Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yet Another New Project?

This balloon touched down in the gully behind Katharine's house this morning, and Gary got this great shot. Otherwise, it was a so-so balloon year: most of them were moving away from us, and they were backlit by the sun, so we couldn't get great photos. Nertz! But we were with a bunch of good friends and there were four adorable kids in attendance -- who especially enjoyed the fact that one balloon came close, of course -- and the food was great, so we had a thoroughly good time anyway.

A strange thing happened to me, though. I love music, but I've never been very musical myself. Gary thinks I have a better ear than I think I do, but my three years of flute in junior high didn't do much for me (nor was I very good at it), and I've never particularly wanted to play any other instrument, except maybe guitar, but even that not seriously.

A lot of our friends are musicians, though. Katharine's a fabulous soprano and runs the Vocal Studies Program at UNR; Jim's a world-class pianist; and our friend Stephanie's a brilliant violinist who runs the Orchestral Studies Program at UNR. Katharine also plays violin, and Jim also plays cello, and Pamela plays a stringed instrument too, although I can't remember which at the moment (viola, maybe?), and Stephanie picked up viola when she started the UNR job two years ago and, of course, immediately played it beautifully. And Stephanie and her husband (also named Gary) have made sure that their two daughters have musical training: one studies violin and the other flute, at the ages of ten and eight. Meanwhile, my Gary's listened to thousands of hours of classical music and can discuss it in language I don't even begin to understand.

I feel very intimidated in this company. I'm delighted to serve as an outside member on music masters' committees, and I can tell a spot-on performance from a shaky one, but I don't pretend to any expertise.

Okay, so. Katharine and Jim recently returned from the Telluride Festival, where Katharine purchased a painted violin covered with pretty green leaves. She knew her granddaughter Pippa (who's five or six now? I lose track) would love it, but she made sure it would play, too. So this morning she held Pippa's hand and helped her move the bow across the strings and play "Twinkle, Twinkle."

When they were done, I asked Katharine if I could see the violin. Then I asked if I could hold the bow. Then I tried to produce a note, although I didn't even attempt to hold the instrument correctly. Jim laughed at me and said, "Now you know why I play the cello; it's a much more natural playing position!"

As far as I know, I've never even held a violin before. Violin's not even my favorite instrument; cello is. But I got a note, or several notes, from the strings. It's hard to describe the sensation. I felt as if the violin was alive, an animal I was stroking with the bow to coax it into speaking. I was very conscious of having to be gentle. And when I got a satisfying noise, a thrill ran through me.

Katharine laughed and took the violin back so she and Pippa could play with it some more. The rest of us wandered out into the backyard to look at the distant balloons. My skin was still thrumming from the violin. I said casually to Stephanie, "So are there, like, cheap beginner violins? Plastic ones, maybe?"

"You want wood," Jim told me, and Stephanie said that I could get a decent novice violin for $100, a figure that made me blanch even though I've spent it on yarn plenty of times, and will do so again. Yarn makes useful things for people, though.

"I'm forty-nine," I told her. "I mean, it's not like I'm really going to learn to play the violin!" I just wanted to coax the animal into speaking again.

When we got home, I did internet research. You can indeed get a beginner violin for about $100, but every source I've read recommends renting instead. We have a good music store in town, and I'm sure they rent instruments. But I have absolutely no interest in learning classical violin. What I love the most is Celtic fiddle music and bluegrass: folk styles, not classical.

A few Google searches later, I discovered a Celtic fiddler who lives in Reno and who, supposedly, gives lessons. I've e-mailed her to see if I might be able to take some. This is a crazy, crazy idea, right? Right? I don't have enough to do? What am I thinking? And although adult learners aren't that uncommon, violin's a notoriously difficult instrument.

But I'm not sure I've ever felt the way that violin made me feel. (Yep, the first one's free.) At some point this morning, Stephanie commented that I must have some kind of aptitude even to get a note from the violin the first time I touched it, since not everyone can do that. I have very low goals, though. I don't expect, or even want, to get good enough to perform. If I spend five years practicing scales and then give up, I'll have had fun along the way, and if I manage to pick out a fiddle tune or two, that will be even better.

And maybe this lady won't even get back to me, or won't want to take on a menopausal novice. Rationally, I know that might be best of all. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I got the car smogged, renewed my registration, and am making some grading progress. So the day wasn't entirely wasted in bizarre midlife artistic fantasies.


  1. Susan,

    I say go for it, but of course I'm biased. I've done some fiddling with friends in addition to playing in orchestras, and it can be a lot of fun.

    And belated happy birthday wishes.


  2. Anonymous3:05 PM

    The late educator John Holt wrote a lovely book, "Never Too Late," about his journey taking up a musical instrument in midlife -- well worth reading.

  3. I totally say, go for it. My husband bought himself a guitar and some how-to books and got good enough to, as he put it, "play and sing off-key with the kids." As his perfect-pitch-eared trained-musician wife, I would say that pretty well describes it. But he loved it and I loved hearing him work at it and progressing on it.

    Speaking of which, it's been awhile... Dear... I know all I have to do is pick it up and plunk it a bit and he'll get right back to it. Music grabs you that way.


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