The journey is the reward: how overcoming the past allows leaders to embrace the present

I wiped my damp palms on my jeans before carefully opening my violin case. With shaking hands, I lifted the instrument and the bow from its velvet cradle and fiddled with the tuning pegs until the fifths between the strings resonated smoothly, in perfect tune. As I sat, my thumping heart was the only sound in the small waiting room outside the studio of one of Vienna’s best-known violinists.

I had spent 11 years working up to this moment. I started playing the violin at age 7, and it was my first love all through school. Now 18, I was taking a gap year before college to live in Vienna, Austria and immerse myself into studying and playing the violin before attending Princeton the following year. I couldn’t believe my luck, or my nerves. The acclaimed violinist had agreed to let me audition to be her student, and my mind raced with the possibilities her tutelage would open.

Once inside the studio, I faced the stern violinist. “C major scale,” she barked. Easy, I thought. My fingers found the familiar places on the string, and the heart-thumping eased as I finished the scale. “Now A minor scale.” This wasn’t so hard. “Now your piece.” I played the first few bars of the 1st movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, ready to continue to the 3rd movement. I knew this music so well and started to relax as my bow danced across the strings and my fingers shifted up and down. “Enough.” Her cold voice knocked me out of my reverie, the blissful state of total focus and joy in the beauty of the music that was the high I chased in playing the violin.

“You,” she intoned, utterly devoid of any feeling, “are so bad that not only would I not take you as a student, there is not one youth orchestra in this city that would have you either. This audition is over.” And with that, I closed my violin case for the last time and fled, hiding my face as before tears spilled hot down my cheeks.

At 18, I believed her. Who was I to question this famous teacher’s wisdom and judgment? Like lava from a volcano, the memory of her words seared my soul until eventually the heat cooled and the memory hardened into immovable truth. I was and am a bad violinist. I will never play again. With the passing of years, the pain lessened, and I found myself able to once again enjoy the symphony. I made peace with the famous teacher’s comments and decided that, in all likelihood, her condemnation had been more about her than about me.

Recently, my daughters’ school began offering virtual music lessons, and without asking, I signed my 11-year-old up for violin. “Mom!” she said. “I already play the guitar. I don’t want to play the violin. YOU want to play the violin – so you should take the lessons, not me.” I had no words. She was right, and I sat with her wisdom for a few days before emailing the teacher back, explaining what had happened, and asking if the teacher would have a 47-year-old with violin baggage instead of a fresh-faced 5th grader. “YES”, came the enthusiastic reply – let’s do this!

My new violin instructor is a warm, kind people-lover who shares her gifts as a violinist and fiddler generously and passionately. She holds my painful story from 29 years ago with non-judgmental compassion and support. Some days I practice and some days I don’t – and that’s ok – because I’m not trying to get a seat in an orchestra. I’m simply playing music and reconnecting with a part of myself I buried for three decades.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on why my renewed engagement in the violin has been so meaningful, and how the lessons I’ve learned can be shared and applied to business leaders’ lives. There are three main points of connection that l’ve found to be beneficial:

  1. Take care of unfinished business. I spent 29 years believing I sucked at the violin that the stinging words uttered in that fateful audition were firm truth. As an adult, I’ve been able to explore that story, and have understood that I no longer need to carry it. Relieving burdens is profoundly freeing. In this instance, it has allowed me to return to making beautiful music on an instrument I love.
  1. Alignment is everything. Although I’ve been encouraged to play again for years, my inner critic always took me back to the audition. In recent years, personal circumstances – a conflict-ridden divorce, a firing from a high-profile job and a 180-degree career pivot – have taught me to recalibrate my relationship with my inner critic. Let your inner critic provide healthy guardrails but check it frequently to ensure it’s not holding you back from making positive changes in your life or business.
  1. NOW trumps yesterday or tomorrow. As a devoted meditator, I train my mind to focus on the present moment. As a renewing violinist, I’ve learned that the present moment is the ONLY place I can play the violin. My history doesn’t serve me, and I am not gearing toward any future. Instead, I enjoy playing on purpose, in the moment, non-judgmentally.  Meditators may recognize Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness here. Rarely does one prescription cure all ills, but a regular mindfulness practice helps business leaders – and everyone else – strengthen their focus, resilience, and access to joy.

Violinists tune their strings by listening to vibration and can hear when two strings stop vibrating against each other and begin vibrating together. It’s hard to imagine how clear a perfectly tuned musical fifth sounds when you’re in the murk of clashing vibrations, a tuning peg moving too high and then too low. Then suddenly, as if by miracle (but by sticking with it and paying attention) you set the peg to the perfect place, and clarity and smoothness burst through the murk. It’s the sound of alignment, and represents the unique beauty of the present moment, because like everything else, a perfectly tuned instrument doesn’t last. I invite you to consider what business you might want to finish to find your alignment and rejoice in the present moment.


  1. What a wonderful story about new beginnings. Thank you for sharing this. I’m sorry there are people in this world like “one of Vienna’s best known violinists” but I am thankful for your new teacher who sounds so supportive, loving and caring. And I’m thankful that you overcame this old wound to find new joy!

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