of something so deeply engrained in me.
Right now, that hurts. But in a few years, I think it’ll be good. I will never not have this with me. It’s impossible to let go. For that, I’m grateful.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go cry for a bit. In a good way. In a healthy way. Because it’s okay for me to be upset about this. It’s even okay to be heartbroken. I’ve lost a huge part of myself, & there is no shame in shedding tears over this part of me that is now more shadow than solid…to the outsider, at least. In my mind, music – & violin – is raw, real, & very much with me; it is up close & intimate. & again…for that, I am, & always will be grateful.