By Caeli Smith

When I watch old performance videos from middle and high school, I try to get inside the head of my younger self and remember how it felt to perform and play. What was I thinking about? Playing in tune, probably. I know for certain that I loved music back then as much as I do now, but didn’t have a lot of knowledge or awareness of what I was doing. Ten years from now, I’ll probably feel the same way about how I play today. In fact, I hope so.

When I first came to Juilliard, I was excited by the idea of a fresh start and the endless possibilities that lay ahead. As a freshman in college, I walked out of each violin lesson elated, brimming with delight at all I was uncovering. The feeling was magical. I realized how much I loved learning about music. I was finding new sounds, new ways of coaxing colors out of the instrument, new ways of constructing a phrase. The year was such a period of transformation that, in fact, by May, I thought I had learned everything there was to know about music. My playing felt so different that I was sure everyone who heard me was amazed by my transcendent musicianship.

As it turned out, nobody felt that way.

After I performed my end-of-the-year jury, I couldn’t wait to receive feedback from the faculty. When I received the envelope with my jury comments, I hurriedly removed the packet, ready to gobble up the juror’s responses. My eyes landed on the first comment: “Explore more with color and expression,” it said, vaguely. This hastily scribbled message felt neither encouraging nor constructive. I thought I had worked on color and expression. In fact, color and expression were all I could think about! What had gotten lost?

Disheartened, I repeated the comment to my teacher at my next lesson. To my surprise, he chuckled. I can’t remember his exact words, but he relieved me of the idea that I had mastered all there was to know about music in nine months of study. Over the hour, he reminded me that, as musicians, we continue to learn and discover our whole lives, and we’re constantly developing a deeper knowledge and awareness. I was just beginning.

I felt a little embarrassed, but also immensely relieved. How could I have imagined that my education was complete, after one year? The juror who wrote the comment in question had never heard me play before, so he was judging my playing at face value. He wasn’t privy to my development over the past year, and he couldn’t appreciate the leaps I had taken. To him, I was a violinist who could strive for more extreme color, more vivid emotions.

Like all musicians, I continue to strive for more every day.

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