“Flat! Flat! You’re flat!” my father cried, swooping into my bedroom and waving his arms. He wasn’t scolding me—he just couldn’t bear it when I played out of tune. Occasionally, these interruptions would turn into a full lesson. More often, after reminding me to hold up my violin, my father would dash off to a rehearsal, a performance, or some other student’s regularly-scheduled lesson.
I was twelve and more advanced now, playing “real” music—Handel, Vivaldi, Viotti—and practicing an hour a day. But as I progressed, my ability to criticize my own playing had also advanced, and I was more aware than ever of the gulf that separated my playing from my father’s.
As conscious as I was of my failings, I had little notion of how to remedy them, and every hour I spent cloistered in my room with my four-stringed enemy felt like a week. Worst of all, my hoped-for reward—an hour of my father’s attention and possible approval—only came at long and unpredictable intervals. Given all this, I failed to see why I should be made to practice at all.
This is where my mother came in. My father having neither the temperament nor the leisure to keep me on task, she became the enforcer. “Have you practiced yet today?” she would ask as I finished my homework.
I would roll my eyes and close the door to my room. I would open the case, inhaling the sad, sour smell that emanated from its maroon velvet lining; pick up the violin; tuck it under my chin, and tighten the bow hairs. Then I would begin my musical Stations of the Cross—first the scales, then the harder position and bowing exercises, uphill through the assigned pages of Kreutzer, finally ending on the Golgotha of some sonata. When the hour was over I would emerge shouting “I hate the violin! It’s awful! I despise it!”
My mother would shake her head sadly. “Such a pity! Such a pity! Daddy tells me all the time what a fine violinist you could be if only you wanted to. He says you have a good tone—something that can’t be taught….”
I wondered why my father never said those things to me, never looked me in the eye and said I had a good tone. As it was, my mother’s words only irritated me. “I don’t care,” I would say, stamping my foot. “It’s hateful. Why should I spend all this time on something I hate?”
My mother would smile wistfully. “Some day, when you are grown up and married, and living in your own house, on a rainy afternoon when you are feeling melancholy you will pick up your violin and play, and be grateful that I made you practice.”
This explanation only added fuel to my anger. I didn’t want to grow up into a lady with no way to fill a rainy afternoon. I had seen what empty afternoons did to my mother! Despite my dislike of it, to me the violin was serious business, not some bored housewife’s occasional pastime. I knew only too well how terrible that housewife would sound, if she only practiced when she was in certain moods.
Underlying all this was my intuition that there was something amiss in the lives of my mother and the other women in my family. They were charming, attractive, educated and smart. They were good at many things: they embroidered, painted in oils, played various instruments. They read constantly, went to concerts and to art exhibits every week. But somehow, in a way I couldn’t understand but was sure of, they weren’t serious. My father, on the other hand, was.
On the brink of puberty, without ever having been told so expressly, I saw myself relegated by fate to the charming, witty, non-serious side of things. Unfortunately, I wanted both: to be clever and attractive (especially that, please God) as well as serious. As for the violin, if I couldn’t play like my father, then I wanted no part of it.
Years passed. My mother stuck to her guns and I to my grousing. In my freshman year in college, my father decided that I needed some orchestra experience. The woman who played in the last stand of the second violins in the Birmingham Symphony was going on maternity leave and had to be replaced. My father drove me to the conductor’s house one afternoon. I auditioned, and was told to report for rehearsal that same evening.
The nightly rehearsals and weekend concerts wreaked havoc with my social life, not to mention my study hours. I was so terrified of playing an unintended “solo” that I spent my time in the orchestra mostly trying not to be heard. But in some ways these were good music times for me: my father was the violin instructor at the college I attended, and I signed up for classes from him. On Friday afternoons, when it was time for my lesson, he would suggest that we go back home and do the lesson there. But I, knowing what would inevitably happen once we arrived—the phone would ring, my mother would have to be driven somewhere, somebody would drop by—insisted on having my lesson on campus, in a real classroom, like a regular student.
He must have liked what he heard during those lessons, because one day he announced that he and I were going to play the Bach Double Violin Concerto at the college’s weekly assembly. (In those by-gone days, it was usual for the undergraduate student body to convene for cultural events.)
Both flattered and terrified, I practiced hard. He and I rehearsed together a few times, and I got some pointers on ensemble playing (don’t play loud all the time; listen to the other voice). The day came. I did my best and even enjoyed it, in a strange way. The audience clapped and clapped–the Bach Double is an easy work to like—and one former boyfriend confessed that he had wept during the slow movement. I was pleased, and yet…
I was living at home, cleaning the house, doing the ironing, babysitting my sister, and giving private language lessons. I was taking a full academic load, majoring in Biology and French. I got only one credit for my violin courses, but worked harder on that than on all the rest.
Compared to the violin, the rest of college—the life cycle of the blood fluke, the dissected dogshark, even the poetry of Mallarmé–seemed relatively straightforward. I longed to sit with my classmates drinking coffee in the snack bar in the afternoons, listening to Frank Sinatra and smoking an occasional cigarette. I longed to walk the leaf-strewn campus paths with a boy at my side, like a regular American college student. The violin had to go.
All this was half a century ago. I am now a married lady, in my own house. And on a rainy afternoon, or even a sunny one, whether I am feeling melancholy or otherwise, I open my case and take out my plastic Yamaha alto recorder. I start with some basic tonalizations, remembering to hold my instrument up and minding my breath (which is the hairless equivalent of the bow). I struggle through some challenging bits by “Unknown 18th Century Masters” and cap things off with Georg PhilippTelemann, a composer who devoted himself to tormenting recorder players.
Before I know it, an hour has passed. I look forward to my lessons, and to playing duets and trios with friends. These days, nobody has to remind me to practice. As I swab the spit out of the instrument and put it away, I can hear faint laughter emanating from the woods behind the house, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.
Do you still pick up the violin occasionally?
Lord no, John! I gave my father's violin to our granddaughter.
This is fantastic. And I do hope that you and Tim will play together again someday.