Slowly and solemnly, my father set the violin on my left shoulder and tucked it under my chin, then stretched out my left arm to support the neck of the instrument. It was my long-awaited first lesson–the beginning, I hoped, of long, interesting sessions in which my father would pay flattering attention to me, and from which my mother would be excluded.
“You must hold the instrument up, up! so it’s never pointed at the floor,” he said. Then he went to work on my right hand, molding my fingers one-by-one into proper position on the frog of the bow. While this was going on, my left arm had drooped until my elbow rested comfortably on my belly. “Up!” my father reminded me. Next he gently placed my bow on the A string. “Now, veeery carefully, move the bow towards the tip.” I did, and the bow skittered disgracefully across the string, making an appalling noise.
“Yes,” my father said, “it is very difficult. I will explain.” Stopping periodically to raise my drooping left arm, he explained how the hair of the bow should be turned towards my face when I was playing near the frog, then gradually turn until it was flat when I played at the tip; how I was to press lightly against the string when the bow was at the frog, and gradually increase the pressure as I moved towards the tip; how at all times the bow was supposed to stay in an ideal (but unmarked) spot between the bridge and the fingerboard; how I should never put on too much resin on the hair, or touch it with my fingers, or neglect to wipe the wood with a cloth after every practice session.
“Bowing is very difficult,” he repeated, “but it is the key to a good tone, and without good tone there is no music.” Goodness knew I wanted to have a good tone. Those first bowings across the A string had been the sound equivalent of sucking on a lemon. But I was hopeful. Surely it wasn\’t all about the bow, and before the lesson was over he would teach me how to play a song? But after a few more explanations and some more proppings of my feeble left arm, my father declared that he had a rehearsal, and had to leave.
“What am I supposed to practice?” I asked.
“Bowing on the A string, of course,” he said.
“But what about my fingers, the ones on my left hand. Don’t I get to use them?”
He waved his hand towards the ceiling. “That will come much later, when you have practiced lots of bowing, at least five minutes every day.”
“Five minutes just bowing on the A string?”
“Of course,” he said. “Bowing is crucial! And don’t forget to hold up your left arm.”
And I did practice bowing on the A string, although all the instructions about the angle of the bow hair, the pressure and placement of the bow on the string, and the need to hold up the violin quickly vanished from my ten-year-old mind. This was so different from the piano, when from the first day one could play five notes with just the right hand, and those five notes sounded like regular notes, not like the unearthly screeches I got out of my A string. But at least my mother was keeping out of my way.
A week later, I caught my father as he was getting up from lunch, brushing crusty breadcrumbs off his pants. “Can I have my lesson now?” I asked. “Well, o.k.,” he said, looking at his watch. “Five minutes, because I have to leave for rehearsal.”
He repeated all the instructions from the first lesson, and showed me how to bow on the E string. “Now that you’re playing on two strings, you should practice ten minutes,” he said, putting on his coat and picking up his violin case.
A few weeks later, I was allowed to place my index finger on the A string, to play a B. By now I was required to practice fifteen minutes a day. I stood in my room (”Your father is composing. He must not hear you,” my mother said, closing the door), playing my five notes over and over, not knowing what I was aiming at but feeling in my very bones that the evil wooden box under my chin and the reverse magic wand in my right hand had nothing to do with music as I understood it.
Music was what my father made, and anything less sounded to me like an abomination. If music had been presented in a less reverential, more playful way, I might have developed a friendlier feeling towards the violin, but this was long before the Suzuki Method. As it was, with every squeak, every wrong note, I felt like a clumsy altar boy who spills the communion wine at Mass.
My humiliation at the inability to sound like my father soon turned to rage. Gritting my teeth, I would crumple up a particularly difficult sheet of music, then guiltily smooth it out again. Once I whacked my bow hard against the music stand, and several long white hairs came loose. Terrified that I had done irreparable damage, I cut them off with my mother’s manicure scissors and hid them in the kitchen trash. You know that little overhang where the top surface of the violin meets the side? A close look at my first violin would reveal two shallow dents made by my front teeth….