Flashback to Bosnia

I spent a couple weeks of the summer of 2010 in a small town outside of Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I was there with six other college students from the US and Canada through an organization called International Student Volunteers, or ISV. We spent our time volunteering in a national park there near Bobovac (pronounced Boh-boh-vahtz), a historic site.

On our first day, we hiked to Bobovac. The view while recovering

On our first day, we hiked to Bobovac. You can see some of the ruins up & left

We whacked a lot of weeds, built a staircase, installed grills and trash cans – that kind of stuff.

Cooling off in the river at our volunteer site. I'm in the blue t-shirt

Cooling off in the ice-melt river at our volunteer site. I’m in the blue t-shirt

To give you a little background before I dive into this particular story, I started playing violin in the sixth grade, a good eight years behind the prodigies who were already cradling expensive instruments. I carried my factory-made violin in its black plastic case and plucked at its strings until I learned to use the fiberglass bow. I was a second violinist in the high school symphony orchestra my senior year, playing harmonies to Dvorak and Mussorgsky under the first violins. I disliked private lessons where I suffered through hearing every minute mistake I made, every squeak or snap, every missed note. My teacher was very sweet and encouraging, but I simply couldn’t stand hearing myself play. At school, in the midst of an entire orchestra, I wasn’t afraid. My fingers and hands moved the same way; my eyes followed the lines on the page, but I could no longer hear just me – it was a whole wall of complex sounds. The flutes and clarinets fluttered, the cellos swelled with sad vibrato, and the brass filled the gaps with warmth. I was a part of something huge, and no one in the audience cared that I wasn’t a virtuoso.

In case you didn't believe it, me and my violin circa 2006

Me and my violin circa 2006

Flash forward to Bosnia: I’d made the fortuitous mistake of telling our interpreter and guide Dijana that I could play the violin at some point on our bus ride from the Zagreb airport to the cabin in Kraljeva Sutjeska. The next morning we hiked the trail to Bobovac on which we’d be working, and we were told that we’d be attending a concert local schoolchildren in the small town were putting on that night.

Upon seeing children tuning their violins on stage before the show, Dijana immediately informed the teenagers organizing the event that I played violin, and that I should, of course, play for everyone gathered there. “It will be a good experience!” she insisted. “You will remember forever!”

I suddenly found myself backstage with a confused girl’s violin in hand, desperately trying to recall some semblance of melody. At this point, I hadn’t practiced violin in two years. I could remember plenty of piano pieces, but nothing for violin. I considered improvising something, which would probably sound better than anything else, but finally I settled on something fool-proof: “Twinkle, Twinkle.” At the time, I figured even people in Bosnia would recognize the tune, knowing it was a joke. I would embellish it with unnecessary arpeggios (like scales) and trills here and there, and at the end I would take a ridiculous bow. Perfect.

After a few very good performances, I was introduced in Bosnian to the audience. I understood my name, “America,” and something about volunteering. There were only about sixty people there, but that was the whole town, and I was going to be there for two weeks. I stood in front of the microphone and played the children’s song surprisingly well, no truly audible mistakes, and took a silly bow. I handed the violin back to the young girl and sat down next to my fellow volunteers who had tears in their eyes from laughing, which I took to be a good sign.

Me struggling through "Twinkle, Twinkle" as the audience looked on

Me struggling through “Twinkle, Twinkle” as the audience looked on

However, after the show ended, several people approached us and told me through Dijana that I did a terrific job (!), that it was beautiful (!!), and I must be very talented (!!!). People had taken my performance seriously. I became embarrassed, wondering what people thought of how I’d bowed at the end with my arms flailing around, but I began to realize that this was the first time I’d ever performed violin solo in front of a sizable gathering of people, ever. I’d been playing violin for more than eight years and I’d never performed alone, thanks to echoes of Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman swimming through my head.

I’ve given much thought as to why I like to tell this story: it’s embarrassing, it shows I can think on my feet – but with the larger context I’ve given you regarding my past with violins, I think it’s safe to say there’s something else here.

As people, we struggle so much with our hobbies and talents. We struggle with being “good enough” and being “the best.” Will we make the team? Will anyone publish my book? Will they hire me? Will someone buy my painting? We struggle largely because we care greatly about what other people think. But there is so much to be gained from sharing your experience, and sharing your (even if meager) talents. I’ve seen this in helping teenage girls write poems, and in playing violin for a bunch of people whose language I couldn’t speak, and in, I hope, writing this blog. Sure there are people who will say that you’re obviously an amateur, or that you’re not as good as so-and-so. But there are so many people, though perhaps less vocal, who will be affected immensely by what you do share.

As the writer James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” If those books hadn’t been written, if those authors hadn’t shared their pain and heartbreak with the world, you and James and all the other readers would never know that we are indeed so connected.

So stop doubting, and start sharing! And who knows – maybe, along the way, you’ll find yourself becoming a Joshua Bell too.

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