To get from scratchy tones to smooth waves of music involves a great deal of practice. Yet not all practice yields proper results. Screechy scratchy practice will yield screechy scratchy mastery, and the converse is also true. But over time, if one practices right, screechy scratchy tones give way to pleasant melodies.
It just takes time...
In my case, a fair amount of time.
A rookie like me, then, has to start somewhere. So, I started with scratchy tones, disturbing most of my family by playing at odd hours. Mum claims that my violin sounds like a baby crying, and my sister wears headphones to drown out my playing.
Mum used to read us this story that ends with "try, try until you succeed." I wonder if one tries and tries and simply doesn't succeed. What must he do to succeed then? Try harder? Try smarter? Give up?
After months of playing like a musician overcome by stomach cramps, Mum and the rest of the family were just about ready to throw me out through the window, but miraculously, after somehow blistering my fingers and breaking a couple of strings, I drew my bow and out came a melody.
How odd it is that the smallest successes are often those that provide the most comfort.
And how wonderful it is to finally achieve some small success.
Friday violin lessons were fast becoming something of a routine. Mr L would ring the doorbell at precisely ten o’clock, Mom or Dad (depending on who was present at the given time) would brew him coffee while he tuned the instrument, and I would go over this weeks lesson, pretending to comprehend the notes on the page.
This week, Mr L produces a melancholy snippet after tuning my violin, allowing a sorrowful longing to rise up the living room’s high ceiling. His shoes were flat against the stone tiles, but his soul was floating up with the music.
Satisfied with the tune, he hands me the violin and picks up his cup of coffee.
“What’s his name?”
He meant my violin.
I hadn’t even considered its gender.
“Yes,” Mr L said scandalized, his mouth agape. “He must have a name.”
And why shouldn’t it—he? An instrument, after all, has a soul to its sound. It could emit feelings that were beyond verbal expression. Why shouldn’t it—he—have a name?
“I’ll give you a minute to think,” Mr L took another sip of coffee.
My mind did an uncomfortable free-fall through a rabbit hole of ideas (yes, that’s a thing…a little quirk of mine) until it collided with one too imposing to avoid. Hamish came to mind. There was no explanation—the time for justifications had yet to come—just a name.
“Hamish,” I said decisively—although why I was so decisive was beyond me.
“Hamish?” Mr L repeated, allowing the name to linger on his lips.
“Yes,” I nodded, casting a fond glance at my violin. “Hamish.”
Only four days later did I come up with an origin story.
Late last December, during Christmas break, I became so enamored with Hamish Macbeth—an entirely fictional character.
How could I not have been?
Hamish Macbeth was unambitious and timid, and at some point, my pursuit of this hobby fits into that characterization. Do I expect to play in a great concert hall in front of a crowd of people? No. Not at all. Do I plan to religiously work at the violin for three hours straight every single day? No. Does it mean this cannot be an extraordinary experience? No.
In fact, it may just work the other way around.
A drastic change in character rarely happens all at once. Instead, it goes about like an ant climbing a hill—it doesn’t even see the top. It just keeps climbing, and climbing, and climbing until finally, it arrives at the peak.
I don’t know where this journey shall take me, but I do think Hamish and I will come across an unexpected adventure. Maybe we’re already on it.
Dad nudged my shoulder until I pried my eyes open.
“Don’t you have violin lessons?” he asked.
I nodded, my body still drowsy from sleep.
“It’s nine thirty,” Dad admonished. He shoved me over in an attempt to wake me up. Waking me up was not an easy feat. “Come on, get up.”
My mind obeyed his request, but my body was not as eager. When I finally extracted myself from bed, my mind was a ticking time bomb filled with doubt. What if I was complete rubbish? What if my tutor thought I was rubbish? What have I gotten myself into?
When my violin teacher arrived, I had just emerged from the shower. I’d attempted to scrub away the apprehensions I had woken with, but all that came off was dead skin and dirt.
He will hence forth be known to this blog as Mr L.
I grabbed my violin and raced down the stairs.
Mr L sat on the couch with a slight hunch that could have been mistaken as a slouch. His legs, wrapped in loose slacks, were crossed. His thin hair was gelled back neatly, and when he smiled, his eyes wrinkled behind his rectangular spectacles.
“Hi,” he said mildly, standing to extend a veiny hand.“You must be Danielle.”
“Yes sir,” I shook his hand and noted that he just about matched my height. “You must be Mr L.”
He took the delicate instrument from its black casing, releasing the sweet woody smell of rosin in the process, and began plucking the strings. Creases formed between his brow. It was so off tune. After turning the pegs a few times, Mr L ceased plucking and wedged the violin under his chin. He drew the bow across the strings, creating a rich melody that reminded me of honey. I stood before him in awe, my eyes wide as his fingers pranced across the fingerboard with ease. He varied his pace until he was playing a quirky tune that resembled the theme song of BBC’s Sherlock.
Satisfied, Mr L lowered the bow.
“It has a nice sound,” he remarked, lifting his chin from the chin rest ever so slightly. “Not brilliant, but it has a nice sound. You’re lucky to have it.”
Pride filled my chest. My violin (although brandless and China made) had a nice sound.
We chattered for a few minutes, as new acquaintances often do, before he set the instrument gently on the coffee table and took a clear book from his leather bag.
“For our first lesson,” he said gently, “repeat after me. I.”
“I,” I said, straightening my back and allowing the words to roll of my tongue.
“Must never ever,” he clasped his hands behind his back.
“Must never ever.”
“Rest a violin.”
“Rest a violin.”
“On a seat.”
So much for BBC’s Sherlock, I thought to myself before repeating, “On a seat.”
“Lest anyone sit on it.”
“Lest anyone sit on it.”
Reciting it felt like being inducted into an exclusive brotherhood. Part of me was tempted to ‘solemnly swear I was up to no good,’ but my sensibilities reminded me to tone down my internal abnormal.
“Alright,” he clapped his hands and handed me a book. “Hold this between your right thumb and middle finger…”
“Is this for the bow, Mr L?” I asked, taking the book by two fingers, and holding it away from me as if it were poisoned.
“Why, yes, yes, it is,” he said, his smile widening.
While we tackled the different finger positions, Mr L told comical anecdotes.
“If you ever go to Italy,” he said, “buy a violin. If you go to France, buy a bow.
“I once had a student who went to France and bought a violin, and then to Italy and bought a bow,” he shook his head and chuckled before instructing me to prop the violin underneath my chin. “Let’s proceed to playing notes.”
My hands dampened at the thought of reading notes. Though we’d learned all about it as far back as grade school, I could never make sense of the blackened little circles on music sheets. Here Mr L proved an excellent tutor. He related the notes with finger positions from zero to four, making it easier for me to comprehend the spots on the page.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lesson was not as technical as I feared. In fact, the experience was enjoyable. There was a unique sort of elegance to learning the violin. It was like a brook of piney water flowing gently down a mossy bank.
The designated hour elapsed too soon, but it was time to part. Mr L packed up his clear book and I paid him his dues. Mom, cued by the sudden absence of scratching strings, emerged from the kitchen with a smile. The two adults engaged each other in lively conversation.
“How often should she be practicing?” Mom asked, eyeing me like a hawk.
“Twenty minutes in the morning, and twenty in the evening would be best,” he said, standing.
“You’d better practice,” Mom joked.
I accompanied him to the door, and watched his figure disappear down the street.
Perhaps I should learn the theme song to Sherlock.
Although, that would be getting ahead of myself.
I fiddled with my seatbelt as Mich pulled out of the tight parking space. The streetlights flickered, causing the near empty street to take on an orange glow.
Mich had found this cozy parking slot someways past her campus, but the main road was not as pleasant. When we turned the corner, we found ourselves caught in a wide net of cars, all too eager for the stoplight to turn green.
“I don’t know what exactly I like about it,” I said, fixing my eyes on the dashboard, and dropping my hands to my lap. I bit my lip and tried to ignore the boys’ animated conversation in the backseat. “I just find the violin enchanting.” I gave her a quick glance in an attempt to read her expression.
She held the steering wheel lightly, listening intently even as she drove. “Well, you never know, maybe God’s put that desire in you for a reason.”
For what purpose He had done so (whether or not He had done so still proves a mystery to me) was beyond me. Too many nights had I laid under the covers pondering Mich’s statement. I wondered whether my motivation was simply a fleeting fancy. Perhaps I had romanticized the idea of the task in my head, choosing to ignore the difficulties of learning an instrument at such a late age. Perhaps my attempt at the violin was a fool’s endeavor, even when pursued merely as a hobby. Perhaps I'd been unduly influenced by Sherlock Holmes, who, unlike myself, was a genius of sorts.
Despite my reservations, the itch to produce an illustrious melody did not fade. In fact, I scoured the internet, searching for violin teachers in a desperate attempt to turn my dream into a reality.
Three nights ago, I asked Dad about it right before he left the house.
“Why don’t you just learn how to play the harmonica?” he replied candidly. My brother threw his head back in laughter. I threw my hands into the air. That wasn’t a proper answer.
I’ve lived with Dad for almost nineteen years, but there are still times when I can’t distinguish his tone. I hoped he was joking.
Dad poked his head into my room later that night, commanding me to go to bed. I jumped at the opportunity.
“Dad, about the violin lessons…”
“Yeah?” he feigned ignorance. I silently prayed for a miracle.
“Will you allow me to go through with it?”
I examined Dad’s face in the dark.
He wrinkled his features, squinting at me. “You’re going to disturb the whole house with your violin?”
“I won’t play at night,” I offered.
For a moment, he winced, and I was certain he would say no. I did, after all, posses a fickle mind, subject to strange whims and urges. I resigned myself to my fate. Then, he turned thoughtful.
“If you can’t play something decent within a month, then forget about continuing.”
My spirit soared. Dad had given his implied permission! There was still the matter of the fine print, but it was a necessary brushstroke in the greater masterpiece. He only wanted decent progress, as any parent would. Whether or not I could fulfill his condition, I would see when the time came.
That time would come at precisely ten o’clock tomorrow.
I can hardly contain myself.