I am sitting on the flagstones outside a church in northern Italy, sobbing as if my heart were broken. I think maybe it is. Inside the church a chamber orchestra is playing Vivaldi and I cannot bear to listen. It is three months since I last played my violin.
1975 – 1987
I quickly fell in love with the violin. I hadn’t had any burning passion to learn that rather than any other instrument but when I was offered group lessons at school, and then private lessons soon afterwards, it was as if I had found a part of myself that I hadn’t known was missing. Playing took up more and more of my time even though I decided in my early teens not to pursue music as a career. I thought that if it became a duty and an obligation I might lose the love and joy I found in it. (And I really didn’t like the prospect of having to teach violin for a living if I didn’t make it as a performer. Beginners’ violin is painful!)
In the Sixth form I sailed through Grade 8 with a high distinction, and was leading all the local youth orchestras, regularly being asked to play with other groups, doing solo performances with my Dad as accompanist, and performing chamber music with him and my sisters. Life was a whirl of private practice, rehearsals, and the adrenaline rush of concerts.
When I fell ill following a virus in December of my Upper Sixth the first thing it affected was my violin-playing. Suddenly I was waking every day feeling exhausted, severely hungover (no alcohol involved), and with excruciating headaches, neck, shoulder and back pain, and a need to lie down regularly. Playing was the one thing guaranteed to make the pain worse. For the first year doctors thought maybe I had damaged my neck playing so much. I cut back for a while and focused on getting through A-levels (a challenge with my now compromised health), but it didn’t help. X-rays were normal, physiotherapy and various alternative treatments had no effect, doctors lost interest, so I gritted my teeth, upped the painkillers, and carried on.
In the summer of 1985 I led the Warwickshire Schools’ String Orchestra for a series of concerts on the Edinburgh Fringe – lots of glorious string music and solo violin parts, supported by lots of pain relief, Deep Heat cream, and lying on the floor wondering how on earth I would manage the next rehearsal. Concerts were easier – the adrenaline masked the pain…until it hit with a vengeance afterwards.
On arrival at Oxford to study Modern Languages I told God that he could have Sunday mornings (church) and Thursday evenings (college Christian Union) but that the rest of my time, if I wasn’t studying, I would be playing my violin. I auditioned for the University Symphony Orchestra along with over a hundred other Grade 8+ violinists, was one of the few non-music students to be offered a place, and was also asked to play in the highly prestigious, ‘by invitation only’, Music Society Chamber Orchestra. It was an incredible experience: music-making on a level I had only previously dreamt of. I returned at the start of the second term to find invitations to play in nine different orchestras or chamber groups. My health was precarious and I had important exams before Easter. I played in just one, crying in pain after the long rehearsals, and then going back for more.
Why didn’t I stop? I couldn’t imagine life without playing. I couldn’t imagine me without playing. I had tried playing less and any number of therapies (physiotherapy, chiropractic, hydrotherapy, acupuncture etc etc) and got no better, (though I had discovered that sports massage, and alternating hot/cold – really freezing cold – showers, and warm baths provided temporary pain relief). Doctors had told me that there was nothing wrong with me and to ignore my symptoms, keep busy, and do the things I enjoyed in life. More than anything else I loved playing my violin, especially with others. Performing in a fantastically talented symphony orchestra was like being transported into a different realm. While playing I felt more alive, more the person I was made to be, and closer to God. The emotional highs of concerts were almost like a drug.
That Easter I led the Warwickshire Youth Orchestra on a concert tour of Holland, Belgium and Germany, acting as French and German interpreter at concerts, as well as leading the orchestra. It was my last orchestral playing.
Back in Oxford for the summer term I made it through a morning rehearsal with the symphony orchestra then spent the lunch break lying on the floor of my college room, breathing through the pain. Part way through the afternoon rehearsal the room started to spin. I couldn’t see properly. The notes on my music were dancing across the page and blurring together. Pain was shooting from my neck across my head and into my eyes and I felt hideously sick. Somehow I got myself back to college before I completely collapsed. I was in bed for most of the next 3 weeks, iller than I had ever been in my life. It was May 1987, I was 20, and I knew I couldn’t keep on playing.
The grief was overwhelming. It felt as if someone I loved had died. A core part of my identity had been ripped from within me and the pain was unbearable. I felt lost and empty – I didn’t know who I was if I couldn’t play. For two years I couldn’t hear a violin without sobbing. I stopped listening to music; couldn’t bear to attend concerts. It was too painful to be reminded of everything I had lost and was missing out on when I couldn’t play myself. I had a violin-shaped hole inside me and nothing else could fill it.