Updated: Jul 9, 2020
| This is the 118th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born the oldest of eight children in a very musical, Catholic family in southern Minnesota. My parents cared deeply about our education, and we were all home-schooled. They were highly skilled musicians, but unfortunately, our family was very poor because neither of my parents made much at their teaching careers. My family not only faced financial hardship but also experienced moving seven times in 15 years while my mom faced six unplanned, high-risk pregnancies. For most things in my life, there wasn’t a lot of stability. However, my parents did a good job ensuring that my brothers, sisters, and I learned two things regularly: our catechism and our instruments.
My parents started me on the violin when I was five. They tell me that I embraced the instrument instantly and made progress very quickly with the coaching of my excellent teachers. I was never told that I needed to practice. I asked if I could. I have now been playing for more than 20 years. In many ways, my violin feels like an extension of my body—as if it were another limb.
Starting me on the violin was the best thing my parents did for me. As a child I was an extrovert with a creative mind. My parents tried to give me ways to feed my curiosity, but I was always starving for more. When I was bored, I stirred up trouble at home because I felt neglected. Music became the one outlet that I was able to keep excelling at because my parents fed this interest daily. Each one of my seven siblings played an instrument. In fact, many played several. We were a family bonded by music. We even developed a family band and performed regularly at nursing homes, weddings and customer appreciation diners. As my abilities improved, my teachers pushed me to audition for opportunities that would help me grow more. The wonderful people I met through my musical experiences transformed my life. They helped me to uncover my potential.
My first memorable music experience started with my dad, who was a band director. Even though we were home-schooled, mom would drive us in for band, the one class I had in common with the other kids in town. The kids loved my dad, but none of them knew him like I did. He was my dad, but he was also my best friend. Watching him step on the podium was magical. He carried so much love for his students. He had a way of connecting with each of us as he led us in on our parts. Through my Catholic faith, I was learning that God was my loving, Heavenly Father. I began to see what that truly meant through my dad who showed such unconditional love. Since he was a conductor, I began to see God acting in this role as well.
In seventh grade, I was accepted into an out of town group, the prestigious Minnesota Mid-Level Honors Orchestra. My sister Anne, who auditioned on cello, was also accepted. I was glad she got in too because I was always nervous going places on my own. I suffered from depression very early in life because of the instability at home. I also had undiagnosed endometriosis and PCOS (an ovary syndrome), both of which caused hormonal mood swings, and awkwardly crooked teeth that my parents couldn’t afford to fix.
In the basement of a Twin Cities College, we walked into a room that felt foreign. We arrived the first day just in time as most of the other kids were already sitting down with their music out. Anne and I hurried to get our instruments out and prepare ourselves. Within a few minutes we found our designated seats in the orchestra.
Our director was Claudette Laureano, a Latino phenomenon from Minneapolis. In many ways she reminded me of my grandmother. She wore a skirt and blouse and was very petite. She needed every inch of her podium height to look over us. She was the first female orchestra conductor I had ever met. I watched as she prepared her music score for conducting and I wondered how she would manage to challenge us and keep our attention. When rehearsal started, the grandma that I thought was before had disappeared and been replaced by someone else entirely.
“Who doesn’t have a pencil?” She asked. I raised my hand, and she threw a pencil at me. I was not the only one. More missals sailed above our heads from her stand. And those pencils were sharpened! She made us play through entire pieces right from the start, testing us and our ability to sight read together. I had not expected this. That day, she pointed to a boy in the viola section way in the back saying, “Johnny, I want you to sit up in your chair!” After sitting up for about five minutes, Johnny fell back into his slouched position. This occurred several times. Eventually, Claudette made a pretend gun with her hand and pointed it at Johnny. “I’ll kill you, Johnny!” Claudette said this with a serious face. I was astonished. Grandma turned psycho witch! Who does she think she is?! The other kids laughed, impressed by this small, fiery woman. By the end of class, I had joined in despite my small fear of her. I was curious to see what she would do next. I wanted to make her proud. I wanted to play my best for her. I wanted to be daring on my violin and give it all I had. She made me want to be better.
My experience with Claudette gave me a lot to ponder in my lonely moments. I began to form a connection between music and the way I imagined God. I believe that—like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia—He sang creation into being, in much the same way composers produce music. I believed all music was spiritual and because of that I became careful in what I chose to listen to. I imagined that God was surprising sometimes, like Claudette. She taught me that He wanted my attention and He would do anything to gain it.
Three years later and history seemed to be repeating itself in a very ironic way. I walked into another, more prestigious rehearsal—again accompanied by my sister Anne. This time it was my first All State Orchestra camp and we were at a state college, settling in for a whole week of rehearsals. Our conductor was Manny Laureno, Claudette’s husband. A true Spaniard with dark hair, an olive complexion and romantic mustache, he conducted with a command different from his wife. He had a gentle depth in his voice but also a kindness and warmth that emanated.
To break up our long rehearsals, he took time to tell us stories. One of our pieces was called “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. Many of us did not know the German folklore behind this piece, so we sat, enchanted, as Manny told us about Lohengren, the trouble with the Valkyries, and Valhalla, the heavenly dwelling where he lived.
I liked his stories, especially as the week got longer and my social anxiety became unbearable. My roommate was obsessed with her Twilight book and wasn’t very social. My audition had gone horribly because my depression had prevented me from practicing like I should have. After only winning a spot in the back of the violin section, I wanted to disappear and go home. My sister had earned a top spot in the orchestra with an outstanding audition and was busy with her new friends. I felt very alone. My anxiety was making it difficult to sleep. I was miserable at a camp I had worked hard to attend. It was very disheartening.
At the end of the week, we were almost ready for our closing performance. After our final rehearsal, I was the last one to leave the stage. I figured no one would notice me, but I was wrong. Manny came over and asked what my name was. It meant a lot that he asked and genuinely seemed to care. We spoke for a moment and before I left to join the others, he surprised me with a compliment.
“You have the most beautiful smile.”
I thanked him and gathered my things from rehearsal. A part of me was embarrassed because I felt like he was feeling sorry for me with my crooked teeth and enormous gap. Part of me wished that he would have never come down from his podium and that I could have been hidden in the back of my section behind my stand. But these were my anxious thoughts controlling me, and I couldn’t forget his words. I remembered his eyes looking into mine throughout the rest of the camp, and I began to believe that he must have been serious. For the rest of the week, I felt beautiful in a way I had not known before. That small comment made me feel confident for the first time. During our final performance, Manny looked at me across the orchestra and smiled, and I played with more intensity. Like his wife, I wanted to make him proud.
Manny was more proof in my theory that conductors could make a loving God visible. My faith in God grew from our encounter. I started to believe that God could speak to my heart and break through the noise of my life just like Manny, making eye contact over the ensemble with me-just with me. And in my life, I began to want to grow as a person to become the best version of myself. I knew that he—God—was listening and appreciating my melody.
I wish I could say that I practiced perfectly from that moment on and that my depression went away, but that wouldn’t be true. With a few more moves, a few more babies, and little to no help from my parents in preparing for college, I was left to struggle and face my future on my own. I only knew one thing: I was good at playing violin and I felt like I mattered when I played. So I went to college for my Bachelor’s in music. It wasn’t a perfect school and I ended up with a teacher who was emotionally abusive, but there was one thing that kept me going: orchestra.
As the principal violinist of the college orchestra, I arrived early to help set up the chairs every day. Dr. Joe Rodgers was our conductor and he was the very definition of disorganization and chaos. He was always late to rehearsals and performances, but always with a good excuse. The one thing that made his behavior bearable was the fact that he was a wonderful human.
Joe cared about his family more than anything else in the world. During my time in college, his son Tony dropped out of college because he was suffering from nervous breakdowns. Instead of being mad, Joe did everything he could to help his son figure his life out. In my senior year, their family hamster died, and Joe broke down in rehearsal. He certainly had a loving, sensitive heart that I admired.
On top of family stress, Joe also suffered from nerve damage and diabetes. Because of this, he was more sympathetic to people who had difficulties. Members of the local Symphony who were booted out because they had grown too old, frail or crippled to continue contributing were welcomed by Joe and given a new start. We were a small college with limited student players, so he gave everyone a place to shine. He gave me a place to feel important. Joe always had high ambitions for us and was extremely proud of all of our performances. He was like a supportive father.
You would think that, given what a wonderful man Joe was, I would have always gotten along with him. However, this was not the case. Four years of disorganization and unexplained tardiness to concerts eventually caught up to me and took their toll. I began to lose my respect for him and complained to the head of the music department. Joe was penalized and reprimanded. For a while, I believed I had done the right thing, but then I began to see the toll that my actions had taken on Joe and his family, and I regretted it.
I graduated from college and married my college sweetheart, a man who had attended every one of my concerts since we had met. My husband helped me to see that I needed to apologize to Joe. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask Joe out for breakfast at a local diner. To my surprise, he accepted my invitation. Within the first moments, he told me he forgave me and welcomed me back to the orchestra whenever I wanted to come back. I was shocked, but very grateful. I realized how much Joe was like God in my eyes like the other conductors in my life.
That day, Joe became the first conductor I ever told about my God analysis. I told him that I saw God in him. This seemed to genuinely mystify him, so I tried to break it down.
“You helped me to find my place not just in orchestra, but in with my relationship with God by forgiving me for messing up, welcoming me back.”
This made him somewhat emotional, and I too was touched in that moment.
Today Joe and I continue to stay in touch. I volunteer for his orchestra & continue to perform in his concerts. I have decided to give him the benefit of the doubt when he is human and forgets to be organized. I have come to recognize that my God analysis isn’t perfect, and I have to make room for human error.
When I am not volunteering for Joe or performing, I am teaching my 40 violin students and serving as the director of the music school where I graduated. I was offered this responsibility by the 60-year-old woman who served as the director before me. She told me that I was the perfect person to continue her legacy, which is truly humbling. I am only 26, but I have risen to become a leader in the music community where I live, the same community where I attended college. My career has taken off in ways that I could never have imagined without the strong guidance of the conductors.
My overall health has also improved today. With the help of my husband, I have undergone extensive counseling and surgeries to heal me and cope with my depression, anxiety, endometriosis and PCOS. We even have good dental insurance to help me get braces.
Reflecting on my life, I now see that I have become the person I never thought I would be—healthy, happy, married and on the right path in my career. In my loneliest moments growing up, I never thought any of this was possible. If it had not been for the positive influences of the conductors in my life, I may not have felt confident enough to pursue my dreams. Through them, I see God, who has been a constant, positive work in my life. Everything in my life is connected, and it’s all through music. My way of seeing God as a conductor has also transformed into a basic core belief. In the grand scheme of things, my job in life is to play the music in front of me while I let God do the directing.
This is the story of Mary Flanagan
Mary Flanagan currently lives in North Mankato, Minnesota with her husband Michael. With a big family and low self-esteem to start with, Mary found comfort through music which in turn strengthened her faith. Through her experiences, she found connections between God and music that changed her life and how she viewed it. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games, listening to podcasts, volunteering at her church and spending time with her friends over coffee or wine. She is very close with her family. Since they are all so musical, they are coming out with a CD this coming thanksgiving. Mary’s greatest joy is encouraging women struggling with the conditions she suffered from while growing up. She loves to refer people to Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska where she received healing for her endometriosis and PCOS. Although they haven’t been able to conceive yet, she and her husband are hopeful that someday God will answer their prayer for children.
This story first touched our hearts on July 13, 2018.
| Writer: Mary Flanagan | Editor: Kristen Petronio; MJ |