The returning violinist

As a child the violin was a distraction, a chore and a continual trial and was eventually put aside.
Rediscovered 40 years later, my violin has become a love and a need - and the route to a music passion.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chapter II: First strokes...

So how does one get started playing the violin after a 40 yr break? Well, first one confesses that this HAS happened once before. When my son was about 12 he had played violin for about 4 years. In order to encourage him I enrolled him with a wonderful (least I thought so) violin teacher from England and dutifully drove him to lessons every week. Well, his interest was starting to flag (hey, déjà vu) so I pulled out my violin and we both took lessons from the wonderful teacher. At first this was rather cool – but he continued to loose interest and after about 2 months of us sharing teacher he eventually quit (I didn’t put up much of a fight). I then had to decide whether to continue myself. After an initial fascination I found the going hard and eventually hit a brick wall in progress. I mention this because first, it did at least mean that I had a little resurgence in playing about half way through my hiatus. This may have been beneficial to stir up my technical abilities but it was decidedly detrimental with respect to confidence. I suppose I was at about 75% of my childhood abilities but realized that I could not advance beyond that. Importantly, I rationalized this as (predictably) being unable to learn as an adult. The violins were put away and forgotten. Well, at least as instruments. They remained an important part of me as a person. While I occasionally got wistful thoughts on the rare occasions when they would reappear in the basement I had no delusions about being able to play again. This is one reason why it was so important to trade my violin in when I tried again another 15 years later.

So what to do now?? How was I going to avoid the fate that I had fallen into with the aborted return? First, to be honest, I actually didn’t think about that at all. Last time I started for a noble, but wrong reason (for me): to encourage my son. Playing was about him, not about me: I had not ‘bought in’. This time I felt a need, even a passion. It was different. The first thing I did was to just play from memory – or rather from feel. I think the first thing I played was Brahms lullaby. The tune is beautiful and entirely within one octave. I remembered that I had played it in D and based on that (and a lot of trial and error) I figured out the fingering. Victory! Out of tune, tone worse than a backfiring taxi, but definitely Brahms Lullaby (its very fortunate that Brahms would never hear this!). I then spent a lot of time just playing any notes that came into my head and, to my delight, these included songs. For some bizarre reason these were often Scottish Highland songs or popular English folk music – and sometimes they were the mood of those but nothing in particular. Other times it was just notes, nice notes and random notes. Playing, making sounds on Dudie, was truly heaven.

I don’t remember how long that stage lasted but pretty soon I was ready for Music. But what music? Well, perhaps equally amazing, I still had my music book from when I started plus some pieces from the aborted learning attempt. The latter was too much of a stretch so I dug out ‘A Tune a Day’ Book I. Words can not capture the feeling of playing my childhood starter book half a century after I had first seen it. Oddly, I was not intimidated at all – one might expect that since the fact that it was a challenge had to mean I had reverted virtually to my violin cradle. Fortunately, whoever compiled it had included themes from some very sophisticated music. Bach, Mozart, Handel – they were all there together with timeless themes [add]. Thus, working through this book was not a telescope to a daunting project but a toe hold on a Prospect.

Its interesting to try to figure out why, when I realized that I had reverted to age 7 or so (playing wise) I was NOT deterred in the slightest. But we will return to this theme anon….

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chapter I. Beginnings - or rather New beginnings....

I've been playing the violin for over 50 years. Well, to be accurate I started when I was 5 and reached the, at least with hind vision, venerated position of concertmaster [at that time English schools typically had full-sized classical orchestras] and even played a concerto. Then boredom set in and I gave it up at age 14.

However, just over 2 years ago a friend took up the flute again and that inspired me to visit my violins in the basement. Yes, for some unimaginable reason I still had all of them. Two full sized german workshop ones. The better of the two I bought but never played about 20 years ago (I have no idea why – maybe because the guy only wanted $400 for it) and the other my father bought from a retired Leicester (England) orchestra player when I was about 12; Then there was the 3/4 I played from about age 8 and even the tiny half sized one I started on - badly scarred but still intact. I suppose some things in life we carry with us simply because we can not think of a good reason to lay them down. Thus, despite moving across the atlantic (as well as several times this side thereafter) and the loss of virtually all my other possessions – the violins survived.

The nice german violin was in good shape and I could remember how to set it up. When I tried to play it, my hold and bow grip actually felt pretty good – but I could not find the notes. Everything was out of tune. So, being typically ‘mature’ - I blamed the violin. I felt the complex overtones were too much for me to sort through and that served as a rationale for a visit to the luthiers. Fortunately, there is a good one very close to where I live and a few trips there convinced me that the way to get back to play the violin was to make a clean start with a different instrument. I probably tried every violin in the shop – eventually it came down to two in my price range (read – a couple of thousand beyond of course) – two workshop violins, one from Italy and the other France, both of which had a cleaner note than my German one. I played and played - I’m surprised they had any customers considering the noise I must have been making but maybe that’s why they encouraged me to take them home :D The Italian one was easier to play and always made a sweet sound. However, I bought the French – a Dieudonne with a curious past (another story) and, as it turns out, some mystery. The reason was that although it was harder to get a note I felt the effort generated a range of sounds that could not be matched on the Italian instrument. The german instrument was traded in and ‘Dudie’ was suitably adopted, along with authentication papers and a new case.