The Cost of Choice

Beth Blackerby, owner of ViolinLab, recently described the experience of dealing with latent emotions that surfaced when she took on her first adult student several years ago.  She writes :

“…because I started as a child, I had never experienced what my adult student had: the burning desire to learn the violin; the self-propelling passion that comes from choice, the will to continue because it was what I wanted more than anything.”

I would like to thank Ms. Blackerby for raising this topic, because it is a tough one to discuss.  Most of us, musicians or not, are so busy with gigs, work, family commitments and life in general that there is little time for self-reflection.  But I can’t help but think that the feelings referenced in her beautifully-phrased, wrenchingly-honest quote are related to some factor other than age.  Why?  Because Ms. Blackerby described perfectly and precisely what I did experience as a child of seven, then eight, and finally nine, when I was allowed to start lessons.   I was prepared, ready and determined to do great things with the violin.  But when I failed to meet expectations — mostly my own — I was not prepared for the emotional aftermath.

Playing the violin was a choice, the first real choice I ever made.  I didn’t have to be prodded, cajoled, bribed or threatened to practice.   On the other hand, maybe choice isn’t the right description, because I have always felt compelled by something that I could not explain, driven by a desire that I can only describe in terms that are probably not suitable for younger audiences.   The childlike amazement and wonder, as well as pigheaded stubbornness remain some thirty-five years later, and I am no closer to being able to explain it today than I was as a child.

Playing the violin was also empowering.  People paid attention to me when I played, although at the time I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about.  I was labeled “talented,” “gifted,” “special,” as if those words all meant the same thing (they don’t).   I didn’t understand why; I simply read the directions at the front of the book, did what they said, and checked my effort against the reference LP.  (The directions are, by the way, exactly the same today, but with more pictures.)   And I was sufficiently rewarded for my direction-following skills by moving through the repertoire at lightning speed:  all ten Suzuki violin books in about six years.   It took me a lot longer to learn that the more you achieve, the more people expect from you.

I’ve heard of students who “see the light” after they’ve been playing for a few years and suddenly outperform everyone in a studio.   As a teenager, I saw it firsthand in my own teacher’s studio.   One day, Kris was average, a couple of grades and a couple of books behind the advanced kids.  No one suspected a thing, because she was so quiet and did her best to stay under the radar. And then, out of nowhere, BANG! She killed at All-State seating auditions, earning Violin I, chair 4 (out of 40 first violins and 40 seconds.)  To the best of my fuzzy recollection, the highest I ever sat was Violin 1-9.  It was a clarion call for me, discouraging and painful.   Because I was in the second violin section that year (3rd chair) and she sat directly to my right, I was constantly reminded of how I failed to meet expectations.  Deep down, I knew I should have been sitting where Kris sat.  I had let my teachers and parents down.  I had disappointed myself.   I had been a horrible model for my classmates.

There is a cost associated with that passion, that desire to obtain regardless of any consequences.   The emotional toll of choice is not a topic of general discussion or debate during orchestra breaks.  I don’t know, maybe most other violinists don’t have problems with it.   Or maybe many do, but they are convinced that no one else would understand.

Outside the world of music, economists call it “opportunity cost.”  Psychologists label it OCD, and in “advanced” stages it can be crippling.  In my case, it manifested as depression. I was able to get it diagnosed and treated before it ended my academic and performance careers, but not before it cost me a marriage, relationships with other people I loved and respected, much emotional and psychological devastation, and deeply-rooted performance anxiety.  It is still difficult to admit it, much less talk about it, and it is much more complicated than I can discuss here.

The specialness has long since worn off.  I’m skilled, well-trained, not talented or special.  I am a realist, although my husband says I’m much too critical of myself.  (A musician he is not. But he makes pies and cakes and enchiladas for me.  And the programmer-slash-analyst in him doesn’t look at me like I have two heads when I ask a stupid computer question. So I think I’ll keep him.)   I am no longer willing to give up everything for the violin.  While I strive to be extraordinary and can easily hold my own professionally, the reality is that I am just an average violinist among thousands of other average violinists trying to buy groceries.

Dreams come and go, evolve, and help us grow.   Sometimes they even come true.   Dreams keep us alive, keep us motivated.   But they can become nightmarish in the absence of reason and sense.   And age has very little to do with it.   This I know from experience.

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