I’m indebted to Irish fiddler, Frankie Gavin, for inspiring this article. During a Masterclass on YouTube, he made an off-hand comment that when he was learning to play fiddle, he had to practice anywhere except at home because of his father’s endless criticisms. That’s when it all came back to me.
An oft overlooked facet of narcissism is the way they either appropriate our hobbies as their own or make them so hateful, that we quit of our own accord. See if this sounds familiar.
The year was 2003. An unusual year. I was twenty-three and had quit my Admin job in order to focus on “finishing growing up”…a process that had stalled when I was fifteen and my family suddenly and inexplicably imploded overnight.
Well, this second try at growing up was also delayed just two days after I quit my job when Dad was diagnosed with cancer. The next six months were a blur of driving him to a plethora of appointments, scans and chemo appointments and silently turning the other cheek to his Prednisone-induced ‘roid rage.
As usual, music was the only permissible way to express other-than-happy emotions. So in addition to my weekly therapy sessions and ballroom dance lessons, I decided to finally pursue my dream of playing the fiddle. I can still remember being just seven years old when I saw my first jam session and heard the liquid joy of a fiddle tune. So I bought a violin, scheduled lessons and my long-cherished dream began to become reality.
But narcissists rush in where angels fear to tread especially when they see how happily and successfully we’re pursuing an enjoyable hobby.
Now if you’ve ever tried to play the violin, or had a child who began the Suzuki method, you know that a certain amount of sour notes and squeaky bowing is par for the course. There’s even a book about it entitled A Suzuki Parent’s Diary, or How I Survived My First 10,000 Twinkles.
That’s when the trouble started. My narcissist relayed, via his Flying Monkey, that my clinkers were unbearable to his delicate sensibilities. I was to stop, go back and correct each and every out-of-tune note. And that from a man whose ear is so “good” he once took twenty minutes tuning my mandolin (sharper! sharper! sharper!) and then gave it up as a lost cause.
I did everything I could to accommodate him. I bought a heavy mute for the fiddle. Then I invested in an electric violin and played silently with headphones, but according to his Flying Monkey, even that wasn’t quiet enough.
Next, my bowing upset him. He seemed inappropriately angry that my newbie bowing was crooked. So I tied my upper arm to my torso to train myself to bow from the wrist and elbow, not the shoulder.
Father/daughter jam sessions finally became so nerve-wracking that I refused to play the violin in his presence. Since he’d been forced to play violin as a child, I handed it over and let him play my fiddle. And he thought I sounded bad!?!
But the campaign of discouragement didn’t end there. On hearing me talking about the concept of perfect pitch, he decided that he would teach me perfect pitch. This time, I noticed the domination right off. Following the usual paradigm, I complained to his Flying Monkey who related my feelings to him and he backed off.
Somehow, despite all the discouragement, I improved on the violin so he found a new way to make it a misery by making father/daughter jam sessions not a spontaneous past time but a scheduled Tuesday-and-Sunday-whether-you-feel-like-it-or-not event.
Every Tuesday I was expected to rush home from work and skip supper because “Dad’s waiting to play music with you” and, as we all know, you mustn’t keep a narcissist waiting.
Sunday afternoon 3-hour jam session were also de rigueur. No excuses allowed, not even “But I’m exhausted from playing at the coffeeshop for three hours.” Even after he allowed me to move out, he still made me play music with him at my house. As you can see from the picture above, I don’t look happy.
Ten years of this BS later, I hung up my violin. Narcissism had triumphed. It had ruined my lifelong dream, my chosen hobby and made me hate the thought of putting bow to strings. All the joy, the spontaneity, the self-expression and the pleasure had been sucked out of it. What once had been a choice was turned into drudgery. What had been a way of expressing pain, had become a source of pain.
That’s what narcissism does. It sucks the art out of art. It turns a joy into a task. It drove Chinese pianist Lang-Lang to beat his highly-trained hands into the wall rather than play one more note to please his abusive father. As he told the Guardian:
I didn’t destroy my hands, but I lost the left-hand callouses I’d been so proud of. I hung up the violin and showed my contempt by not even dusting it. It became beautiful, dusty wall art. Nothing more.
I let narcissism triumph.
But maybe…just maybe…things may be turning around as they did for Frankie Gavin and Lang-Lang. During this period of isolation, the free operas offered by the Metropolitan Opera have rekindled my love of music. I began to sing again (yes, my narcissist discouraged me in that too) and last weekend, I took the fiddle off the wall, gave it a good dusting and to my surprise quite enjoyed playing it again.
If narcissism has robbed you of hobbies you loved, maybe it’s time to have another go…but on your terms. Get out the sketchpad, hum a few scales, start snapping pictures, rosin up your bow. Remember why you chose that hobby in the first place and try to recapture that joy, that passion!
We can’t let narcissism win. Every time we’re creative, we win and narcissism loses.