By Olivia Bolles
“Index finger down; there you go!” I patted the small girl on the back as she drew the bow shakily across the strings, producing a screechy note somewhere between a B flat and C natural. Her nose was wrinkled in concentration and her knuckles were white as she clenched the neck of the violin. Just a few moments earlier, I’d mentioned in an off-hand, yet intentional, manner that my violin was 93 years old and from Germany! The small group of elementary school kids gathered around me “oohed” and “aahed”.
“93 years old? That’s way older than Abuela!”
After learning that my violin was essentially eleven times her age and was made across the pond last century, the girl holding my instrument tightened her grip. My beloved violin, nicknamed Felix after the composer Felix Mendelssohn, was not to be dropped while in her care. After a few more indistinct notes, she handed the violin back to me. “Play something for us! I’m not good,” she giggled.
“Not yet, but you will be someday!” I played the beginning moments of Bruch’s Violin Concerto and when I saw I still had their undivided attention, I switched over to the soaring melodies of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I finished the first three lines of the piece with a flourish of my bow and received a roaring round of applause and cheers.
“You’re amazing!” They grinned up at me like I was the best violinist in the world. I was surprised at how interested they were in my craft. I answered what felt like a few hundred rapid-fire questions about how long I’d been playing, what my favorite piece was, how the violin made such high and low sounds, what kind of wood my instrument was made out of, and if I could play any pop music for them. My messy rendition of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” drew the attention of a few chaperones and they smiled at me knowingly. From the Recording Academy committee to these 8-year-olds, Billie seemed to be a hot commodity. “You can play anything! That’s so cool.” A dozen grinning faces beamed up at me with admiration and I, normally so calm and commanding of my emotions, couldn’t help but smile widely back. It’d been a while since I’d heard the word cool associated with classical music.
“If all Youth Symphony musicians could please make their way back to the stage so we can begin the concert, that would be great!” a loudspeaker boomed overhead. I waved goodbye to my new admirers, gave a few hugs, and started back to the stage for the concert our youth symphony gives each year for elementary school students. I slowly worked my way back through the throng of children in a daze. I tried to put myself in their tiny 8-year-old shoes. How long had it been since I’d had that same innocent joy over the pure golden opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto? What happened to the old spark I used to have for music? It hadn’t been that long ago when I was young like them, had it? I almost tripped on my long black concert dress as I walked up the stairs of the stage and shifted my bow to my right hand so I could use my left to count on my fingers. Six, nine, twelve… thirteen years of violin. Could that be right? I re-counted. Over three-quarters of my life had been devoted to music.
“Well, how were your kids?” My stand partner jolted me out of my reverie. She was wiping down her smudgy fingerboard with a cloth. She offered me the cloth, but I shook my head. I wanted the tiny fingerprint reminders on my instrument for this performance. “They were just so beautifully passionate.”
My relationship with music began when I was four and my mom took me to a music class for toddlers. I doubt she believed anything serious or life-changing would come of our weekly trips to the local church where the classes were held, but fortunately, she was wrong. The legend goes that one fateful day, my teacher brought in her violin and played a beautiful Irish tune for a roomful of four-year-olds. Per my parents, I didn’t stop talking about the instrument from that day forward. I could never explain why it was the violin, over all the other instruments I had seen in the class, that captured me with a steel hold. Maybe it was the deep, resonant tone that could jump gracefully from a swirling high A to a mellow low B flat in a millisecond. Maybe it was the warm, earthy wood that pulsed full of potential in my 4-year-old hands as my teacher’s eagle eyes watched a room full of toddlers gingerly pass around the instrument. Maybe somehow I sensed it was simply meant to be that I would devote the next thirteen years of my life to this instrument. Whatever the reason, the violin had my full devotion and the desire to play wouldn’t let me go.
Just a few months later, my parents carried out the first of a thousand sacrifices they would make to further my musical endeavors. My dad was in graduate school to become a Physician’s Assistant. My mom stayed at home with me since the cost of daycare was more than her salary as a social worker. Somehow, they scraped together enough money to buy me a one hundred dollar ⅛ size violin (yes that’s right, ⅛ the size of a regular full-sized violin) and gave me violin lessons at a Suzuki Method music school.
I didn’t get to the level I am currently as a musician because of a weekly private lesson and the occasional recital. I give all the credit of my success as a musician, student, and hardworking young woman to my mom. She and I have spent thousands of hours pouring over music. We braved the battles of learning how to count in a million-time signatures, reading music in treble clef, and memorizing my first pieces. My parents didn’t have enough money to send me to pre-school, so my mom also started homeschooling me when I was four. Before my fifth birthday, I had grown to adore the violin, “school,” and my new baby brother. I had also broken my left femur, suffered in a full body cast for a month, and learned how to walk for the second time in my short life, but that’s a story for another time. My love and admiration for Mozart, Handel, and Brahms grew as I moved swiftly through the ten levels of the Suzuki violin books. I started learning piano when I was seven, and the rest of my musical journey has been a blissful whirlwind full of trophies, prize-winning performances, and scholarships. Well, maybe that isn’t quite how the story goes.
The loss of passion could be external, the result of an unkind statement made by a friend or trusted adult, or internal, the result of a loss of confidence and belief in one’s abilities. Passion might also be lost when art ceases to be cathartic and instead becomes a chore. Sometimes, a missile of change rockets through your life and the collateral damage is a loss in passion. I believe that most often, I’ve felt that brush with artistic death when going through large changes in my life. Growing up is confusing. Starting at a new school is intimidating. Moving across the country is hard. In the past, my personal struggles have seeped into the music section of my life. I forgot the cathartic quality music has and allowed myself to become weighted down by music instead of freed by it.
I wish I could go back in time to speak with the younger version of myself when she lost sight of her passion for music. “Please don’t lose heart!” I’d say to 11-year-old me. “Listen to Mom; don’t give up on music just yet!” I’d encourage younger Olivia as she struggled to find enough time to devote to both the violin and piano. Perhaps I’d sit my younger self down on a bench in a park at twilight and explain the various cycles of an artist’s passion that I’ve come to recognize after years of music.
“You see,” I begin as I brush stringy blonde hair out of young Olivia’s face, “Losing your passion isn’t permanent. You were created to be a musician. Think about it this way.” I point upwards to the sky. Just minutes ago, it was full of deep oranges and reds, but now it is pitch black and speckled with tiny white stars of varying brightness. “What do you see when you look up at the sky tonight?” Young Olivia stares back at me silently. A typical response, I was never very talkative when I was younger. “I see lots of stars, the silhouette of a bird here and there, and a few airplane lights,” I supply, “But nothing else.”
I wait a moment for younger Olivia to catch my line of thought. “You see, it’s a new moon tonight. We all know that the moon isn’t gone forever just because we can’t see it right at this moment. Tonight is just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of space and time. During a new moon phase, the moon hasn’t suddenly vanished from our solar system, therefore disrupting gravity, tides, and life as we know it. No, the moon has just moved between the earth and the sun so its soft glow has disappeared from our night sky; it isn’t being illuminated by the light of the sun. Please don’t lose heart!” I say to my younger self once again. “The moon will be back, just like your love for music. Neither are visible right now, but they’re not gone forever. Passion comes in phases, and unfortunately, sometimes your passion goes through a new moon phase. However, for those who truly love their craft, it is never gone for long.”
I wish I could tell you that the story I shared at the beginning was in the far past and I’m currently a happy, 16-year-old musician working towards my dream of majoring in Violin Performance. However, I’m afraid I should have warned you that my story should be told in the present tense. Every day I wake up wondering if today will be the day when my former love of music returns. However, I believe it is only a matter of time. I am confident that the present is only one phase among thousands of phases my artistic journey will go through. I fully believe that if one has been staring at that blank canvas, those worn ballet shoes, or that blinking vertical line on a blank “Word” document and has felt no rush of joy and desire to practice one’s craft, the passion will come back someday. Be patient. Take the fresh perspective of a young child who has never seen anything quite like this art. Never lose heart. Passion is never gone forever; it is simply in a new moon phase. It may not be visible right now, but I believe that it will reappear along with a person who is brighter and stronger than ever before.