Why Play At All? On Perfectionism, Perseverance and Prodigies


I was three years old the first time I begged my parents to let me play the violin. We had a plastic table mat with illustrations of each instrument, and I’d spend mealtimes tracing my eyes over the violin’s hourglass silhouette in wonder. My pleas persisted for a year until my parents, neither of whom are musicians themselves, relented.

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My first violin was just over a foot long. I didn’t have a proper shoulder rest but a square yellow sponge that I’d affix to the instrument’s back with a rubber band. My teacher, D., was a stern woman with a helmet of silver hair and wire-frame glasses. We spent the first few weeks focused on form. My mother attended each lesson, taking notes from a stool in the corner.

I can conjure up memories of those first few lessons with startling clarity: the humidity of the practice room where the half-hour sessions were held; the Egyptian blue carpet embossed with gold squares underfoot; the old-person smell of D. that wafted toward me each time she leaned in to adjust my posture. I can visualize the colorful tapes—white, red, yellow, and blue—that she wrapped around the violin’s fingerboard to delineate one note from the next. And I can recall, with full-body vividness, how overjoyed I was the first time I put my bow to string and played.

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The Suzuki method—the method in which I trained—was developed by Shinichi Suzuki in the twentieth century, founded on the belief that children can acquire musical knowledge the same way they acquire language: through exposure and immersion. Part of the method’s appeal is its revolutionary hypothesis that prodigies are created rather than born.

To fall short of greatness, and to experience oneself falling short, is debilitating.

Each Suzuki book is white, with a minimalistic design of several interlocking circles. The books contain anywhere from one to seventeen pieces, beginning with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Volume 1 and ending with Mozart’s “Concerto in D Major” in Volume 10. Graduating from one book to the next always marked an exciting day for me. I would plaster the new cover with stickers, writing my name over and over in the top-hand corner until my pencil left an indent in the laminate.

In addition to lessons, I attended summer intensives, performed in recitals, and spent countless hours practicing. I learned to make games out of these practices, dividing the music into sections and then rolling two dice. The first die told me which section to play; the second indicated how many times I’d need to go through it without messing up. If I messed up, I’d force myself to start again.

I soon became concertmaster of the school orchestra, and then of the symphony orchestra aggregated from the top students in the area. In middle school, I was chosen to play a Vivaldi solo in our winter concert. When it came time to take the stage, I crossed in front of the conductor’s podium. Before me wavered hundreds of faces: parents, grandparents, siblings. Behind me sat sixty of my peers in their best concert dress.

My parents videotaped my solo. I’ve watched it only once—the grainy recording of a bespectacled eleven-year-old, her hair tied back, advancing toward the spotlight with remarkable poise. I cannot pierce her countenance or pretend to know what she is thinking. She places the bow on the string, takes in a steeling breath, and begins.

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One of the most mesmerizing aspects of music is how it alters one’s experience of time. If our lives typically advance linearly, then music comes in and frustrates that progression. Music takes what we tend to think of as rigid—the measure of a minute—and warps it. This is less a mystery of art than of science. Albert Einstein showed this with his theory of relativity, where he demonstrated that time moves faster in some places than in others. Time, he posited, is not a single fixed point but an infinitude of possibilities.

My favorite concept of time comes from the ancient Greeks, who divided it into two distinct frameworks: chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to the kind of time tracked by a clock: steady and sequential. Conversely, kairos refers to experiential time—the “right now” of opportunity. Music traffics back and forth between these models. The chronos of a piece, as found in the bar lines and the time signature, occasions kairos. Within structure, we find freedom.

In her brilliant memoir Uncommon Measure, violinist Natalie Hodges seeks to further disentangle this relationship. “When it is sculpted into music,” she writes, “time somehow becomes plastic and malleable, expandable and contractible.” This sense of malleability—of the rigid going soft—is both exhilarating and terrifying for the musician at work. I imagine it’s akin to the feeling the Wright brothers felt the first time their wire-and-wood airplane stayed suspended in the sky.

In order to create that sense of defying gravity, the performer must enter the music’s flow and surrender to it. But how to yield and make the notes seem effortless when one’s ego is at stake? “Performance,” Hodges writes, “embodies the paradox of losing yourself and yet asserting yourself.” To make a performance seem effortless, one must act as if they do not care at all. In reality, of course, they must care more than anything.

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Something changed after my Vivaldi solo. What, exactly, I’m not sure. It feels too easy and perhaps defensive to say that my attentions arranged themselves around other passions, though that is true: I came to prefer piano to violin, and singing to both. I slacked on my practicing and then dreaded lessons, where my neglect became obvious. There is a world in which these shifts might be credited to the usual process of maturation.

I worry, however, that such a narrative cheapens what for me, at age twelve, felt like a crisis of faith and self. The competition around me had grown stiffer and more intense, and I sensed it was only a matter of time before I lost my spot at the top. Better, wasn’t it, to step down while I was still number one; when the adults around me might view my abdication as a loss rather than a relief?

Yes, it seems no coincidence that my fallout with violin occurred at the same time the reservoir of praise and encouragement grew polluted with criticisms. No longer was I held as special and precocious for my talent; I now had to work for it, to earn it. Worse, I could grasp the scope of my own prowess, all the places it lacked.

To fall short of greatness, and to experience oneself falling short, is debilitating. There remains for the afflicted the ever-damning question: What am I doing wrong? No answer suffices. There is simply an unbridgeable gap, and neither a raft nor swinging rope to assist one across.

In his essay “Notes on Losing,” Jay Caspian Kang analyzes the temperaments of various tennis virtuosos and identifies some essential attributes they share: they know how to harness their fear; they believe the game to be within their control; they can slip into a Zen-like state while competing. Watching former child stars Tracy Austin and Michael Chang, Kang grows emotional.

Observing these young athletes, he feels that “some innate logic of the universe has been exposed—that the normal linearity that we associate with human capabilities, in which we start as novices and improve through practice, grit, and failure, was proved irrelevant.” What touches Kang in these prodigies is what others might call a flicker of the divine. There is an inexplicable element to their talent that cannot be manufactured; it simply is.

Much has been made of the child music prodigy. YouTube is filled with videos of five-year-olds performing with symphony orchestras. Seldom do these children make good on their promise. For every Joshua Bell, there are two dozen other Toms, Dicks, and Harrys. The problem is that precociousness (a term derived from the Latin for “ripening before one’s time”) cannot age into adulthood.

What distinguishes the child prodigy, ultimately, is their ability relative to their age. Too soon, however, the child is confronted with their limitations. In sports, such limitations are bodily. My husband still rues the moment he injured himself in high school and saw his soccer career fade before his eyes. In intellectual realms like chess or music, the ceiling of talent can be harder to discern. Is the problem intrinsic, or can it be conquered through further practice?

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With the playing becoming harder and the moments of joy scanter, it was only a matter of time before I quit. I hated auditions and refused to partake in the ever-prevalent competitions for which my teacher prepared me. At lessons, I dragged myself belligerently through the Kreutzer warm-ups. Where once I would have worked at a piece until it clicked, now I resisted trying. To try meant to open myself up to the possibility of failure. I instead adopted a pose of listlessness, the sort of cynicism that contains at its core the desire to keep from revealing one’s vulnerabilities. If I couldn’t be the best, why play at all?

I realize that not everyone suffers from this crippling all-or-nothing mentality. After all, hundreds of thousands of students play in school orchestras each year without harboring dreams of debuting as soloists for the Philharmonic. I imagine there must be some trait that links those of us perfectionists who are susceptible to such delusions of grandeur, some particular inclination that makes us daydream about being thrust into stardom. Or perhaps the need to be recognized simply derives from the disconcerting counter-sensation of feeling invisible, misunderstood. The young musician is praised for her talents and thus seen. It is not the music she is after; the music is simply a vehicle for that far more precious commodity: the adults’ attention.

I resisted trying. To try meant to open myself up to the possibility of failure.

Only in my teenage years did my longing to be seen clash with a more insistent desire to remain unseen. What I truly yearned for was a hidden greatness of whose existence only I knew, a brilliance shrouded in obscurity. I craved greatness for its own sake; to become a phenom who was never tasked with showing her hand. Embedded in this hope, naturally, is the idea that in secret, I wouldn’t have to confront my inadequacies. Those of us who tremble at the notion of being seen fear, more than anything, the loss of control around our own image; for to be seen for what you are is also to be seen for what you are not. In secret, I could remain number one, and no one could prove me wrong.

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Eventually, I declared that I wanted to take a break from lessons, which seemed easier than quitting outright. I continued to play recreationally at school events and weddings until even those felt like too much. It was too painful not to get better, to play merely to sustain. I put away my violin and focused on other pursuits. My love for the instrument, what part of it remained, had grown disfigured. In certain lights, that love resembled resentment.

I didn’t touch the violin again for years. Only during the pandemic did I feel a gnawing desire to play again. I was living in Texas at the time, pursuing a Master’s degree. Though I was ostensibly in the program to write, I spent a not insignificant portion of my time tinkering around with harmonies on GarageBand and recording covers of popular songs. I had the idea that I could add my violin to these.

Even I recognize the symbolic nostos in this. If I could not return to my actual home up north, where my family was hunkered down together, then I might instead try conjuring a sense of return from the object that had for so long been tied to my identity. My mother packed up my violin and shipped it to me. The case smelled just as I remembered. Zipped into the cover was the Paganini piece I had been working on before I quit, a long-ago date scribbled in the corner.

I removed the violin from its case gently, as an archivist handles a precious file. I fiddled with the tuning pegs and ran the rosin over my bow. There was nothing to do but play, so I lifted it to my shoulder. And then, something miraculous occurred: the notes were there, an electric current shooting through my fingertips. My hand instinctively knew how to slide into each harmonic. My body possessed a memory my conscious mind did not. Around me, time did its strange dance, the seconds shimmering as their boundaries dissolved.

My playing wasn’t perfect—far from it—but it was better than I’d anticipated. Besides, I wasn’t playing for perfect, not really. I was playing for something else—solace, maybe, or a sense of mooring. Four-year-old me was there in the room, watching. I went through the piece in a fever dream. When it ended, I returned to the beginning, and played it through again.

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the world after alice

The World After Alice by Lauren Aliza Green is available from Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



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