Understanding Beginner’s Anxiety, or Why My Neighbors Hate Me Now

by Carrie Lee O’Dell

Every Wednesday night for the past seven weeks, I’ve gone to a small studio space in a repurposed warehouse close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for group violin lessons. Along with eight other people, I try to coax sounds out of my instrument without calling to mind the sound of a disgruntled cat. Sometimes, I’m successful. Often I’m not. This is, of course, frustrating. It’s also fun and challenging. It makes me use parts of my brain that haven’t gotten much exercise in recent years. When I manage to drag my bow across a string with just the right pressure, it sounds beautiful, which is immensely satisfying. I’ve learned more than just some scales and a short simple song in this class, though. It’s reminded me of the experience of being a student, of learning something from scratch. When you teach something you’ve always been fairly confident doing, it’s important to have the occasional reminder of what it’s like to not know.

Of course, my experience of choosing to take a group music class is hardly a perfect allegory for my students’ experiences in college writing. I sought this class out; many college students look for ways to avoid freshman comp. The stakes are low if I don’t do well—failure to master an instrument that by all accounts I’m picking up nearly forty years too late will not keep me from getting into my desired course of study or prevent me from graduating. I’m not being presented with new rules and restrictions on something I thought I’d already learned. The worst thing that can happen to me is public embarrassment at the recital. The recital that’s open to the public, is a few days away, and will be filmed for Bantam Studios archives. The recital that I’ve invited friends, some of them audio professionals, to attend.

Just a moment. I have to take some really deep breaths. Continue reading