Who in their right mind would celebrate New Year's day in a cramped hall in Kilkenny College with a hundred other young people, most of whom you've met only three days prior? Guilty. When I was twelve years old, my mother packed me a suitcase, shoved me in the car, drove me down to Kilkenny and left. I, three months into Form 1, royally done with social interaction and utterly ready for a well-deserved Christmas break, was disgusted.
I feel some context is urgently needed. Hello, I'm the girl with the violin. If you've seen me around the school building, you probably see my instrument case before you spot me. At seventeen years of age, I'm lucky to know what I want to study, I'm lucky to know what I want to do in the future and I'm lucky I know what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. But as you probably know by now, with every hobby you've tried out, with everything you've ever committed to, it's never that easy. When I was twelve years old, I'd already had experience that I would never have gotten without music. Competitions, concerts, recitals, travelling abroad, playing chamber music - to me, it was all the same. Practise, practise, practise. Play, play, play. Make the famous "I can't go out, I need to practise," excuse and then sit at home and do nothing. The one thing I had never experienced before was playing in a symphony orchestra, and I was decidedly not looking forward to it.
Well, you know what they say about mothers always being right. I auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, was among 105 or so teenagers from across Ireland who got admitted, and embarked on my first residential, seven-day course.
Two hours. Two hours in, and I was no longer worrying about if I'd practised enough, if I'd miss my parents, if I'd make friends. For someone who detests change, is a raging perfectionist, and lives inside a comfort zone so small that I'm essentially caging myself into a corner, I cannot tell you what happened in those two hours. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that never in my nine years of violin playing had I ever experienced anything like I experienced that week. After those two hours, when I'd settled in, hurried off to my first rehearsal and tentatively made friends with two girls, that was it. Life is a series of moments. We don't go through it mentally documenting down every detail because we know it will be important later. No, we just go about our daily routines, and suddenly there are moments. Let me tell you about just one.
My first rehearsal with the full orchestra was New Year's Eve, 2017. Now, I don't know what you've heard about symphony orchestras, but let me tell you. They are loud. We had spent two days rehearsing in smaller sections, but this was the day where we would meet our conductor for the first time, and play through as a complete orchestra. I will never forget this moment for as long as I live. Maestro Gearóid Grant strode into the room, told the people from Cork to stand up, got the entire orchestra to hiss at them while saying some words I am not able to repeat on paper, and sent us crashing into Dvorak's New World Symphony. Again, I don't know how much you know about classical music. I certainly knew next to nothing about repertoire and symphonies back then, but Dvorak's 9th is a world-changing way to start.
Playing in a symphony orchestra for the first time is a spiritual experience. The sound that envelops you is overwhelming, you can barely hear yourself, you're narrowly missing stabbing your desk partner in the eye, struggling desperately with the notes. It's messy, crazy, and probably the worst we ever play, but it's glorious. So there I was, playing along, sort of terrified, sort of in awe, and then the fourth movement began. For the first time ever, I heard the famous trumpet melody shine through. The sound was triumphant, everyone around me was grinning, Gearóid was dancing up on the podium, and everything felt - it felt as if everything I'd questioned about music, every time I refused to practise, every time I considered giving up - it all made sense right there and then.
This was the first moment in my life that I thought to myself, "This is why I do music."
There's something really special about feeling at home. There's something really special about returning to a place and people year-in and year-out, and knowing there's nowhere else you'd rather be. You see, it wasn't as if that moment turned a switch on inside my head and made me decide right there and then that music was it for me. Of course not. We don't actually live inside YA novels, you know. However, after that first moment, I knew that I would do whatever it took to feel like that again. I knew that I could not let this feeling go, and this is the most important thing the National Youth Orchestra has taught me.
Music is really, really tough. As is everything you do. You go through your off-seasons, you have thousands of days where you wonder why you are still doing this, you wonder why you can't just let it all go and have fun on Friday nights instead of trudging along to your lessons. You burn out, you lose friends, you're forced to push yourself because no one else will do it for you. But you love it. Because for every time where you want the ground to swallow you up because you've made a fool of yourself, there's a moment like I had, with the National Youth Orchestra. And when you've experienced that, you will chase it again, and again, because it is so worth it.
I've just returned from my last Winter course ever. I have one more in the Summer, and then I will have reached the upper age limit of the orchestra. My first course post-COVID, there are no words to express the week that I had. It's unconventional, and frankly very strange, but everyone feels it. "The J", as we dub it, is ours, in all its incredulous beauty. From the minimum four cartons of Kulana apple juice we down a day, and the way we all sit around doing the Circle K Spin 'n Win hoping to get something from the petrol station across the road, to the ridiculous house cup challenges of drawing staff family portraits, the infamous New Year's Eve section dance off, and the Summer's rounders tournament. From being the youngest member of the orchestra at the age of twelve, with no expectations and a truckload of fear, till now. The friends we make for life, the passion we share, the mutual understanding and support we give each other. It might not be much to you, but I hope you find something like this. I hope there is something in your life that gives you as much joy as the J gives me.
When we stood on the stage last Wednesday night after performing Mahler's 1st Symphony, and the entire audience got on their feet. When I took in the sheer happiness and pride that was reflected back to me on every single musician's face. When our conductor Mihhail Gerts presented me with his flowers. I have never been in love, but I think it would feel just like this.