One of the most difficult things I’ve found about having an injury is that something that brings me so much fulfillment and joy now also causes me pain.
While I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the violin, the loss that I’ve felt from having to put the instrument down time after time has been greater than any physical pain I was experiencing. I began to associate playing the violin as an activity that causes pain instead of as an outlet to express myself.
As any artist will understand, and I believe we’re all artists in our own way, losing an outlet for self expression feels like losing part of one’s self. I didn’t necessarily lose the person I was when I played the violin, but I lost the way of being able to access that part of myself.
While learning the violin for over 17 years has been about building skill and technique on an instrument, it’s also been about learning to access creativity, musicality, and modes of expression. I’ve been taught by others and myself how to understand and communicate in another language, and this language is one that’s theoretical and rational while also being my own unique, emotional language.
Losing the tool to speak this language has meant associating the language itself with loss. Without being able to participate in a musical dialogue, whether it’s actually performing in public or playing for my own self-discovery, I have questioned my place in the performing arts world. This is not something that’s been done to me in a concrete or intentional way by any of my colleagues or teachers, but in our musical society and institutions, I’ve felt that my failure to produce art means my failure as an artist. Because my injury prevents me from producing music, does that mean I am no longer a musician?
Switching out of the ‘performance’ stream
Last semester, I switched out of Violin Performance at McGill into the Faculty Program with a Violin Concentration. For non-musicians and probably also musicians who are non-McGillians, the difference is unrecognizable. I still get a Bachelor of Music, and still get to take performance classes and private lessons, just for two years instead of four.
The program was designed for students who are interested in music performance but also want to take other classes. Many of my friends who are in the Faculty Program are pursuing double degrees or want to gain other skills so they can apply for law school or med school after graduation.
Obviously there are many positives to this degree. You get to explore other academic interests, build your resume and become more employable. At the same time, there’s this misconception at McGill that the Faculty Program is for musicians who couldn’t ‘make it’ into the performance degree or dropped out of performance because they couldn’t ‘handle it’.
The way that the program is explained often perpetuates this discourse. The curriculum is essentially identical to being in performance for two years, but after that you have a ton of free electives and no more performance classes. Also, to be admitted into performance from the Faculty Program, you have to re-audition as though you were arriving at McGill again, which further perpetuates the hierarchy between the two degrees.
Up until last semester, I struggled to meet the performance requirements every year. I frequently had to ask to be an alternate for orchestra because I knew that I couldn’t handle playing at the rehearsals on top of preparing for my lessons every week and my chamber group. In third year, I had to drop out of my string quartet, a group I loved playing with and with whom I had just spent two weeks with at Orford, because I needed to be able to pass my second performance exam in order to graduate in performance. Eventually, it became clear that I just wouldn’t be able to prepare a full concerto and two movements of solo Bach for the exam because the limitations of my injury meant I wasn’t able to practice enough. Even if I could somehow play through the pieces, they would never be up to my personal standards because I could never truly invest the necessary time at the instrument.
So, I finally decided that for many reasons—to maintain my musical integrity as well as to preserve my body and prevent re-injury—I should switch to the faculty program, where I wouldn’t have the pressure from the performance department to play in ensembles and prepare for performance exams. I guess by the logic I previously mentioned, I couldn’t ‘handle’ the Performance Program.
Or, maybe, the Performance Program doesn’t have the flexibility to cope with the diversity of their students, including students with chronic pain caused by the very program that they are encouraged to drop out of. The standards I placed on myself were ones that had been nurtured by years of pressure from the performing arts world to be something that was impossible, and something that eventually caused my body to give out on me.
Is pain an essential part of being an artist?
Through my years of struggling to meet the demands of McGill up until after I finally switched programs, I frequently wondered if not being able to complete the requirements for McGill meant that I would never be able to meet the demands of being a performing artist. My inability to produce consistent and quality work because of pain must mean that I was unable to cope with the demands every musician will and should have to face in their lifetime.
This is one of the most common myths surrounding musicians’ health issues. That suffering is a necessary part of being an artist. That playing in pain is normal. That if we can’t handle a bit of pain then we won’t have a successful performing career, because pain is inevitable if you’re playing that amount of hours in a day.
But actually, what’s abnormal is the inhuman demands we place on musicians, the constant pressure of impossible standards, and, most worryingly, that you are only as good as the music you produce.
Let me be clear: your worth is not defined by your ability to play a 60-minute recital. It is not determined by how many minutes of technique you do each day, or even what your teacher or colleagues think of your playing.
I believe your worth is determined by your capacity as a human being. Your musical worth is defined by your desire to play music and share something with the world. That is what makes you a musician, not the quality or the quantity or even the production of sound itself, but your desire to communicate to the audience or to explore new parts of yourself.
If we no longer think about music as only being the production of sound, then we remove the blame from the musicians’ body when the demands of playing cause injuries or mental illness. Not only that, but we get closer to understanding what music really is, and what being a musician really means.
Because of this, pain can be felt (after awhile) as growth and adaptability. Losing my ability to play allowed me to understand why I became an artist in the first place, and what I can do from now on to expand my art beyond any boundaries I used to feel existed.