By Alex Hastings
Of all the chaos and terror I endured during my first day of high school, my first experience in orchestra class haunted me the most. I whined to my mom after dinner that day, explaining how unstructured the class was and how I would have to practice every single day. Yes, I enjoyed playing the violin… somewhat… but I didn’t “practice for hours every single day” enjoy it. To me, music was a defense against boredom. It was a hobby. However, throughout high school, music went from an after-school distraction to becoming my life’s calling. I learned that music class was not just play time and rules about how one should hold their pinky finger on the bow. Rather, it was a medium that taught life lessons that my other classes never mentioned. Here are the top eight lessons that I learned in music class:
1. People need people.
To be honest, this one was hard for me to admit. Being a devout introvert, I spent most of high school thinking that I could do everything alone. Perhaps this is why I began spending hours a day shut in a room practicing the violin by myself. I even learned how to make myself sound like a group of violinists by recording the parts to songs on top of each other to make an orchestra. I was my own band-- I didn’t need anyone else.
Later, I participated in an orchestra event with musicians from all around the Northwest. After only a few days of rehearsal, we performed Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. The orchestra’s sound that swallowed me was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Since that event, nothing has ever come close to matching the thrill of hearing a full orchestra. Over time, I’ve come to learn that part of the magic of an orchestra lies in the fact that hundreds of unique people can suddenly come together and sound like one voice. Not even the greatest soloist in the world can create a sound that replaces that feeling.
2. In order to fully understand joy, you have to fully experience emptiness.
The greatest composers in history often had the most unfortunate circumstances. Beethoven suffered from social awkwardness and anger problems. Mussorgsky was an alcoholic. Tchaikovsky attempted to kill himself. These are just a few of the long list of troubled artists. Countless successful composers and musicians faced tragic situations, but these experiences introduced their ability to write music with intense emotional messages.
An artist could not paint a picture of something they never seen or conceived of before. They have to know what to paint before they paint it. In the same way, composers and musicians can only portray emotions in their music if they personally know how to feel them.
3. Great things aren’t always planned.
Playing in string quartets at weddings can be a great experience… until someone forgets their music stand, a lovely breeze faithfully blows sheet music everywhere, and the temperature outside makes your fingers forget what a violin is. However, these performance setbacks never seemed to completely ruin a gig for me. Someone in the group comes up with a brilliant makeshift music stand, the violist spontaneously plays an entire song from memory, and the cellist forgives my dumb mistakes due to cold fingers. These kinds of performances always stand out in my memory as more fulfilling than the ones with no setbacks.
4. There is no fast track to success.
“Prodigies” are the archenemy of every amateur musician’s existence. As easy as it is to resent them, their success was not magically thrown at them. They did not simply appear on the earth being able to flawlessly execute Paganini’s 24th Caprice. They spent long hours in the practice room to get to that point, just like the rest of us.
5. The more you know, the less you know.
Just when I think I am about to get a good grasp on violin technique, a short masterclass with an expert whips me off my high horse. The more advanced you get as a musician, the more precise and picky you have to be. It keeps us humble and allows us to bring our performances to new levels, rather than settling for “good enough.” Part of being a musician is committing to always finding out the next thing to work on.
6. Mistakes are not failures.
As with any performing art, it can be easy to become crippled by self doubt. When your mistakes are set on a sparkling, mile-high pedestal for the world to see, it sometimes feels like any imperfection makes you a failure. One of the hardest trials to overcome as a musician is listening to mistakes over and over in the practice rooms without giving up altogether. However, practicing the same two notes obsessively for hours and finally overcoming a mistake can become one of the most satisfying feelings. The most fulfilling performances I have given are the ones in which I successfully execute a phrase that I remember spending weeks fine-tuning.
7. Beauty is imperfection.
Computers seem to “beat” humans at almost everything. However, people have yet to computer-generate a musical instrument that sounds as good as the real thing. Computer logic simply cannot reproduce the immensely complicated sound wave of a real-life instrument. No two sound waves created by an instrument look exactly the same, which is part of what makes live sound so much more powerful than that of a recording. It is the dents in a violin string and the scratches in its wood that make such an imperfect, unpredictable, yet beautiful note that no precision of a computer could ever match.
8. The greatest blessing in life is to serve others.
Although science cannot truly explain it, something in the human brain is programmed to need music. We can’t help it. Sometimes I think that ultimate happiness would be performing as a featured soloist in Carnegie Hall, but time has shown me that winning competitions and being the soloist leaves a small lingering of emptiness. The times when I have been the most happy were the times that I have seen someone truly touched by music. It might not be possible to explain objectively, but something about music heals us and brings us peace-- even in the most hopeless, traumatic times.
"To send light into the darkness of men's hearts: such is the duty of the artist."