When I went to pick up my very first clarinet, the gentleman helping us told my mom not to buy it because he wasn’t sure that my fingers could cover the finger holes effectively. While I didn’t hear this story for many years, I still never would have guessed that music would become such an important part of who I am.
I was homeschooled my entire life up until college, which meant I didn’t have all the extra-curricular opportunities that kids in public or private school did. Early on, my parents decided that they wanted their children to be educated in music. They came across a local homeschool band and my two oldest siblings were quickly signed up to join. Within the next few years, it was my turn. At the beginning of fourth grade, I began my musical journey.
Every Monday afternoon, I went into the basement of that church and learned the basics of music theory, how to hold the instrument and (most importantly) how to blow through the thing without squeaking. I encountered my first big obstacle (besides the whole tiny hand thing) about halfway through my second year, at which point I realized that I couldn’t play a single note which required the use of the register key. At least, not with any consistency. I somehow managed to get through a concert playing the melody to “Silent Night”, and then happened to mention this obstacle to my mother, who immediately signed me up for private lessons with the gentleman who had helped me find my first instrument. This opened another door for me to grow as a musician and discover what music really meant to me.
Throughout that summer, I attended weekly lessons and committed to practicing. By the time I returned to the Homeschool Band in the fall, I was far more confident in my ability to play the instrument. I continued taking private lessons with one of my band directors. Come December, I stunned the entire group by placing first in the middle school All District Band as a seventh grader. This was when my motivation really took flight. Suddenly I was completely comfortable and confident in my apparent gift, and I simply wanted to get better and have fun.
Over the next four years, even as I had to give up private lessons, I progressed considerably. My directors understood the financial inability to keep up lessons, but they helped me on the side when they could. I became slightly known in the county’s band community, as I placed well every year I auditioned for the district band and, my senior year, All Virginia. As I approached graduation, I was set on attending the Catholic University of America to study music. I worked for several long, hard months to prepare for the audition, hoping for a scholarship. While I was accepted into the program, I did not receive a scholarship, so that school was out of the question. I was devastated. Now I had no idea what to do. The other two schools I applied to accepted me and did offer some more financial support. In determining these options, neither of which I was particularly excited about, I looked at two things: the Catholic Campus Ministry and the music program. Right before I had to decide, one school (who did not have a deeply established campus ministry) cut their music major. So, my decision became simple. I would be attending the University of Mary Washington for music and communications.
UMW was not my first choice of college, but I grew more excited as the summer wore on before my freshmen year. I was in touch with the music department and looking forward to my classes in that program, as well as realizing that I also had a passion and desire for studying effective communication skills, specifically journalism. Then, on July 30, 2019, one of my beloved band directors passed away. It was sudden and earth-shattering. This gentleman had not only founded the Homeschool Band and Prince William Community Band (which I had also played with for at least a year), but he had become a mentor in his pride and encouragement for me as his student and he was a dear friend by the time he died. In a matter of seconds, I had lost all my motivation to continue my musical career.
I abandoned my disciplined practicing and did not touch my clarinet for a month. Piano, while not as personally connected to Mr. Jones, was also extremely difficult for me to play. I was quickly shutting music out of my life entirely. It just hurt too much. Still utterly shaken by this tragedy, I went to school a month later. My parents had taken the step to reach out to a couple of the professors/directors in the program who I would be studying under and informed them that I was reeling from this blow, and music was no longer easy for me. At the time, I was numb from the loss, but in hindsight, everyone was beyond understanding and sympathetic, and that made all the difference in my grieving process.
I was a member of the Philharmonic Orchestra for that first semester, which caused such pained memories I can hardly describe. I missed Mr. Jones more and more every day, and I got to a point where I wouldn’t even listen to music at all. By my second semester, the only thing keeping me connected to music was theory class.
Then, as I was finishing the spring 2020 semester online, my mom bought me a book of clarinet sheet music for a selection of songs from Les Misérables. I didn’t know the musical at all, hardly, so while I studied for finals, I figured I would listen to the soundtrack so I could better understand the gift my mom had given me. I Dreamed a Dream began to play, and I stopped everything to listen to it. Every note was dripping with beauty, every word wrenched with anguish, and simply put, it moved me to tears. As I listened to Fantine’s story, I heard the suffering of this life in the lyrics and the hope of the next life in the music. I remembered that music holds great beauty even in the midst of great tribulation. It was as if I had forgotten that music was a part of who I am, and that song reintroduced me to myself.
Back in school, it didn’t hurt as much to go to class. I was still hung up on my purpose with music, since I was not nearly as much of an instrumentalist as I used to be. The professors and students I engaged with, though, showed me that I didn’t have to be a performer to be a musician. I focused on learning all I could about music and decided not to get caught up on the fact that I still couldn’t play my clarinet without crying. Being a music student kept me connected. It reopened the door to a place where I needed to be but had shut out because I didn’t see a way through. God really does work in mysterious ways.
Today, I look back and see how all these people and moments have shaped me into who I am today. I am still working through the loss of my dear friend, but I have found my place as a musician who learns, writes, and even teaches young musicians. I’ve moved on from focusing on performance, but that isn’t a bad thing. I am back to embracing and sharing the gift I was given. And thank the good Lord that I did not fall so far away that I couldn’t find my way back to music.