Years ago, a woman in her 80’s came up to talk with me after I had performed. She had worked as a professional violinist and wanted to express her appreciation of my playing.
Like most career violinists, Marcia Van Dyke was a child prodigy. She was unusual in that few women were performing professionally in the 1940s and 50s when she began building her career.
After learning more about her playing when she was younger, I asked her what she was playing now. She told me that she stopped playing music many years earlier. In fact, she sold her violin.
I asked her how she felt not playing music anymore. She looked at me directly, as if she wanted me to really hear her reply, and said she felt tremendous relief — like a weight had been taken off her back.
Marcia’s story made a deep impression on me because it contradicted a message that I grew up hearing: the greater the musical skill = the greater the happiness.
My conversation with Marcia was the first of many conversations that revealed an important truth in music to me. The correlation between skill and happiness is small. Some of the least happy musicians I have met have also been incredibly skilled. And some of the happiest musicians I know are, by no means, the most skilled players.
My teachers and parents encouraged me to invest heavily in practice as a child so that I would become a highly skilled player who could enjoy music as an adult. Furthermore, the more skilled I became, the more I would enjoy playing and the more likely I was to play as an adult.
Of course, I had seen cracks in this theory throughout my life. I saw young players that were very skilled, who sat ahead of me in Youth Symphony, and yet quit in high school or shortly thereafter.
I always told myself that they hadn’t crossed that threshold of skill where they would enjoy it. If only they had stuck with it a bit longer, they would have made it! But, Marcia was clearly over the threshold and she quit.
Marcia’s story was a catalyst for me to try to understand why musical skill is not the determining factor for who keeps playing after lessons end.