I was given my first violin for Christmas when I was five, nearly six.
My flute, Christmas 2004 — I was eight, nearly nine.
I played the ocarina and the recorder in school, the way most children do at the age of six or seven.
My mum taught me the basics of playing the violin, but I didn’t start lessons until 2003. These were in groups, at school.
I wanted to take up the flute in 2003 instead of the violin, but I didn’t have my front two teeth yet, so wasn’t allowed. When I got my own flute I taught myself for a few months from a book, and started lessons in September of 2005.
After moving to private lessons I began to progress pretty quickly on the violin, but Classical music wasn’t my passion. I liked playing songs from films and musicals, but I remember saying to my mum that I didn’t feel like I’d found a genre of music that was ‘me’.
I was pretty good at the flute. It didn’t take too long for me to join various bands and orchestras, to take exams, to generally move on.
When I was ten or eleven I discovered traditional Irish music and my violin playing transformed itself into a passion for the fiddle, even if I still had a very Classical style.
I played in concert bands and wind orchestras. I found that I was good at sightreading, and could play a lot of fast notes.
I started a little ceilidh band at school, just a couple of us, and one outside of school that had only one member beside myself.
I took up the tin whistle.
I got my piccolo in July 2008 and a week later played it on tour with the school orchestra because the flautist who normally played the piccolo part wasn’t there. I had to teach myself over the course of those few days.
I played the violin on a course with the London Symphony Orchestra, and discovered how much I liked Shostakovich.
I joined the Bexley Youth Band because I heard they were playing Riverdance and I wanted in on that. It was 2009, and I’d just taken up Irish dancing.
I played the violin in Bexley Youth Orchestra, gradually working my way through the desks to somewhere in the first violins.
On tour that year the BYO and the BYB joined together. I was the unexpected piccolo player in the violin section, or the violinist in the flute section.
I played in school orchestras and orchestras with the local music centre. On Saturday mornings I helped with a children’s ballet class, took my own class, and then afterwards went to orchestra for the second half, where I played the flute.
When we needed a new front-desk flautist to lead the flute section in BYB, I ended up taking that role, just because I happened to be the highest grade at the time. I played piccolo there too.
I went on a couple of courses at Cecil Sharp House: one called ‘Get Your Folk On’. I joined the London Youth Folk Ensemble, very briefly. I also went on a course with the army — the Royal Artillery Band — and played with their orchestra.
I played for school musicals: the fiddle solos in Singin’ In The Rain, the mandolin part (badly) in Kiss Me Kate, and then there was Hairspray.
I took my grade eight flute in the Easter term of 2013. My teacher started talking to me about learning diploma pieces, even if I wasn’t going to take the exam. In a concert with the Bexley Youth Band, we played The Thievish Magpie, and I had the piccolo solo. My parents were playing in a concert of their own and couldn’t make it. It was my only solo with that orchestra. It was also my last concert. We didn’t know it at the time.
I was meant to take my grade eight violin in the summer. I was preparing for it. I knew what I was doing, I was playing better than I ever had before, and practising more too. I was also rehearsing for Hairspray.
It began to hurt. A lot. Every rehearsal was worse than the one before. By the time the show opened I could hardly play, even with ibuprofen gel smothered over my hands and as many painkillers inside me as I could safely take. I missed the third night of the show because I was in pain even when I wasn’t holding the violin. I couldn’t type, couldn’t do anything. It was excruciating.
Two weeks before my grade eight violin. The plan was that I’d take the exam and then focus primarily on folk music, which I’d wanted to do for years, but I’d discussed with my teacher the possibility of learning Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto too, because I liked it. Two weeks to go, and I couldn’t play. I dropped out of the summer concerts with the Bexley Youth Orchestra.
We cancelled the exam. I’d take it in the Christmas term, we said. At the end of Hairspray the musical director wrote each of us a thank you card, and mine said, “No tremolo for a month!” because at that point, we still thought a month might be enough for me to recover.
I went on tour with Bexley Youth Band, my last tour with them. I wore wrist splints, but even then playing the flute was painful.
By September it was clear that I wouldn’t be taking the violin exam in the Christmas term. The Easter term wasn’t looking likely, either.
Nearly two years later and I still haven’t taken that exam. I’ve not played my violin for more than a few minutes at a time, and I always pay for it afterwards with aching shoulders and wrists. The few occasions I’ve played the flute have been brief and painful, my stamina all but gone. Every now and again, I go to ceilidh band at university, and I play the tin whistle or the shaky egg. Even that is sometimes more than I can manage.
Over the past two years I’ve struggled with identity and figuring out who I am. It’s only recently I’ve realised how much I lost when I injured my wrists in the summer of 2013 through a combination of overuse and genetic incompetence. I didn’t miss music as much as I missed writing, at the time, but while there are ways around using one’s hands to write (Dragon NaturallySpeaking is imperfect but it’s something), I haven’t gone back to music in anything like the same capacity as back then.
Music was a huge part of my life from a very early age and it shaped me. My friends were from orchestras and bands — some of my closest friends, in fact, were people I met there. Those were my main social activities outside of school. I got used to writing stories backstage at concerts or trying to get out of practising when I couldn’t be bothered. I got used to missing lessons for school concert rehearsals.
No wonder I can’t figure out who I am, when I’m missing such a huge part of my personality.
I wrote this out because it’s been long enough now that most of the people reading this blog aren’t aware that this is who I used to be, that this is what I grew up with. Many of you have never seen me play, unless you’ve tracked down old videos on my YouTube channel. You don’t know the orchestras I was in; you know that I have wrist problems affecting my writing but you don’t know what else they cost me.
I didn’t have plans to become a professional musician, but I had plans to get that closure, to do my grade eight and move on. I was thinking of dropping out of orchestra anyway, but I still planned to go to band at least for a while. Instead, all of that was abruptly ripped away from me.
Yesterday I was thinking about this, and for the first time it wasn’t anger or bitterness that I felt. It wasn’t pain, because of my hands, or frustration, because I blamed myself.
It was grief. For what I lost. For the me I lost.
Maybe I’ll get that me back. I’ve learned to sing. I’ve taken up the harp; as a beginner it’s not complex enough to hurt too badly. I’m gradually building up to being able to one day pick up my flute again and not worry about the pain. But for now, I’m somebody else. There’s no point trying to work out who I am based on who I was in 2011 or 2012 — I’m not her anymore.
I don’t live in her world, move in her circles, or spend my days the way she spent them. I’m gradually coming to recognise and accept that, but it’s hard. I think it’s always going to be hard.
But that’s life, isn’t it? We’re never the same person we were three years ago, whether we lost them abruptly or over a period of time. We change, and we leave ourselves behind.