Essays-Donna Lynn Caskey

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Donna Lynn Caskey-Ventura, CA


     Music was a carefree part of my life as a young child. My sisters tell me I was truly a music fan from infancy- dancing in the play pen whenever someone would sing, crack out an instrument, or a song would come on tv. My family put a toy piano outside my crib that I would play through the bars with my hands or feet depending on which way I was turned. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and there was music throughout the house. Though my two brothers, the eldest, had moved out before I was born, they’d come visit and play guitar, banjo, fiddle. I remember sisters playing violin, viola, flute, piccolo, marching bells, piano, and singing when I was little. Whether they played instruments or not, all my siblings had the radio on and shared recordings of artists they liked with me. I remember singing along with Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary records using my sister Kathy’s curling iron as a microphone. I loved playing piano, singing, and making up songs.


     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. 

 Photography by Jay Heninger.

Photography by Jay Heninger.

     Around that time, I went to a Mike Seeger concert at an intimate venue, and his stories and approach gave me hope that music might be accessible to me, after all. He played multiple instruments including banjo by ear rather than by notation. He shared beautiful, soulful songs he learned from untrained players who made music as part of their everyday lives. I was heartened by the notion that folk music belongs to everyone, and that everyone can make some kind of music- even, maybe, dare I believe, by me. My explorations of old-time and folk rekindled that carefree, playful, matter-of-fact spirit with which I approached music as a child. Inspired, I soon bought myself a banjo as a college graduation present. My life was so unsettled, it was another couple of years before I actually started learning to play in earnest. By ear. At what I, once again, mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of 24. It turned out I had a knack for banjo. Plunking out those first songs within a matter of days, weeks, and months felt like sheer magic and a dream come true. Within three months, I started writing songs, singing solo in public, and playing shows. I was off and running, learning how to play, write songs, perform, and sing all at once and as I went. I’m still at it nearly fifteen years and soon to be two albums of original songs later, and it still feels like magic. 

     Sometimes I forget the magic when the latest incarnations of self-doubt, mistaken beliefs, and fear come calling in new and various disguises. Yet when I’m in the midst of writing or playing a song for the love, wonder, and joy of it, I can again reconnect with that pure sense of music I first experienced as a young child.

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