Rediscovering my love for music in adulthood

Music doesn’t always have to be a performance—sometimes, it expresses what words can’t

Natara describes how she overcame performance anxiety by playing from a place of passion and power.

At the age of four, I first picked up a violin and started learning the language of music as an extension of my self-expression.

I continued my learning again at age six, when I sat atop a stack of small rugs on a piano bench and lay my right hand on the pristine white keys to find middle C at my first lesson.

Time, patience, discipline. To make progress and improve playing on an instrument, you need to practice every day, and that’s exactly what I did as a child.

I was young enough that practice just seemed like a natural part of everyday life. I practiced piano with my mom right after school, then I practiced violin with my dad when he came home from work.

The routine was normalized and ritualistic, and I soaked it up.

Before I knew it, I was attending music lessons four times a week, and my identity was slowly being shaped into a music kid.

Because I didn’t have the self-awareness to feel frustrated when I didn’t get something right nor feel nervous to play in front of an audience at recitals, my progression was quick.

No one expects a six-year-old playing a tiny, squeaky violin to be marvelous anyways. No one cares if you make a mistake—it’s cute if you mess up.

I remember getting really excited for my Christmas and end-of-year piano recitals. It was an opportunity to dress up in nice shoes and a fancy dress. To share something I’d been working on for months with everyone in my life.

***

This feeling of excitement began to change as I grew older.

By the time I was 12 or 13, my progress became slower as my self-awareness and self-consciousness grew.

I’m a quiet, shy person, and this identity followed me throughout elementary, middle, and high school. I embraced it and navigated my life with this identity, and it instilled in me this notion that I wasn’t good—and never would be good—at expressing myself.

I felt scrutinized whenever I did speak, which lowered my confidence for sharing anything, ever. That included music.

Playing in front of others was suddenly nerve-wracking and anxiety-provoking.

I couldn’t control my nerves during a solo recital. My hands would sweat and slip on the fingerboard, my violin bow would shake in my right hand. On the piano, my fingers would leap between keys too quickly.

It was always about getting through the song and hitting the right notes; all the elements adding to the musicality and the expression of the piece were forgotten on stage. 

I had no idea where the confidence from my childhood went, and why I couldn’t get it back.

Playing music became a game of mental fortitude. I began associating my instruments with fear and anxiety.

In retrospect, I can see how my nervousness partly arose from a lack of preparedness. I didn’t devote all my time to practicing anymore as life became busier with sports and school, but I was stuck in a cycle of defeat.

I lost the joy in playing because it always culminated in performances which I could hardly fathom, and my motivation to pick up my instruments to practice fell.

I was always so grateful to be immersed in the music world, and I wanted to be able to enjoy this privilege to its full extent.

***

By the time I finished high school, I was ready to put music behind me because it was associated with a lingering feeling of failure.

But I don’t think you can really fail at playing music if you can still find the joy in it. 

After years of dwindling joy and enhanced performance anxiety, something happened that began to change things.

Three years ago, my grandfather suddenly passed away. For the funeral, we travelled to Invergordan, a small town in the highlands of Scotland.

At the funeral, my three siblings and I played a four-part arrangement of “Wild Mountain Thyme” with violins we borrowed from a friend in town. We practiced for a couple hours the night before.

I could hardly even think about playing the right notes. No one in that church would’ve known if we made a mistake anyways.

Sometimes, music can express what words can’t. And all those music lessons—both in violin and piano—were worth it to produce a moment like that.

It wasn’t meant to be a performance, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t nervous at all.

I was playing for an audience because I wanted to. I was harnessing my skills and using them to create something really special for someone I loved. 

This newfound way of experiencing music was something I began to explore when I started at Queen’s. As I was trying to adjust to a new life in first year, I yearned for familiarity.

Music, of course, was something I’d known for my whole life.

One evening, I ventured into Harrison Le Caine, the music building. I hadn’t played the piano in months. In a chilly basement practice room, for the first time ever, I played the piano without an exam or solo performance looming over my head.

Since then, I’ve continued to pick up both the violin and the piano, just for the feeling of playing.

I feel confident taking up new instruments, including the guitar and the ukulele. Songs I hear in passing, from Debussy to Hans Zimmer, I try to learn on the piano. I hear a strings part in the background of a popular song and play along to it on the violin.

Even thought it was hard, all those years when music felt like a chore were worth it. The lessons, repetition, and hard work provided me with the foundation to explore my musicality beyond how I perform on a stage.

It’s taken a while for me to understand that to enjoy playing music, you need to play for yourself first.

I’m still quiet, I’m still a bit nervous. But I was given a gift, and despite who I think I am or what I think I’m confined to, I want to share this gift with others.

From now on, I’ll share it from a place of joy.

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