Who Am I Besides a Musician? How an Injury Challenged Me to Reevaluate My Identity

Image of person's hands holding an oboe and playing the instrument.“You’re on oboe vacation,” my graduate school professor said. “No playing until I tell you to.”

Those were the words I’d dreaded hearing ever since crippling finger tension set in that morning. 

“What am I supposed to do then?” I asked.

“Whatever you want,” he replied, with joyful enthusiasm. “Do the other things you love.”

I couldn’t fathom what he meant. I love music, more than anything. But it’s also my job. Music is not only my primary source of self-expression but also my primary source of income as a freelance oboist. Every practice session is both an exercise in creativity and a checklist of skills to work on in my craft: daily scales, long tones, excerpts, and all kinds of repertoire.

Later that day, I recounted to my partner the involuntary separation from my oboe. He suggested cooking a nice dinner and watching a show I like. 

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Listening to music, I made myself grilled salmon with quinoa and sat down to “Gilmore Girls.” I couldn’t focus on anything: not even the taste of the food or one of my comfort shows. I realized that even my relaxation is tied to my music-making. 

After dinner, my stomach was full, but my heart felt empty. As an oboist, I spend countless hours scraping and crafting reeds. Whenever I am on Netflix, I have a piece of bamboo cane in hand. Sitting in front of the screen, I couldn’t seem to get over the guilt of my idle hands. I decided to hit pause on the show and just sit with this discomfort. 

One question racked my brain: Who am I besides a musician?

I grabbed my journal and a pen and opened to a blank page. I started from the basics: My name is Emily Mendez, 22 years old. I have two cats.

My oboe had been my fifth limb for practically a decade. 

I feared that letting myself exist without the thought of making music would erase that part of me. Lying down on my bed, my foot fell asleep. I lost feeling in it. Then it hit me: Just because I’m not using a limb at a moment doesn’t mean it’ll disappear. If that were true, we would wake up limbless every time we fell asleep. I decided to let myself put that ghost oboe limb to rest.

I sat with that empty feeling. Laying on my side, I stared at the Vincent Van Gogh “Sunflowers” poster on my wall. Rough brushstrokes remind me of a faint memory that lay in my childhood bedroom. Around 2010, before I even knew what an oboe was, I won first prize at my school’s art fair for a framed oil pastel piece. 

I suddenly recalled the joy and peace I felt when drawing the petals of a flower, with no concern about perfection; just letting my hand move across the page, layering all sorts of colors that felt right. Winning was nice, but the pride I felt didn’t compare to the joy of creating the piece.

I felt compelled to open a drawer that I hadn’t since my recent move. I found my set of oil pastels, untouched for years. Grabbing some paper, I started creating a forest landscape with rich dark green pines under a glowing full moon, with a rocky creek running through the middle. I lost myself in the painting for hours, with no pressure at all to create a perfect product.

After, I journaled about the experience and the fog around my initial question — Who am I besides a musician? — had cleared.

I am Emily Mendez, an empathetic, hard-working, and obliging woman. I like to paint, read off-kilter indie books with unlikable main characters, and write free-form poetry. I am a loyal and passionate partner, daughter, sister, and friend.

The next afternoon, my professor met to check in with me about the tension. After doing some stretches together, I closed my eyes and thought about the lightness of my hand when painting. Translating that to my playing, I found the tension gone when holding my oboe. My fingers floated on the keys. I realized that playing my instrument had become a daily test of my fundamental self-worth. How could I not be tense when my entire sense of self relied on one singular thing?

Ever since this realization, I’ve found my love for my music-making come back stronger than ever. I’m playing at a level I could’ve never imagined. Playing without pressure has freed me.

This freedom has expanded other areas of my life as well. Now, I am so much more present for my friends.

The conductor dismissed us, wrapping up a difficult three-hour orchestra rehearsal. I tried to pack up as fast as I could to head home to my apartment and my cats. However, two of my new friends intercepted me on my way out and asked if I wanted to grab dinner with them. The last thing I wanted to do was be around anyone, but then I remembered that I shouldn’t let one bad day affect me. Reluctantly, I agreed, and we headed out. 

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At the restaurant, I was totally engrossed in the conversation. In one dinner, I learned so much about them and made so many great memories. My perceived failure in rehearsal was so far in the back of my mind, that I forgot about it for hours. When it finally came back to me, it was simply a fleeting thought.

On my walk home, I looked at my surroundings, taking in everyone around me, the sights, the beautiful fall trees. The meaningful connections I had made had me beaming. For the first time in a long time, I was excited to get back to playing. When I realized that the key to unlocking a happy life, personally and professionally, was to reconnect with myself as an individual, the world became a happier place. Though the world tends to value work ethic above all else, I don’t need to uphold this rigid standard. I’m unique and special and deserve to be happy, no matter what my professional life may look like.

Recognizing my inherent value as a person has been the first step to true success and happiness.

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Emily Mendez is a classical oboist and freelance writer. Cuban-American, she was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She has recently moved to Chicago, Illinois for graduate school. Her primary experiences lie in music, exploring how that applies to other aspects of life and identity. She is passionate about literature and loves to read and analyze works, looking for real-world ties.