Always a seat away from Concertmistress

I want to share a telling and formative story from my childhood. This is a story about how I was always just a single seat away from being concertmistress in my orchestra. 

Concertmistress: noun.

a female leader of the first violins in a symphony orchestra, who is usually also the assistant to the conductor.

I attended Roosevelt Middle School in San Francisco. It was the first time I had to travel away from the Tenderloin neighborhood area in order to attend school (previously, my elementary school was half an hour’s walk away) and got me venturing deep into the Richmond District. The way that classes worked was, there were certain required courses that you were assigned, say, math and language arts, but there were also electives. Without fully understanding exactly what those electives entailed, I signed up for the Symphonic Orchestra elective. Little would I know that this choice would shape my mindset so dramatically for years to come.

I started my first day of school bright and early, and I walked into Symphonic Orchestra which took place every morning for an hour starting at 7AM. The conductor, Mr. Jones, was a teacher who seemed stern yet soft-hearted, and he asked us all to grab the proper violin size from the lockers. While I was digging around for a suitable violin, I looked around at my classmates who appeared to be upperclassmen and upperclasswomen, as they were noticeably more charming in their conversations amongst each other and appeared to be confident in their instrument selection. At this point, I had only dabbled with violin during group classes in elementary school, as part of a music program that was lightly funded and focused on recreation more than actual music practice. As you can imagine, I became incredibly nervous at the fact that I was clearly younger, less experienced, and likely not as good of a violin player compared to my other classmates. 

The conductor proceeded to seat some of the upper classmates based on his familiarity with their skill level, sorting us all into specific seating arrangements across first violin, second violin, viola, cell, bass, winds, brass, and percussion. Given that I was new and visibly mishandling the instrument, he seated me toward the back of the second violin section. He then passed around folders with sheet music and proceeded with a group tuning exercise. I was horrified looking around at my classmates tuning their instruments with such ease, but I intended to hide my anxiety and mimicked the gestures of the classmate next to me, by raising my violin up to my chin and fiddling around with the tuners. Luckily, I was able to grasp that twisting the tuner in one direction led to an increased sharpness in the pitch, and was able to get the violin tuned in sync with the group.

We pulled up the sheet music that we were going to play for that day, and upon looking at the sheet with lines and dots, I began to panic with a sweaty brow given that I did not know how to read sheet music. There was no time wasted as the conductor raised his baton and cued us all to start at the top of the piece. At this point, my survival instincts kicked in and all I could do was mimic the bow directions of the person next to me, gliding my bow in the air right above the string or pressing so lightly that no sound could be made. I somehow managed to pull this off for an hour going unnoticed, and by the end of the class, fooled the conductor and my stand partner into believing that I had been playing music the entire time. But while I got away for the first day, I knew I couldn’t go on fooling them for long. The best course of action would be to tell the instructor that I wanted to drop the course and register for the beginner level orchestra. But that was not a satisfying solution, and something within me told me to persist with the current class.

On the second day of symphonic orchestra, I got back into my actress mode and feigned playing violin once again. This time was different – after piecing together some annotations for finger positions on the score, with the sounds I was creating, and matching open strings with the dots on the page, musical notation suddenly made sense to me all at once. By the end of the class, I was following along and reading the music as quickly as the violinists around me. And by the end of the week, I was playing loudly and confidently. There were still confusing aspects of the sheet music, such as key signature, and in those situations I would listen to the relative ‘flatness’ or ‘sharpness’ of the music being played and mimic those sounds. I found a system that would work for me and was so excited to play even more music.

This went on for a month, and everyday I would learn something new about either reading musical scores or improving my violin technique. At the end of the second month, something unexpected happened: the conductor advanced me to the first stand of the second violin section. I was horrified and proud at the same time. I had practiced regularly at home and focused so much on improving that I could even play some of the more difficult passages, and often found that I could confidently play some of the harder passages with ease, whereas other classmates would play much quieter during the difficult parts. At this point, I told myself that I could not fake it any longer: I must improve. This led to me spending weekends at the library borrowing musical scores, VHS tapes, CDs, and violin books, where I could learn how to improve my skills as much as I could. 

Symphonic orchestra filled my mornings with joy. I felt such a rush of excitement at the idea of being able to choose what I wanted to do (in this case, it was to play music), put dedicated effort towards it, and achieve visible progress (based on seating positions in the orchestra). It gave me a feeling of confidence that I had never experienced as a child, and I felt that I could be “good” at something for the first time. Half a year later, I was seated next to the concertmistress, a seat away from the top seat in the orchestra. I was so pleased with my progress and genuinely loved the music that I played. I did not know that, for the remainder of my middle school years, this would remain my seat and I would advance no further.

The concertmistress who took the coveted seat was both a friend and an amazing musician. She had practiced violin since she was in elementary school under the guidance of a private instructor. She was a musical prodigy when you considered her advanced techniques and sheer musicality, that I knew clearly exceeded my own skills in every possible way. Still, I gave myself permission to be ambitious and to learn to play as well as she could. Initially, this ambition was motivating and brought me great joy in my practice. As time passed, and I couldn’t see visible progress toward getting the concertmistress seat, I became disheartened, and violin practice seemed more and more like a chore. 

Eventually, this bred within me a desire to prove myself without the help of others. I was both envious and resentful of other students who received any type of private instruction or help. My family was not financially positioned to hire a private music teacher, nor could I afford to buy a violin. I borrowed the school violin and practiced whenever I could, but during summers I was left without an instrument and felt saddened that my life situation left me this way. With those feelings deeply etched into my heart, so resulted my lifelong struggle to ask others for help, as from then on I felt that this battle was a tough and lonely one. 

By the end of middle school, I continued to sit next to the concertmistress, and while I learned a lot from watching her play, I always carried a heavy burden in my heart. I promised myself that if I could make my own money someday, I would never spend it on a teacher. Instead, I would be as self-sufficient and resourceful as I could be, and would never succumb to the privileged methods that others used. This led to a toxic mindset as I transitioned into high school, which was even more challenging when it came to coursework and social relationships. I ended up suffering a bout of depression and mental illness towards the end of high school, which weakened me physically as well. 

Moving into college, I came to see that my ways of thinking were wrong. This was thanks to the kind and giving people I met, the mentors and friends who were willing to wait for me, help me, give me things without expecting or wanting anything in return. From then on, my mindset shifted, and I began to open to others about my struggles. Still, I often felt myself being in the position of second chair, whether it was in regards to internship offers, exam grades, social influence, and the like. I never got the coveted concertmistress seat, and it felt unfair. During those moments, I would recede back into my self-pitying mindset to avoid the help of others. Then, friends and mentors would reach out and break past that barrier with me, and I could accept the help of others and succeed as a result. It was a hard transition for me, and I’m still working on it even today. 

This started as a story about my childhood, but it’s actually a thank you note for my mentors who showed me so much compassion and kindness. Mr. Jones who conducted my orchestra surely belongs in that list, and I’m sure that I didn’t actually fool him into thinking I was playing violin that first day. He saw my progress and gave me the chance of a lifetime, and the never-ending gift of love for music. To all of my other mentors, thank you for continuing to give and share (even if I feel that I don’t deserve it sometimes). Thank you for changing the course of my life.

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