I’m consistently fascinated by how indelibly our young lives mark is, how we can spend a lifetime trying to understand, erase or change the rivers of programming carved into our being at the very beginning. And then there are the things we just happen to be and do and love, regardless of our experience. I, for example, seemed to have been born without the innate ability to enjoy things. From the beginning, almost everything was heavy and serious. Normal things that lighten life—like making friends—were not natural or easy. I knew at 4 that the earth was ~93 million miles from the Sun, but I didn’t know how to laugh. (Since then, Life has taught me these things I’d lacked, and now I’m very, very rarely serious.)
There was one thing, though that spoke to me in a way that numbers or people never could; something that transcended analysis and cut through all the layers of cerebral refusal to engage or enjoy, that hypnotized me and literally transported me (my consciousness at least). It was the only thing that truly made me feel in an uncontrolled, uncensored way. Obviously that one thing was Music.
I remember the first time I heard Beethoven. I don’t recall which piece it was, but I remember the feelings. Rich harmonies from lush strings rose from the speakers, dancing and intertwining with horn sections; the orchestra would peak in an almost frenzied build only to halt and leave a space so pregnant with tension I thought I’d burst. My experience can be described as something close to shock. I had no idea what I was feeling but I knew I was overwhelmed, and I knew I’d never be the same.
Since then, I’ve had love affairs with many topics and activities throughout my life, but Music has been my one constant (and my first) true love. When I was 8 my mom decided it was time for lessons. Both my sister and I were fortunate enough to go for weekly private instruction with a teacher who went to Julliard and toured as a concert pianist. He was an excellent pianist. I still remember the paintings of hills that looked to me like heaped carpets on his walls, the feel of his baby grand’s keys, and the sense that beneath his quiet exterior, my teacher was about to hop to his feet and smash absolutely everything in the room. He wasn’t a great teacher. I fell in love with piano though, or maybe it was more like lust. I practiced obsessively, on average 3 hrs a day on top of homework. I refused to leave the piano bench until I’d reached the point I set for learning a piece. (My parents had to keep refilling my glass of ginger ale because for some reason that’s all I would drink while playing.) By 9 I was playing concertos at recitals and by 11 I was somewhat bored with it and life traumas overtook the importance of lessons.
Flute lasted longer in my world. I played in the school band and orchestra through high school, and went on to major in the instrument in college. By the middle of college, though, I’d largely given up on the idea that I’d have a conventional orchestral music career. I had little patience for the politics of the department and how much ass one had to kiss to be granted any worthwhile opportunities. Also I completely lacked guidance; no professor, advisor, or older student took me under their wing. In fact I was largely shunned by classmates & faculty alike. I went to a conservatory, and what I hadn’t realized before attending was that it was, well…conservative. I was shocked when I showed up in my multicolored overly-wide palazzo pants and concert T to see most guys in sweater vests with ties and girls in prim sundresses or pants suits. I thought, “This is a MUSIC school. Where’s the edge, people?” Since I didn’t look the part—and refused to conform—I was treated accordingly. My talent for composition was mostly ignored and I was told, point blank, that since I didn’t look Asian (though I’m actually part Chinese), I’d never get a good seat in the flute section, and that since I was a woman, I’d never be a conductor. But wait, there’s more. While the professors were exceptionally trained musicians with rich backgrounds and experience in their field, many of them were frustrated failed performers or composers. They were only there because they didn’t get what they’d aimed for in their professional lives, and they took it out on some of their students – like Mr. C, my composition 101 professor. I’d written a quartet for strings for an assignment. Each student’s piece was performed by actual players, and when mine was played, most students had their mouths hanging open—more so when they learned it was mine. I got a C. Minus. Why? I still don’t know; my angry, frustrated professor never gave me an explanation or any productive critical feedback. If the piece sucked, or if I’d done things “wrong” from the technical perspective, I’d accept that. I wasn’t egotistical enough to think that just because I’d been inspired to create this music, it was actually good from a compositional standpoint. When I went to my professor to understand how I could be and do better, he gave me some half-mumbled BS that held no helpful or useful information. He said something about “not following the rules of counterpoint,” but nothing I could internalize and use. That one experience really decided things for me.
Looking back, I suppose I could have pushed through. I could have said “Screw that, I’ll show you.” I could have gone to Salvation Army and bought preppy clothes and shown up at 5am (when I’d only gotten home from my restaurant job at 2am) to rent out a practice room and prove my dedication. I could have stayed after rehearsal or class to ask empty questions and fawn over what the Professor or Conductor said. I could have flirted (ewww). But I didn’t. I’m still not absolutely sure why, though I suspect I didn’t have the energy to fight the system when all I wanted to do was learn and be good at what I did. I worked most days to support myself, long hours too, and did my classwork. Where was I going to find time or energy to be the student I needed to be to succeed in conservatory? I didn’t see it as a possibility, and I was angry and disappointed at how the school functioned. Then again, maybe I was just a punkass kid who was too stubborn, lazy, and/or stupid to appreciate the potential opportunities I’d been given, or could have had if I’d just tried harder.
And then again still, maybe I never really wanted to be a classical musician anyway.