I always wondered how she knew: "You haven't practiced this week..." It was never an accusation, as such. It was a statement of an undisclosed truth. Perhaps it was apparent that I struggled with unfamiliar fingering or else the passage sounded weak and uncertain. Perhaps it was both, I could never be sure. I only knew of the embarrassment I felt when I disappointed my violin teacher.
I started violin lessons with her when I was seven years old. I remember watching her walk down the front path before my first lesson. I had absolutely no understanding of what was to follow. I wish I had known, in the same way I wish I could have been a child prodigy, a three year old, naturally inclined to bang out Beethoven on the piano. But alas, it was never to be.
I still think of those early days with great affection. I was particularly fond of the rounded corn pad that was affixed to my bow, to ensure my right pinky finger was curved and in place. I also liked the yellow dots, splayed across the fingerboard in a seemingly random pattern. I struggled with some things. I was overjoyed when, after so much practice, I actually managed to pluck a string with my left pinky finger. Years later, I was dismayed to discover that this was a completely redundant skill.
I'm sure anyone who's been there knows there is too much to recall: Gussie G-String and Dora D-String, scales, arpeggios, double stops and harmonics. It would be the greatest thrill for her to affix a silver star at the top of the page, next to the title. It would be the greatest compliment for her to pencil a line across a tick, making a cross, indicating that I had mastered the piece and it was time to move on.
There was this definite sense of progression, being introduced to third position and trying to wobble my wrist in a feeble attempt to do vibrato. She'd cry out: "You're doing arm vibrato! That's so much harder to do than wrist vibrato!" I would later struggle with vibrato as a teenage violinist. As contemporaries could produce a heartfelt wobble on cue, I could only ever tense up and move my finger quickly in a small, uneven shake.
I couldn't help but feel guilty, as my teacher continued to investigate all different types of exercises and methods to help with my "vibrato problem". In all my years of playing, all my concerts, recitals, exams and lessons, I never managed to cure that glitch. Perhaps I never practised enough, perhaps my heart just wasn't in it?
But I must have loved it, didn't I? I did, I'm sure I must have. As I glean these recollections, I can't help but wish that my feelings were more resolute. That I absolutely loved everything associated with playing this instrument, that I was naturally inclined to play it and I was obsessed with it, as I am obsessed with analysing popular music. Everything could be conveniently sincere: the adoration of both instrument and teacher would be unequivocal.
When I convince myself that it was all to satisfy the whims of others, I think of Edward Elgar's Chanson de Nuit. It changed everything somehow, my phrasing, my tone, even my vibrato appeared to be more convincing. It took on the guise of being dark and isolated, much like the freedom and the loneliness that comes from staying up all night.
She insisted that everything came together with Chanson de Nuit, she declared that it was "my song". I had always hoped one song, any song would take on that dimension for me. I could never decipher the nature of my motivation to play, just as I could never determine the veracity of my affection for the instrument. Yet, I ultimately managed to pull off something that is far closer to me than any article I've written or any radio I've produced.
Cassettes & Chocolate Milk: Folk Podcast #38
The Anniversary - Sweet Marie
The Decemberists - Here I Dreamt I was an Architect
Okkervil River - Lost Coastlines
Brendan Benson - Emma J
Emma Pollock - If Silence Means That Much To You
Liam Finn - Better to Be
Wheat - I Met a Girl
The Smiths - Back to the Old House
The Raves-Ups - A Girl We All Know
Per Gessle - I Have a Party in My Head (And I Hope It Never Ends)