When I was nine years old, my school offered the opportunity to learn an instrument. We were told that we could become a part of our school’s orchestra.
I was thrilled at the idea, although I’m not sure why. My parents loved music, but neither was a musician. Still, I happily chose to play the viola, and joined the small group of music nerds in my elementary school.
I fell head over heels in love with the sound of that viola. I fell in love with the deep purple velvet that lined it’s case, and with the smell of the resin that I rubbed onto my bow.
As I played the viola, I learned about the joy of harmony, and was always thrilled to be the lower voice to that of the violin. To this day, I sing alto every chance I get.
My fourth grade year was largely shaped by my love of my Thursday morning orchestra rehearsals and my Tuesday after-lunch strings lesson. Sitting here right now, at the age of 63, I can still remember how I’d wish my Tuesday lunch time over, so that I could step onto the stage in our “cafetorium”, where the dusty curtain would be closed and the small group of violin, viola and cello players would practice in the musty warmth.
Playing my instrument, in a crowd of other young musicians, was magic to me. It lifted me out of my world and brought me into a world of sweetly entwining harmonies. I felt such a surge of power as I played my little beginners viola.
But at the end of that year, I learned that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing. My big family just didn’t have the money to allow me to continue.
I can still remember sitting in the back of the family car after our end-of-year concert. My parents were taking us out for ice-cream, to celebrate my musical achievement.
I couldn’t stop crying. Ice cream or none, I was heartbroken to give up my lovely, golden hued viola.
But life goes on, and childhood sadness fades away. I went on to have a happy childhood, a healthy adolescence and a very good adulthood.
Over the years, I’ve indulged my love of music by joining several choirs and by learning a little bit of acoustic guitar. I listen to music, of course, and I go to see live music as often as possible.
But I’ve still held onto the memory of that viola, of the sweet song of the bow being pulled across the strings. I never stopped wanting to try it again.
And here I am.
A grandmother, a lady with arthritic fingers and an achy back. A retired teacher. A good cook. A reader and a would-be-writer.
And I have once again taken up my beloved strings and bow. This time I am learning to play the violin, instead of the viola. This is in part because that’s what was available to me (thank you, brother Dave!). But it’s also because the violin is easier to learn.
Enter my wonderful, patient, talented, encouraging teacher, Susan.
My dream is coming true because of Susan’s gentle guidance. In the past four months, she has taught me how to hold my violin correctly, how to hold the bow and how to place my fingers. She’s shown me how to put enough weight in my wrist, and how to make “long bows” and “short bows.” The technical parts of playing are beginning to make some sense.
But here’s the best part of what she has taught me.
Susan has taught me to give myself some slack. She has shown me how to look at the goal, and not the individual steps to its achievement.
You see, I am kind of hard on myself when it comes to the violin. I know what a good violinist sounds like; they are sweet, and smooth and effortless. The voice of the instrument is tender and pure.
When I play, on the other hand, the strings tend to shriek. The bow bounces. My notes are either just a bit too sharp or just a bit too flat. I can’t seem to keep my aging eyes on the strings, the bow, my fingers and the music while also paying attention to the movement of my wrist and the position of my right shoulder.
I want to create the sounds that I hear in my head; I am not happy with the struggling, wobbling sounds that emanate from my violin.
Even my dog, Bentley, tends to howl when I play.
It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing.
But Susan keeps me on track. And here is how she does it:
Susan reminds me that children learn by simply doing. They do not think about each finger, they only think about the song to be produced.
“Look at the bigger picture,” she seems to say, “Make the music that you want, don’t keep questioning yourself.”
And she tells me to be patient with myself. She tells me that I am on a journey, and that every step is one to be celebrated. She constantly reminds me that this week I am able to play a simple song that was a struggle for me a week ago.
I am learning. I am growing. I need to embrace and celebrate my progress. I need to accept the fact that I am not an accomplished musician, but that I am someone who is moving forward.
The best part of what Susan has taught me, though, is that when I play music, I do it for myself. I am my only audience. I do this purely for pleasure.
This isn’t a job, or a class, or a medal to be earned. It’s a chance to express myself through music, through the music of a lovely, graceful stringed instrument. It’s a chance to send my emotions out into the air through my bow, through the vibration of these strings.
She is teaching me to take a breath, to do my best, to accept my mistakes and to enjoy my brief moments of musical beauty.
What I love is that these are the exact same lessons I have tried so hard to impart to my children, to my elementary school students, and to my grandchildren.
What a gift!
With my violin awkwardly tucked under my aging jaw, as I carefully pull the bow across those carefully tuned strings, I am reminded that moments of beauty, like moments of success, are both rare and precious.
Thank you, Susan!
Now I’m going to practice my Christmas Carols.