I try to leave my comfort zone regularly but usually in little ways. That’d be things like picking up a new computer language, trying a new recipe or cuisine style, etc. In recent years I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone with some career changes that have happened as well. But the last time I really left my comfort zone hardcore was May of 2009. While starting my last company back in 2005 I pushed myself really hard into burnout. During therapy for that a seemingly innocent question was asked by my therapist: What are your hobbies. At that point my only “hobbies” were programming, which I did all day for work as well, watching TV, and sleeping. Those aren’t hobbies. That revelation had me decide to start picking up hobbies for real. One thing I always wanted to do was learn how to play a musical instrument. I decided to try my hand at playing the violin. I found a local music school and enrolled. I went to my lessons weekly and practiced. It was several months in when I was informed that all students, childrens and adults, are required to do a recital.
I’m sure I could have backed out with some last minute excuse, ginned up a business trip, or just quit. Instead I was going to play a musical instrument, the violin, in front of an audience for the first time in my life. I was doing okay for someone that was only playing it a few months. For anyone who has never learned to play a musical instrument I’ll break the suspense and say that it sounded dreadful at best. The violin, even with finger tape for the lines, makes it even more difficult because your fingers have to be at the exact right position in the exact right orientation to hit the note. It is not like a guitar where anywhere anywhere within the frets will do. Since I had never been to a recital before I decided to attend the kids recital the day before just to get a feel for how it went.
The whole school goes through these recitals. That kids as young as 3 up to 18 with all levels between beginner to heading off to conservatories or college programs. The first up were the little kids, whose toy sized violins barely made any sound. It was pretty adorable. But as the ages went up I started evaluating my own performance relative to theirs. We were all just starting to learn this craft but there is something intimidating when my own abilities were at best matched by eight year olds. All kids with double digit ages and up played much better. They knew more techniques. The shared techniques they knew better than I did. It was with that knowledge that I went off to my first recital the next evening.
I am not a natural showman. I don’t necessarily get stage fright in professional speaking sessions. That ended long ago. The thing is that I know that material like the back of my hand. I can generally wing it, recover if I flub up, etc. This was me doing something bad in front of two hundred people. Yes there were other adults just learning to play instruments too but I was the greenest of the bunch. We weren’t ordered by capability or even instrument. It was sort of all over the place. I guitar here, a cantor there, a piano next. My heart sank as the most green of people before me were easily twice as good. I was up shortly after a formerly professional concert pianist went. She left that profession decades before and was trying to get back into it. Then there was me, a few months in playing a violin badly.
I had spent many hours practicing the song. I knew the parts I was having problems playing through. I could have played the equivalent of chopsticks or something easy but my teacher and I both agreed it should be something slightly, but not too challenging. “No one will know you messed up besides you,” is a lie we told myself. I guess in so far as the whole thing sounded like shit that’s true. Now that I’ve gone through the process of learning an instrument it’s not even true for “real” musicians all the time. But nevertheless with butterflies, clammy hands, and zero desire to be up there making a fool of myself I played my piece. I even have video of it which is just as cringeworthy as you’d expect. I got a polite applause and left the stage.
I didn’t die. It didn’t dissuade me from continuing learning the violin, although I switched to the viola. The next year I not only performed again, a bit better but still suckily compared to what most people expect to hear out of someone really playing the violin, but at that point I had taken up a chamber music class as well so did a second performance with a group of three the following season.
Sadly life got in the way and I stopped learning to play the violin/viola. Much of it has leaked out my ear but it is something I think about getting back to often.