Music as a Constant: Finding My Own Way to a Musical Life

By Erin Holt | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

My hand is shaking so much I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold the whole-note double-stops that open the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat major without my bow skipping off the strings. I count silently in my head like I’ve practiced for the past four days at the Vanderbilt Adult Chamber Music Institute, a summer program at the Blair School of Music for amateur musicians. I think, “One, two, three… ” and on “four” I take a big deep breath and lock eyes with our cellist, sitting opposite me onstage. It’s go time. 

My hand is indeed shaking, but performance anxiety is a familiar foe and I know what to do—breathe in, breathe out, and know my muscle memory will take over. Within 15 measures, the nerves evaporate like the end of a musical phrase, and I settle into a glorious nine minutes of luxurious quietude, where my mind is solely focused on the notes in front of me and making the most beautiful music I can with my chamber group. 

I have played violin since age seven. I’m 35 now and a mother of two young boys, one who’s not quite two and the other who just turned five. As the story goes, I saw a violin (my grandfather’s) in a closet and asked my mom if I could take lessons. I remember being shuttled to Suzuki classes, where my mom took copious handwritten notes in a spiral-bound notebook. I loved placing my feet just so on the foot chart. Every week came another check mark and a sticker. Once I had three check marks on a song, I could move forward. 

Volumes one, two, three, four, and five were knocked out over a few years, and soon I was moving on to concerto repertoire. I earned the concertmaster position in multiple orchestras and constantly chased the fleeting feeling of goose bumps on my arms that materialized during the most climactic moments of a piece, and particularly when the brass was playing full tilt. Think Mars from The Planets (who’s humming that distinctive rhythm with me right now?) or the final movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. 


While I loved playing in orchestras or with chamber groups, the soloist life just wasn’t for me. I played the Bruch Violin Concerto with a community orchestra as a teenager, and I can honestly say it was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t think I enjoyed one bit of it and remember wishing it would all end. The recording, as you can imagine, reflects that mindset. To say there were a lot of mistakes is an understatement. 

I spent a year and a half at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music dutifully trying to make music work. I loved my teacher and still enjoyed being in the orchestra, but my heart was pulling me elsewhere and the walls of the practice room seemed to close in on me more and more.   

Mid-sophomore year I tearfully said goodbye to my teacher, who was nothing but supportive, wiped the rosin off my bridge, turned my bow until the hair went slack, and walked back to my dorm, thinking, “What have I just done?” I had closed the case on twelve years of hard work and an identity forged mostly through music. 

At the time, I wondered if I would ever play again. 


After college, I chased my dream of becoming a journalist, and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, for my first job. My violin came with me. So did the music stand and all my favorite pieces. Sometimes I would sit and thumb through my worn copy of the Sibelius violin concerto, the pencil markings so smudged in a few places it’s not at all clear what I was trying to denote. During my first two years in Lincoln, I didn’t pick up my violin at all. But once I moved back to Nashville, I was thrilled to join a volunteer community orchestra called the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Little by little, I got my mojo back. To my delight, my vibrato was still there, and my fingers seemed to remember all the shifting. And best of all, the goose bumps were there, too. Elgar’s Nimrod. Enough said. 

That orchestra has been with me through many seasons of life—marriage, different jobs, two children. Through the changes, the orchestra was always there for me on Tuesday nights, a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal waiting just down the road. 


During orchestra, I can quiet my mind and put aside the to-do list, focus on myself and something I still very much love to do. I’m grateful for the time I spent learning violin. Some of my most formative experiences as a young person came from playing music, going to music camps, and meeting other people from around the world who loved it as much as I did. 

As I play the final rousing three lines of the Schumann, I can’t wait to see the expressions on my sons’ faces. My oldest is now fully aware that “Mommy goes to orchestra on Tuesday nights” and has come
to a few concerts now. I would love for both of my children to be able to play an instrument and form their own relationships with music, even if they look very different than mine. In a perfect world, one of them would play cello, but I’m trying to contain myself. 

We nail the last accelerando and end with satisfied smiles. We’d been working on that passage for the entirety of the institute. I take a bow on the same stage where I’d auditioned 18 years before. I spot my children, and my oldest son is waving wildly at me with a big grin on his face.