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ally: the joy of a challenge

Years ago, when this website was just a twinkle in my eye, I was having coffee with a student who had graduated a couple of years before. I floated an idea with her. What if, I asked, I interviewed you about your experiences learning violin and viola, and presented them somehow in my as-yet-nonexistent blog? I envisioned a series of posts about my students, current and former, spotlighting their different experiences and perspectives; she would be my guinea pig, the first.

To my delight, Ally was in.

I wrote the questions, emailed them to her (by then she'd gone back to college), and she sent me back a series of beautiful answers. One thing that emerged as a theme in her responses was the development, over time, of her sense of ownership and empowerment -- her growing feeling that she could take on any challenge that came her way -- and the pleasure and joy in music-making and learning that blossomed as a result. She says nice things about me (thank you, Ally!) but I remember this process as it was taking place, and how impressed I was with her perseverance and dedication, how wonderful it was to see her start to take real pride in her work, and enjoy herself as she played. She made this possible for herself.

Time passed, my website went up, and I started my blog. A year or so ago I wrote to Ally for updates, because it had been so long since our initial exchange. By this time she’d graduated from college and entered law school. Now I'm finally writing this, and Ally has just passed the bar exam. (Congratulations, Ally!)

I’ll check with her before I publish, but I think her fun and thoughtful answers all still hold true. I'm going to split them into two blog posts: the first about her experiences growing up and how learning music has influenced her; the second containing her words of insight and advice. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!

ALLY: I started playing violin when I was seven years old. In first grade, one of my classmates brought in her violin to play for us and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It sounded beautiful and she even had fun stickers on her violin! I told my parents I wanted to learn to play violin and they invested in private lessons from then on.

Violin quickly became part of my childhood routine. At first, it was just what I did in my spare time. I liked music and wanted to continue with violin lessons, but my parents played a very hands-on role in the learning process. They pushed me to practice even when I didn’t feel like it or was discouraged by a challenging piece. Looking back, I’m grateful that my parents were involved with my violin lessons and outside practice early on. Eventually, I didn’t need to be pushed to practice anymore because I genuinely wanted to practice and knew it was necessary to improve.

High school was definitely a turning point for my music journey. During these four years, music became something I was passionate about, not just what I did in my spare time. My freshman year of high school, I started taking private lessons with Margaret. I switched private lesson teachers because of a scheduling conflict but looking back, I think it was meant to be. Margaret and I clicked right away. With previous teachers, I learned pieces in the Suzuki books in order. I didn’t really have a say in what music I learned because the routine was to just learn the next song in the book. I still remember my first lesson with Margaret. I took out my Suzuki book and showed her the piece I was working on. She immediately asked me if I wanted to keep following the Suzuki books. I was a little confused at first because I didn’t think I had any other option. Luckily, I did! From then on, Margaret found pieces from various composers for me to work on. As time went on, she got to know me better and had a stronger idea of what music I liked. Margaret’s flexible, student-centered style of teaching is what fueled my passion for music. I looked forward to practicing and performing because I was playing pieces that I genuinely wanted to learn. I’m so grateful that Margaret gave me choices during our lessons and helped me discover music that spoke to me.

Another turning point in my musical story was switching to viola! I made the switch in 2014 during my sophomore year of high school. I knew one of Margaret’s other students was learning viola and I thought it would be a fun way to switch things up. This ended up being perfect timing because the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra had lots of openings for violists that year. If I worked hard on my sight reading, I’d be in good shape to audition. Learning to read new music was definitely challenging at first. However, the upcoming audition motivated me to practice as much as possible. This was definitely when the intrinsic motivation to practice starting setting in. Suddenly, my parents weren’t nagging me to practice anymore – I was practicing daily because I wanted to improve. After lots of hard work, I got into RPYO! I knew this was a selective orchestra, so I was really proud of getting in, especially with a new instrument. Because of Margaret, I felt completely prepared to audition for and play with a serious orchestra. She helped me develop new skills and empowered me to take on this challenge. Along with RPYO, I spent my junior and senior year playing with a string orchestra and a viola ensemble. I will always cherish the times I had playing with these groups. I had a blast and still miss the music and people years later. I’m so thankful that Margaret encouraged me to take advantage of all these opportunities in the Rochester area. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Although I’m not a professional musician, music still plays a large role in my life today. Throughout college and law school I’ve listened to my favorite symphonies from RPYO before big exams to get myself pumped up. I also love recognizing music in movies or public places and thinking “I can play this!” It’s an awesome validation that not many people experience. I also joined a music service club in college where I performed at various local nursing homes. This experience taught me that playing just-for-fun can be just as meaningful and rewarding as playing for a big audition.

I’m currently in my second year of law school at Northeastern University in Boston. I plan to practice labor and employment law, representing workers who are unionizing or seeking justice for discrimination or misclassification. During my law school coursework, music has come up more often than I expected. For example, in my labor law course, we studied a case about a musicians’ union asking for public support after a ballet decided to use recorded music rather than a live orchestra. I’ve also learned how prominent music is in other areas of law that interest me, such as contracts, intellectual property, and entertainment law. I didn’t expect my music background to come full circle in this way, but I’m excited to see where this path takes me.

Playing and learning instruments has influenced me in various ways. First, learning violin and viola strengthened my growth mindset and perseverance. I definitely did not become a strong musician overnight. Throughout elementary school and middle school I struggled to practice and stay motivated through challenging pieces. However, continuing despite the frustration allowed me to become a talented and passionate musician. Whenever academic coursework gets frustrating, I think back on my journey with music and remind myself that with time and practice, I can improve at anything.

I also think learning and playing an instrument has made me a stronger listener and a quick thinker. When playing with an orchestra, it’s crucial to be aware of what’s happening around you and make constant adjustments. You have to listen to other instruments besides your own and apply immediate feedback to your playing. Listening and quickly adapting to change are valuable skills in so many contexts outside of music and I’m grateful to have developed these skills from such a young age.

1 Comment

Jan 11

This is such a beautiful and inspiring story! Thank you, Ally, for sharing. I recognize throughout Margaret's tremendous ability to help people find and courageously pursue a path all their own. <3


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