I Am a Ridiculously Bad Violinist
I started playing the violin when I was 14. My parents bought me a second-hand violin for $30.00 way back when we still lived in Newfoundland in the nineteen seventies. It was signed inside by the maker who was a man named John who hailed from a village called Joe Batt’s Arm. I think he also carved the black wooden case it came with. It was my Christmas present in 1973.
I didn’t actually start playing until two years later when we moved to Ontario. There was no music program at my junior high school in St. John’s, and my parents couldn’t afford private lessons then. We moved halfway through the school year in grade nine, which was junior high in Newfoundland, and, confusingly, high school in Ontario. Not to mention the fact that NL school ended in grade 11 and Ontario, uniquely, went up to something we called grade 13 in those days.
I found out after we moved that I had four more years left of school before university rather than two and was understandably pissed.
So I couldn’t take grade nine strings when I was in grade 9; I had to take it in grade 10. I really needed the basic course since I couldn’t even read music.
That’s OK. I’m still friends with the viola player from that class 45 years later.
That girl knew music. She was a beginner on the viola, but she already had her grade 10 accordion from the Royal Conservatory of Music, basically a pre-professional standard. She could have auditioned for a professional program at a university already. She did the exam at age 10. Very unfair. Talent is very unfair. I should know; I possess very little of it.
But I digress.
The point is, I fell in love with the violin right away. However, it never much cared for me and has resisted most of my efforts to sound good on it.
Once I realized I could actually play notes on that thing I was immediately pissed off again.
I was mad that I couldn’t be a professional violinist and just play beautiful music all day.
I loved the violin that much. And classical music. Why, I don’t know. My parents never so much as played Beethoven’s fifth symphony for me. It’s still a bit of a mystery to my one living parent.
You see, any professional violinist out there pretty much HAS to start no later than age five. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems a pretty solid rule. It’s a difficult instrument. Worth it, but unforgivingly difficult.
First of all, there are no markings to tell you where to put your fingers to produce a particular note. A guitar has frets. I’ve never played the guitar, but it seems like it’s a pretty easy instrument to play in tune. I have it on good authority that it is.
I played horribly, horrifyingly out of tune for many years.
It may have been some kind of learning disability. Or the fact that I missed the critical period for learning to play a stringed instrument in tune (age five, apparently).
That’s my excuse, anyway.
Another difficult thing is that your left and right arms do completely different things. You have to learn fingerings with your left hand while holding up the instrument with the same hand as well as your chin while bowing with your right arm. This may seem weird, but the two arms are often in conflict. You need to be physically coordinated.
I have been diagnosed with a lack of proprioception. That means I don’t know what my body is doing in space and I don’t have a great spatial sense in general. I can’t dance or play sports. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 47, and even then I dented and scratched a lot of other cars because I couldn’t tell how close I was to them.
The left hand is supposed to keep you in tune- it makes the melody. The right arm, with the bow, makes the friction that produces the sound of the instrument. Specifically, it’s the horsehair on the bow roughened with rosin, something that comes from pine trees, that makes the sound. You have to remember never to touch the horsehair, lest the oil on your fingers make it too smooth to play notes. Then you have to have your bow rehaired. And that’s expensive. My parents were on a budget, so I was careful about that.
But I was not capable of being careful about getting notes in tune. Or about playing with the correct rhythm. These elements I was very unclear about. The time signature of a piece didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I understood it intellectually, of course: three-quarter time means three beats per bar, quarter notes get one count.
Easy, right? Except I couldn’t count. I couldn’t even tap my foot reliably. And a metronome just confused me.
In string orchestra class, I was fine. I just imitated everyone else in the first violin section. My bow was often going the wrong way, but I learned each piece by rote eventually.
And literally nobody except my friend the viola player and the cello player who later became a high school music teacher played in tune.
So I didn’t stick out too badly.
Yes, I was in the first violin section. There were people in the class who were even worse than me. People who didn’t practice. I practiced every day. Up to two hours (for which my younger brother has never forgiven me). My dad had a new job and could afford to pay for private lessons. I loved them. My teachers were very encouraging. I was worth 20 dollars an hour to them (a lot of money in those days).
These days, I am retired and I have a one-hour violin lesson every Friday morning with an amazing young violinist who is several years younger than my own daughter.
She is very patient with me. She goes over everything with a kind of minuteness that I had previously not thought possible. She sorts everything out. If my bow is going the wrong way, she gives me an exercise for making it go the right way. If I can’t figure out a complicated rhythm, she breaks it down for me into its smallest components until it makes sense. After two years with her, I still cannot play perfectly in tune, but I can always tell when I am not in tune. I may not know if a note is sharp or flat, but I know if it’s wrong.
For me, that is a major accomplishment that no other teacher has helped me even come close to.
If there is a passage that I just can’t make sound good, she plays it for me with heartbreaking poignancy until I am intoxicated with hearing her. I stop myself from asking her to just play the piece for the rest of our allotted hour.
Each piece of music she teaches me is covered in pencilled notes and instructions. I want to remember everything she tells me. Part of me believes that if I just follow all of her precise instructions, beauty will be born. There is beauty, but a fairly terrible one.
Basically, she is way too good for me. If it weren’t for the pandemic, I feel certain that she would have a job with a major orchestra at this point and wouldn’t have time to teach the likes of me, even on Zoom. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to need to get a job at a supermarket in order to support herself. She manages with me and two other students, and, I assume, the Canadian government’s CERB benefit that my daughter also receives and pays the rent with.
So why do I persist in my shameful lack of competency on an unforgiving instrument? I am not sure. I do progress, inch by inch. It is very slow. Some pieces prove too difficult and are put aside with a silent agreement to never mention them again (my violin teacher put up with my attempts to learn the theme from Schindler’s List for about six months; I let her choose my pieces now).
Why do I spend several thousand dollars a year on lessons when my income has been drastically reduced by retirement?
Because I love producing music, even if it is basically only for myself. I will never play for anyone (you’re welcome, everyone). I love reading it and understanding it. I love deepening my knowledge of what I listen to on the radio. I love watching great violinists on YouTube, figuring out what bowing or fingering they are using, or just watching their bodies move as they play (Joshua Bell plays beautifully, throwing his entire body into a piece; Izhak Perelman sits in a wheelchair and can only play with the upper half of his body, but totally rocks that).
The violin is basically a kind of joyful obsession for me with no real goal. Although hopefully it is helping my aging brain stay supple.
How long will I do this? As long as I can get away with. I know that one day my progress will slow to imperceptible. Perhaps my hearing or eyesight will fail. If so, I will have to listen to the stores of beautiful music I have heaped up somewhere in my mind.
Time’s winged chariot catches up with us all, as the great poet, Andrew Marvell noted in his great poem “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem ends with the immortal lines, “Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
I will keep on outrunning the sun in my own little way, at the moment with Beethoven’s first violin sonata. May the gods of music forgive me as I hack away at it one note at a time.