Learning to Play the Violin
While writing about my own musical cambrian explosion, it reminded me of my first year learning the viola and violin. In primary school, around grade 4, we were asked to pick an instrument to learn. Nudged by my parents towards a string instrument, I chose the violin. I seem to recall choosing it because it was light and easily portable, rather than say a cello or string bass. A decision strongly influenced out of laziness and realizing I’d have to bring it home to practice every night. I still remember Mr Boyle, the orchestra conductor and teacher. He seemed impossibly old, had a bad combover, and was amazing with every stringed instrument in the room. I only remember two other kids in the room, all of us sort reluctantly there because of our parents and trying to figure out what we’re going to do as a group. We pick up the voilins, prop it under our chins, mess around with fit and chin position, and then put the bow in our left hand and start learning the basic notes. I was horrible. I couldn’t get it, no matter how much I practiced, it was as described, “mechanical”. This seemed to greatly disappoint Mr Boyle, and garner the furtive glances of the other virtuosos in my group. I fell further and further behind the group. Of course, being primary school kids, they teased me ruthlessly about it.
It was probably a month or so into lessons, twice a week, with 7-day practice schedules, that I said something along the lines of “it doesn’t feel right”. I remember Mr Boyle giving me a long hard stare, in reality, probably five seconds, before he asked, “what do you mean?” I picked up the violin with my left hand and put it under my chin and put the bow in my right hand, and said, “this feels right, but I don’t why.” I remember his face looking quizzically at this arrangement. The strings were all wrong in this instance, and everything seemed backwards to him. He “corrected” me and put the violin in my right hand and bow back in my left and said something along the lines that this was the correct position. I just resigned to be horrible and kept at it, mechanical playing and all.
It gets worse
The next week he came in with a viola and asked me perhaps this was more suited for me. I picked it up as I did the violin and everything instantly sounded wrong. The highs were low, the lows were high, and the bowing was completely wrong. Mr Boyle just smiled, “try what feels right.” It took me a second to realize what he meant, and I swapped to my left hand and side of my chin, and bow in the right hand. I struggled with the notes, since my right hand had been learning the positions. Within a week, I had caught up to the others in the group. Practicing was now fun. I sounded like I was playing real music, albeit at an elementary level. All holiday break I practiced, re-learning all of the notes, the melodies, the songs we were supposed to know by now. Early January, we’re back in school and it was music day.
Mr Boyle asked everyone to play something they learned over the holiday break. The other two went first, and then came my turn. I was so nervous that I wasn’t perfect, and messed up the song, which just increased my frustration, which caused more mistakes, and into a downward spiral I went. My Boyle stopped me, told me to take a breath, and suggested we do some scales to practice as a group. After a few dozen scales, he asked me to play something from memory, forget the sheet music. I don’t remember what I played, it would be something simple like “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. I do remember the other two kids staring at me, mouths agape, and Mr. Boyle had a tear coming out of his eye. He then grabbed his violin and asked me to repeat what he played. I figured I completely screwed up and this was the end of my career as a world famous violinist (viola-ist?). I remember concentrating very, very hard and playing back exactly what he played, the notes, the tenor, the timing, everything as best I could.
After a decade of this, ok, probably like 10 minutes, he stopped and asked, “What do you do when you read the music?” I told him I read note to note and read about one note ahead to make sure i didn’t get it wrong. He asked one of the other kids the same question, they read the entire line and tried to play the notes a row at a time. Holy crap, not only do I suck at playing, I can’t evern read the music correctly (clearly these memories are like scars for life which is why I remember them so well). He then asked one of the kids to repeat what he played. Neither could do it very well, but they could read the music and match him pretty well. He came over to me and said, “not only are you a lefty, and you can’t read music, but you can sure play by ear!”
I ended up taking private lessons with him, because he called my parents and told them I was musically gifted. The speed with which I learned new songs by ear alone, and how I could emulate various playing styles, meant I had great musical potential. This carried on to the cello, saxophone, tuba, string bass, electric bass, various drum sets, and sousaphone.
At some point, I moved on to the cello, again nudged by my parents. Let me tell you, being a scrawny middle-schooler lugging a cello back and forth to school feels like the burdens of Atlas at that age, plus I was a walker to school, so no bus for me. I still can’t read music very well, but if I listen to how it sounds a few times, I can mostly get it right when playing it myself. I made All-State Orchestra and competed around the state in orchestra competitions. I played String Bass as well for variety. We competed in national competitions and won a trip to Montreal, too. And then came playing in high school bands; mostly drums and electric bass.
I’ve found throughout most of my life, doing what feels right and having a focus on learning and trying new things will get you far.
The best way to predict your future is to create it.