A Leitmotif


Virtually everyone I know will say they like music. It is certainly true for me as well. However, what most people mean when they say that they like music is that they enjoy listening to music. As a violinist, I can add another layer of complexity and say that I also enjoy creating music. Indeed, listening to music only uses one of the senses – sound. Creating music requires not just the ears but also eyes to follow the notes, touch for tactile feedback, muscles to execute techniques, the mind to weave the narrative and the soul to instill emotions. It is enjoyable be in an audience listening to a Mahler symphony. It is gratifying to sit in the middle of a full orchestra playing the same piece.

As an entrepreneur, my days are usually full of tasks and deliverables and the stress levels of work can be very high. No doubt, listening to music is a stress reliever. It has a calming, soothing sensation that helps recharge some energy to keep going. But there is a limit on how effective it can be. After all, it is tempting to continue working and one easily finds oneself writing reports or responding to emails while listening to music. In fact, music sometimes diverts attention away from the important task at hand, thus negating the benefits of it being a stress reliever.

Playing music, however, is the exact opposite. It is hardly possible to do anything else while creating music. It gives one a temporary reprieve from the busyness of life. One’s mind is too busy trying to figure out how to vibrate the fourth finger on the G string that one cannot think about accounting discrepancies, legal reconciliations, or personnel problems. One’s ears listens to luscious melodies, drowning out the monotonous hum of a computer. It also helps put one’s problems into perspectives – it occurred to me once while playing that Mozart probably had bad days too, but it didn’t stop him from composing beautiful music.

Music plays different roles in my life depending on what I need. Like most people, if I had a hard day, I’ll listen to the radio or a playlist. However, if I had a stressful day, I’ll pull out my violin and play Mendelssohn, Bruch or Vitali. Whereas other people will go to a gym to take their anger out on a punching bag, if I feel the need to be loud and violent, I’ll play the 3-octave A major scale, building from 2 notes to a bow to a frenzied 24 notes to a bow. If my fingers are cramped from typing at the keyboard all day, I’ll play one-string arpeggios or double stops thirds. If I’ve been working on rote paperwork, I’ll improvise some klezmer. If I’m super stressed, I’ll do all of the above.

This relationship with music evolved over time as it found a niche in my life. In college, I noticed that my academically worst terms were always the terms where I did not participate in a performance group. That made me realize that music was not just an interest or a hobby. It was a necessity to keep at my best. That has stayed true as I continued into graduate school and my professional life. Today, whether it is sight reading chamber music with a group of friends or playing scales in the office, a little bit of music makes a lot of life.

S.J. Russell