Erica’s Cancer Journey: No strings attached

“Did you hear about the violist who played in tune?…Neither did I.”
– #457 of countless viola jokes

Today, I danced with Copernicus, Shakespeare and Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons. How, you ask? By playing my viola! Each of these figures hails from the same era as the beginnings of this stringed instrument.

My invisible connective thread stretches through time like my hand extends along the fingerboard: from Mozart, whose quartet I was rehearsing; to my grandfather, who enjoyed decades of music-making on this very instrument well before it was entrusted to me; to Jimi Hendrix, whose musical experience began with this instrument when he was still Johnny Allen Hendrix; and Jeremy Green, who builds on the viola legacy with a fresh approach through videos of modern covers, such as Sia’s “Chandelier” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”


I converted to viola from violin during college. Viola immediately felt like my home, my true instrumental “voice,” but in a foreign country! I was familiar with the overall mechanics and the three out of the four strings that it shares with violin; but learning to read notes in the alto, or “C” clef, felt the same as absorbing Portuguese when I was in Mozambique: I would assume parallels with Spanish that were not commonalities at all. Like Portuguese, alto clef was completely different from anything I had encountered before, while being agonizingly familiar because the notes look the same – just sitting on different lines in the staff.

As a classically trained musician who relies on sheet music, I have always envied people who can casually engage a group around a campfire with their guitar, strumming chords and effortlessly bringing the circle into song. Mozart isn’t quite the same social glue. So I tried Irish fiddle recently, which is played by ear. Turns out it takes way more effort than I am willing to invest. Today’s quartet rehearsal felt good, including friends I used to play chamber music with, and meeting a couple of new ones. I feel energized, invigorated, happy, alive playing viola. Home. My soul voice. I’ve been away from it for a while. Now, I’m back to this center of my musical labyrinth.

As I navigate innumerable decisions along this terminal cancer journey, having the strength and desire to return to beloved interests like viola feels like a precious gift. Prioritizing joy balances out the countless stressors in my life right now, making choices that not only feel good but truly support Authentic Me, as I travel along a twisty path with plenty of efforting, pain and frustration. Whether alone practicing at home or making music with friends, viola organically ties me into the larger world. In the same way, whether isolated in a hospital bed or surrounded in a healing circle, cancer invites me to draw from these rich lessons in other areas of my life.

Learning new meds is like encountering a new clef. Meeting a medical caregiver and her staff feels like introducing myself to the new cellist, who expands my awareness by suggesting I check out violinist Lindsey Stirling’s video cover of “Radioactive with Pentatonix.” Experiencing a new treatment is like sight-reading. Viola is an invisible tether to My Life, a tribute to my link in the chain of my present, past and future. My labyrinth. No strings attached.

Head On and Heart Strong!

Love, Erica

Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in the Summer of 2015. To read more about her experience, visit

There is one comment

  1. Herb Witz

    I attended a recital at the Plutarch United Methodist many years ago. The artist was Erica Chase-Salerno.
    My memory is that she played a Cello. Erica mentioned in her article that she converted from violin to viola. Did she play a viola or cello at the Plutarch church? Regardless, of what instrument, I do remember I was impressed with her performance.

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