Angela Chen: Work hard, play harder

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 2:38pm

When I was six years old, my eager parents signed me up for private violin lessons to my absolute dismay. Under their pressure, I would trudge through my early musical career for the next four years or so — tears and tantrums included — until one day in the fifth grade, it wasn’t my parents pushing me anymore.

That day was instrument-sampling day for elementary band and orchestra, and my whole class had heard me play a piece from private lessons. They fell silent and turned their 10-year-old heads to me in awe, upon which I uncovered a pleasant surprise: I was actually good! I was the best in the room and the center of attention. That day, I tasted power and I bathed in pride. And I clung to it — though I could’ve spared myself by letting go.

For the years to come, this pride became my devil disguised as innocent passion. I thrived in my modest middle school orchestra program, steadily inflating my ego as I embraced my reputation as a musical superior. Without knowing it, I fell in love with the idea of being good at something, the meaningless glory of sitting at the front of the orchestra, the dangerous reputation of being unbeatable and untouchable — the best.

Thus, by the time I entered my high school orchestra program, one of the most awarded and competitive in the nation, I put my self-worth up for grabs, along with the title I’d been taking for granted. To my surprise, there were students who had been taking lessons for even longer than I had. They had more expensive teachers and even more expensive instruments, and they had their eye on the same fame that I didn’t know I would have to fight for.

But all of this only made me hungrier to remain at the top. After all those years of being the best, I wasn’t ready to be anyone else, and I didn’t know that I could. When I came up second, I lost my self-worth but not my pride. I practiced harder and harder, all the while claiming that I did so out of passion. But I walked to orchestra with dread each day, secretly making enemies with my competitor and, not-so-secretly, with myself.

Deep down, I knew that I did not enjoy what I did, because when I did come up first — when I finally regained my reputation and worthiness — I stopped practicing. Needing no more than a title to feed my ego, I was happiest when completing the bare minimum: sitting in my precious first-row seat and creating a mere impression of fine musicianship.

In this way, I hovered around the top of the ridiculous orchestral hierarchy for four years, wondering how someone could simultaneously be so egotistic and so, so insecure. When I graduated high school, I was relieved to leave behind the competition anxiety that had steadily crept to each area of my life.

But I could not graduate my pride.

Following months of severe lack of practice, I was placed at the rear of the Campus Symphony Orchestra at the University of Michigan. Ashamed of the “downgrade” and even more so of still caring, I quit and cast my violin aside.

Since then, I’ve touched my instrument less than a handful of times, often forgetting, even refusing, to play in fear of the unfulfilling memories we’ve shared. It seems strange to me that this hollow wooden specimen and the even hollower reputation it brought me had defined me for so long, when it took only a year for me to find stability otherwise.

And perhaps that’s why it took me so long to realize how much I’ve missed being a violinist. So today, sitting alone in the lethargic heat of my summer apartment, I did something I almost swore I’d never do again — I played it. The act felt faraway and foreign, and there was no use in denying it: I was no longer the best, if I ever was. But I’d become so tired of demanding this of myself and so glad I’d been freed from it, that at last, I was no longer bothered. Instead, I was my new fingers — rough calluses gone, rejuvenated, raw.

Yet, it shocked me just how familiar each movement felt. While my skills had undoubtedly rusted, there remained a certain authority with which my fingers commanded the strings and a striking ease with which they danced about them — albeit only a fraction of their former speed. Reciting old pieces by memory from the safety of my new bedroom, I felt unexpectedly at peace, and it dawned on me.

For years, my long hours of practice had been so clouded by critique and competition that I’d been blinded to the essence of it all. While my toil and title alike are long gone, there is greater glory in what is preserved: how much I’ve learned about music and how its every motion and emotion has forever shaped me into a musician.

This time, I was not practicing for an audition or a concert, not priming myself for scrutiny or judgment. This time, I was playing for none other than myself, because there would be no one there to listen.

And with that, I felt awakened, like everything I’ve ever done for the wrong reason came crashing down on my door. Wondering how I’d been ready to leave behind so innate and permanent a part of me for an image so transient and trivial, I realized that for the first time, I was playing violin for fun.

But it won’t be the last.

Angela Chen can be reached at angchen@umich.edu