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My perfectionism made me quit my love of music

You know that Facebook relationship status “It’s complicated?” Sometimes my relationship with music feels like that.

At 8 years old, I started playing piano. Never a sports kid, I learned though music what it meant to practice something and to stick with it. In middle school I picked up chorus as well.

By the time I got to high school I was getting up at 5:30 in the morning just to practice for half an hour before school. I dropped chorus for the first year and a half of high school, but eventually joined my high school chorus as well, and had a blast with that.

Part of what drew me to the music was the social part of it. I loved the community and the inside jokes of chorus, and I loved both chatting with my piano teacher and the deep life discussions that you can only get into with someone who has watched you grow up.

I loved the community and the inside jokes of chorus. Click To Tweet

Another part of it was purely for the music. I loved watching a song coming together. I loved singing within a group, and hearing all of the amazing melodies from within the choir. I loved crafting my own interpretations of songs of songs on the piano. I would have elaborate images in my head that I would visualize before I started playing, and if I practiced enough I would be able to go to my own place while playing, and to cause another reaction in other people.

The problem with music, though, is that once you get to a certain point you have to be really nitpicky to get any better. This did not work well with my inner perfectionist. My strength in music was in being able to play by ear. I was never good at sight reading.

The problem with music is that you have to be really nitpicky to get any better. Click To Tweet

I was never one of the strongest singers in choir, and I tended to lean on my friend, who had a strong voice and was better at sight reading. As a pianist it took me a long time to learn songs instead of being able to sit down and sight read them easily. Still, I eventually ended up joining the advanced choirs in my high school. By all appearances I was a good musician, but there was a huge confidence gap inside.

By all appearances I was a good musician, but there was a huge confidence gap inside. Click To Tweet

When I entered college I considered music as a major. But at the same time, the level of talent around me was intimidating. One of the students in my year had studied at a Russian music high school and was already giving her own concerts. How could I possibly hope to compete with that? I also didn’t make the Wellesley College Choir the first time that I auditioned.

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I also realized that while my first piano teacher had taught me how to love music, something that I will always be grateful for, I hadn’t learned much music theory. So I enrolled in two music theory classes in my first two years of college. To my dismay it wasn’t something that came easily or that I enjoyed. I knew it was important to understanding music at a more advanced level or having a music major or minor, but I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it or appreciate it like I felt I should. Despite my passion for music, a music major or minor seemed out of the question.

I felt like I wasn’t a “real musician” because I couldn’t sight read or enjoy theory, and felt increasingly like I was faking it.

I felt like I wasn’t a 'real musician' because I couldn’t sight read or enjoy theory, and felt… Click To Tweet

I loved music, but was frustrated by my slow progress. A personal critique from my choir director was enough to make me enroll in vocal lessons for a semester just to prove that I actually could sing.

I was tormented over music at that point. I loved it, but if I wasn’t majoring in it or planning to earn my living with it could I really justify spending so much time in piano lessons and in choir rather than in jobs or extracurriculars that had to do with my career interest? Was piano worth it if I spent so much time beating myself up about it? Sometimes it seemed music had the power to hurt me so deeply precisely because I loved it so much.

So I politely explained to my piano and voice teachers that I wasn’t going to continue with lessons. I stayed with choir, because it was social and I still can’t imagine quitting music entirely.

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There are days when my fingers itch to play a piano (I gave mine away after quitting lessons), and times when I do play and almost start crying at how little I remember. And I still go through cycles of doubt with every choir I join. Still, I’m consoled by the fact that music will always be there, and by the possibility of resuming piano lessons in the future.

Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger is an Editorial Fellow for the Summer of 2016. She is currently pursuing a BA at Wellesley College where she studies English and Spanish. One of her (too many) goals this summer is to make the list of musicals she wants to listen to shorter.

We're ready to shake things up, for the better.