I love music and as a child I wanted to excel at the piano, but my teacher was strict and I hated to practice. And didn’t have my sisters’ facility of playing the piano by ear.
We didn’t have a guitar, just a ukelele which I strummed atonally as I searched painstakingly for the next chord. Primarily, I used the uke to irritate my older sister when she brought home a date.
So my instrument of choice was the violin, which I played the longest and with worst results. I could never have been called a violinist.
I’m a fan of classical music and so I have heard many violinists. From the lawn at our summer music festival I’ve seen these young women as they play like angels and look like willow trees caught in the wind. Their bodies bend and twist; their arms firmly and gracefully holding their highly polished instruments and their perfectly rosined bows as they send mellow notes into the air.
When the orchestra plays at these concerts I can lie down on my back and watch the stars, letting the music pour over me. When the soloist plays, I’m alert and captivated.
It takes me back to my childhood dreams. I must have had violin lessons because I became one of the scraggly adolescents waiting expectantly to be a part of grand music. It does sound grand to say, “Yes, I played in the high school orchestra.”
However, we weren’t good. I remember the excitement in Mr. Wendt’s voice when the violin section drew their bows across the strings in unison. I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about and didn’t recognize the phenomenon until I noticed it in a professional orchestra years later. I didn’t get the concept of “chairs” either. I liked sitting in the back row…less attention that way.
I don’t think there are any pictures of me with my violin. Maybe in the school annual where hordes of hopeful musicians and browbeaten sons and daughters are captured in a grainy black and white photo.
But I have the mental pictures. A black full skirt and a crumpled white blouse (with shirttail hanging out) and a pony tail which would no longer be smooth by last period when the photo was taken. I would look a little frightened because I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to pose.
It took years to realize that when family members asked me to play a violin solo they were entertained by my face which I twisted in my attempts to reach the proper notes. Those squawking strings may have always been a bit out of tune at home. No one (least of all me) closed their eyes in ecstasy.
I’m reminiscing for you because I know that history dies with the oldest generation. When some future mother and father coerces a child into playing an instrument by citing the musical background in the family, it should be remembered that listening to music may be our best tradition.
I don’t mean to minimize the talent of a few gifted grandchildren. One granddaughter (who, by the way, isn’t in the genetic line) continues to play and sing with great success. Another plays the guitar and writes songs. Others have played successfully and have eventually followed my no-practice example. And I’m not sure what happened to that “playing by ear” gift. Perhaps no one has unwrapped it.
As for me, I’m content to be a listener.
This post was originally written for and published by Vision and Verb on August 6, 2012.