A Rediscovered Star


No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.

I went looking for the quote “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” commonly attributed to George Eliot (although it does not appear in any of her published works) and found its likely source–a line in a poem by the Victorian poet Adelaide Anne Procter. That quote has been high in mind the last couple of days as I take steps to reclaim something else of what was lost, or perhaps just laid aside until the time was right.  The fact that the original quote uses the metaphor of a star, a symbol very special to me, makes it even more meaningful.  I wear five and eight-pointed stars as designs on rings, as earrings, and indelibly on my body–at the top of each of my arms and above my heart.  That last one represents, among other things, a vow of sorts, to be true to that which I love.  Life is short.  Excuses are the death of dreams.

Once, a little girl picked up a violin purchased at a garage sale for $50 and learned to play it. A few years later, she got a full-sized instrument and began private lessons. At one point, she was good enough to be co-concertmaster of her junior high orchestra, but academic pursuits demanded more of her time and she stopped pushing to improve.  She did not stop playing in the orchestra, however, and her high school orchestra was good. Watered-down arrangements were not for this ensemble, which played two Beethoven symphonies, two Haydn symphonies, two of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, several pieces by Mozart, Sibelius’ Finlandia, and works by Hindemith, Copeland, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Handel, and Vaughan Williams–among others.  She sat there in the middle of the second violins, and rejoiced in the experience of playing beautiful music with a talented orchestra.

And then she graduated, and never picked up the violin again.  She–I–sated my desire to make music by singing in choirs, most of which required no audition.  There was no option available for violinists not quite good enough to make the university’s orchestra.  In fact I was a much better violinist than I was a singer, and most of the slim talent I possessed at singing was wholly attributable to my experience as an instrumentalist: My ability to read music, my ability to hear harmony,  and my basic understanding of music theory.  I was no soloist, but I could keep on pitch and sing well with others.

Through graduate school, even the choir singing dropped away as I concentrated on my doctoral studies.  I expressed my creativity elsewhere.  When I moved back to Columbus after finishing my doctorate, I sold my violin in the midst of a moneymaking purge as I sought to establish myself.

But being a string player turned out to be deeply ingrained in my psyche.  I briefly flirted with resuming the violin about ten years ago, even bought a cheap instrument online.  That went nowhere.  Perhaps it was a bit of residual shame over my last years playing, where I prioritized other things over continuing to improve.  I knew I could have done better–but I didn’t.  I let it slide.

Or perhaps the violin just was not the instrument that called to me now.

When I had started playing the violin, I really didn’t know there were other options. My family was not musical.  My elementary strings class consisted of four violinists and one girl who had chosen the bass.  The other stringed instruments I saw only from a distance, when all of the elementary string players got together to play concerts.   By the time I started to know the viola and the cello, I was already taking private violin lessons. By the time I graduated from high school, I wished that I had chosen one of those two.  Why?  Because, from the very beginning, what attracted my attention was not the melody–it was harmony.

In the middle years of my life, that is what called to me–the desire to build harmony.

So I have rented a viola. There is something about its rich, husky tones that has always appealed to me (perhaps because I also sing alto).  If there is any instrument that is the underdog in the orchestra, it’s the viola. Its range overlaps significantly with the violin’s, but its tone is darker, richer.  Violas notoriously often have problems projecting because for the size of the instrument and pitch of the strings, it’s on the small side. Violas are the butt of jokes (I heard a couple of them at the shop where I rented the instrument). I probably made a lot of those jokes myself.  Yet they’re made affectionately, in the end, if with an air of puzzlement. No one quite understands why anyone would want to play an oversized violin that never gets any of the good solos.  And sure, if getting the good solos were a concern for me now, that might be a factor.  But I bear no hopes of suddenly getting good enough to quit my day job and join the Toronto Symphony.  However, I had recently read of some amateur orchestras that were always looking for string players…

If I were to come back to strings, I wanted to be able to build on nine years’ worth of training on the violin–something that would be less possible with the cello–but yet present a new way of looking at things, allow a new voice to sing forth.  Thus, viola it is.  If my past experiences are any guide, there’s probably a better chance I can, if I want, find a place playing the viola in a community orchestra.  In high school, there were five times as many violinists as there were viola players.

I spent today ordering instructional books–a basic method book, along with books of etudes by Wohlfahrt (whose violin etudes were a huge part of my early training).  I also picked up a music stand.  And I’ve started to look into SCA dance music, where I suspect someone who can play one of the harmony parts will be much appreciated.  Hopefully, these will help me get into the swing of things, and maybe lead to more playing with groups.  If I can keep the momentum, I plan to eventually purchase my instrument.

I have realized over the past year or so just how deeply orchestral music has lodged in my soul.  I adore listening to it, but I ache to play it, to experience the joy of making music with others.  I may never play a Beethoven symphony again, but that’s not the point.

When I was young, I briefly dreamed of being a musician.  I have just realized I have always been one–I just convinced myself that the best was the enemy of the good, and if I couldn’t be the best, that was somehow shameful.  But every time I’ve seen an orchestra or a musical ensemble, the feelings would come back–of sitting with my instrument, a score in front of me, and, along with others, turning the funny little black marks on the page into something bigger than all of us.

As I have rediscovered writing and my calling as a historian and teller of stories, so I look forward to finding the star that had, for so long, hidden behind the clouds of daily life. A star that is part of a larger constellation, something larger than just a single twinkling light. The skies are clear.  I am ready.


Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,
Some pure ideal of a noble life
That once seemed possible? Did we not hear
The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,
And just within our reach? It was. And yet
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret;
But still our place is kept, and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.

Since good, tho’ only thought, has life and breath,
God’s life—can always be redeemed from death;
And evil, in its nature, is decay,
And any hour can blot it all away;
The hopes that, lost, in some far distance seem.
May be the truer life, and this the dream.
–Adelaide Anne Procter