How My Struggle To Succeed Taught Me To Treat Life As The Gift It Is

by Angelica Olstad

I started playing piano when I was 5. My first lesson proved to be something special. I could play hands together, repeat simple patterns at first try and was able to quickly read music, an incredible feat for a new student of any age.

My teacher, a renowned teacher who studied in Shanghai spoke to my mom in Chinese, "If she continues this way she may be able to play Carnegie Hall by age 19." This began a regimented practice schedule that resulted in what is now referred to as "tiger parenting."

My mom immigrated to the United States to marry my dad, and for her, my education and piano training took priority over everything else. Me playing the piano represented something very powerful to her.

She always told me, "This is your future; music is your gift and you must always have it."

By age 6, I was playing recitals and winning local awards. I began competing at the age of 8. Then, at age 10, I experienced my burnout.

My mom and I were fighting constantly about my practice schedule. I wanted to be a "normal" kid and hang out with friends and do "kid" things. She wanted me to continue excelling and using the gift I was given with hard work.

After hundreds of hours of yelling and tears, my dad stepped in and said it was time to stop the lessons. Piano was becoming too much of a stressor in the household. The practicing stopped and the piano became just another item of furniture in the household.

I swore I would never play that stupid instrument again.

I continued with the arts in middle school and high school with violin, singing and musical theatre. I came out of my shell; I was able to make friends easier, and I excelled in choral singing. By the time I got to high school, I was singing in competitive jazz choral groups; I had received numerous awards and distinctions, and even started my own acapella group.

I was well-liked by my peers and had a wonderful group of caring, loving friends. I had everything I wanted.

However, things had fallen apart at home. My grandpa, a beloved businessman man and the patriarch of our family business, died unexpectedly, leaving my family destitute, surviving off food stamps and donations from food drives.

My mom went back to school and my dad, unable to continue the business and find work, succumbed to depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. My parents divorced shortly after.

With my parents emotionally and financially unable to provide for my family, I took a job at age 15. I did my best to provide for my sister and I, buying us clothes and paying miscellaneous school fees so as to hide our poverty from the cruel magnifying glass of high school teenagers in an otherwise affluent community.

I threw myself into my music projects more than ever before. Music was an escape, a chance to make beauty in what felt like so much chaos and sadness at home. My friends, my sister and my artistic projects were my solace.

I entered college as a voice major. Suffering from my own depression, I began partying, binge drinking and abusing drugs while, at the same time, paying my way through school working odd jobs.

At age 19, my lifestyle was catching up to me; I had wrinkles around my eyes and was starting to find gray hairs. Around this time, a friend asked me to accompany him for a voice lesson; he knew I had some background in piano and needed help. Reluctantly, I agreed, only to discover piano came back much quicker to me than I thought it would.

I found I actually wanted to play this instrument again; I was fascinated by it, and I loved the music it produced. Most importantly, I was coming back to it on my terms. I actually wanted to practice.

It wasn't easy and the odds were against me: I had an eight-year hiatus, and the years I missed are the most important in developmental and cognitive comprehension for a professional career pianist. But I was determined. I became disciplined with my own practice schedule (as much as six to eight hours a day) and adopted a health and workout regimen to improve my health and practice endurance.

With the help of an incredible teacher, I improved exponentially and was able to get into a master's program on an assistantship (a full ride that offered collegiate teaching experience), an incredible feat for someone who had only been studying their instrument for four years.

I felt invincible, like I could take on the world.

My last week before graduating undergrad, my professor told me something very unexpected. He said,

"I want you to know you will never have a career as a concert pianist; maybe if you had continued on in your youth, but you will never have the skills you need for that kind of life. You can still play and teach, but you should know that will never happen for you."

My teacher was someone whose opinion I trusted, and I knew he said this with great care to my feelings, but I was still crestfallen. I had no idea what other careers were out there for pianists. It looked like Carnegie Hall was out of the picture.

In graduate school, I quickly learned what my teacher was talking about. My colleagues had 20-plus years of experience on me and their knowledge and abilities far surpassed my own. I was inspired and awestruck by this talent but also fell deeper into depression.

It was daunting to realize this wasn't the career path for me. But I knew the love I had developed for piano was real; it was a part of me, and it was something I had sacrificed so much to have again in my life.

I started experimenting with composition and performance. I also learned I had a natural knack for teaching beginners because I, too, knew what it was like to be a beginner. I started studying yoga and learned how to intelligently use my body and conquer performance anxiety.

I went to therapy and started the difficult and ongoing process of forgiving my parents for everything that happened; forgiving myself for not being more perfect; learning how to make my life my own and not be the victim of my strict upbringing or my broken home.

When I started Pop Up Yoga NYC, my mission was very clear: "to make yoga more accessible to people everywhere."

My own experience with yoga changed my life. It helped me strengthen my relationships with other people; it gave me the courage to walk away from relationships that were hurting me. It helped me find meaning and contextualize my own confusing relationship with piano, an instrument I loved so much but had such a difficult relationship with.

Once I found this combo of yoga and piano, I never looked back. My mom was right: Piano would end up being the greatest gift in my life.

So no, I have never played at Carnegie Hall and I most likely never will. Instead, I teach piano and yoga and run my business so I can share my experiences learned from music and yoga with others. I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything else in the world.

Yes, I still have insecurities and fears, and life would be so much easier if I were to just get a "normal job." But I do know that through piano and yoga, I have a message to tell: To learn and discover who you are is the greatest gift to give, not just to yourself but to others in your life as well.

The most powerful way to change others is to be the best version of your own unique, beautiful self. This means knowing personal boundaries, how your mind works in stressful situations and developing and nurturing healthy, long-lasting relationships.

I've learned to be kinder to myself and to others. I've learned life is an act of day-to-day living, made full with healthy decisions both physically and emotionally. I've learned to recognize and combat my depression and take the necessary steps to take myself out of it. I've learned to grow from mistakes and let go of the past.

And even here, in NYC, I'm learning that love, beauty and life exist in every breath we take. Because I've learned that life is a gift, constantly changing and evolving, just like us.