When I was in sixth grade I decided I wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument. I came from a very musical family. My father played clarinet and saxophone. My older sister played clarinet. I’m pretty sure all my younger brothers and sisters attempted to learn an instrument as well, everything from flutes, to trombones, to trumpets were screeched around our house at one time or another… or all at once. I don’t think anyone tried to learn a string instrument though, just me.
The reason I chose a string instrument to learn is because they didn’t participate in band at Holy Name School, were I was incarcerated at the time. Early in the fall, Sister Mary Mother of God, our assigned despot, gave the sixth grade class a test to determine if we had “musical ability.” I don’t remember what the test consisted of, but I managed, along with a handful of other kids, to show some level of perceived ability to learn a musical instrument. I wasn’t forced, but instead, was given the opportunity to stay after school three days a week and give it a go.
Next I was given the task of quickly choosing an instrument with which to apply my inherent musical ability. The cello was too big to haul around I figured, as was surely the bass fiddle, this left the violin or the viola. I chose the violin, because of its easy portability. I had really wanted to learn the trumpet because my musical hero at the time was Herb Alpert. “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.” Remember them? But, although I discovered rather quickly that trumpets actually were in an orchestra, I was not given the option of learning that instrument at Holy Name.
Now I had to convince my father that I really wanted to play a sissy-ass violin. I know, I know, maybe it’s not really a sissy-ass instrument anymore, but playing the violin in the kid universe I was living in, was almost as bad as wanting to be a ballet dancer. I mean, carrying a violin case into a football locker room could lead to an instant altercation.
Amazingly it didn’t take all that much to convince my Dad that I wanted to be a violinist. I think he was just happy that I wanted to learn an instrument. My father produced a used violin within a few days. Through his musical connections in our small town he provided me with a violin that had a visible crack down the front. The edges on front and back were inlay-ed with mother of pearl. Inside the violin through the scrolled cutout you could see a tag that showed the instrument had been repaired by Ira Bullick, New York, New York, in 1915. The best part was that the violin was in a rectangular case that looked a lot like a trumpet case.
For the next few weeks, me and three other violin neophytes, squeaked out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in the sixth grade classroom after everyone else had already gone home and was busy with baseball, riding their bikes, playing hide and seek, or some other fun after school activity. We were learning what finger placements matched what note on the page. Four weeks in, one of the neophytes didn’t show up anymore, so it was just the three of us. “Practice” was the new dogma. You had to practice at least one hour every day. If you didn’t, it was assured that you would never learn this instrument, and just as assured that Mr. Wheeler would know that we weren’t practicing. So, now you were stuck up in your room with the door closed for an hour every night on top of everything else. And after a month, you still couldn’t play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” worth a damn. At least I couldn’t.
We were finally given a piece of music from none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. I don’t remember the piece, but it was from some symphony or another, I’m sure, and it was such a blessed change from the nursery melodies we’d been playing, that we delved in with earnest. We learned new finger placements like sharps and flats, whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. Two weeks later we were told to meet on Friday, after school, in the Central Junior High auditorium to practice with the orchestra. We had arrived.
I can still remember the first time I sat in that full orchestra and screeched out the part I had been rehearsing. It sounded amazing. A full orchestra, squeaky and out of tune that it was, each group of instruments playing their own part, resonating throughout the empty auditorium. It sounded so much better than a classroom with three squawking violins.
Every time I hear orchestra music now, I flash back to that Friday afternoon, Mr. Wheeler thrusting his hands up and down, his baton in one hand, pointing at sections of the orchestra with it as their parts came up. Thank god you couldn’t hear me over the other more accomplished violinists, violists, and cellists, bassists and French hornists, and trombonists and flutists and bass drummers, and cymbalists, clarinetists, and saxophonists, the seventh and eighth graders.
I never could get that “sound” out of a violin though. It wasn’t like I didn’t try. If I could have gotten that sound out of a violin, I’d probably still be playing one. But as hard as I tried I just couldn’t get it to sing. It always sounded more like a combination of screeches. When a more experienced violinist picked up my mother of pearl inlay-ed violin with the visible crack down the front, it literally sang. It had the most beautiful sound and I was always trying to make it do that for me. And people offered to buy it from me more than once, but I somehow couldn’t part with it.
You could say that I used to play the violin, sort of, but I was never any good at it, mostly because I didn’t practice, and maybe because my fingers weren’t long enough, or….mostly because I didn’t practice. I even had private lessons for a while which didn’t help at all. I finally gave it up for good my junior year of high school. The problem was I did not tell my Dad about that decision. He still assumed I was practicing. Sometime later, he ran into Mr. Wheeler at Safeway. That’s where my Dad worked at the time, and Mr. Wheeler wasted no time telling him of my desertion while he stacked lettuce in the produce department.
During the discussion (we’ll call it that) later, I convinced my father that I wanted to take mechanical drawing and the class was only offered the same time as orchestra. I don’t know if that was true, but it seemed to work.
“Besides, I’ve played the violin for six years, and I still suck at it.”
“It’s because you don’t practice,” he said. And that was that.
The violin stayed with me, stuffed under a bed or in the back of a closet, for years. I took it with me when I left home, and it was one of the three things I escaped with in my divorce. I always thought it was probably worth some money, as old as it obviously was, and I would often show it to people, trying to convince them that I did actually know how to play it once upon a time. The day the psycho girlfriend moved her stuff out of the trailer was the last time I saw it.
I wonder where it is sometimes. I like to think that someone with longer fingers and who likes to practice is getting that sound of it somewhere.