What Learning the Violin Has Taught Me About Life


http://”Violin Still Life” by cbyeh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

Wow.

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.

Staying Humble


Many years ago, when I was a tender girl of ten, I joined our elementary school orchestra. I had no idea what I was doing, but the idea of an “orchestra” was immensely alluring.

When it came time to choose an instrument, if I remember correctly, I wanted to choose the violin. I loved the idea of being able to create the gentle sounds I’d been hearing on my Mom’s “Nutcracker Suite” album. I wanted that violin.

But alas for me, there were too many girls who wanted to play the violin, so I was assigned to try the viola. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was still a beautiful stringed instrument. I accepted it happily.

And it was love at first screech. During that year of joyful musical exploration, I discovered the glory of harmony. I discovered the power of playing music with friends. I experienced the amazing mind buzz of hitting the rare perfect note.

It was so much fun, and so inspiring, that even 53 years later I can still remember the smell of the resin on my bow. I can remember how cozy it felt to be on our school’s small stage when the curtains were drawn every Thursday. That was when the strings would practice together while the rest of the grade was at recess. I loved those lessons!

I still remember that my viola was number 82, and that the case was lined with purple velvet. I used to rub my thumb along the velvet. So rich! So elegant!

I loved every minute of rehearsal, of practice, or screaking away on my instrument in my bedroom. I loved the full orchestra rehearsals on Friday mornings. I loved our concerts.

I loved it all.

Unfortunately, I had to give up my viola lessons at the end of that year. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for two kids’ music lessons, and it was my sister’s turn to take up the viola. I gave up my beloved number 82 with many tears.

(I still haven’t forgiven my sister, just for the record. Every few months, I call her up and moan piteously.)

Anyway, the years went by. I grew up. I still managed to sing harmony a lot, and I even tried a very brief stint of playing the guitar. But in the back of my mind, all this time, the idea of returning to the viola as been lurking.

So. Recently a good friend of ours took up the saxophone. He’s our age, and not much more musical than I am, but he threw himself into learning his instrument with joy and abandon. He was my inspiration.

I decided to take up the strings and the bow once again.

My younger brother (aka, the musical genius) had a spare violin hanging around his house. I learned that a novice like me should start with the violin and then move on to viola if all went well. I happily took Dave’s violin.

I signed up for lessons.

I rubbed the resin on my bow.

I made hideous zombie noises on my lovely little violin, but I was thrilled. It was all so familiar! So wonderful! I remembered the movements, the feel of the strings, the shiny glorious wood of the instrument!

Huzzah!!!!

Luckily for me, there’s a fabulous local teacher who was undaunted by the specter of an old lady rookie. I went to my first few lessons, learned my scales, practiced my basic fingering.

It has been so much fun!

My teacher, Susan, is endlessly upbeat and joyful. Her smile is the most encouraging thing I’ve ever seen. Even when I continually run my bow across two strings at once, she smiles. When her chickens run out of the yard at the sound, she still smiles, and encourages, and makes tiny adjustments to my wrist.

With Susan I feel like a musician.

So you can imagine how exciting it was for me to arrive at her house yesterday, ten minutes before my lesson time. I took out my instrument, tuned it with my phone app, and resined up my bow.

From the lesson room, I heard the sound of the same familiar song I’d been working on for two weeks.

Not Tchaikovsky, but still, it was a song.

It was someone working on two of the five variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that are the first lesson in our Suzuki violin book.

That someone was doing OK. A little slow on the fingering, but not bad. The student did hit a few extra strings, (maybe more than I do) but it was still cool to hear it.

“Ah, another novice,” I thought.

As the other student played, I quietly played along on my own. I heard Susan’s voice, as joyful as always. I smiled to myself. “Self,” I told me, “You actually play a little bit more smoothly than this person.” I had an image of another woman, younger than me, but struggling to get the combination of finger placement, bowing and rhythm all correct.

“You’ll get it eventually,” I thought to myself as I smugly packed my instrument back in its case.

I heard the door to the lesson room open, and two women’s voices chatting happily. I made out the word, “Good job!” and “Thank you!”

I stood up, ready to head into my own lesson.

And a teeny, energetic little 6 year old boy came careening around the corner, his mother trailing behind.

“Hi!!!!” he called to me. “I just played my WHOLE SONG!!!”

Susan was still cheerful and smiling when she found me standing with my mouth wide open.

(“violin” by Stiller Beobachter is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )