There’s a nameless feeling I sometimes get that manifests itself as a lifting, swelling sensation in the upper part of my chest and behind my eyes. These days, if asked to describe it, I’d probably say that it’s the way I feel when I walk into an old cathedral or when I look at my husband. It’s at once humbling and exhilarating — a mix of gratitude and wonderment. But when I was a child, I knew it only as the way I felt when I listened to Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio or Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” aria or any of my other favorite pieces of classical music. It’s what made me want to be a violinist.
The first time I remember experiencing it, I was listening to Brahms’s Violin Sonata in A Major. I was only 6 years old at the time, but even with the limited reserves in my emotional bank, the last movement, with its nobility and expressiveness, moved me profoundly. The opening measures conjured up the most beautiful and poignant scene my inexperienced mind could invent: of a 19th-century woman in her corset and finery, her aspect impeccable, her expression composed, looking up and breathing, slightly unsteadily, as she spotted someone from across the room, momentarily betraying the fervor and intensity that smoldered beneath her placid facade. And because I was raised on black-and-white period films, she was also married to an evil count, and the man with whom she shared her unspoken love was very good at swordplay.
I often attached this kind of fanciful narrative to the pieces I played. Classical music was, to me, an endless library of thrilling stories I could read in any way I liked. And for years I played out of pure enthusiasm, driven only by the desire to discover new pieces and revel in their magnificence. But before long I began to show potential, and soon the focus of my studies shifted from creative exploration to technical mastery — a move that would almost destroy my love of playing.
At the age of 11, I switched to a new teacher in Boston, who had been recommended to my parents by a family friend with insider knowledge of the pre-college conservatory scene. She was known as a taskmaster and a builder of flawless techniques. After diagnosing several weaknesses in my hand position, she took me off real pieces altogether and assigned me a number of etudes and exercises — the finger equivalents of lunges and medicine-ball slams — to practice instead. Hours of tedious, obsessive nitpicking followed. After almost a year, I was allowed to return to my beloved sonatas and concertos, but my perception of them had changed. No longer were they wordless fantasies or expressions of the sublime, but composites of these exercises, meant to be practiced with the same clinical attention to detail.
As long as I kept advancing, I didn’t feel unhappy. I didn’t feel happy, either, but I felt hungry, which was almost enough. Sure, the thought of picking up my violin each day no longer filled me with the naive joy that it had when I was younger, but one day I’d make my debut in Carnegie Hall, and everyone would rise to their feet to applaud, and that “champagne moment,” as my father calls it, would compensate for the happiness I’d sacrificed in the years leading up to it.
That moment never came.
Embarrassingly, in my childhood I believed that all I had to do was practice, hone my craft and stay the course — then audiences would line the streets to hear me. But by the end of my time at Juilliard, I’d realized that I wasn’t one of the chosen ones. Like many of my classmates, I’d always wanted to be a soloist — but I was never able to set myself apart in international competitions, and each time I thought I’d caught a break it ended in disappointment. On top of this, the technical mastery I’d achieved during my studies had stripped away much of my expressivity, and I was no longer convinced that I had anything worthwhile to say. Without the belief that I was of use to the world or that my voice mattered uniquely, I lost my ambition. I became disillusioned and resentful of my apparent disposability.
As if in answer to my dejection, a new and unexpected opportunity soon presented itself. Shortly after graduation, I was asked to join the tour of a well-known crossover artist as a featured guest playing a combination of jazz, soft rock and film music. I knew I needed a change, and I accepted without hesitation.
For a while, it was intoxicating. But as the initial novelty wore off, I began to realize that I hadn’t escaped my feelings of uselessness. I had a regular gig, but my role was largely decorative. I performed only a handful of songs each night, and unlike the others on the tour, I didn’t know how to improvise. So while the rest of the band was out there playing a one-of-a-kind, 2½-hour set full of authenticity and conviction and abandon, I was either reading in my dressing room or doing my best to credibly execute the scripted embellishments that had been composed by someone else to make it sound like I belonged in the same show. The low point for me came when a conversation with a confused audience member revealed after a show that he thought I’d been hired as a kind of dancer to mime the act of playing the violin and sway to the music accordingly. It wasn’t his misconception that upset me so much as the fact that he’d hit upon a distressing truth: that I felt like a fraud.
Then, while on a trip to Berlin, I met my now-husband, Stephan, and suddenly my life had direction again. As my view of the world softened, the bitterness I felt toward the music industry began to fade. But so, too, did the imperviousness that had accompanied it, and soon I was overcome by a host of other emotions that were far more painful. I felt ashamed of the competitive tendencies that the violin had triggered in me. I felt nostalgic for the days when I thought I had a purpose. And I felt saddened by the fact that my years of practicing rigorously and improving my technique, which had been meant to pay tribute to my love for music, had, instead, extinguished it.
I gave up on my career, and went months at a time without picking up my bow. I had a few previous engagements to fulfill, but between those joyless performances, I didn’t play. As much as I hated to see my violin case gathering dust, I felt lighter and more at peace when I went for long stretches without touching it. I started to turn down all future performance opportunities, and soon I moved to Berlin, where I was glad to be far away from most of my professional contacts.
Still, it made me a little sad to think that I might have played my last concert without even realizing it. So earlier this year, when an acquaintance of mine — a pianist who knew me from the States — asked me to play a house concert with her in Berlin, I accepted. The money wasn’t good, and I knew it would be a struggle to get back in shape, but it was only a private gathering without any critics or presenters or VIPs who “might be able to help someday.”
At first, it was very slow going. My fingers were weak from months of disuse, and I was frustrated by the fact that I didn’t sound like myself. After a few days, though, my muscle memory started to come back, and within a month, my technique was fully restored. Then the pianist made a last-minute change to the program. We would be switching to the Brahms A Major.
It made me feel fragile, somehow, to be playing a piece that once meant so much to me, and I made a habit of watching Netflix while I practiced — “Grand Hotel,” “Gossip Girl,” anything distracting and pretty — to defend myself against the wave of emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. But when it came time to play the concert, I literally had to face the music. As I took my place in front of the piano, I remember scanning the audience members and realizing that some of them were about to hear the Brahms for the first time, just as I had once. The slight but undeniable thrill of excitement that registered in my chest — for everything they were about to experience — quickly gave way to an indistinct sense of mourning for all that I’d lost. I’d never be able to undo my hours of dissecting and scrutinizing and polishing, or the harm that they caused. I’d never be able to go back to the time before my training, when the Brahms inspired in me such fantastical narratives of countesses and swordsmen and forbidden love.
But as we began to play, I felt something shift inside me. Suddenly, the months of estrangement and resentment and sadness and confusion, and the uncertainty about my future as a violinist, became part of a new story. It wasn’t the same kind of story I’d have invented when I was young. It was darker and more complicated than anything I could have conjured back then — almost elegiac. But it brought out a sense of nostalgia in the Brahms that I’d never heard before. The music sounded different to me now. More bittersweet, more profound and more beautiful.