Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.

It’s 2010, and I’m crying in my bedroom after a terrifying first day of high school. I’d eaten my lunch alone in a hallway alcove because I was not about to brave the cafeteria Hunger Games before I had any allies. (Turns out you’re not allowed to do that, but this is one of those days when my introversion overpowers my compliance.) I can’t bear the thought of going back, not just tomorrow but for—I do the math—718 whole days after that.

I plug my red iPod nano into a speaker and scroll to Hilary Hahn’s recording of The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s sixteen minutes of fluttering scales and wistful folk tunes, the kind of music that gets derisively called “cowpat” by people who hate joy and prefer Brahms. But it’s my favorite piece, and Hahn is my favorite violinist, and when the last note fades, I’m still sniffling but no longer too upset to sleep.

It wasn’t just Vaughan Williams’s music, halfway between cheerful and melancholy, that calmed me that night. There’s something about the way Hahn plays—always clean, always glistening, always perfect—that brings me comfort. In Hahn’s hands, nothing ever sounds difficult or stressful. Even the virtuosic last movement of Barber’s violin concerto, which Hahn plays faster than anyone else I’ve ever heard, is pristine.

Later, in college, I had long-standing disagreements with fellow musicians who felt Hahn’s playing was too cold and robotic, that her technical perfection came at an artistic cost. But because I’m 1) loath to betray my longstanding obsessions (see also: Disney) and 2) an inveterate perfectionist, this argument made no sense to me. Why would you want to listen to a performance with messier tone and worse intonation, even by a little bit?

Any doubt I had was assuaged when I saw Hilary Hahn play live in 2016. Five of us road-tripped from Calvin to Madison, Wisconsin, for the occasion (on a school night, because Hilary was worth a little sleep deprivation). Near the end of the program, Hahn played Bach’s C-major solo violin partita, which ends with a perpetual-motion style finale. Every note was exquisite, of course, but what really stole my heart was how much music there was between them. Hahn’s flawless technique didn’t impede the gradual crescendos and slight hesitations—it gave them life.

Whenever I learned a new piece, I would study Hahn’s recording of it scrupulously, trying to deduce her fingerings and bowings from the sound alone. I wanted to sound like her, not just because I was a fanboy, but because her performances were the ones that moved me the most. I wanted to give my audience—and, I suppose, myself—that same assurance that everything was under control, that beauty and certainty could coexist.

Hilary herself, though, is not so maladjusted. She once interviewed a betta fish for a solid five minutes. She posts videos of herself practicing—mistakes and all—on her Instagram account. She’s commissioned pieces that are literally impossible to play with perfect tone. And she’s taken on ridiculous YouTube challenges like playing at double speed, playing with her hands backwards, and playing while hoola-hooping. She’s about as far from a robot—or an idealistic music student—as you can be.

Only in the last couple years have I found myself learning a piece, listening to Hahn’s recording, and disagreeing with her artistic choices. I’ll finally admit that she plays the Bach D-minor Allemande way to slow and the G-minor Adagio with too much force, at least for me. That’s thanks to teachers and friends and books and other violinists, yes, but I also think it’s just something else I’ve learned from Hahn: that music, like life, is about exploration just as much as it’s about certainty and control.

That’s not a message fourteen-year-old me would want to hear, and twenty-five-year-old me isn’t always thrilled about it either. But that’s okay, because if there’s anything music teaches you to do, it’s practice.


P.S. Halfway through writing this post, I spilled an undisclosed beverage on my laptop keyboard. After shutting it down and drying it off as well as I could, I went upstairs, put in my headphones, and listened to Hahn’s recording of The Lark Ascending. It helped a little.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    I like how this piece talks about exploration but also feels like exploration. The place we start is not the place we finish–and we have not even finished at all, yet. But we have a little more understanding, a little clearer grasp of our feelings, a better vision of what’s to come.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

post calvin direct

Get new posts from Josh Parks delivered straight to your inbox.

the post calvin