I played my violin and guitar today.
My fingers hurt.
Owchy, owchy, owchy!
The crazy thing is: I haven't played either for a long while but I was actually pretty good at both!
The last time I picked up my guitar I could barely remember the names of each string. Today I was busting out chord changes like I was born knowing how to contort my fingers into those cramped little positions! I learned a few new songs that I've been wanting to learn, practiced a bunch of music I used to know and now entertain a general sense of accomplishment.
My bow could have used more rosin, but I did get some tricky runs down on the violin and played through Bach's Presto reeeeeaaaaaaalllllllllyyyyyyy slllllloooooooowwwwwllllllyyyyy. Man, I love that song.
Hmm, hmm, hmm.
Oh. Sorry. You can't hear me humming. Wow. That's embarrassing. Ooookay.
I began playing the vioin in the 4th grade. Baldwin Intermediate School (4-6th grades) has an amazing music program. Most of the students take extensive private lessons and the teachers are all top notch. One of our band teachers worked as a Hollywood music conductor during summer breaks -- at least, that's what he told people...ok, I don't really know but it's something that I vaguely remember from when I was 9 so the 23 year old me can't really vouch for the validity of that statement.
In any case, my first teachers were pretty much amazing. Mr. Claude Basset and Mrs. Cherry Hill. Those were really their names -- according to my childhood memory, which we have already established may be faulty. I loved them both. Mr. Basset resides in my memory as a Garrison Keillor type: tall with a head of wispy hair and a sort of scrunched up face -- but better looking than Mr. Keillor who, let's face it, is just sort of odd-looking. (I still love you, Garrison Keillor!) Mrs. Hill was tall, thin, and had a shoulder-length, blonde bob. She had a lovely speaking voice.
Both teachers were very gentle, but firm in their technique of teaching young children how to play difficult instruments.
As a very shy girl with a terrible instrument inherited from cousins who ordered it from a catalog but no longer wanted to play, I was easily the worst player in the class. My violin was chronically out of tune and had terrible tone. But, I kept with it -- I wanted to learn.
Learn I did.
Mr. Basset and Mrs. Hill taught us how to read music and key signatures. They taught us the correct way to hold our instruments and shape our fingers into fine curves and play on our fingertips. They taught us that close-cut fingernails are a must for playing stringed instruments. I learned to keep a set of nail clippers in my case because I generally liked very long nails -- like my mother's. They taught us to pay attention to sheet music while simultaneously watching the conductor. They taught us to sit up straight, at the edge of the chair and never slouch or lean back while playing. They taught us the finer details of being a musician and working with a group to make something beautiful.
Leaving class each week, my fingers throbbed and came quite close to bleeding. But the skin tightened and thickened over time and I could play for longer periods. At first, contorting my left wrist to fit an unnatural angle could only be sustained for short bursts of time. My muscles and tendons adjusted and became capable. When I started, the notes and key signatures looked like familiar, yet mysterious, blobs and sticks set on lines. Over time I learned to read them all as easily as reading this page.
Listening to my teachers play our simple songbook, I desperately wished that I could one day master the art as they had.
I was terrible. But determined.
During the summer time when most of my classmates were attending the music camps advertised by our teachers, I spent many hot, sticky hours in the solitude of my room with my violin and Hymnal. It was the only music, other than my school books, that I could find. With the tools I had learned from Mr. Basset and Mrs. Hill, I manged to pluck out the notes to my favorite hymns as best I could and taught myself how to sing by it. The violin was always out of tune and I didn't know how to fix that so I learned to sing off pitch.
I didn't care.
I just wanted to learn.
I quit the violin halfway through the sixth grade. Family troubles and the prospect of moving thousands of miles away from the only place I knew had me sick with nerves and out of school more often than I attended. My grades plummeted as my family situation just got worse and worse. By the time I told my teachers that I was no longer going to play the violin, it had become such a burden to show up for lessons after having missed several weeks-worth and falling horribly behind. I didn't know that I was playing wrong notes because I had missed the lessons on the new key was introduced and I was still playing in the key I had learned first. My life needed to be patched up before my soul oozed from the cracks and left an empty shell in my place. It was no time to be promoting a hobby, no matter how lovely.
It was two years before I took up the violin again.
I had outgrown my half sized catallog violin so it was a stoak of luck that we were able to find a private teacher who was also selling a resonably priced instrament. My Suzuki instructor worked with me one on one to improve the techniques I had learned in grade school and how to play out the key sign with my fingering. She also treated me like the five-year olds she generally taught. It wasn't long before I was finding excuses to miss classes.
High school was where I really began to love the violin again. Playing with groups has always been my passion. There's something magical about being a small part of a magnificent whole.
Although I never played anything other than second violin, and there was always someone better than me, I managed to become first chair in my section, Orchestra Vice President, and Chamber Strings President. Sheer determination got me through Mozart, Bach, Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and dozens of other composers. I tried my hardest and practiced every day -- mostly just playing badly over and over again.
I forced myself to master runs and figure out theory that others seemed to get automatically.
Then, high school was over. I packed my violin away before heading off for college and didn't really play much until last year.
Last year I joined the Murray Symphony. They don't require auditions and accept anyone from anywhere. I loved it! But, I realized that in order to really play with a symphony again, I need to work on my technique and sight reading ability. I'm not good enough now, but I am determined to work on my speed, music theory, posture, and fingering to be worthy of playing with such a dedicated group of musicians in the near future.
I'm not really sure where I was going with all of this. Despite practice I'm still pretty terrible at the violin, and my memory is such that I generally need a visual reminder of what chord to play for any song I play, but determination, sore fingers, and a love for learning music has propelled me to a place where I can at least entertain myself for a few hours. My ability to stubbornly stick with things, no matter how difficult, just because I love them, has gotten me into a lot of embarrassing situations over the years. But it's also brought me a lot of unexpected joys. Not the least of these is the remarkable way in which muscle memory keeps me playing my instruments even though my mind has forgotten how it all works.
So, whatever you are struggling with right now -- stick with it and see where it brings you, eventually. Whether it be math, the quest for a healthy relationship with a loved one, cooking, learning a new hobby, or just enjoying some aspect of life, it can all be mastered with time. Things may be very hard, but after a while it gets easier to see that the benefit of sticking with a project far outweighs the relief of quitting in the middle of it all. Believe me, I've done it both ways.