For many people, music brings joy and happiness, serving to soothe the soul despite life’s hectic measures. When a melody sings, or when a beat percusses, the human spirit merges with this ephemeral strain and is uplifted into higher consciousness. When I ride the bus, I see everyone engaging in this ephemeral process wearing earbuds in their heads, young and old alike. Everyone is grooving to the beats of their own drums, and no one disrupts the other.
But for me, music is bittersweet and at times poisonous due to my schizophrenia. If I put headbuds in my ears, the vibrations overwhelm me. My brow sweats, and I get this rattled buzzy feeling in my brain that feels horrible. If I close my eyes to try and eliminate distractions, my brain and ears feel like two magnets repelling one another. The only thing that helps is to turn the music off, allowing me to enjoy the musical sound of silence. Ambient noise is enough as I walk through the streets of Queens, NYC, where I live. Hearing simultaneously birds chirping and cars whizzing by helps me to understand life’s balance between nature and pollutive human innovation.
It wasn’t always this way. As a small child, I loved music and sang at all times. I learned Christmas carols at the holiday season, then never stopped singing them year round. One summer day before first grade, I sat at the window of my third-floor apartment, serenading passersby with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” My voice rang like a bell and was very well in tune.
My grandfather was also musically inspiring. He was a retired professional musician, having played clarinet and tenor saxophone in his day. I remember how every day, he would practice his tenor sax in the bedroom when I when to my grandparents’ house after school. He always told me about the times of World War II, when he played clarinet in an army band stationed in Asia. He never saw any combat.
I started violin lessons in the first grade. Every Saturday morning, Grandpa would take me to our nearby Suzuki school (which was of excellent caliber), and I’d have violin classes along with other children of my same level. There were also private lessons I had once weekly, where I studied one-on-one with a teacher. I really loved music. Every day after school at my grandparents’, I’d play my Suzuki tapes, recordings of music that I learned from the Suzuki violin method. I was a good student.
Music began to get sour when I entered middle school. Depression hit my life overall, striking me with feelings of uselessness, and my music-making too sullied. When I tried to practice, feelings of self-hatred swirled around me, and so I learned to equate music with negative self-talk. Yet it was more sinister because it was wordless.
And so my adolescence was a battle, between music as a shining inspiration, as well as it being a relentless evil spirit. I collapsed in ninth grade, being hospitalized for the first time. Upon discharge, I decided to stop playing the viola. But the next year, I felt the pull of music and resumed studies. This self-searing battle prevented me from practicing as much as I wanted, so it was hard for me to keep up with my musician peers. Yet I did, and I played with the best and brightest of New York’s classical musicians, playing in prestigious youth orchestras as a high schooler.
I went to a conservatory for college, basically because I only knew myself to be a musician. What else can I do? There’s nothing other than music that I can study, because that’s all I am. Such was my outlook. I was a proficient violist and kept up with the demands of conservatory, but my battle in the practice room made me disappointed in myself. I wanted nothing more than to practice at least three hours a day, but tears hit me after an hour if I was lucky.
Perhaps my aversion is not entirely unfounded. Conservatory life is not a cakewalk, mentally speaking. We musicians are highly-trained specialists, having spent nearly our entire lives perfecting our skills on an instrument that occupies the space normally assumed by a best friend. Some of us pursue a competitive career where our successes are determined by the failures of others as equally as dedicated. Orchestra auditions, where one plays behind a screen and is evaluated solely on the sound they produce. The practicing process also, a solitary act often occurring in a tiny, windowless room.
And then private lessons, oh aye. The pinnacle of one’s week, where you lug your instrument in its case to your professor’s studio (we don’t say office), and then play the music you were assigned to play in the previous session. Scales and etudes for younger beginners perhaps, which feels like a grave insult. The dream of the violist is to play the full repertoire: the sonatas of Brahms, the Bartok Viola Concerto, the works of Hindemith. We violists play much 20th and 21st-century repertoire, much of it avant-garde.
At times, it feels like music instructors operate on 15th-century psychology. You go into a lesson, play your heart and soul out, and then the teacher says, “Do this, do that…just copy me. Oftentimes, teachers can’t verbally explain what they want done, which is understandable given that music is a complicated process involving both human anatomy and sound production. It is only the highly specialized pedagogue who can really explain minute technical details.
At the same time, the word “lazy” is brandished wildly, an insult cutting into the flesh of people who don’t practice enough or those who do not progress quickly enough. I fell into the latter category. I wanted to practice, but could not. There was no room for investigating mental illness, but instead I assumed I was lazy.
I tried to unlearn this laziness by hurling myself at all musical opportunities I found interesting. I studied violin/viola pedagogy with a renowned pedagogue. I explored body kinesthetics and posture In relation to viola playing. I also played in the school’s baroque orchestra, wielding a delightful baroque viola and bow specifically intended for historically accurate performances. Music from the 17th and 18th centuries played on contemporary instruments of those times.
My enthusiasm for the career ended after finishing my undergraduate degree. I didn’t play as well as I wanted, and then I developed schizophrenia. The act of practicing felt like self-harm, and the sadistic message of the music I created destroyed my sanity. I was hospitalized again, and I had to stop playing.
That was ten years ago. I still have not resumed playing at the level I once had, and I feel like I’m starting to forget things. I intellectually remember everything I learned in college, but my fingers are flabby. Yesterday, I spoke to my brother about musical modes and scales. I tried to play a whole-tone scale, and I messed up the last three notes or so. That was a frustrating experience.
I don’t want to forget my musician self, although life is pulling me in that direction at the moment. I’ve strongly considered selling my white elephant of a viola, resting assured that my violin will suffice to satisfy my musical desires as both performer and violin teacher. Yet I still cling to the white elephant, too “lazy to sell it.”
The sound of music still feels like repelling magnets in my mind. I hope this changes one day.