My violin teacher had one thumb and an open mind; a rich, baritone voice, and a job driving a truck between music lessons. A veteran of public school classrooms, he was willing to take a chance on me, a 42-year-old music novice with a fan-girl’s reverence for the instrument known as the closest thing to the human voice. At least I wouldn’t be a behavior problem.
My husband gave me a violin for Christmas in 2002. He had listened to my wishful thinking for years and had been a captive audience for my disparate collection of violin CDs for at least as long. “I never want you to have a dream you can’t pursue,” he said, after I unwrapped the large package wrapped in Christmas paper. I sawed away at the strings as demonstrated in the video that came with the violin, and everyone cleared the room. I needed a teacher.
Much too old for the Suzuki route, I finally found John through a music education program offered by a church in Little Rock. He was patient, easily amused, and willing to think outside the box when it came to illustrating musical concepts to someone whose want was greater than her ability, John didn’t have much to build on with me, a person whose childhood music lessons included brief flirtations with ukelele and piano, with no lasting skill in either.
The violin is a formidable opponent, its fretless neck offering no clues for where to place one’s fingers. I liked rosining my bow, running the strings through the amber block, for the brief feeling of competence it gave. One day, after weeks of lessons, the notes on my beginner’s sheet music coalesced into sense, telling my fingers where to press on the strings. It was a red letter moment for me. Shocked at making the connection at last, I walked out of the music room and down the hall, twirling my bow in the air like a drum major’s baton, enjoying the feeling of triumph. John watched and smiled. Helen Keller’s teacher couldn’t have been more proud.
I took lessons from John for most of a school year. Although I never became good at playing violin, I got less bad over time. I practiced enough to get a serious crick in my arthritic neck, unkinkable only with the services of a physical therapist. My doctor laughed when I told her how I got injured. On my last lesson with John, he told me he’d taken me as far as he could, but it was time for another teacher to step in. Her credentials were impressive – first chair in a symphony – and I blanched. Okay, I said, doubtfully. “You’ll be fine,” John said. I was less sure. John made learning fun, and a serious teacher might require more commitment.
Full of trepidation, I arrived at my first lesson with the new teacher. She was businesslike yet friendly, gesturing for me to sit in the chair in front of her. “Play me something you know by heart,” she said. I put the violin under my chin and froze, circles of sweat forming under the sleeves of my t-shirt. I could think of nothing. I had nothing. “Play me anything,” the teacher said, encouragingly. Stung by embarrassment, blinking away unexpected tears, I pushed the violin back into its case and apologized. I don’t think I can do this, I said. I won’t be back. The woman demurred briefly, then bade me goodbye. I fled. When I got home, I put the violin in a closet. After weeks of thought and a half hour of tentative, very bad violin playing, I made up my mind, arranging to meet John at a local bookstore for a hand-off. My violin was nicer than John’s, and it was doing no good moldering in a closet. John had students to teach and lives to change, a feat made more feasible with a decent instrument. He wondered if I was sure and suggested I might be giving up too soon. I was grateful for the opportunity to test a dream, I said, and sure of the result.
Years later, after my family moved to a new, one-storey house, I mused aloud over the possibility of taking violin lessons again. My daughters were aghast. “No, Mom!” one said. “At least we lived in a two-storey house when you took lessons before, and we could escape when you played. We don’t have that now!”
I had to laugh, and then I was sure again. Now I indulge my love of violin music strictly through my iPod.
Baked Beans (the Musical Fruit), adapted from a recipe in Southern Accent, published by the Junior League of Pine Bluff, Arkansas (first edition, 1976)
1 large onion, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup catsup
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
6-7 slices of center-cut bacon, partially cooked, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 (15-ounce) cans pork and beans
Preheat oven to 325°F. In a large bowl, combine the diced onion, diced green pepper, brown sugar, catsup, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and bacon. Stir in two cans of pork and beans, mixing well. Lightly coat the inside of a casserole dish or Dutch oven with non-stick spray. Pour in the bean mixture and bake, uncovered, for 2 hours. Serves 6-8.