I’m not a concert violinist. I don’t imagine anyone ever dreamed I would be. I have neither the talent nor the drive. I began taking violin lessons even before I turned three. (May have been a touch young to be entrusted with an instrument as precious as a violin….!) There was a bristol board foot map for me in those early days. Along with stickers on my bow and violin neck to direct my squeaking Mississippi Hotdog rhythms. I remember that we took time every practice, every lesson to rehearse the process from rest position, to playing position, back to rest position, and into a bow. We imitated rhythms and kept our eyes peeled for the teacher’s nodding breath to start. And on the turn table of our old record player the Suzuki records would be placed so that from Twinkle, Twinkle to the Bach Double, the family listened to the first four books of the Suzuki repertoire over and over again.
I’m somewhat ashamed to say I haven’t held a violin in years. Some might say it’s a decade worth of lessons down the drain. But to be honest, I really disliked a lot of the work that surrounded learning to play the violin. I dreaded the nightly at-home practices and had a special anxiety about the bi-weekly group lessons. When I chose to quit the violin, I really meant to quit it – forever. (We make these sort of desperate declarations when we’re 12!) I’d been in negotiation with my parents for several years when they finally relented. The deal I struck involved sticking with piano, even while I gave up the violin. I remember that my mom wanted me to be the one to tell my teacher. I happened to have had one of those amazing John Keating-esque teachers who, more than wanting to pass on the skills of violin playing, wanted what was best for his students. I’m sure I was nervous, I’m certain I’d have preferred not looking him in the face and telling him I was walking away from the violin, but somehow I survived it. I don’t remember much of that conversation, to be honest. But I remember how I felt.
I felt relief. I felt unburdened. I felt space open up inside me.
The story didn’t suddenly change. And I don’t regret that adolescent decision. I’m still not a concert violinist. Nor a concert pianist.
* * * *
Three years ago I stood in front of an intimidating panel of academics and defended my doctoral thesis. Yes, I was nervous and yes, it could have gone desperately wrong. But I had a decade worth of monthly violin and piano recitals and annual concerts and private exams to draw on. I’d learned what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd prepared and ready for the task. I’d also learned (rather painfully so!) what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd unprepared and anything but ready for the task. Digging in for weeks and smoothing out the double stop sections of a Seitz concerto gave me a map for making sure I was in the prepared category. I’d acquired the discipline to make sure I could play a passage perfectly five times in a row before moving on to the next section. I’d learned to keep playing right through a song, on concert day, from start to finish even with sweaty hands that I wasn’t sure would stay on the spot they landed. Strategies, habits, endurance – a gift from the decade of violin lessons that got me through the rather cruel process of completing a PhD.
And more than that, more than the strategies and habits is the gift of making music itself.
Five years ago we moved into our suburban house. My parents gifted me with a piano. Exactly the same make and vintage as the one I grew up with. My mom packed up my old piano books and sent them to me so that I’d have access to the notes on paper that my fingers still seemed to have memorized, albeit in disintegrating pieces. And those years of listening to the Suzuki records trained my ear well enough that I can transfer most of what I hear into something resembling a chord pattern. For those songs that trick me, there’s always the Sweet Moses reserve called the internet – where the chords of every song ever written can be found. Days without some time on the piano are an exception for me. Music cradles me in my most desperate, most frenetic, most worn out places.
A year ago, my son began piano lessons. I doubt he’ll be a concert pianist either. But watching him walk up to the front of the Beaurepaire United Church, pull out the bench of the Steinway grand, and nail his first Ode to Joy literally brought tears to my eyes. This shy boy who finds the words “new”, “just try” and “change” rather terrifying, feels at home in front of a piano – even if that piano happens to be in front of a few extra people. He finds there the same respite from the world that his momma does.
To Monica who introduced me to the violin and enticed me to practice with smelly stickers, thank you.
To Binny who moved me out of the Twinkle repertoire and into Lightly Row and Long Ago, thank you.
To TJ who taught me how to play the violin for real and who made some incredibly hard moments in my life so much better than they could have been, thank you.
To Mrs. Winkler who saw me through from my first piano notes to my rebellious quitting right before my final RCM exam, thank you.
And to my parents who fought to keep my love of music burning, thank you.