Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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)

Download (56.6MB)


adam said...

Wrote long comment last night which disappeared, pah. Then it occurred to me that the comment I wrote was actually a story I'd told on one of the pretending podcasts I did last year, and then thought I should really do some more of them. Ah well. Short version? Played brass, good but not serious, left, teacher was a wanker about it, style council to the rescue.

Eleanor said...

Aw, that's a shame! I would have liked to have read it! Still, it's awesome that Paul, Mick, Steve and even DeeCee managed to save you!

Perhaps we should start a Tumblr of scumbag music teachers? Not my violin teacher, obviously... but I have stories that will make your tummy curdle... and rumble!

adam said...

What I really remember is loving lessons when I'd bothered to practice properly and wondering why I didn't do it more, but there was always something else to do...

There's an argument that The Smiths' best song is 'Back to the Old House' on Hatfull of Hollow and their worst song is 'Back to the Old House' on Louder than Bombs.

(Is it something about instrument teachers, rather than music teachers in a wider sense? All the music teachers I've known in schools - when I was a kid and now - have been really lovely).

Eleanor said...

I found frequent practices a real struggle, even though I did both violin and piano for ten years. I did bass guitar for a short time, but I practised so infrequently that my parents actually returned the bass guitar to the school without my realising it...

Oh yes! The Peel session of Back to the Old House far outshines any other! Do you agree?

My favourite music teacher of all time (alongside my violin teacher) was my primary school music teacher. A true inspiration of a woman, penned an entire musical by herself!

Worst had to be my first piano teacher who was absolutely obsessed with "drop rolls" (although neither my brother or myself have ever heard the term anywhere else, ever). As a six year old, I'd walk home CRYING because she'd scolded me so badly. Apparently she was convinced that I was a bit slow...