When I was 11, my parents put a violin in my hands. Kind of because they didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn't good at football or basketball like my brother, and I couldn’t shoot a gun or throw the shot put like my sister. (Yes, that is correct.) But I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star like nobody’s business, and I had found my thing. My parents knew I'd found it because their faces lit up when I played and it was off to years of lessons, orchestras, and recitals.
Here comes the back story. When I started off in this world, I didn't realize I was what some would call "weird." That was learned. What I knew was my imagination took me to exciting worlds with spectacular characters I could spend hours with. What others saw was a strange little boy who walked around talking to himself and refused to confront reality or make real friends. I get it.
In fifth grade, Mrs. Terrell pulled me out of class to tell me I would be part of G.E.T. Gifted, enriched, and talented. Those all sound like positive words, right?10-year old me heard, “YOU'RE A FUCKING WEIRDO!” I began to feel strange and out of place, and the desire to blend in emerged. Fantasy seemed silly, and I tried not to visit my make-believe worlds too often. Growing up, reality wasn't so fun for me either - I felt the need to disconnect.
Enter the violin. Immersed in music, everything around me stopped. Music was an "acceptable" form of escape, and people started encouraging me to stand out with my talent.
In my musical fantasy world, I was a famous violinist like Itzahk Perlman playing Bach and Vivaldi to sold out concert halls all over the world. It wasn't difficult to practice because time stood still and I connected to every note on the page.
By the time I reached High School it seemed I had a promising musical path ahead of me. But something else happened in High School. The separation between reality and fantasy became much more apparent to me, and in my reality I would never be as good as Itzhak, so why even try?
When I graduated, a whole lot of life came at me. I was 23 when I came out as gay and was excommunicated from my religion of origin and shunned by my family and friends. When the rug was pulled out from under me, I craved stability and the predictable path. So, I decided to stop playing the violin. I decided it wasn’t rational or feasible to pursue my dreams.
So, my violin sat in the corner of whatever room I moved to. From Colorado to Florida, back to Colorado, and eventually to Chicago as I pursued my career. My "feasible and rational" career in technology. But nearly every day, I would look in the corner and feel a massive pain of guilt, as every day I knew the skill I spent years developing was slipping away.
And it wasn’t just that. Through music, I formed a special bond with my dad. He played the guitar, sang and wrote, and he truly appreciated my musicality. He bought me my first violin, and co-signed for the violin I own now. In 2005, I lost my dad to colon cancer. Prior to that, we didn't talk for 2 years as it was his strong belief that being gay is a sin. He felt he was doing right in God's eyes and I forgive him. A week before he passed, he asked to see me. We had a very healing conversation in which I made him a promise that no matter how tough my life got or how broke I was, I would never sell my violin and I would never stop playing.
He must have intuitively known the day would come when I'd set my violin down. Right around the time of his death, when alcoholism and addiction came to visit me, it became extremely tempting to sell it as many months I found it difficult to pay rent. The deeper I plunged into addiction, the less I felt. There was no need to balance between fantasy and reality, I simply existed. The memory of the joy violin gave me was all but gone.
It was a cold day in February when I hit rock bottom and began to rebuild my life. In recovery, the fog began to lift, and things that seemed rather overwhelming and frightening weren’t so scary anymore. Finally the day came when I looked at my violin in the corner, and knew I couldn’t ignore it anymore. But I hadn’t touched it in over 5 years, and I just knew I was going to suck.
However, I made the resolve to follow my childhood bliss of playing the violin, so I hopped on takelessons.com and scrolled through the teachers. I landed upon Katherine, a student at DePaul School of Music here in Chicago. I chose her because she had a friendly face, and she was doing what I wish I would have done with my college years; she was studying the violin.
For my first lesson, I told her I hadn’t played in over 5 years, and she was so encouraging. She said, “Don’t worry, it’ll come right back." Then I played for her, and she said “Well, you’re much better than the elementary school girls I usually teach.” I continued on because I sucked, but I was better than those little girls, so at least I had that. Once I got through the initial discomfort of sounding like I was murdering cats, I was able to re-discover that magical place I go where everything around me slows down to a stop.
Within a few months, I was ready to perform a recital again - Neckties & Violins. It wasn't a sold out concert hall, but I played Bach and Rachmoninoff in front of 50+ friends and strangers. It wasn't perfect. In fact, I had to stop during the first piece, take a deep breath, and tell the audience I needed to start again. When I finished, I felt completely deflated because I'd made mistakes, and didn't sound the way I had in rehearsal.
Then something amazing happened. People came up to me in tears, and told me how beautiful my performance was, and how moved they were by my story. Many told me about passions and childhood dreams they'd been afraid to re-connect with. One of my friends even decided to quit his job to pursue his dream of being a fitness instructor. It was a moment in time that I will absolutely never forget.
What I’ve learned is that sometimes childhood dreams may not look exactly the way you thought, and that's okay. I’ve re-connected with something really special, and I won’t ever forget that.
When I play, I'm overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and somehow I feel my dad is with me in the fantasy world I'm swept away to. So, even if I’m never famous like Itzhak playing to sold out concert halls, I’ve always got that.
What's your violin story? I'd love to hear about re-connecting to your childhood dreams in the comments below.