Journey to a chromatic epiphany

Playing the cello in high school orchestra gave a student confidence in music and in life.

A few girls shoot hostile glances at me as I plop myself into a chair across from them. Hastily swinging my backpack onto the seat next to me, I’m careful to avoid any eye contact that might invite an introduction. Mr. Richards, the orchestra director, strolls onto the stage and nods warmly in my direction when he sees me.

“Glad to have you back, Diana.” In response, I throw a sheepish half-smile his way and then leave to grab the cello I had abandoned two years before. Walking back to my seat, I clutch the neck of my cello, raising it slightly as if proving to everyone that I am allowed to be here – as if I am trying to answer all those asking if I have a right to be here – but thankfully, no one pays any attention to me.

Slumping back into my seat, I watch warily as the swarm of musicians grows, and I feel myself shrinking into a tiny person with barely a part in all of this. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, trying to remember why I had bothered to come. Slowly, my ears retrace the thousands of footsteps left onstage by previous musicians. The cacophonous tuning of every instrument is beautiful – a flat C string on a violin is corrected, a sharp D string on a bass becomes even sharper. All of these clashing notes ricochet against each other and the tired, old peeling walls of this auditorium. Shining through my eyelids, the beam lights overhead seem to magnify the familiar stench of sweat, rosin and Pine-Sol.

I reluctantly open my eyes when Richards begins speaking and the chatter ceases. There’s a clutter of noise as kids scramble to position their bows above their instruments. Then in perfect unison, the conductor’s hand and the bows drop. The violins begin to squeal, providing the soprano melodies; violas chime in with rich, warm tones; cellos add in a dramatic flair, and the low growls of the bass line hold the mellow rhythm together. Dragging my bow across the strings, I marvel at the various roles that make up the orchestra’s harmony, and I am struck with a simple revelation. We are separate, but instantly, we become one. No matter how different we are as individuals, music becomes the language we share. In this unforgettable moment, I truly feel as if I belong somewhere. Everyone on this stage can understand me, playing with this incredible intensity that begins to emanate into my bones. This new emotion swells inside of me, and I will give anything to make my life sound like that.

I’ve always described the timeline of my existence as a grayscale – hues of black and tints that flirt with lighter shades – instead of years, each event was marked by a different degree. It seems as though life only handed me a dull pencil instead of the plethora of crayons everyone else had received. But here, the combined voices from all of the instruments sweep toward my grayscale and pour a ringing tone into each block. I no longer have the need for color. Each stroke of my bow scratches the surface of the loneliness I’ve felt outside of this auditorium. Each stroke tears at having to be the outcast who ate alone in the cafeteria. Each stroke screeches at the neglectful parent who didn’t even bother to claim it was “tough love.” Finally, the aching in my fingertips fades away, followed by every ounce of bitterness I’ve ever held onto.

The orchestra gave me a gift that day and every day after. Not only were those 30 minutes an escape from reality, but they were also a medium to confront my feelings. With every rehearsal, hostile glances were slowly replaced by friendly faces. It was in this auditorium that I found the first of various niches I would go on to explore. With my newfound encouragement, I was ready to take on whatever the world threw at me.

Diana Nguyen can be reached at

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