Finding a violin teacher was easy: I had absolutely no idea who to ask, so I went right to the top. I called up the university and asked to speak to the head of the music department. Her name was Ann, and she played first violin in the Duluth Symphony. I'd seen her there many times, graceful in her long black skirt, her blonde hair gleaming under the lights as she swayed with the thrilling music pouring from her violin.
Was this audacious of me? Perhaps. If so, Ann never let on. Yes, she gave lessons, she said. Yes, she'd see me.
I had two lessons before Ann figured out a way to gracefully pass me on to one of her own students. She didn't say that it was because I was a rank beginner who could barely read music; she said that it was because she was so busy she couldn't give me the time I deserved.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I don't remember much about my second teacher, who I only had for a handful of lessons as well, but she eventually passed me off, too. Time again, you know. Busy. I was a valuable student and she, regretfully, just didn't have the time, what with classes and exams and all.
And this is how I found Sue.
Sue had brown hair and a merry laugh. She spoke with a twang that revealed her Southern roots. She played viola in the Symphony, and -- what luck for me -- she played fiddle in a string band. And oh, how I love the fiddle. I love the humor of it, and the sweetness, and the toe-tapping-ness of it, and the lively way it can carry a song or just help a song out, plumping it up and filling it out.
It was my love for the fiddle, even more than my love for the violin, that had prompted me to buy my own instrument; years of listening to Bill Hicks and the Red Clay Ramblers, and Kevin Burke with the Bothy Band had deepened this love. And now there was Sue, who played with a band called Home Cookin', and who cheerfully suggested that we alternate: a few weeks studying classical violin, a few weeks fiddling.
This was heaven.
She taught me how to hold the violin properly, keeping my left wrist nice and straight, making a strong unbroken line all the way to my elbow. How to hold the bow, with my fingers spaced just so, and how to use just some of the hair, or all the hair, depending on what sound I was looking for. She taught me vibrato and double-stops. How to wipe down the violin when I was done and put it to bed in its velvet-lined case, covered by a soft cloth.
Every week she would tune my violin for me, because I couldn't really hear precisely how the notes should be, and then she'd hand it back and I would play. We had fun, so much fun. I worked my way through beginning classical books, waiting for the weeks when I'd climb the stairs to her second floor apartment and she'd say, "Let's do some fiddling today."
I bought a music stand, and I practiced like mad. It was delightful to look at those black marks on the page and have my fingers know where to go, and to glide that bow over the strings and have a song come out. Sue was nothing but encouraging. She told me I had a beautiful vibrato.
After a year or so, she brought me to a fiddle competition in a local park and urged me to get up on stage and show the crowd what I could do. I was terrified and demurred, and then kicked myself when I watched someone else, even more rank a beginner than I, sawing his way starting and stopping through a tune. I could have done better than that! I thought.
Ah, so I thought.
Where is the line between making music for your own happiness, and deeply annoying everyone around you?
One afternoon I was cheerfully sawing away at my lesson when I happened to glance at Sue. Her brow was tense, and her eyes were half-shut. "Just slide your fingers--just a hair--ahhhhhh. That's better," she said, and her whole face relaxed.
Violin, of course, is all about the ear. There are no frets, like a guitar. No precisely tuned keys, like a piano. It's all about adjusting as you go, sliding your fingers along those strings to find the sweet notes. Or, in my case, sliding my fingers to find that flat spronk between the notes, never noticing the difference.
That moment gave me great pause. Sue could hear something that I could not, and I could no longer lie to myself. I might learn the mechanics of the violin some day, but I would never master the sound: I couldn't even tune my own instrument. Violin is all about the ear, and the sad truth is that I have no ear.
We kept up the lessons for a few more months, but I had lost my innocence and my joy. I grew self-conscious: how bad did I sound? Was I getting it right? Was I close? How bad was close? Sue praised my double-stops and my vibrato, but I knew that without getting the notes right, nothing else mattered.
One Saturday afternoon, Sue appeared at my apartment door unannounced. She was smiling, but she was delivering bad news: She was moving, heading back down south. She'd be happy to find me another teacher---
And that was the end of my lessons. The glowing violin named David stayed shut in its hard case for years and years. When I left Duluth, I gave it away.
You should study the piano, people said. The violin is the hardest instrument there is. And perhaps I should have. But I don't have passion for the piano; I only have passion for the violin and you can't play the violin if you can't hear the notes.
Over time, of course, I came to realize that it's not entirely true that I don't have an ear: I don't have an ear for my own music. But I do have an ear--heck, I have two of them! And, thanks to Sue and her lessons and enthusiasm and encouragement, I have a heightened appreciation for other people's music. I can't play, but I can listen. And so I do, with joy.