The Sound of Growth
The wind whips my hair, stinging my eyes that are rolling at my lack of sleep. My viola hangs haphazardly on my shoulder weighing my body down and bringing an ominous soreness to my back. I glide through the glass door after a cellist whose instrument is decorated with cool bumper stickers. One of the stickers is Olaf from Let It Go and I could swear that he winks at me.
The woman at the front desk smiles at me and I try to smile back but I imagine it looks more like a wince. The turnstile bangs against my legs and shuts as I try, and fail, to follow the cellist’s movements into the building. Right ahead of me, a wooden panelled room is packed with lingering teenagers and instruments. I assume this room is my destination. In a few minutes, my viola is in my hands and I am nervously plucking a mindless tune, eyes searching for a friendly face. I sigh, longing for my bed and a few more hours of warm sleep.
We are herded upstairs and before me, a room opens up, stuffed with young musicians banging away on their instruments. Everyone is in their own little world, their eyebrows bunched together in focus, bodies creating spheres of musical colors. I am amazed and intimidated. I can feel the intense passion these people have for their craft and know that, while I do find music enjoyable, I rarely feel so enthusiastic.
When I reach my section, I am self-preservative about choosing my seat, making sure that I’m not right next to the booming horns. My seat is in the middle of the section, close enough to the front so that someone could hear my mishaps, but far enough away so that I have trouble hearing the conductor who looms before us on a platform. He is unrecognizable to me, as are most of the musicians in the room. I will eventually spend tedious and thrilling hours of rehearsal with these strangers.
My standmate is abrupt. He wants to focus on the music entirely and I am a distraction. He looks older than me, everyone does, but I can’t tell if he is in college or high school. I can see that he is sizing me up, hoping that I won’t elbow him in the face or knock over the stand. I soften him up with some pretty impressive small talk for someone who didn’t have any caffeine. My skilled page turning is appreciated, but I don’t dare ask questions, knowing that I am expected to know what col legno means. This rehearsal is a mess of contradictory expectations: I am supposed to play fluidly right away but I have never played a piece this complicated. What does the instruction col legno mean, anyways? (Col legno battuto is Italian for “hit with the wood” of your bow.)
The music notes are a scribble of marks on the paper, a language whose words I can understand separately but can’t string together into paragraphs. Only halfway through the first piece and I am a mess - hands shaking, tears pricking my eyes, heart beating as fast as a stallion’s gallop. This music is like nothing I've seen before; it's Philadelphia Orchestra worthy, can I learn to play this?
We are crammed in the room, giving us just enough bow room and just enough heat for us to want to yank off our jackets. It’s impressive that the cavernous room could be filled with people and sound. The banging of the percussion and tooting of the winds pounds on my ears, blocking me from hearing my own instrument. I'm used to trusting my fingers so it doesn't startle me as much as it did last year.
The music notes are a scribbling mess, a language whose words I can understand but can’t pronounce. I take deep breaths to calm my sweaty palms and remind myself how far I had come in a year. And I perfected that Stamitz concerto, didn't I?
The music coaches stand around the perimeter of the room, providing feedback when needed but mainly observing. I can feel their undying support and know we are expected to love music half as much as they do. The symphony finishes and all the string-players flourish their ending notes, with the bows raised in the hand. I laugh to myself - such drama queens. Did you know that when we’re rehearsing and someone plays their solo beautifully, all of the string players stop to wag their bows in the air? Can you imagine how ridiculous we all look? 100 students, shaking their bows in unison to “applaud” someone’s success? I admire the relatively new conductor, whose easy smiles and laughter ease my nerves, and I manage to not get lost in the symphony music or my nervousness.
Even though my feet are enveloped by socks, they are numb from the cold seeping from the wooden floor. I wiggle my toes as my teacher flies her fingers across her instrument, playing our next passage in Symphonie Fantastique. I nod and set my jaw, allowing my eyes to transcribe the music notes in movements for my hands.
My teacher lifts up her viola to cue me and we play the measure in a loop, over and over. After the fifth round, I could feel myself tiring and overthinking my fingers. After pausing, I put a star next to the measure, signifying it as a spot I would have to practice at home. My teacher nods and wishes me good luck for my first rehearsal. I thank her, thinking to myself: I’ll need it.
Truthfully, I was more prepared for this rehearsal than my two other experiences. I had looked over the music for starters, had listened to the complicated rhythms and eyed the syncopated sections, highlighting them with yellow sticky notes. I knew the entire viola section vaguely and had friends that I could laugh and relax with. The coaches were friendly with me the only difficulty was coping with their oppressive expectations.
In “The Yellow Birds”, the main character, Bartle, returns home after serving in the Iraq War. He returns to his family and friends who expect him to be unchanged and mentally sound. Bartle cannot meet either of these expectations and feels a disconnect between himself and the people he loved before the war. In my music community, I am expected to become a musician. In classical music, it is normal for successful musicians to dedicate their entire lives to music, especially since most musicians begin their careers young.
The idea that I had been playing an instrument since second grade, was involved in different orchestras and took private lessons, was the minimum for most of my friends. The Philadelphia All City Orchestra is considered prestigious - the finest student musicians in Philadelphia. The majority of the students arrived early, took pride in their seating and were involved in musical competitions that earned them scholarships, but also popularity.
My music teachers held me to the popular expectation of a professional music career path. Some teachers don’t fully understand that I am included in multiple extra curriculars and have not committed to one activity that prepares me for a career. Rather than one passionate hobby, I am spread across multiple pastimes not intensively.
Like Bartle in “The Yellow Birds”, I have to face my mentors’ expectations and be clear on what I want for my life. Interestingly, I have found that most of my teachers understand or at least accept my decision, as long as I stay diligent in my practicing. Not fulfilling other’s expectations and not conforming to my friends’ paths can be difficult, but I remind myself of the joy my varied interests bring me. Bartle and I fight internal and external battles that may make us feel lonely or different, but staying true to our complex selves provides a satisfactory reward.