No. 20: My Violin

Artist: Unknown
Title: Violin
Date: 1950s?
Culture: American
Provenance: Handed down to EAH via her mother and grandfather.

At the back of my closet, hidden behind a curtain of long-unworn dresses, is a brown-canvas violin case with a worn leather handle. The violin has schlepped with me to each of the thirteen residences I’ve had since college, not finding much use I’m sad to say but settling in among the dust bunnies and only rarely–once in a blue moon–coming out to sing. This is the violin I played on nearly every day for most of my adolescence, and so the seemingly drab brown case is as evocative as a brightly colored tapestry to me.

The violin itself is beautiful but not especially nice. I found it in my grandfather’s basement when I was about thirteen and needed to move up to a full-size violin. It had been my mom’s, briefly, when she had toyed with learning the violin in junior high school. Ever the sentimentalist, I loved the idea of using a long-forgotten heirloom violin. That I found it among the cobwebs in my grandfather’s basement gave it a Nancy Drew kind of mystery and I loved it all the more. Although my mom was skeptical of its quality, she assured me it was fine for me to have it if I wanted it, and we took it to a violin shop to get it spiffed up.

The violin was a central feature of my childhood and adolescence, introducing me to a beloved and eccentric cast of teachers and defining my otherwise unremarkable public school days with beauty and interest. Like most things from childhood, I took the violin for granted, and as it faded out of my life in college, I didn’t even realize how much I had lost.

My parents signed me up for Suzuki lessons affiliated with my school when I was seven. I slowly squeaked my way into competence, and eventually became quite good. My first teacher was a woman who smelled of perfume and gave me candy rewards. Later, when my family moved back to Moscow for a few years, I had weekly lessons with a Russian woman who spoke almost no English. Since I spoke virtually no Russian, lessons were exercises in pantomime and frustration more than in music, so my progress was minimal. When we returned to Illinois, I took lessons at our church with a beautiful violinist who wore her hair on top of her head in a massive gray bun. Then, when we moved to a neighboring town, I had another teacher who was eccentric and volatile and shouted a lot. Her house smelled strongly of cigarettes and she moonlighted as an astrologer of some sort. She took great pains to mark up my music with her special bow strokes and other notations and made me memorize the music, claiming that reading the music was distracting from the actual playing of the music. I dreaded every lesson, but she made me a truly good violinist. It helped that I also was socially unhappy and so spent much of my free time practicing at my mother’s baby grand piano. I gained a confidence and aptitude I’d never had before, and it was during this period that I learned what a transcendent and magical thing it is to play a musical instrument well.

By the time high school started, I had moved back to the town with the teacher who wore her hair in a bun. She was a good teacher, but nobody could quite compare to the intense woman who’d made me shine in middle school. Plus, I wasn’t socially miserable anymore. I’d found a group of friends and I liked to go to Friday sporting events and parties. I had a new crush every week and liked to drive around town with older kids who had their own cars. The violin got pushed aside. Soon, around the same time that I quit ballet lessons, trading in my point shoes for dance-team pompoms, I decided I didn’t have time for private violin lessons anymore.

Thankfully, the violin remained a huge part of my life at school. Since middle school, orchestra had been a central part of my education, not only in my daily schedule but in my extracurriculars too. We would take semi-yearly trips to meet up with other school orchestras, practicing as a large group and putting on performances. I remember catching school buses early in the morning, violin, folding music stand, and junk food in tow, and heading to neighboring towns where we’d put in grueling but intensely rewarding days of practice. We would take field trips to the mall and the park to put on performances of Christmas music. My high school orchestra teacher arranged weekly lunchtime trips to nursing homes and the like. I loved the excuse of getting away from the school building. It was liberating and fun. The music I played on my violin was, of course, central to this experience, but I hardly noticed it.

The summer after graduating from high school, my orchestra teacher hired me to work at a music camp for little kids. I taught small groups of kids basic violin techniques, and I helped tune violins when the kids gathered in a large group. It’s funny looking back, I wasn’t nervous in the slightest for this job even though I’m always nervous in a new job. It felt natural and I enjoyed it, and if I’d had anything to compare it to I might have taken note. But when the camp was over, I put my violin away and never played it again in any serious way. It slipped out of my life in that quiet and devastating way of things from our youths.

My violin case still holds a few odds and ends that speak of that time in my life. The chin rest is still there, ready to be put underneath the violin. There are a few blocks of crumbling rosin and a small mute, for creating a more muffled sound. The peg on the G string was always loose and so it’s hard to keep that string in tune. But the violin is playable and I have been known from time to time to pull it out and revisit some of the easier pieces I used to play. Even after all these years, the basics come back to me automatically. I don’t have to think about it too much. The first time I did this, before I had kids and thus had the leisure of spending a good chunk of time playing, I realized what a gift my parents had given me by making me learn the violin, for there is nothing else I have done in my life that compares to playing music. Nothing. There is no equivalent to the joy and satisfaction of playing the violin.

And so when I see the case in the back of my closet, I feel such a mixture of things–gratitude, loss, regret–but I also feel a sliver of hope. Maybe some day I’ll get that peg for the G string fixed and get some new strings and a new block of rosin. Maybe I’ll find a group where I can play some day in my dotage. I’ll return to my adolescent roots and find a way to make the violin a part of my daily routine. This time, I won’t take it for granted.


4 thoughts on “No. 20: My Violin

  1. Oh, Ellen, we have so many wonderful memories of you while you were in Decatur and Champaign! And, yes, that violin, and we got to go to at least one of your concerts. We so loved having you in our neighborhood and with your Mom and with your Grandpa for a while, and it was a magical time for all of us really, despite some of the trying times! I think of you with your friends, sitting talking with Grandpa, with us out to eat some Friday nights, at your home on the park, and all the meals we shared together at your home, our home, Grandpa’s house, and Aunt Judy’s and Lynn’s. I am so grateful you learned to love the violin and that it still brings you so many wonderful memories and solace, too. I so wish I’d learned to play a musical instrument.
    You write so beautifully. I read this out loud to Uncle Dode, and he plans to write to you, too.
    Thank you for continuing to write. You really know how to express yourself! Sending hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ellen, I remember you to be a very talented violinist and I hope you do take it up again and play in the future. Playing an instrument not only makes us well rounded, but provides a type of therapy for one’s self. I didn’t know the violin you had was once your mom’s violin. I learn so much reading your wonderful stories. Thank you for that!


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