I had always fantasized about playing an instrument. Anyone who starts something like the violin as an adult would be lying if they said that they never fantasized about what it would be like once they had arrived, musically speaking. Do you see yourself on stage with an orchestra? Around a campfire? At a fiddle jam in a tavern? Playing worship music? Whether alone or with others, performing or jamming, we all have a vision of what we will be feeling when we are doing what we came here for.
If you have children, or you have ever been a child yourself, you know that the storyline of a child finding out that they are really a princess or a ninja warrior is so common in children’s stories that it’s cliche. When I was a child I didn’t fantasize about finding out I was really a princess adopted and raised by commoners. It felt more like my secret birthright was music, and that one day my true identity as a musician would unfold. Probably with fanfare and some sort of glowing crystal prophesy thrown in.
My father was a concert pianist and organ player with a degree in music. He taught, and directed music programs in church. He played for President Reagan. His daughters grew up with the benefit of music in their blood and in their home. Or, I should say, the daughters that he raised probably grew up that way. He never acknowledged being my father (what kind of future Episcopalian Priest would own up to having a bastard child from his pre-seminary days?) My mom was a good singer, but otherwise didn’t have any musical training or talent. And, as I’ve said, we weren’t well-off, so lessons of any kind weren’t possible. I always felt like I had this untapped genetic musical potential that would reveal itself. I hoped that nature would take over where nurture was absent.
I first picked up the violin 18 years ago. I was a 19 year-old sophomore in college and I traded the beautiful red acoustic guitar that my mother had bought me as a teenager (that I never learned how to really play) to my friend’s brother in exchange for his student violin from high school. It was an ill-fated attempt because there was no such thing as online violin help back then. I was also a college student, for crying out loud. I could barely do anything consistently during that phase of my life, let alone practice as much as would be necessary. Other than messing around with open strings I had no clue how to approach building a foundation of posture or technique. One day, a few weeks after acquiring the violin, I open the case and to my horror there is a giant crack in the top plate. The luthier that I found told me the violin had been neglected for a long time in dry and/or extreme temperatures, and that it was better to just trade it given my budget. I eventually and reluctantly traded that violin for a guitar (that wasn’t even as good as the one my mom gave me.) When my mother passed away I really regretted letting go of the guitar she bought me to chase a violin pipe dream.
My second attempt at the violin came just out of college at age 22, when I discovered Ebay and found a beautiful violin shaped object for $27. Complete with a case and two bows! The violin itself was gorgeous, tiger flamed and rich looking to my untrained eye. But it was, as you can imagine, another futile attempt. Everything about that violin was such poor quality that I had even worse success making any sound come out of it that resembled a musical tone. That “violin” ended up in a silent auction for the non-profit I worked for. I still feel really guilty about the family that took it home for $100. But, then again, who buys a $100 violin and expects much from it? We all learn that lesson the hard way. I have no memory of learning more than B natural in first position on either instrument.
Fast forward to age 36, 2017. The internet is really a thing now, and there are so many resources online for learning violin. And, I wasn’t just going to learn from the internet, I was going to take lessons with my son. I didn’t have a teacher yet, but I had looked online and identified a few teachers that were nearby. One teacher that caught my eye was a young looking Ukranian guy with dark, intense eyes and real headshots on his website. He reminded me a bit of what I imagined my son being like as a man. It occurred to me that finding my son a teacher that he might think was cool or that he could identify with would be a super smart way to ensure his success. The cooler the guy, the more my son would want to rise to the challenge.
The proof that he was cool lay in the performance videos on his website. He had video of himself playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor. I must have watched/listened to that 4 or 5 times over the course of the week. The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and represents just the kind of classical music that I could see myself wanting to play. At this point I knew so little about the differences between classical music periods that I pretty much classified things as “Me Likey” or “Me No Likey.” I definitely wanted a teacher that I wanted to sound like, not just a teacher with a resume and fuzzy photo online. I showed the video to my son as a teaser of what he could learn to do with a violin, and he gave me a double thumbs up.
Walking into the music store I had this funny feeling, like “Finally. I have a real reason to be here. I might actually rent a violin today.” The rental violins were hanging on a large swivel rack according to size, like fish at a market. The shop woman was very sweet, but something about her seemed more like she was trying to sell acid at a Grateful Dead show than violins. Her voice had this hippie lilt and she held eye contact for way too long. She couldn’t answer many specific questions because she wasn’t a musician, but it would take her forever to say so. She seemed like the perfect person with which to practice saying out loud, “I’m going to learn how to play the violin as an adult.” It was surprisingly embarrassing to do. I hadn’t told anyone besides my husband that I was going to start learning alongside my son. That felt good, but before long I had to migrate away from her unrelenting customer service. I meandered off, hoping that she would quit hovering and let me return to looking at the violins in peace.
I start to wander over to another area of the store and I suddenly realize that the person sitting at the cashier counter is none other than the Chopin playing teacher from the internet. The teacher from the internet. Is it a sign from the universe that I was meant to be here and meet a teacher today? Or is it just a small town? I had watched the video so many times that I felt like I was either approaching a celebrity or someone that I had been stalking. So very weird. I managed to seize the opportunity to strike up a conversation and let him know that I had seen his website and had been planning to contact him.
I definitely wasn’t planning to talk to so many people about my learning to play the violin. The biggest test was going to be whether this guy gave me the “Um, OK Lady” vibe when I said that I was looking for lessons for the both of us. Lucky for him, he did no such thing. He was warm and gave me the sense that I was speaking with someone who respected the notion that I could learn to play. I could see myself trusting his judgement. I walked out of the store much closer to becoming an adult starter violinist than I was when I walked in, and the feeling was elation. It finally felt like things were coming together for me to have a real shot at learning to play the violin.
Driving home from the music store, I played his Chopin video through the car speakers for us. Did I really just find us a teacher? A teacher that sounds like this? Did I really just rent two violins? The fantasy that I could uncover whatever musical potential has been waiting to be discovered was alive in that moment. I felt like I finally had the right to think that my natural state is having a musical life, where I am honing the vast skillset required to play the violin. Everything before this was a prequel.
I’m dressed in black. I take my seat on stage in the violin section of the audition-only orchestra and warm up. We soar through the piece, pulsing along in perfect time. I am inside the music, and I feel complete.
I’m sitting by the camp fire. It sends little smokey ashes up to dance with some of my favorite Irish tunes. My kids bang bucket drums and strum ukuleles against a backdrop of aspen trees, motorhomes, and Colorado mountains. We are making wonderful memories, and I feel complete.
I soar home. Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor filling the car, I imagine I’m listening to a preview of what I will become. I finally found someone that is going to take this journey with me. I feel a rush of excitement to get to know a new me, or perhaps the real me, and I feel complete.
An epilogue about that guitar my mother gave me: 16 years later, the guitar found it’s way back to me. It went on two tours in Afghanistan and lived quite the life with my friend’s brother, and when he no longer wanted it he was happy to give it back.