Why I Started Embracing My Gray Hair After a Serious Health Crisis

I recently saw a video by Rachel Farnsworth of the Stay At Home Chef in which she beautifully addresses a negative comment she received about her gray hair. It inspired me to write about my own gray hair.

I am a professional classical violinist, and many times over the years I have come close to quitting altogether because of debilitating pain and recurrent injuries. I began to have certain physical problems with playing while I was still in high school, but by the time I was 19, a full-time music student in college with a heavy rehearsal and practice schedule, the pain was excruciating. I dealt with it in various ways. I usually felt better first thing in the morning so I practiced the most difficult technical passages then. I took over-the-counter painkillers which helped take the edge off, but most often I found myself pushing through the pain, day after day. When it became too much to bear, I just wouldn’t practice – an absolute disgrace for a serious musician.

While preparing for my junior recital I was in so much pain I was on the verge of canceling it. Two days before the recital, a friend of mine was kind enough to lend me her violin, which was set up in such a way that it didn’t require as much hand strength to press the strings down as my own violin did. Only because of that favor was I able to get through the performance. However, two days are not enough to accustom oneself to an unfamiliar instrument, which meant I played slightly out of tune the whole time. Years passed before I worked up the courage to listen to the recording of that recital, and sure enough, it was cringe-worthy. Even now, when I hear someone play my most physically challenging piece from the program, or when I play it myself, memories of extreme pain come flooding back.

Was it a good idea to borrow my friend’s violin and give an inferior performance? In the long run, I think it was. Anyone hearing me without knowing what I was going through probably just thought I wasn’t that talented or hadn’t practiced enough. But from my perspective, despite my obvious disappointment in the results, having made it to the end was itself an amazing accomplishment which kept me from failing out of music school. I could be proud that I did my best. And it wasn’t all in vain, either – on my good days, I was a good violinist. So little by little, with some successes and some failures, I managed to keep going forward. Through graduate school and well into my professional life I constantly balanced the physical demands of personal practice with those of performance obligations. I considered quitting many times due to the pain. I often played concerts or auditions less prepared than I should have been because at a certain point, with the goal of making it through the performance, I simply had to stop practicing.

At the age of 39 I had a serious health crisis which finally, thankfully, led to my diagnosis with three autoimmune conditions, including celiac disease. It took me some time to find treatments and dietary changes that worked for me, but once I did, it made a world of difference. I looked back on my life astonished that so much of what had happened was because of my conditions. Could I have been a better violinist if I didn’t have autoimmune disease? Yes, I’m certain of it. But when I began to mourn “what could have been,” I realized I was doing it all wrong. I was thankful to be alive! I was pain-free for the first time! Right when many people feel they are beginning the sad descent into middle age, I suddenly had a joy burning within me like never before. I even believed the best part of my career still lay ahead of me, now that I had the physical capacity to play the way I always knew I could.

This is what brings me to the gray hair. My hair started going gray in my mid-20s. By the time I was 29, it bothered me so much that I started dyeing it, and I continued right up until about a year after my diagnosis. Once I got my unexpected second chance at life, I felt I needed to celebrate by never again being afraid of who I am. After much agonizing, I decided to stop coloring my hair. There is a lot of pressure on us women to look a certain way and to “maintain” ourselves, and truthfully, I don’t always love those grays I see in the mirror. But I do love what they represent. It seems a dishonor to my great fortune to go and change what nature has handed me.

woman smiling outside

In the music business, our audience’s perception of us is determined not only by our skill but also by our appearance, for better or worse. Attractive and well-groomed people are hired more often and are better regarded, no matter their musical abilities. Every few months I wonder if maybe it would be a smart career move to give up on this whole true-to-myself thing, and just start dyeing my hair again. But then I think: who would I rather be? The very ill 25-year-old who was hired for spectacular shows and TV appearances, or the healthy 41-year-old who may get overlooked but plays far better? I’ll take the latter.

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