The oblong purple case refused to nestle into the cardboard box. Frustrated, I pulled it out and pushed it back under the bed where it had sat for the past six months. Surrounded by piles of clothes and bags of trash, I crouched down in the few feet of available space and ran through a dwindling list of options, but to no avail: my violin case wouldn’t fit anywhere.
Eight years of learning, practicing, and performing violin had been neatly tucked away in this case. And so, after the fateful email on March 10, 2020 that shut down campus, my violin was just another item swept into the flurry of condensing and packing. That Saturday afternoon, I squeezed it into a car trunk, drove 250 miles home, and returned it, now dust-free, to its shelf.
In quarantine, I came face-to-face with a shut case. Day after day, its silver zippers glinted and danced in the sun as I walked by en route to the kitchen. A beat. Then I walked on, feeling torn with the lingering thought of what once was.
I squinted at Mozart’s Concerto in D Major, the black lines covered with stars, circles, and arrows. The metronome ticked away and flashed as my teacher tapped her pencil in double time. Mozart should be rhythmically even, sparkling, and elegant, yet for the past 10 minutes I had blundered through the same five measures with awkward, beleaguered strokes. Slowing down, playing the notes in isolation, and trying a different rhythm had all yielded the same heavy results.
Our valuable hour-long time slot was slipping away with every failed attempt. My teacher shook her head and waved her hand, signaling for us to move on, and I made an umpteenth mental note to return to this measure when practicing at home. The audition was just two weeks away, which meant practicing, polishing, and nailing every last detail on repeat.
And faceless, back-turned judges were looking for more than the right notes and rhythm: they wanted your playing to align with their vision of the appropriate dynamics, technique, and style for the excerpt. Then they would package each performance into neat little checkboxes labeled intonation, tone, and musicality and accompanied by a handy point scale.
There was a whole world of possible slip-ups: a few notes a sliver flat or sharp, the piano not piano enough, a tempo taken a few clicks too slow. Each spelled elimination from the competition.
Nine months in advance, the clock would start ticking. Pick up the notes and the rhythm, follow the dynamics, listen to the masters, drill the articulations, phrase the melody, run through each section. I dissected and stitched together challenging excerpts, pored over the manuscript to explicitly notate dynamics, and agonized over my clumsy fingers that refused to articulate properly. My teacher and I examined and re-examined every last detail, always through the lens of making the end product: a two-minute excerpt in an audition or a nine-minute movement in a recital, immaculate and show-stopping.
For eight years, I raced through scales, études, and concerti with the same blinders on. Through auditions and recitals, I was constantly seeking validation in a clean performance, proof that I could call myself a musician. I strived to fit in, hopping from school to music lesson to orchestra rehearsal to practice, squeezing through crowds with my purple case, and making fun of violists (as violinists do).
But even after a successful audition, I could not rest because my peers pushed on. During breaks in our six-hour orchestra rehearsals, other violinists a few rows ahead of me would erupt into passages filled with complex techniques. They would push each other to go faster, be more expressive, or play a more challenging piece. I looked up to them as stars I could never even dream of sharing the stage with. With stars like them shooting across the sky, would there ever be room for me?
This doubt reached a breaking point when I came to Harvard. Freshman fall, I fell flat on a scale during an audition and didn’t make the cut. I suddenly realized my peers were international and national competition winners. I stopped playing. My world fell silent, my violin case slipped under the bed, and my sheet music lay untouched.
Nearly a full year into the vacuum of quarantine and isolation, I hopped online in search of classical music to play while studying. I clicked on the first link and found myself listening to 105.9 FM WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station. The familiar notes brought on a rush of nostalgia as I leaned back in my childhood bedroom chair, soaking in the music riding over the airwaves.
Tuning into WQXR online or on the app soon became a ritual. Seven a.m. on Saturday is reserved for listening to Grieg’s “Morning Mood” played to the sunrise and the Piano Puzzler quiz show. Four p.m. calls for the “Score at Four” featuring movie scores, while 11 o’clock evenings dive deep into analyzing and exploring diverse pieces.
For the first time, I take a seat in the audience and listen to others perform over the airwaves.
WQXR’s hosts are up all night and day as a listening companion, ready to introduce a piece and share a tidbit about the composer or the music. Free from the pressure of delivering the final polished product of a performance, I can now appreciate music for all its nuances, rich in texture, story, and history. Mozart’s Concerto in D Major is more than a minefield of delicate ornaments potentially destroyed with a shaky bow, but a collective breath of fresh air, an optimistic melody in these bleak times. Manuscripts I had scribbled on and overanalyzed break free of the past and come alive as music.
While simply enjoying classical music may seem like a regression from my many performances of the past, I am content to just listen. It took distance and acceptance, two gifts of this quarantine, to unlearn the old habit of listening to music only with my next performance in mind. Now, I welcome each piece with its own infinite world of interpretations and strive to better understand music as a whole, beyond a series of timed bow strokes.
I ache for more connections to the music beyond the staff, to learn more about the context, the composer, the vision, to learn what eight years of playing could not teach me. I am reading memoirs about re-discovering music, comping WHRB’s Classical Music Department, and taking a music theory class — activities I thought I had scattered into dust long ago — to make these connections. Music is more than a performance; it is a story that can be enjoyed as the storyteller or the listener.
As I walk by the oblong purple case basking in the sun, I hear the muted tones of a violin. Tentatively, I step forwards and feel the cold zipper in my hands: pull left and pull right. Inside, the violin lays flat, the metallic strings loose, and the rosin long dried on the bow.
With newfound strength, I begin to tune.
— Staff writer Felicia Y. Ho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HoPanda007.