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My Body’s Extension MAG
I am in the gymnasium of an unfamiliar high school with my piano accompanist, having arrived early for my All-State audition. There is just one piano and a sea of candidates, all of us trying to practice in the final seconds before our auditions. In my assigned classroom I wait for what feels like an eternity, quietly considering every terrible scenario that could happen during my audition. As the judge calls my name, I get one last piece of advice from my accompanist: “Don’t screw up.” Tuning my viola to the piano, I am nervous and my pegs are sliding. Finally, I’m ready to play, and the piano introduction begins. It is slow, calm – the opposite of how I feel.
With the opening line, I begin to lower my guard and allow my emotions to seep out. Although I am generally stoic, with the viola in my hands, I am able to pour my feelings into the music. When I am happy, I play at a slightly quicker pace with a bit of pep in each bow stroke. When I am sad, I play with long, legato bow strokes.
On this day, I recall why I chose to play Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” a musical arrangement inspired by the Hebrew prayer chanted for thousands of years at the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. Over the past year, I had experienced terrible loss and sorrow, and the solemn melody of “Kol Nidrei” provided an outlet for those feelings. My viola has always been like an extension of my arm, but now, it is an extension of my mouth too. It expresses the feelings I experience. My viola acts as a catharsis to the stresses of everyday life.
The summer of 2014, I embarked on what was billed by American Music Abroad as a trip of a lifetime. I thought that nothing would compare to playing at Symphony Space, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall in New York City. That summer I definitely did not expect a trip to Europe to dwarf those experiences.
Midway through the trip, we arrived in Dachau, Germany. It was eerie: everything was gray with nothing to differentiate the sky from the ground. We walked in silence along the road that many of our ancestors had trod, not knowing what was to become of them. A boy on the tour had shared that his grandfather had been a prisoner here and was assigned to clean the crematorium. Outside that building, my peer was overcome with emotion. We looked to him with sympathy but could do nothing to ease his pain. Even I, who had been well educated about the Holocaust, including first-hand stories from my grandfather, was at a loss for words. It was then that 130 high school students from different backgrounds, races, and communities joined hands and began to softly hum “Amazing Grace.” It was a plea for help. Standing in this unified group of musicians, I began to cry.
Often it is said that music changes people, and in that moment, I was transformed. Music has brought out a dormant side of me that now grasps the connection between music and emotion. I experienced the way music bonds us together and connects us to history. On that day, I felt closer to my history and my friends than I ever had.
Once home, that experience led to a surge in my performance. I have always striven for technical perfection, but I hadn’t previously known the amount of emotion necessary to give an exceptional performance. I had a new self-awareness. I learned to play with more passion and to pour my emotions into everything I played.
These words are insufficient to describe the experience I had because there are no words for what I felt in that moment. That is why I believe so much in Hans Christian Anderson’s words, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Often, when I can’t express myself, the music speaks for me.
I’ve learned so much since I began playing viola. Being devoted to music for nine years taught me that I am part of a much bigger world. My bond with my viola strengthened my connection to others. I see the interlocking parts as people interact and support each other. I say the viola is a lesser known violin, but instead of playing the melody, we are the inner works. We are what holds the team together. It is important to realize when you are not playing a solo, but it is also essential to know that even those who aren’t soloists matter. Although the team might be playing a song in a minor key, if my finger moves a half inch, I can make it major. If someone is feeling depressed, all I have to do is move a finger; if everybody does that, the world becomes a better place.
I have almost finished my piece. Just a few more lines. I remember all of the pain at Dachau. I remember all of the sorrow from earlier in the year when I lost two of my grandparents (one a Holocaust survivor) in a two-week span. I mourned for these great losses not only by consoling those closest to me, but also by letting out my feelings in the best way I know.
I play the last note and let it ring, keeping my posture until the sound dies off. When it is over, I am shaking and sweating. I wasn’t just playing a piece, I was playing my story.