“You paid for your lesson and I expect you to be here. I don’t care how sick you are,” said Julie. I was too sick from my chemo treatment the day before to argue with her and tell her how much I hated her at that moment. How could she make me come to a lesson when I couldn’t even stop throwing up?
Julie had very strict rules and boundaries and no matter how much I hated her for this, I respected her for them even more. In her mind, she had carved out time in her schedule for me and she expected me to honor that.
Besides not feeling well, I hadn’t been able to practice my violin since my lumpectomy because I couldn’t lift my left arm. I didn’t realize that it would take more than two years before I had full range of motion again and regain sensation.
Five months earlier I had begun taking improvisational violin lessons with Julie. With a rigid classical upbringing since age six, I had never learned to play anything that wasn’t musically notated and I was excited to learn a new style of playing. When I saw Julie’s ad for improv lessons, I knew this was my chance
Our progress had been slow. I was terrified at first to have to make up random notes on the spot for fear that I might play a “wrong” note.
“Where do I even start?” I often asked her. I was used to being told how and what to play from a teacher or orchestra conductor. I envied the musicians who had never learned to read music and played from their soul. I always had trouble letting myself go because I felt out of control.
Julie was my toughest critic and biggest supporter and I appreciated this. If I didn’t practice, she would express her disappointment saying I needed to be more prepared for the following week. She accepted no excuses and I couldn’t get away with anything. Oftentimes I loathed her for this. But I only loathed her because she called me on things I didn’t want to admit to myself. As much as I hated her at times, I also loved her for making me a better player and person. After my diagnosis she became my life coach as well as music teacher.
Somehow I made it across town to her studio without throwing up in the cab and unzipped my violin case begrudgingly. I was still upset with her for being such a stickler about everything. Here I was, sick as a dog, and she was worried about people following her schedule.
“Asha, I’m glad you came. We’re going to change our path a little in your lesson while you are undergoing treatments.”
I was silent, still irritated.
“First, we’re going to drone. It’s kind of like meditation. I want you to close your eyes and find one note that resonates within your body
I lifted up my instrument and surprisingly I was able to hold it with little pain. I closed my eyes and started wandering around the fingerboard trying to find a note that I liked. Finally I found it. It was a low G. I played long bows on the G a couple times and then opened my eyes.
“Is this what you want me to do?” I asked, looking for validation.
“Yes. But keep your eyes closed and continue to play.”
I began droning on my G string.
“Let yourself really feel the note through your whole body,” she continued.
Within a few minutes, I had completely lost myself in this single note. My body felt more relaxed and I didn’t notice the queasiness as much.
“Good,” she said softly after a few more minutes of droning. “Now you’re going to play a sound story. I want you explain to me how you felt about going into the hospital yesterday from the moment you woke up until the end of the chemo.”
“Well, it was sort of…” I began.
“I don’t want you to tell me in words. I want you to tell me through your music and your instrument.”
Keeping my eyes closed, I began my sound story, softly and hesitant at first. After all, this is how I felt when I entered the hospital doors. I guided her through my day through notes, dynamics and different tempi. There were soft and peaceful sections where I was relieved to see familiar nurses who would be by my side during the treatment. Fast and loud sections on my higher strings where my heart raced as the nurse approached me with the IV. Lighthearted sections where my friends and I attempted to joke. And calm parts as the drugs entered my system. As my eyes became weary from the drugs and began to close, I ended my story on the low open G string once again. My story incorporated every kind of emotion possible that I had been experienced through that day.
It was the first time I had been able to let go of my self-consciousness, while improvising. I wasn’t worried what would come out of my instrument or what Julie might think. I didn’t try to make a certain sound or play something I thought might sound good. But rather I was in the moment, playing from my heart, expressing everything I had felt that day. I didn’t think – instead the music just flowed through my fingers and out of my instrument. It was freeing.
There was a silence in both Julie and I for well over thirty seconds as we took in what had just transpired. So many emotions had just run through me, as I recalled the anxiety about what chemo would be like, comfort knowing my friends were with me, petrified about the thought of dying, nervousness as the red poison seeped into my veins through an IV, relief that it was over. Without any words, Julie understood what I had gone through that day solely through my music.
To be able to express myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to in words to anyone thus far was a huge relief. I felt peace and calm. I didn’t need Julie’s approval. For the first time I had played something authentic – it was me and there was nothing that could be wrong with that.
When I finally opened my eyes and looked at her, she had a smile on her face that I had never seen.
“Asha, that was the best improvisation you have ever done. It was incredibly moving and I understood everything you were saying. You get a sticker today.”
I had never received a sticker in the entire five months I had studied with her. She opened my lesson book and carefully placed a musical note sticker in it with a hand-written smiley face next to it. Julie rarely gave stickers out and only did so if you were absolutely deserving. The sticker signified a huge turning point in my playing. I finally understood what it meant to play from my heart.