Hi! I’m Rebecca, and I live near Los Angeles. For most of my life, I’ve been a reporter. I’ve written for some of the top publications in the country, including The Atlantic, Writer’s Digest and The New York Times.
Before I was a reporter, I trained as a violinist. Follow along as I learn to play again and recall the struggles of competing as a young musician who came from a terrible neighborhood.
When I played the violin in college, I thought I hit my breaking point with a sonata by Sergei Prokofiev.
At the end of a semester, I played one of the Soviet composer’s sonatas for a jury of music professors. It received a solid B-minus. I was surprised I did that well; the dissonant, atonal 20th-century music didn’t make any sense to me.
“I’m not gonna play Prokofiev” became a common refrain for me, and it supplied one more reason to not pursue a career in music.
Then, 35 years later, when the pandemic hit, I rediscovered the Soviet composers…
Performance Diary № 1:
March 8, 2021:
I’m playing “Brindisi!” from La Traviata.
It’s like being 13 again.
I’m playing the way a 13- or 14-year-old would play.
This is good; it means that I’m not playing at the 5th-grade level. Also, it’s an excellent place to start; it’s close to the point at which you make the first Big Leap.
It’s surprising how painful it was to tackle the piece and decide to play it adequately — not at performance level — and move on. …
In a violin competition, the judges may consider at least 100 factors.
Like in figure skating, you have players who are highly technical and players who are highly musical, whose interpretations surpass the glitches of notes that fall a quarter-tone flat.
As for the players themselves, they’re thinking about arm height, elbow trajectory, finger strike, bow grip, shifting, and the five zones of play between the bridge and the fingerboard.
In 10 weeks of working to expand the reach of my work on several social media platforms, I’ve reflected on my training for music competition.
I recalled two important lessons…
Three months after I started a cross-platform extravaganza, with a YouTube channel linked to an essay series, the wheels started to turn a little more slowly.
The excitement over doing hair and makeup, and the demands of having a standing date with the camera, started to feel, ever so slightly, like a burden. I encountered days that I didn’t want to play — not because I was intimidated by the task, but because I didn’t want to do it.
Yet the demand to whack those algorithms every week wasn’t going to go away. …
In the studio of a great violin teacher, you will learn to disregard the audience.
The Great Teacher will tell you that if you blow a big chromatic run, no one will notice. Further, she will say, the audience needs to believe that the performance is perfect. Let them believe it.
So you forget the audience.
With a video camera, you can’t forget. The advice that gets you through a live performance — that if you blow it, the moment will disappear — does not apply. The moment will last forever.
I learned about the vicious intrusion of the camera…
When you’re an all-star, the world will fall at your feet. But when you live in a neighborhood that’s rife with drug trafficking, you can collapse under the weight of the world.
For all-star musicians, the spotlight works the same way as it does for athletes. When I made the All-State and All-American orchestras, letters arrived from out of the blue, with offers for full-ride scholarships, sight unseen, no auditions necessary.
If I had gone to music school, everything would have been so easy.
Yet when I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, and about the Lost Girls…
The day after the insurrection, the pain started.
That morning, I was ready to seal myself off in the studio and solve another puzzle on the violin. Then, after 20 minutes of tuning, I realized I couldn’t turn my head.
What the hell?
I limped around like a monster for a day or two, hunched over, turning my entire torso instead of my head. One question kept running like a chyron on a cable channel: “Am I too broken? Did I wait too long to play again?”
After decades of neglect, I thought, perhaps the violin was striking back.
After I left Missouri and came to California, I never saw a violin that looked quite like mine.
Its orange-tinted varnish, its simple black pegs, and the double black lines tracing the edge — those things were nothing like the features of the dark European instruments that my friends in California played.
My family bought the violin in the late 1970’s from a dealer in Kansas City. Where he got it, I never knew.
Recently, I found some clues.
Not long ago, I clicked on a story in The New York Times with photos of violins in the backcountry of…