“Don’t take this the wrong way…”

I’m working on a piece right now that I just love. It’s the Romance by Max Bruch. It’s an enchanting piece—a warm, romantic, dynamic viola rises up over a rich orchestral backdrop for about ten minutes of awesome. It brings everything that’s great about the viola right to the surface. The sensuality, the richness and depth and sensitivity. In a way, I’ve been preparing for this ten minutes for about 25 years. In a more immediate way, I’ve been preparing the piece for about 5 or 6 weeks now, and it has quickly become one of my absolute favorites.

Those of you who know me well (all three of you who are reading this), will know that I’ve been working with a master viola teacher—truly, a master—for the past three years. (See this post.) As much as I enjoy writing, I honestly don’t have words to express what it means to me that this man was willing to take me on as a student, to believe in me, to push me past what I thought were my limits, until I’m playing music that I never in a hundred, hundred years would have believed I could play. Incredible. What an amazing thing it has been and continues to be. This week, after playing the first page, he stopped me, smiled, and said these words:

“Don’t take this the wrong way… but you sound like a damned viola player.”

I can’t think of any other comment that I’ve ever received that has meant as much to me as that one. After all these years, after the meandering, wandering, winding path I’ve taken to find my way back to this instrument that I started playing when I was 10 years old… hearing those words made me want to sit on the floor and cry, in a good way. For years, deep down inside me, there has been this dark terror—a terrible fear that I won’t make it. That I will never be a “real” musician, that I had my chance and I missed it, and I might as well quit now before I embarrass myself. I’ve been with my teacher for three years now, and the dark places in the back of my mind are still terrified that I won’t be able to make any more progress, or that I’ll be too slow, or too weak, and that one day he won’t want to teach me anymore… that thought is crushing. For the most part, I’m able to shut out those voices in my head, and practice anyway, and get on with the work. But the fear is real—and letting go of fear is hard. Those words, “you sound like a damned viola player”, unlocked something inside me. It felt like I was able to let the light in for a minute, to allow the idea that maybe, just maybe, I really can do this. And all those voices in my head are wrong.

Making great music, great art of any kind, is hard. You put so much of yourself into it, and then you kneel and bow your head, and hold your arms out and offer your art to the world. Sometimes, the world is cruel. Comments and criticism can cut deep, and it can be hard to keep going. Good criticism is vital to making great art, but it takes patience, kindness, and a keen mind to offer the kind of commentary that can actually make someone’s art better instead of tearing it down. It’s Thanksgiving this week. And this Sunday evening, I’m feeling thankful that for three years now, not only have I had a voice telling me the kinds of things I need to hear in order to make great music, but that voice has also been telling me that my music is worth making. I’m almost starting to believe it. And that is worth more to me than I can say. Honestly.

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