how a cheap ukulele made me learn to love music again

I’ve been an artist my entire life. When I was a child, I painted without worrying what the outcome would be. I put on plays that didn’t have an ending and made my family watch them. I sang songs and built cities out of the set of wooden blocks in my basement. My parents surrounded me with ways to create, to grow as a young artist. I explored, I performed, and I learned.

As I progressed into adolescence, I discovered my love for theatre. As a shy, introverted kid, I was intoxicated by the ability to be someone else onstage. I loved the smell of stage makeup, the warmth of the lights beating down on the heavy costumes I had to wear. I found people who were like me in the casts I was part of, and finally it seemed normal to be the artistic kid, who chose late night rehearsals over sporting events, script memorization over making out in someone’s car, and cast parties over trips to the mall. Theatre was essential in helping me discover who I was.

I finally chose an art form that I knew I could cultivate well into my adult life when I decided to focus on singing. Choir was my safe place and voice lessons were my release. I knew this was something I could do for years and years and not tire of it. I chose my college and future career path based on this (which you probably read about earlier). I loved it. I had tried other instruments — the clarinet, the bane of my existence until ninth grade, and the piano, with which I had a love/hate relationship — but nothing compared to the power of the human voice. So I went on to study classical voice in college as an innocent, fresh-faced 18 year-old. I sang all the standard Italian songs and arias, I tried to fit my voice into the operatic mold that my school expected me to adhere to. I loved singing, but I realized that I loved singing for myself, and not for others. That was when I started falling out of love with it.

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with what it means to be an artist. Naturally, at a school like the one I work at, this question comes up a lot, both among the young artists I mentor and my coworkers/friends, many of whom have artistic backgrounds themselves. What does it mean to devote your life to an art form? How do you find a balance between artistic fulfillment and personal achievement? For me, artistic accomplishment and professional recognition were never the goal (which is probably why I chose the music education path, but that is a separate topic). Sure, it was great to hear from a professor that I had come long way on the Liszt piece I had been rehearsing for two semesters, and when I got a callback for the top choral ensemble at my school, I did feel like all my hard work was being recognized. But I wasn’t in it for the success of it all. I was in it because I loved singing.

I will always love to sing — that part will never change. But I lost sight of why for awhile, especially toward the end of my college career. As I began to realize that teaching wasn’t the profession for me (again, a topic I’ve explored previously), I also stopped using music as my form of release. As a college student, I sang. Every. Single. Day. I went to rehearsals, I practiced my voice repertoire, I sang in the shower. When I graduated, I lost that commitment to my art. I no longer had a “reason” to sing, because I wasn’t preparing for a recital or a concert. And I realized that all I really knew how to do was stand in front of a piano and sing an aria. And even then, that wasn’t what I was happiest doing. I think I knew all along, all throughout my college experience, that classical voice wasn’t where I fit. I wasn’t an opera singer. I would much rather sing something I connect to, that holds real meaning in my own life, than a bunch of French words I can barely remember how to pronounce.

About a year ago, I picked up the ukulele. I bought a relatively inexpensive one since I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I started learning basic chords and practicing strumming and singing along. I taught myself easy songs and I started listening to my own voice again. It made me happier than any form of music had in a very long time. I had taken quite a bit of time off from singing and making music, and suddenly, I remembered why I loved it in the first place. I played for myself, not for others, and I just did it for fun. That was what I had been missing. Such a simple, easy instrument suddenly added life to my musical identity again. I loved it. I still do.

But I do continue to fumble with what it means to be an artist for me here, right now, at this point in my life. I don’t stand in front of my studio class and spout out a bunch of German every week anymore, and I don’t have specific songs to practice and memorize. Nothing I work on is culminating in some big performance, where I will be publicly recognized for my work. I don’t do anything musical because I have to do it. I do it because I want to. Does that make me less of an artist? No. Does it still make me feel like I should be working toward something concrete? Absolutely.

I got a mandolin for Christmas. (If you don’t know me well, I’ll just tell you that the mandolin has been one of my favorite instruments for a long time and I greatly admire any person who can play it.) I am slowly but surely learning to play it. Sure, it would be great if I could eventually become good enough to jam with my friends here (because currently all my skills allow me to do is strum occasional chords on the uke and throw in some harmonies…) but I am in no rush. I’ll learn it as I go, it’s just great to have something new to work on. And when I get upset or frustrated or tired, I can pick up my uke and remember how it feels to love doing something. Music has become a much more personal thing for me, and I think I’m finally realizing that. And while I miss the discipline and focus I once had as a young voice major, I’m accepting that I can make music take whatever role I want it to take in my life. I just know it needs to be there.

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