Music was such a natural, normal part of everyday life at first, but I started to get self-conscious about it when I began school. Though my family was encouraging in many ways, my temperament was such that I took the slightest teasing and criticism from siblings, my mother, classmates, and teachers to heart and very hard over the years. For example, I remember singing to myself on the school bus on the way to kindergarten, and being aghast when a likely well-meaning sister told me not to because people were going to think I was “weird.” Oh no! Weird?! I worried people wouldn’t like me or want to be my friend.
I started a new school in 5th grade, and it seemed like I was taunted relentlessly about everything- how I looked, dressed, acted, where I lived, what my father did for a living, the fact I was alive and breathing. The other kids also made fun of me for singing in music class, so I stopped. Then they teased me for not singing. Now I realize it was probably because I was the new kid, the outsider, and not at all personal, but I didn’t have that insight at age ten. I remember feeling extremely anxious, self-conscious, uptight. I got very quiet, wanting to go unnoticed in hopes of avoiding more criticism. I remember feeling afraid to sing in front of people anymore. Singing leaked out at times, anyway. I thought I was humming under my breath, unheard while we were working math problems at our desks in middle school algebra. Then the teacher asked, “who is doing that horrible singing?” A chorus of classmates answered, “Donna!!!” Feeling humiliated, I renewed my personal vows of silence.
Then there was my experience with piano. I loved playing songs I made up as I went along when I was very little, my mom felt I had a “nice touch” on the instrument, as she put it, so she signed me up for the very lessons she would’ve loved to have as a child given her own musical tastes and talents, but a piano never mind instruction were luxuries her parents could far from afford in Depression-era rural Virginia. I soon discovered I had trouble reading musical notation, however. I could hear that the kid whose lesson was before mine was moving through the exercise books more quickly than I, so I therefore came to the conclusions at the ripe old age of seven that my teacher didn’t like me and I was “bad” at music, after all, despite my love for it. Trying to translate musical notation into what I was supposed to do with my fingers let alone practicing felt like a chore and a punishment. Before long, my mom said she’d be better off throwing money out the car window than to keep paying for lessons, so I quit. I tried piano again later at what I mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of thirteen. I witnessed tiny, seeming prodigies play circles around me at recitals whereas my nervous, clammy hands slipped and fumbled on the keys. I again became the victim of my own false assumptions- this time the beliefs that I clearly needed to have started playing as a fetus in order to have a hope of being “good,” and that I just wasn’t born with an innate talent for beloved music. So I resigned myself to singing along with my favorite recordings while no one was around to hear me. I sang in large choirs at school where I felt somewhat hidden and safe. I compulsively made mix tapes of songs that caught my ear and touched my heart and shared them with friends, family, acquaintances.
Though I felt discouraged musically, I did have a knack for visual art and writing that was acknowledged in school, and I had more confidence in those more solitary, less performance-oriented mediums that allowed me to share with people indirectly, without need of being seen or heard. Those became my primary modes of creative expression growing up and as a young adult.
I headed off to college in the Blue Ridge thanks in large part to art scholarships. I had heard and been around old-time and bluegrass music my whole life to some degree, but I absolutely fell in love with it in the mountains. I was a regular attendee at the local fiddle and banjo club and would hang around the periphery of jam sessions to listen and soak it up. I fell in love with the banjo in particular and found myself getting weepy at the sight and sound of them. I was even dreaming about banjos.