5 min read | Nov 2020

Classical Music Saved Me

A woman explains how her lessons helped her escape her day-to-day troubles.

Nocturne / Millennial / Progressive / Musician

I’m well into my thirties now, but I still remember my elementary music classroom: the wind chimes at the front of the class, the magical forbidden cabinet full of recorders, drums and tambourines. One day, I peeked in the music room door as I walked down the hall after school. One of the fifth graders in the room lifted a shiny golden handbell, and the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard enveloped me like a hug.

“Next year, I want to play handbells,” I told my mother as she drove my brothers and me home from school that day. “And when I’m in fifth grade, I’ll be in the orchestra.”

 “Sure,” she said, and nodded in the vaguely supportive way mothers do when their children announce their intentions to be astronauts or scientists or superheroes.

Some people never discover their life’s purpose. At eight years old, mine was revealed to me in an instant. What I didn’t know then was that the kindness of my music teachers would forever change the course of my life.

How Music Lessons Changed My Life

The first music teacher whose kindness would save me entered my life when I was in sixth grade. By then I had been playing the viola in my school orchestra for two years. Each evening I perched on the edge of my bed with a cheap wire stand in front of me to practice. Back in the days of dial-up internet and AOL CDs, there was no free sheet music at the click of a button.

Desperate for enrichment beyond my regular orchestra class, I used to dig through the recycling bin for sheet music the upperclassmen had discarded. 

Mrs. L, an orchestra teacher who worked at the same school as my mother, offered to give me private lessons for free. At the time, my mother was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, from which she would eventually recover. My mother’s other coworkers dropped off salads and casseroles. But Mrs. L devoted an hour each week for years to help me grow as a musician.

At that first lesson, I stared wide-eyed as Mrs. L dug through piles of sheet music, then set a piece on my stand. She believed in excellent technique: a perfect bow hold, good posture and impeccable tuning. I soaked up her advice like a wilting flower soaking up the rain. When I imagine the perfect teacher, I think of Mrs. L, a generous soul who cared deeply about me, and who celebrated with joy when I achieved my goals.

By my freshman year of high school, I was fitting homework and chores around two hours or more of daily viola practice. Classical music offered a reprieve from a home life that had grown stressful. Each afternoon, my parents burst through the door of our home emotionally drained after working 12 or 14 hours at jobs that didn’t pay or appreciate them enough. Their frustration manifested itself in extreme control over their home environment. The kitchen had to be spotless, the lights immediately turned off if we stepped out of a room. As the only girl in a family that lived by strict gender roles, I folded my brothers’ clothes, carried their plates to the table after dinner to wash and scrubbed their sink and toilet while they watched TV. As teenagers, my siblings and I were never allowed to question my parents. When we expressed anything resembling anger, frustration or depression, my parents would make us apologize profusely for our selfishness and disrespect. I grew up believing it was my job to be an emotional punching bag for the adults in my life.

Classical Music Isn’t Elitist—It’s My Sanctuary

Playing the viola became my voice when I had none at home. The kindness and respect my orchestra classmates and teachers showed me fostered a deep love of classical music. When people think of classical music, they picture stuffy symphonies, rich people in tuxedos and elitist attitudes. What they could picture is me as a teenager: struggling but determined, in love with the beautiful sound of the viola and seeking a safe place where I could be myself. I connected to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in a way that I couldn’t connect to my family. This music, written hundreds of years ago, reached through time to capture the emotions I struggled with in the present day. 

I practiced every moment I could. R, the new advanced teacher Mrs. L had sent me to, helped me rise to the top of my youth orchestra and school program, then to the top of state-level competitions. A young teacher and accomplished violist, R’s blunt critiques and insistence on perfection belied her true compassion and generosity. She sacrificed her time and energy endlessly to help her students achieve their dreams.

My parents attended all my concerts. They loved to share my accomplishments with friends and relatives. But they were horrified when at the beginning of my senior year, I told them I wanted to major in music. They began to drop me off late for lessons. They stopped going inside to greet my teacher. At home, they accused R of brainwashing me, and refused to speak her name.

Unlike the order and rules of music theory, parent-and-child relationships are complicated tangles of scars and desires. My parents continued to pay for and drive me to lessons. On some level, they must have understood that ripping the viola from my life would have destroyed me as a person.

A Teacher Supported My Dreams When My Parents Didn’t

I never mentioned my parents’ disapproval to my teacher. R figured it out anyway. “Everyone doesn’t have to like me,” she shrugged. Her words embedded a powerful message in the mind of a young woman who believed her worth was tied to others’ approval.

R never said a negative word about my parents. Instead, she built up my confidence. After my concerts, she sent me encouraging emails. “After the way you played today, I know you have the guts to make it in the music business,” she told me. She ended most lessons with the words “I support you.” R also helped me schedule auditions at music schools around the country. At one lesson, she asked to speak to my mother. She presented the past four tuition checks my parents had written, untouched. “I won’t cash these,” she said. “Use them to take her to New York to audition instead.”

Somehow, R convinced my parents to buy the plane tickets. Terrified that they would cancel at the last minute, I held my breath until the plane took off from the runway. A week after my audition, the viola professor at the college in New York called me and offered me a full scholarship. The instrument I loved and the teachers who cared about me had become my ticket out of an unhealthy environment. I packed my bags three months in advance.

How I’m Paying Forward the Kindness I Was Shown

I haven’t seen R in years, but the kindness she showed me when I was a teenager resonated throughout the rest of my life. At our last lesson, R hugged me goodbye. She wished me luck and told me she believed in me. The next week, I boarded a plane to New York with my viola and a giant suitcase. As I looked out the window at my hometown shrinking beneath me, my favorite Brahms sonata played in my head.

Seven years and a few music degrees later, I moved back to my hometown. Each week, students carrying musical instruments step into my office. I teach them proper bow holds and posture. Like my own teachers, I know that kindness and high standards produce good musicians and happy children.

When students tell me they want to major in music, I help them learn their music and navigate auditions, even when they’re unable to pay me. Sometimes the students with the most potential and drive are the ones with the least resources. So far, I’ve sent six young violists and violinists to college. Three of them earned full scholarships. Some of these students have become the first in their family to graduate from college. A few of them have already returned to our local music community as orchestra teachers to help the next generation of music students.

In a genre of music considered elitist by many, Mrs. L and R showed me a generosity that was anything but exclusive. Their kindness welcomed me into a space where I felt respected and loved. I’ve learned that in the classical music world, someone is always there to help out when you need it. One of my greatest joys has been growing from the child who needed a hand into the adult who can offer one.

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