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Violette\’s Violin

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

In these days when violins small enough to fit into a diaper bag are thrust into the hands of toddlers, my granddaughter Violette started taking lessons at the relatively late age of eight.  She practices on a 3/4 size instrument that has tapes on the fingerboard showing her where the notes are. The kindest thing you can say about this instrument is that it is serviceable.  She treats it as casually as an old teddy bear, setting the case down on the floor, dragging the violin around the house, letting it accumulate a fine powdering of rosin.  I am both alarmed and charmed by her blithe treatment of her fiddle.  From earliest infancy I was taught to treat any string instrument with reverence and awe.

No violin got more of both than my father\’s violin, which he bought from a gipsy who showed up unannounced at our apartment in Barcelona.  As a toddler, I was allowed as a special treat to pluck a single string (\”pizzicato\” was one of my first words) while my father held the instrument securely in his hands.  On our first Atlantic crossing on the way to Ecuador, in a fat Pan Am prop plane, the violin traveled with us in the cabin, like a person.

It is a good, though not an extraordinary, violin, rather small for a full-size, and with a clear, clean sound, just right for chamber music.  It is accompanied by superb bow, made by the fabled and now defunct Hill\’s of London.  Eventually my father had a new violin made for him, one with the big sound required by larger spaces.  This, and his viola were sold by my mother years after he died.

But the gipsy\’s violin, the one with the worn varnish where for years his hand had hit the higher notes, came to live with me.  For over forty years I carted it from house to house during our many moves.  On a couple of occasions I had it repaired (violins disintegrate if they\’re not played regularly) and the bow re-haired, with a view to resuming my practice.  But that never happened, and the violin would go back into its case for another long sleep.

Then this Christmas, when Violette was visiting, I remembered the violin in the closet and thought, why not?   I could at least let her try it on for size.  Our family, I am happy to say, is blessed with long arms, and when Violette, who is nine now, tucked the fiddle under her chin, her hand effortlessly reached the right spot on the finger board.  I replaced a broken D string, tuned it up for her, and suggested that she play one of her pieces.

This violin, needless to say, had no tapes prompting her finger positions, and the distances on the fingerboard were proportionately larger than on her small instrument.  Yet she adjusted her fingering quickly, by ear, like a real musician.  And the whole family gathered around her sighed with pleasure at the clarity of the sound she made.

Four generations…. This violin paid for tuition at my German nuns\’ school, the Sunday paella, the airfare  to Ecuador and, four years later, to the U.S.  Now it\’s in the hands of Violette, who I hope was sufficiently impressed by my cautions to treat it with at least some reverence and awe.  My father would be pleased to hear her play.  He would, I\’m certain, say she has \”conditions.\”  And then, like he told me a million times, he would tell her to practice her bowing.

18 Responses

  1. Oh Lali this post made me cry.We are not a family of professional musicians, but my grandfather worked a second job (besides his airplane mechanic full time gig) at an instrument repair and sales store, in order for his children, all 8, to have band instruments. Working class hard-living aunts and uncles have I, but each of them has an instrument they played through middle and high school and some into adulthood. I grew up knowing that not only are instruments precious, but they are important. My sister plays violin; I play (sort of) flute, my brother and other sister guitar. The violinist has an antique violin they found at a Bosnian luthier's shop about 10 years ago. It sounds so rosy and round. So satisfying.

  2. I was told to join band while living overseas in Japan in the 5th Grade. Told because the American base school finally had received a music teacher, so a band was being formed. I could pick my instrument and I chose flute, and was surprised to see it when I opened the case because I had it confused with the clarinet. Oh well. I struggled with reading music and longed for a stringed instrument. Many years later as a young adult I somehow ended up with a free violin and took lessons from a friend. And gave it up. I still, somehow, couldn't read music! Since then I tried guitar…then a mandolin making some progress until I realized I couldn't do some notes involving my left pinky, where I have a scar from a deep cut that required seven stitches. (Quite a few for a pinky!) Fast forward to November of last year, when I discovered a bowed psaltery and a free tuning \”app\” for my phone. Alas, I was in love. After also discovering \”flash cards\” online and practicing for a week I think I've mastered reading most of my treble notes. So I ordered a soprano psaltery from a maker in Tennessee and am on my 3rd memorized song. Yay! At 52 I told myself it was my last shot at learning an instrument. (I've been calling it the \”idiot's violin\”) It is practically foolproof.

  3. I remember when John explained to Kate, age 4, why she needed to learn to play the violin. It's a language spoken all over the world. She said \”Oh, OK\” and became a fairly accomplished violinist. Math, music and sports all relate!

  4. Jaimie, that is quite a story of musical persistence! I had to Google \”psaltery.\” It is beautiful–you must look like a medieval angel playing it. And, BTW, you are not the only one who's had trouble learning to read music. I'm starting to think that the old method, where you took a year of solfeggio before being allowed to go near an instrument, worked best.

  5. No, unfortunately although she did play at her fraternal grandmother's funeral, Schinler's List. We heard the most exquisite but sad encore piece last night, Melancholy, played by a young Chinese virtuoso, Tianwa Yang. I can't find the composer but it was full of double stops.

  6. A wonderful Post Lali. I loved the hand-off.A correction: Kate played \”Meditation from Thais\” by Jules Massenet at my mother's memorial service. It was outside the rural Methodist church built by her father (my grandfather) in North Carolina, at graveside, with my siblings and cousins and their families all standing around as we sprinkled her ashes on the soil next to her and my father's headstone. She (my mother) was surrounded by her generation of brothers, sisters, parents, cousins also, but in the ground. It was a beautiful event made more so by the melancholy sound of that lone violin sans piano.

  7. John, the Meditation is such a moving piece. As it happens, I just ran into my father's score of it the other day. Your mother was lucky to be laid to rest among such good company, and with such beautiful accompaniment.

  8. And I had to google \”solfeggio\” …YES! that would have helped immensely, and I would have really liked to have been educated that way!

  9. This is so lovely. I am torn over my (great-grandmother's) piano – not having any children to pass it on to, I'm wondering if I should give it to my niece when she's old enough. But then I worry that she won't cherish it the way I do, won't realise how beautiful the wood is, how amazing the tone. Argh. At least I still have a couple of years to decide.

  10. Wonderful, Lali. I took violin lessons from 4th grade through 8th grade but it never really took. We rented my violin the first year, but then my parents bought me one. After it was clear that I was not going to play it anymore my mom decided to use it for decoration and hung it in the living room on one of the paneled walls. When my children were very young and impressed that I'd once played this instrument they asked me to demonstrate. I found the bow in the case in the knee wall of the attic and as you can imagine the hair was all broken. Just as well — I am sure I didn't remember anything!

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