Seeing Beyond the Music

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 younger sister Anne (left) and me (right), 1997.
My younger sister Anne (left) and me (right), 1997.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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