When I began playing, the taut strings felt like blades against the soft flesh of my fingertips. Still, I persisted. I kept at it even though the sound was cracked and choppy when I pressed the bow down too hard. I played even when the strings broke the first transparent layers of my skin. Learning to sometimes play with the delicacy of a slight breeze and other times with the power of a roaring flame was incredibly important to me. I was only five at the time, but I understood what music meant, what it could say to people. I knew that I needed it as badly as I needed oxygen in my lungs. Just like my father, who was a harpist, and mother, a highly successful pianist, my hands were destined to serenade the universe.
At seven, my first teacher had ran out of things for me to learn. I had devoured them up with a voracity to advance my skill and I was already looking for more. A replacement was swiftly found, one who not only brought his violin, but a cane. At the time, I had surpassed having the initially cracked sound I would produce two years prior. I could manipulate my strings, make them sing for me. My bow was no longer wayward and accepted my direction. Still, I made mistakes. I was only a child and it was natural to hit the wrong string or two from time to time. My old teacher treated those wrong notes and scratchy tones as stepping stones, a staircase to progress. Each time I learned to fix one, I had become a better violinist. My new teacher, however, let me know that his cane abhorred stray notes and wrong bowings. It would flinch at wrong rhythms and was violent in its reactions. When the hairs of my bows brushed over the wrong string for a fraction of a second, a mistake one would hardly notice, a crack would sound throughout the room. The cane had almost always broken skin. If that did not happen, then an ugly purple bruise was left, making my skin look like it had died. Music was still something vital to me, something required for my existence, but now it came with a price.
I continued playing through to thirteen years old. By that time, I had played in venues all around my city and claimed victory at countless competitions. Along with those wins, I had obtained more scars and bruises. Practice made perfect, but the cane had sped it up. The more competent I had grown, the lower the instrument of torture’s tolerance had gotten. While my fingers had gotten calloused, shielded from the taut strings, my sides and back did not have that gift. Still, I played. I played with everything I had, everything I felt. The pain of my mistakes became intertwined with my love for the strings. The music was no longer a happy experience. Instead, it brought conflicting feelings, ones of fear but ones of joy as well. I needed it as much as I dreaded it.
At sixteen, I had been a part of orchestras and groups that performed on the biggest of stages. I had played at Carnegie Hall and overseas. Everyone who had asked for my secret had always been given the same answer. They were told I owed everything to my teacher, the one who had stayed with me for nine whole years. If they asked why I was admitted to the hospital not too long ago, I’d give them the same answer. No one, asked, though. They thought it was too sensitive of a topic and that asking would have made me feel awful. Everyone knew that I had been abused for years, but not by who. They were too busy trying to make me better to care who. Too busy trying to make me stage-worthy again.
When I had gotten out of the hospital, a violin was pushed under my chin again and a bow was forced into my hand. No matter how hard I tried to play, however, no good noise came out. My hands were unstable every time I brought the bow hairs to the strings. When I tried to produce a sound, I felt the fear of making a mistake creep up on me again and cripple my fingers. No one needed a cane to make me feel the hot strike of wood on my back every time my fingers pressed down onto the strings. When I somehow did manage to play some sort of music, I was deaf to it. It was blurry in my ears and all I could think about was the impending crack from the cane.
I was called a waste of talent, a waste of opportunity. My future used to be bright. What could have possibly made me unable to even pick up a violin? Surely abuse wasn’t enough to make me weak. Such an important part of my identity could not just be taken away like that, right? There are many things wrong with that question. One, violin was not just part of my identity. It was all of it. Two, it could be taken away. Sitting in that hospital bed, I wasted away. I was nothing but a sick kid who had lost the only thing people liked about me. My bruises had faded from the minds of the people who listened to me play. The only thing that stuck was what I could have been.