In these crisis-filled times it is tempting sometimes to retreat into cynicism and defeat. We have been reminded repeatedly over the past 18 months that life contains forces which are beyond our control. The plans we have made have had to be cancelled or altered beyond recognition, we have had our movements restricted, we have been told who we can and cannot interact with, and restricted to a limited number of reasons to leave our homes. People have died, people have been seriously ill with lasting consequences, and we have received mixed messaging even about the vaccines which offer us a way out of this particular coronavirus pandemic.

The present is uncomfortable. Some of us retreat into nostalgia for happier times. Some prefer to look forward to a time when the pandemic will be behind us. It is tempting to escape from present unpleasantness, at least in our minds. It is equally tempting to numb our emotions, to hide from pain by not allowing ourselves to feel anything. It is easy to feel flat, uninterested, to try to lose ourselves by scrolling through social media.

But in reality, we live only in the present – this moment – and if we are not careful we might miss it. One of our past students, Professor Craig Hassed, recently encouraged staff and parents to practice ‘mindfulness’, being consciously present in this moment. One way to do this is to be passionate about something, to engage fully in something that will bring us joy.

Sometimes young people will claim that they are not really interested in anything, let alone passionate about something. The first challenge is therefore to seek out some endeavour or activity which they, and indeed we, can feel passionate about. And I believe that we need to actively seek those things out, and we then need to work hard enough at them that we feed our passion. We need to be brave enough to experiment, to try new things, to stretch ourselves to try new things, so that we can put ourselves into a position that we can find something we can feel passionate about. It will be different for everyone – it might be sport, or making music, or reading philosophy or learning a new language, or dancing, or hiking or sailing or climbing or cooking or painting or playing music. Usually, it will be something which does not come easily, and which takes effort and persistence to master. Often it will be something which always feels just beyond our reach – but close enough that we feel we have a chance at getting better at it. If we are lucky, we will find something which makes us feel passion, and if we do, it will take us beyond ourselves and bring joy into our lives.

Like many adults I speak to, I regret not learning an instrument when I was young. My viola journey began about three years ago when I was challenged to join a Music School initiative for all music teachers to learn a new instrument. I was given the viola, an instrument I knew very little about, though I soon discovered that there is a whole world of ‘viola jokes’ out there.

Learning a difficult new skill is a humbling experience. I am used to being the teacher and knowing my subject and how to teach it well. I now had to accept that I had to go slowly, and that I would not be sounding ‘good’ for a long time. I had to push my ego down and become vulnerable again. Learning to play a string instrument takes time, and progress is slow. I had to train my body to do new things, and I learned that even if my brain wanted to do something, my fingers would not necessarily follow my brain’s instruction. It is difficult, and it made me appreciate how hard it can be to master something which does not come easily, and how important persistence is if you want to get better.

It would have been very easy to give up, and sometimes I am still tempted to give up, but I am curious to see how far I can take it. And I have fallen in love with the daily time out of playing and practising and slowly, slowly, getting a little bit better.

As we grow older, we drift towards the things we are good at, and the things we feel most comfortable with. Learning something new is a challenge, and it is confronting to face something we are not good at. I am so grateful to my teacher for encouraging me, and believing that I can do it. As I learn this new thing, I also gain better insight into being a student again, and I have a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our students when they try to learn something new and difficult. And I am also reminded of the joy and satisfaction that appears when a breakthrough is made.

Playing the viola was never a secret passion of mine; I fell into it almost accidentally. I have become passionate, however, by doing it. Recently I began learning a movement from a Bach cello suite transcribed for the viola – how cool is that?