At a few AYA (adolescent and young adult) cancer support groups now, our nurse navigator has asked me to share my “music story”.
When I’m sharing my story I kinda try to get in a super lighthearted, almost trivial space to talk. If I didn’t, I don’t think I’d make it through! But this Sunday, I was thinking about my music story for me (in the sad way), and I decided to share it.
Growing up, my parents gave me violin lessons. A few years in, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore, but they had invested too much time and money for me to quit…long story short I played violin very seriously through high school. I also played piano, to a lesser intensity due to the absence of formalized piano training.
My childhood dreams ranged from being a music teacher, to being on the radio program From the Top. I believed if I worked hard enough, I could be an outstanding musician, and I worked to make that happen. I knew I needed uninterrupted practice time, which wasn’t easy to come by in our large and busy household. I used to wake up around 4:45 A.M., and practice uninterrupted for a few hours before the household came to life. I had plans to compete for the solo and ensemble competition, performed at a few recitals, and believed I could make it into college on a music scholarship.
Fall 2011. I took a month of piano lessons from an outstanding teacher, who pushed me to advance in my musical knowledge and abilities. I had asked her for a show-stopping piano piece, and she responded with the incredible Militaire Polonaise by Chopin. While I believed the piece definitely held four weeks’ worth of work for me, she added in tons of technical exercises and a complicated and daring piece that only used the left hand to play but sounded as if there were two. I was on a musical high and only climbing higher.
Christmas 2011. I took my violin with me on our Christmas trip to NY, and practiced every sparing moment I had because auditions were in January. My teacher had picked out a particularly difficult and well recognized technical etude, as well as a Mozart concerto for my auditions.
On our way home from NY, my family swung by the LiBassi’s house. Their son Sam (read Jen’s story about Sam) had just finished his treatments for Ewing’s Sarcoma, and his parents hosted a giant holiday open house for everyone to celebrate. His sister was my accompanist, and our signature piece was “Autumn”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As I had my violin with me, we were convinced to play it for the crowd. It was the performance of my lifetime. I had performed it many times with her, but none were ever as perfect or show-stopping or as incredible as that time. Time itself seemed to stand still as the entire room listened in rapt silence. I finished playing and literally collapsed into the nearest chair amidst the applause.
And in that moment, I knew my life would never be the same. I gave my all into that performance, but somehow I had less than nothing left. I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t speak. I knew my body was really sick.
Twelve days later I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I had been accepted into my dream school for engineering and was auditioning for their music program which was in conjunction with a prestigious conservatory. I had sent off my audition videos for violin and piano, to double my chances of getting accepted! I advanced to the final round- the live auditions. I had begun chemo at this point and treatment included the infamous Vincristine.
Suddenly, I lost the feeling in my finger tips, leaving me with a weird pins and needles almost lifelessness in my fingers.
The other meds and steroids helped slow my muscles and diminish the fine motor controls needed for fast piano passages and the flying fingers in my violin etude. My dad worked with the professor coordinating the auditions, and she managed to push them to my intermediate week in treatments. She also scheduled the two auditions far apart, so I could rest between them.
The first weekend in February was the solo and ensemble competitions. I ended up in the hospital, and dropped out of the competition. I cried myself to sleep that Friday night, as I had wanted so badly to participate.
My gracious yet demanding piano teacher told me my playing would have gotten the top rating, but it did little to comfort me. The next weekend was the college auditions. My violin teacher and I reevaluated my original performance pieces and picked ones I had already mastered due to my sensation-less fingertips. I played my violin pieces as well as I could, but they sounded hollow and disappointing to me.
Waiting for my piano audition, I heard the violinist before me play the pieces I had originally planned on playing. I felt like just weeks earlier I had played them significantly better than he had, but I knew that there was no arguing that point now. I’m proud to say I got into the music program, without the scholarship, however. I didn’t end up going there, and I’m grateful for the opportunities life has afforded me since.
But that was still a major disappointment. Ever go down the spiral of wondering how your life would have looked like? I still deal with it leading back to that audition. Everyone told me how awesome it was that I still made the audition despite cancer, but it was a shadow of the audition I had dreamed off and worked so hard for.
My second year at the University of Akron, I played with the UA Symphony orchestra. Two years after the above-mentioned auditions, and my fingertip feeling really hadn’t returned. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in, but I told God if the conductor let me in with my hastily-rehearsed-the-night-before audition piece, then I would join. I got in, and the conductor set me up with violin lessons from the senior violin professor at the school. He graciously understood my struggles and helped me find my violin voice again.
My final semester of college, I took piano lessons from another kind professor, and he helped me work on gaining some of the finger speed I had lost.
I still play. I play violin with a dear friend at nursing homes and I play the keyboard at my church. I played Sunday night, with a team that, excluding our director, was all under 27. But it made me sad as I listened to each individual’s musical gifts. Everyone plays multiple instruments, and very well. But no one knows my past.
They don’t know how I played as a church and choir pianist for seven years.
They don’t know about how I sang in the choir, and various ensembles.
They don’t know my time and progress with the cello or organ.
My damaged lungs don’t support my singing and radiation has greatly affected my vocal range.
My arms fatigue too fast to make it through a long and vibrant choir arrangements I once loved.
My feet don’t have the muscle strength to play an entire bass line in the organ pedals like I once did.
My violin skills are nowhere close to the level I was once at. But I can still make music, so I do.
I don’t know what your incredible goal/talent/desire was. But I know that you, dear cancer friends, will face the same struggles. The struggles of not being as accomplished as you once were. The grief of mourning your dreams that will never come true.
The new friends who don’t even have the faintest idea of your past. But you will make it through. You have faced cancer, so be proud of that. Mourn your dreams, and then dream new ones. Make new friends and let them see how cancer has shaped you. It’s crazy hard, and at times I just want to scream at cancer and wonder why it took the music I worked so hard for away from me.
But all I can do now is not let cancer win. I’m not letting cancer win by still continuing my music. I’m not letting it win by sharing my story with other musicians who face similar circumstances. I’m not letting it win by sharing my struggles with you all here. Cancer friend- don’t let cancer win.