Tag Archives: musical instrument

Off With Her Fingernails!

Just as well my violin teacher is nice. After all, if she was anything like the Queen of Hearts, she would’ve cut my fingernails off with a guillotine weeks ago. Too bad if she also took off my fingertips! The Queen of Hearts doesn’t care about little details like that! If you refuse to cut your own nails, you pay the price.

All this is rather new to me. Although I am heading down the other side of 40+, I’ve only been playing the violin for a few years. Indeed, I only took it up after sitting in on my 5 year old daughter’s lessons. After she quit mid-term, I kept going. That was four years ago.

What nobody tells you about taking up an instrument is that so many of them require you to cut your nails. Seriously, cut your nails so there’s no clicketty clack all over the piano keys and if you’re playing any stringed instrument, so you can play the notes. Trust me! You want to play in tune and that means no nails. Not even the hint of a fingernail.

There is no middle ground.

So, even if you’re half-serious about playing the violin, you need short nails…especially on your left hand. It’s the same with the guitar.

That’s just the price you have to pay.

When you‘re a serious musician, you don’t even think about cutting off all those precious fingernails. No regrets. You just want to make music.

Of course, if you have crappy nails, it doesn’t matter either. You have nothing to lose.

However, when you finally have beautiful, long, strong nails for the very first time in your life, you hang onto them for as long as you possibly can. Cutting them off almost feels like murder.

So, despite being back at violin lessons for three weeks, I still haven’t trimmed my nails. I’m still hanging on!

It’s not that I’m vain or even fancy myself as a bit of a Princess. I’d just like to pretend I was Sweet 16 again. Be pretty!

Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that?!!

Yet, there comes that point where things no longer compute. You can’t call yourself a violinist when you can’t hit a note and you’re playing out of tune.

When your violin is how your express the inner beatings of your heart and those notes are infused with such emotion, even the best set of fingernails can’t stand in the way forever. They have to go. They might look good but if you’ve ever heard fingernails scraping down a blackboard, you know they can’t sing!

However, while I can sort of justify the long nails and dreadful playing to myself, it’s quite another thing to face up for yet another lesson with super long nails and painful playing. After all, I’m paying for these lessons and they don’t come cheap.

Either I shape up, or I ship out.

Deferring the inevitable only makes it worse.

So, it’s off with my nails!

If only that’s all it took to make it all the way to the Opera House!

xx Rowena

 

Perseverance

When it comes to endurance, perseverance and overcoming hurdles, I’d never put learning the violin in the same category as marathon running but that’s all changed.

As much as I love my violin, it is also hard work, endurance, perseverance. Never giving up.

Just like new babies look so sweet but makes some truly dreadful sounds, my violin also has its own theme and variations of the “witching hour” something akin to a Tom cat howling at the moon while being grabbed by the throat.

Two years ago, I took up the violin by default. I’d had no dreams, aspirations or even vague thoughts of taking up an instrument midlife. I didn’t like music. Didn’t even listen to music. I was a writer, a photographer and music interfered with my thoughts. It was at best distracting but mostly annoying. Turn it down. Switch it off. Although much of my family is incredibly and even professionally musical, I was musically stunted…the runt…despite many, many years of piano lessons.

That said, despite my best effects, I can still play the first page of Moonlight Sonata and play it whenever I visited my parents on their Steinway grand piano (the piano of serious pianists!)

Anyway, my daughter has always shown a strong love of music and when she started school, the big moment of choosing an instrument finally came. I was all set for her to start off on the piano but she wanted to learn violin. Was quite insistant on the violin. I wondered if she felt some kind of special connection with it and decided, against my own council, to let her have a go.

When we arrived at her lesson, the teacher said I could sit in and it soon became apparent that I needed to be more than just a taxi driver. She needed hands on encouragement. We pulled Geoff’s grandfather’s violin out of the cupboard and I joined in on her lessons.   I didn’t know it at the time but Suzuki actually believed the mother should learn the violin first in order to encourage the child and I was unknowingly following in his footsteps.

I actually had some background with the violin. My brother had learned Suzuki violin for many years and had actually performed at the Opera House a number of times at annual concerts. I had learned for a couple of terms but had abandoned violin in disgust when I couldn’t hold the bow properly. So whilst I couldn’t remember much about playing the violin, I wasn’t a rank beginner and could actually help.

Miss and I practiced well together through term one but after not practicing during the holidays, she sounded terrible when we went back to lessons. She had a few colossal meltdowns and I decided to keep her spot warm until she was fit to return. I never doubted her love for the violin. She just needed a bit of a break.

Another term went by and by this stage, I had fallen in love with the violin, despite all its quirks and difficulties. I read that it took 10,000 hours of practice to become a concert violinist and worked out that it would take something like 28 years at one hour a day and I joked about making my concert debut at the Opera House using a walking frame.

Playing my violin at the Cape Byron Lighthouse, Byron Bay

Playing my violin at the Cape Byron Lighthouse, Byron Bay

Meanwhile, our musical school put together a violin ensemble and we performed at the end of year concert at Lizotte’s, a local rock n’ roll venue. January, I packed up my violin when we headed to Byron Bay and had Geoff photograph me playing outside the iconic Byron Bay Lighthouse. Well, I wasn’t actually playing. Just posing. I wanted the shot.

While I still had my heart set on my debut as a concert violinist, I first had to sit for my preliminary exam. This is the first and most basic exam and to be perfectly honest, you usually sit for your preliminary exam at the tender age of something like 5 maybe 6 years old…not 44! To further put the pressure on, I had scored an A in my preliminary piano exam when I was around that age and I couldn’t recall doing a lot of practice. Therefore, logic argued that I should easily score an A as a more mature violinist who had actually bothered to practice. That is practice for at least 30 minutes every day and not just under duress.

However, as I said, the violin’s middle name is perseverance. While preliminary should have been easy, a piece of cake and my “A” almost automatic, it was actually hard work. I really struggled to get a true and pure sound without even the faintest squeak creeping in. In a real act of contrariness, my violin would play two strings when I only wanted to play one but when I was trying to play two strings simultaneously for double stops, I would only play one. Infuriating!

We all know how easily love can turn to hate…

Yet, at the same time, my violin was teaching me so much more than just how to make music. It was teaching me how to stick at something I found difficult and to keep practicing and practising until I got it right, instead of simply giving up at the first sign of trouble. That was a huge leap forward for me. When I couldn’t do something in the past, I’d simply say it wasn’t me and give up. “I couldn’t do it” but now I had the example that if I really wanted to do something and if I put the hours in, I could probably do it or perhaps I could find around my hurdles.

Here I am skiing at Perisher.

Here I am skiing at Perisher.

I really put this into action on the ski slopes when I found the whole skiing experience quite overwhelming. I remember sitting on the chairlift which I really, really loved wondering why I was putting myself through the stress of learning how to ski when sitting on the chairlift was so much fun and so effortless. Yet, at the same time, I found the challenge invigorating and it was great to learn a new skill and improve. As I was tackling the mountain, I reflected on how perseverance and practice had worked for the violin and these principles would also apply to skiing. I had private lessons with my instructor and practiced inbetween and I really started to improve. I become a skier. I was immensely proud and when we arrived home, I was really chuffed to hear my son tell the Deputy Principal that Mummy had gone skiing even though she was afraid. That hopeful told him volumes.

Getting back to my violin, I was working towards my exam and the end of year concert when I developed pneumonia and spent 3 weeks in bed. No practice. My auto-immune disease had also flared up and I lacked the muscle strength to hold up my violin. The first day I returned to ensemble practice, I made a zillion mistakes and it sounded like cat claws traversing the strings. It was disgusting and soul destroying. I wondered whether it was all just too hard. That trying to learn the violin while battling a life-threatening illness was all too much. Was I pushing myself too hard? Should I just relax and fall into the easy chair and stop?

You know what it’s like when you’re down on the ground and you are facing that fork in the road. Should I keep fighting or just quietly let go of the dream?

I didn’t know.

My Dad mentioned something about it being good to have goals but what was the point if I couldn’t breathe?

He had a point.

I was still coughing and coughing and coughing…the pneumonia leaving a nasty legacy.

Still, I was slowly improving. Practicing again and as yet, we hadn’t received any notification of my exam date. That probably meant I had a good 3-4 weeks of practice up my sleeve.

I hadn’t given up yet.

Then the date arrived and I was scheduled to be at the AMEB offices in Sydney at 9.15am. I live about 2 hours away and I couldn’t see how I was going to get there. While this could have been a sign to withdraw, instead I wrote a letter asking for my exam to be moved to Gosford. Mentioned my health and disability issues and was given special consideration and my time moved to 2.55PM. After this kindness, I felt I had to front up…even if I failed!

I found an accompanist.

It was on.

My violin and I caught the train down to Sydney and I had lunch in the park watching the Ibis prey upon hapless office workers. As much as I love my trips to Sydney, I couldn’t relax.

I turned up to my exam half an hour early. There is a practice room but apparently this is only for tuning your instrument. I had left home early so I could warm up and I needed at least a thirty minute practice beforehand. My body doesn’t work well at the best of times.

A selfie of me playing my violin in the bus shelter, Sydney.

A selfie of me playing my violin in the bus shelter, Sydney.

My violin and I exited stage left. There we were on Clarence Street in the heart of Sydney looking for somewhere, anywhere, that I could practice my violin with even just a modicum of privacy. Office workers were rushing back and forwards and lanes of traffic crawled past. I investigated a few brick walls outside a couple of pubs but then spotted the bus shelter outside the AMEB building and set myself up. I know that any decent musician would have been too self-conscious to play but I was desperate. I had to get my fingers moving. My teacher had emphasised long, smooth bow strokes and I tried to picture her long, flowing blond hair moving slowly through the water like a mermaid. It seemed to work, even surprising myself. I was quite impressed and thought that at last I had finally “got it”.

Not on your life. I wasn’t overly nervous about the exam but at the same time, I knew I made many mistakes. I just wasn’t comfortable and that’s the hard thing about the violin. When you stiffen up, your bowing goes jerky. Your fingers don’t move properly and I was mixing up C and C sharp. I just wanted to escape.

I told my teacher that I thought I’d got a C but harboured fears that there was also scope for a D.

Fortunately, the results were due out after Christmas and so I could get through Christmas lunch and not feel I’d brought total disrepute on the family. I was always so proud of my goals and so determined to achieve them but what with the pneumonia and my auto-immune disease playing up, I figured that it was okay to fail. Walk away. Focus on my writing. Be a writer. After all, that’s who and what I really am. The violin was only second fiddle and certainly not worth dying for.

Well, the results didn’t wait until after Christmas. I received a very nice, very surprising early Christmas present…an A! I couldn’t believe it and re-read my teacher’s email several times before I believed it.

Perseverance did pay off after all!

I’m a violinist!

Sowing the Seeds of Love

This morning our family, all four of us, played the violin together for the very first time. It was an incredible experience. Not because we were any good. We weren’t but that wasn’t the point. The important thing was that we were doing it together. While I had carefully prepared the soil, we were all planting the golden seed. I have to admit that this seed didn’t come nicely labelled in a packet so we have no idea what it might grow into. Yet, we’ve planted it in good soil with plenty of sunshine and must remember to water it. Even the most robust seeds need a bit of TLC to thrive.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

While I have no idea what this tiny seed will become, I’m sure that it’s the start of something beautiful that could take an entire lifetime to grow. It might have nothing to do with the violin but that seed will know what it means to be nurtured, loved and given the best opportunity to reach its awesome potential. Isn’t that all that really matters in the end?!!

The family playing violin

The family playing violin

This morning was also Geoff and Mister’s first real official violin lesson. You see, Miss and I play the violin together while Geoff and Mister play the guitar. Mister has been learning the guitar for about a year.  He is steadily improving and can now play Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars. Last year, he actually won the Junior Enthusiasm Award at the music school. He’s slowly but steadily improving and  is now starting to have a bit of fun. The other night, he said: “I was born to play guitar.” That might be a fleeting thing but it was great to see him so happy!! He had found himself…at least for the moment.

While the guitar might be his instrument, he has also expressed a keen interest in my violin, which is hardly surprising given my own unbridled enthusiasm. I practice for at least an hour most days and I now think and breathe the violin along with writing, of course! He has seen me start out as a scratchy beginner and improve and has been very encouraging throughout this process. He has also picked up my violin and had a go himself. Impressively, it didn’t squeak and seemed to like him, which is quite unusual for a violin. They can be very anti-social at times!

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

It’s been quite difficult to know quite how to respond to Mister’s interest in the violin. Whether to encourage it by buying him a violin and giving him a few simple lessons myself or whether to keep him firmly focused on his guitar at this early stage. Learning the guitar is hard enough and the violin is known for being a notoriously difficult instrument. Naturally, I didn’t want him to fail.

Miss cuddling her new violin. I'd found someone selling two Stentor II violins on Ebay.

Miss cuddling her new violin. I’d found someone selling two Stentor II violins on Ebay.

At the same time, I sensed Mister was feeling a bit left out. While he practices his guitar with his Dad, Geoff often gets home too late from work, which has left Mister to practice on his own while Miss and I play our violins together. He could see how much I love the violin and that I was sharing my passion with his sister and he wasn’t a part of that. Sure, we have listened to him play his guitar and have even danced along but it wasn’t the same. I wanted him to feel more included but I didn’t want to overwhelm him either.

Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!

Some might describe me as a pushy, ambitious mother trying to fulfil my own failed dreams through my kids. I certainly encourage the kids with their music but playing the violin was never my dream. It wasn’t even on my radar. Rather, it was my daughter’s dream and somehow the violin chose me. I had no intention whatsoever of even learning an instrument or doing anything vaguely musical. I wasn’t into music and didn’t even listen to music unless I was driving. Writing is my thing and I prefer to write in complete silence so music and I were pretty much incompatible. Or so I thought.

Mister playing his new violin

Mister playing his new violin

In the end, as crazy as it seemed, I asked Mister if he would like his own violin. He was really excited about it, especially when I was bidding on ebay and those final minutes were counting down. He really wanted his own violin and couldn’t wait to play it!!

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Well, the violin arrived yesterday and we decided to have a “jam”.

As we all know, doing things as a family can be fraught with disaster as all our best intentions crumble into an all out brawl.

Violins can also be very badly behaved.

Moreover, I don’t know anyone who has successfully taught their own children a musical instrument and everyone tells you never to learn an instrument from your partner or spouse. It’s doomed to fail just like learning to drive! So who do I think I am? What makes me think I can succeed where others with so much more experience have failed?

Yes, I know I’m a dreamer but sometimes your dreams can actually come true and for us, even for this brief moment in time, the impossible happened. The four of us played the violin almost together and it was a truly beautiful thing.   I’m not quite sure whether you’d call our experience an adventure, an experiment or simply having a go.  It’s too early to tell but it was good. The biggest problem was trying to fit us all in the lounge room. Bowing takes up quite a lot of space.

I went through the names of all of the strings and how to hold the violin and then we got started on a very basic tune. Mister’s violin doesn’t have the dots on it so we were limited to the open strings. That was good because we all need to learn in small, manageable steps, even when we’re trying to catch up to our little sister! He played well without any screeches or playing two strings at the same time, although his bow did stray diagonally across the strings and he was struggling to work out where to put his chin.  With the violin, you not only have to struggle to produce a decent sound, you also have to learn how to stand, how hold your violin, where to put your fingers and how to hold your bow. Nevertheless, Mister was concentrating deeply and I could see the violin was speaking to him. I was just intrigued about what it was saying.

Meanwhile, Geoff was starting to play Silent Night by ear on his first lesson. He seems to be a very promising pupil!

Geoff playing the violin.

Geoff playing the violin.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

By the way, Geoff and the kids gave me my first Minecraft lesson on the iPad after our violin lesson. That’s an entirely different language but I’m giving it a go.

 I can’t help wondering where this journey will take us. It certainly feels like we have chosen Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken and so far the risks have paid off. It will be interesting to see what will become of this seed and how this journey will make a difference.

Actually, I suspect that it already has.

Update 24th February,2013

Our little family quartet is steadily improving after what’s now been 4 family practice sessions. We are now getting started on Suzuki Book 1 and playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations. I know this is just the very beginning but to pull this off, well to be honest almost pull it off as a family, is beyond my wildest dreams. It encourages me to believe that almost anything is possible.

Keeping in mind that Geoff and Mister play guitar together, Geoff made these comments after our jam session today:

“We’re doing well for something deficient on strings and particularly frets.”

Mister says he’s enjoying playing two instruments.

The dog even hung around for today’s performance. We must be sounding better!

xx Rowena

 

Jonathon smiling during practice tonight. He looked so happy.

Mister smiling during practice tonight. He was really enjoying himself.