Off the Board, Opinion

Maybe I was always playing myself

In elementary school, I spent most of my Saturdays attending Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic. My memories of those days are scattered and somewhat fleeting—I was far more enthralled by post-concert trips for hotdogs at Grey’s Papaya and Revson Fountain’s extravagant water jets than the actual performances. Many memories from those trips were even tainted with disdain because, in order to attend, my brother and I had to miss countless birthday parties.  

As a kid, I always kicked my brother in the shin when he called me a “fake fan” of classical music. I tolerated the genre, but I was unwilling to sit calmly through the entirety of the concerts—listening was something I insisted on doing in my own way. So although it would be wrong to say that I was passionate about classical music, it still became an unmistakably important aspect of my upbringing.

I started playing the violin in school in the third grade, and I kept up with it all through high school. The struggles of learning a string instrument were not necessarily unique to me, but I had a particularly difficult time emotionally dedicating myself to the process. I hated practicing requirements with a burning passion—practicing made sense for more difficult pieces, but I resented being forced to play pieces to a numb redundancy just because of a course requirement. 

In middle school, any genuine enthusiasm I had for playing the violin slowly dropped under the pressures of class. I came to associate the actual experience of playing with stress and frustration. It got so bad that I resorted to listening to music instead of working on homework during work periods—it allowed me to start the latter at home and delay having to practice my violin. When playing with the district high school orchestra, I once tripped and dropped my music binder and violin, nearly breaking both and thoroughly embarrassing myself in front of a very tall and very cute high school senior. Such moments of pubescent awkwardness overshadowed any other feelings I had about my instrument.

This internal struggle only got harder by the time I was playing in my high school’s orchestra. The course acted as the ultimate reprieve from the stress of my other classes, but also created additional burdens: The decreasing quality of our performances and the exasperation of my music teacher brought a new sense of anxiety and shame to the experience. I was often excited by the more contemporary arrangements we would play, but this would lead to awful feeling associations because of different butcherings of the songs in rehearsal. Most times, it felt like school orchestras and classical music were things I survived rather than things I loved.

I have not picked up a violin since my senior year of high school. Like many other aspects of my hometown, I intended to leave them behind when I went off to university. My attempts to repress the memories, however, were not as successful as I hoped. I could not escape the stressful memories of my orchestral past, but upon reflection my feelings regarding them grew far more complex.

Hearing certain clips of music often reminds me of times when I played them in school. But thinking of them now fills me with jaded nostalgia—there’s no internal re-writing of the past, as it still does remind me of my misery. Somehow, I have come to look back on that misery fondly, and I look forward to the times that music can transport me back to a different time in my life. Maybe it is morbid, maybe it is some form of self-inflicted schadenfreude, but much like the hot dogs of my childhood, it is not going anywhere.

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