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V Is For Violin, And For Violence

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

My first violin had tooth marks on the rim, where I had bitten it in a rage.  The bow was missing several hairs from being struck on the back of my parents\’ sofa, and certain pages of my method books retained the marks of crumpling no matter how carefully I later tried to smooth them out.

I was a violent violinist when I was a kid.  I hated my violin as if it were a living thing, and wanted to kill it.  I wanted to kill it so it would stop making those offending sounds that, week after week and month after month, never seemed to get any better.

Not that the violin had been forced on me.  My music career had begun with the piano.  But after a year of struggling with fingerings and trying to keep my wrists level with my hands and my fingers curled just so, I thought the violin had to be easier, more rewarding.  Besides, studying the violin meant that I would have my father for a teacher.

Why didn\’t my parents warn me?  Perhaps they did, and I didn\’t listen.  So on my tenth birthday, I got a violin, and my first lesson.  My father showed me how to tuck the violin under my chin and support its neck with my left hand so the instrument would be parallel to the ground.  Then he told me how to hold the bow, and how to draw it across the A string, halfway between bridge and fingerboard, with the hair tilted towards me at the frog and flat on the string when I got to the tip.  Less pressure at the frog and more at the tip. This I should do very carefully, over and over, fifteen minutes a day, every day, until my next lesson.

\”You mean just drawing the bow across the A string?\”  I asked.

\”Yes.  It\’s very difficult to do right.\”   He lifted my left arm, which by then was pointing dispiritedly towards the ground, and left.

This was well before Suzuki, before the helpful fingering tapes on the fingerboard, the accompanying CDs, and the frivolous idea that playing the violin should be fun.  By the end of the second practice session, I was bored out of my mind and longing for the days of the Anna Magdalena Bach piano book, the little Minuets and Sarabandes that actually sounded like regular music. 

A year passed. My father pronounced me to have basic talent and a good ear worth cultivating, and raised my daily practice time to an hour.  Leaving my  mother to enforce the regimen, he went off to earn our keep as a musician.  This required him to work quite hard, and in retrospect I can see that expecting him to give me a weekly lesson, like his regular students got, was perhaps too much.  So I would go weeks, sometimes months, without a lesson.  Occasionally, if he happened to be home while I was practicing, my father would swoop into the room saying \”Flat!  You\’re flat!  Here, let me show you…\”  If I was lucky, sometimes these interventions would develop into lessons.

The years passed and, as I advanced, I fell deeper into musical despair.  The more I learned about the violin, the more I hated the way I sounded.  Having heard the sound of his violin from the day I was conceived, I considered my father\’s playing the minimum acceptable level of proficiency, so by comparison my own playing seemed beyond disgusting.  I was eighteen before I could stand to hear myself.

But by then I also realized what a jealous master the instrument was.  I was in college, majoring in Biology and French, and taking violin for one hour of credit–yet practicing for that single credit took as much time as the rest of my courses combined.  I played for another two years and then, without thinking too much about it, I put away the violin, the methods books, the music stand.  The calluses on my fingers slowly faded, and life rushed in to fill the now-vacant practice hours.  My parents had the grace not to make a fuss.

And after that, for years and years I never gave the violin another thought.

13 Responses

  1. My piano playing has faded away, but not completely, and I still love playing from time to time. I can't imagine spending that much time on an instrument and not loving it.

  2. Mali, I think that you have the best of both worlds. For me, as the daughter of a professional musician, it was either consecrate my life to the instrument, or let it go. My father had great admiration for amateurs…but I was never able to become one.

  3. (Posting for Alison)I remember that my little brown violin was the one thing I intended to rescue if the house were on fire, but I also somewhat deliberately broke my bow in half… It really did seem a living thing, and an instrument of torture.

  4. I can't imagine you as a ten year old biting your violin. And, as accomplished as you were in your teens, I was always in awe of your ability. You were your own worse critic!

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