Who was going to tell me that learning the guitar is such a daunting task?
When I bought my first guitar this past summer, I discovered that seamlessly strumming pleasant sounds is a gradual process. The first stage of playing the guitar was a mysterious abyss. My brain navigated a new neural pathway, sculpted with sharp edges of chord progressions and fingerpicking that I undoubtedly crashed into. I struggled with the most fundamental of guitar growing pains: properly placing my fingers on the strings. When your fingers don't press down completely on a string, the string produces a harsh off-note. Sounds like these frustrated me to the brink of giving up on the guitar. What kept me motivated, though, was my eagerness to become a musician. In my mind, a musician was one who could pick up an instrument and instantaneously create magic with the swift movements of their masterful hands. I was light-years away from this vision of mastery that I created for myself. Instead, I was wallowing in the vibration of off-notes that stung my ears and left a snobby message in their reverberations: "You can't escape me!" Well, nasty little notes, you're right. Even months later, no matter how much I practice and progress, I will always have to deal with you. In many aspects of my life this year, similar sounds have festered in my head; not only from my bumbling guitar skills, but from the perils of the world around me.
The off-note of COVID-19 originated as a subtle whirring in my subconscious. Upon hearing the news of a peculiar new virus, I refused to believe that I would ever have to deal with the rapidly spreading disease in my corner of the world. I didn't want to place my finger on the string of reality; if I fully realized the gravity of the situation, I would spiral into fear and anxiety. As time progressed and we trickled into quarantine, the gentle hum that was stored in the back of my mind picked up a megaphone and echoed through the caverns of my body. Here it was: a life-defining period of time that would change everything. The impending doom became inescapable.
So... how did I feel?
Well, that's a great question. My answer is... I'm not sure. In the depths of the stay-at-home order in the spring months of 2020, I grieved for the millions of people who were becoming a statistic, and for their loved ones who had to witness it. But other than this grief, I didn't allow myself to feel anything.
My avoidance of emotions was abundantly clear during one of my daily quarantine walks. The Philadelphia suburb surrounding me was a scene straight out of a dystopian movie, without the stereotypical destruction and ruin. An upbeat melody rang through my headphones as my favorite roughed-up Reebok sneakers hit the pavement. I strolled down my street with a false sense of peace, letting the soft breeze and the new green on the trees carry me away with their song of revival. But with a simple glance into the window of a scenic, upper-middle-class house in my neighborhood, I could see why the new life of spring had taken a backseat. Hazmat suits were plastered on the TV screen as a CNN headline in large, bolded letters described the horrors of a pandemic we knew so little about. The cacophony in my head screamed out for attention. I turned my music up to drown it out.
Before I knew it, my academic motivation, the relationships in my life, and even my body image were affected by the pandemic's unspoken wrath. I neglected the feelings of my friends; I put no effort into online school; and I tried everything to morph my body into those of the girls that dominated my social media. The sounds in my mind had transformed into a swirling symphony of the wrong keys; sharp and flat pitches blared through the loudest instruments my imagination could produce. And yet, I still ignored them. I had become fully numb.
Then, one day in September, something changed. Life was appearing as if it was slowly going back to normal (spoiler alert: it wasn't), and I was once again experiencing my old stressors: school and its extracurriculars. I felt so overwhelmed by the demands of junior year that I knelt on my floor and uncontrollably sobbed.
I quickly realized, though, that it was not just a bad essay grade that brought me to my knees. It was the first time that I had cried in months. I was crying for what could have been, for what I failed to be, and the utter helplessness I felt at that moment. The symphony finally played its last note. I was wistfully relieved.
From that moment on, my definition of a musician was completely revised.
A real musician is still sloppy with their instrument every so often. What sets them apart, though, is their willingness to keep going, to press down harder on the strings rather than not touching them at all. Even the most legendary of guitarists occasionally hear a harsh off-note when they play. They acknowledge its presence and carry on, pressing their fingers down harder onto the strings to create the chords they need. There are hardships in our lives that we cannot escape, but if we never fully accept our fate, we will never reach the emotions that we need to feel. Sometimes, the saddest chords in music are the most beautiful to hear.
I'll admit, I am still fairly bad at guitar. But now, I don't pause when I play the notes that I used to dread more than anything. The days haven't gotten easier; I still have the same issues in my life, but I let myself feel the sadness that brings me to much-needed tears. In a way, I could not be more proud of myself. I finally pressed down on the string. I am a musician.