I’m enjoying, of late, the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, the ex-wife of movie director James Cameron – of Titanic and Avatar fame. The book is an exercise in “unblocking your artist.” I’ve felt very “blocked” of late, which is why I haven’t written much here – or anywhere, for that matter. The steps Julia lays out are simple, yet very difficult at times. I’m going down this road with a community of fellow-travellers, including my wife, and my friend Anna, who writes about it here and here.
One of the assignments I chose for this week was to write out a “horror story” from my past. As my wife has begun to perform more, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own past as a violinist. I say my “past,” because I rarely even pick it up anymore, much less perform. This story, I’m starting to realize, was a major turning point in the life of my artist. It was twelve years ago this spring . . .
The young man waited in the wings with bated breath. He’d been on this stage before – many times in fact. This theater was like an old friend to him. He had quite literally grown up here. Singing, acting, and – as he was this time – playing his beloved violin.
The violin had not always been beloved – it was something with which he had struggled for 13 of his 17 years. Sometimes he had hated it, sometimes he had loved it. Many times he had been forced to choose how to spend the limited amount of time in his days . . . give up the violin, or give up something else. Baseball, piano, trumpet . . . each time he had chosen to give them up in order to keep that violin.
Now he was here, participating in a high school competition for the right to play a solo performance with the local symphony. The previous year, he had competed on this same stage, and had come up short.
In the intervening year, a lot had happened for the young artist. He had a new teacher, a new sound, a new love for his instrument. What had once been dogged determination to keep going had blossomed into a genuine love for the skill that he had allowed to define him.
And here he was at the end of the afternoon, waiting in the wings – waiting for the disembodied voice from the stage to announce the winner.
There were only two competing that year. His rival was another violinist, a boy a few years his junior, with whom he had played many times. Once they had studied with the same teacher, and often they had found themselves playing in the same orchestras, the same performances, the same competitions. Once the other boy had been his junior in skill as well, but no longer. Now, the younger boy had surpassed him – and they both knew that if the judges in today’s competition had much in the way of ability, it would be the younger boy who took home the top prize.
It was not that he hadn’t played well in the competition . . . in fact, he had never played better in his life, but the intervening year since he had last faced this stage had been a difficult one for our young man . . . a “rebuilding” year, as they say. While he felt better equipped this time around – a better musician, with a better understanding of his craft – he also felt less prepared, with a less difficult piece of music that he had nevertheless spent countless hours getting just right, relearning and rebuilding techniques that had been inadequately trained the first time around, while learning to love the piece as well. He just wasn’t sure it was enough.
Lately, he had been struggling with the idea of what his art meant for his future. He was planning to go to college soon . . . was already taking junior college courses while still in high school, in fact. His goal, at that point, was to pursue something related to service in government: law, perhaps . . . or politics.
But somewhere in the back of his mind, lately, had been the nagging voice that asked him periodically, “what about your music?” He always shut that voice down – it wasn’t what he wanted, after all. He loved playing his violin, but he wanted more out of life, he thought, than the struggling career of a starving artist.
None of this, though, flashed through his mind at that moment. What did was the disembodied voice calling his name.
Generally, there was an order to such things . . . they would call the third place finisher first, and work their way down to the winner. In this instance, though, there were only two, and nobody had outlined for them whether the winner would be called first, or not. The disembodied voice had been distorted by the curtains, cloths and ropes that hung off the side of the stage, and our young artist could not hear what had been said. He heard only his name.
As the waiting hands of the stage manager pushed him toward the stage to step out and meet the owner of the disembodied voice, he asked nervously, “did I win?”
Nobody answered his first inquiry, so he asked it again, both embarrassed and nervous now, as he approached the light that marked the portion where he could be seen by the audience.
“No,” the stage manager’s pity-filled whisper followed him out onto the stage, where, mortified, he walked over and accepted the ludicrously hollow award for taking second place among only two competitors.
Afterward, in the lobby, he encountered one of the judges – a musician from a local family of musicians, whose opinion he valued and respected – and, truth be told, agreed with in this case.
“Maybe next year,” she said sympathetically, trying to cheer him up as she walked toward the exit to leave.
Softly, he replied, “I’m not eligible next year – I’m graduating.”
She said nothing – could say nothing . . . she just left as he sat on the lobby steps, alone, trying not to dissolve into tears.
He would perform again – taking the stage in a sea of faces with an orchestra, jamming with a worship band for church and chapel ceremonies, or gathering with small groups of fellow artists to fill in the atmosphere by playing background music at weddings or other small venues. Nine months later, he would again join on that same stage with the one who had bested him there. As the younger boy claimed the right he had earned to play a solo performance with the orchestra, the older one would sit anonymously as a member of the orchestra’s violin section.
As he sat on those steps, holding back the tears, he had little inkling that he had just completed his last performance as a soloist.