Why does an adult decide to learn to play the violin? I love hearing the reasons. Some people say it’s because it sounded fun, that they always wanted to try. Others did in their youth and wanted to pick it up again. As for me, I would have said it was because I’d decided to write a novel with a violinist in it and felt it would help my research. But is that really the whole story? I mean, why did I choose to write about a violinist in the first place? Why has this story been in my head for over a year now, refusing to go away? So off I went, in search of a deeper reason, to that uncomfortable place of the mind—where most people spend great sums to avoid visiting—to the boggy, dark terrain of the soul and psyche.
And here’s what I found. I’m seeking a replacement, because I’d lost something. Some precious gift from my youth had shattered and dispersed, and here I was, limping along the way adults tend to do, unaware of this loss. Until now, when I took the time to examine it. And you know what? It hurts. It stings like mad. Which is why, I suppose, smarter people stay away.
Humor me here while I stretch out on the leather couch and tell you my story. I was born different, you see. (Weren't we all?) When you grow up feeling different from the other kids, it helps to know there’s a reason for it all, that perhaps life has provided you with something special to make up for the alienation. For me, it was ballet. It soothed all the hurt from the ugly duckling years of my youth. It made the “you don’t belong” feeling bearable, because I knew that deep inside, I was special—I’d been chosen. Every time I’d go to the dance studio, place my leg on the barre and stretch over, hand around my calf, face against my shin, the outside world would retreat. I’d warm up with pliés, tendues and developés, feeling something deep inside me realign, remolding itself to the music. In this cloistered world of movement and music, I knew I’d always be safe.
Who would have thought that special place would close its doors to me one day? What happened? Well, life happened. Ballet, in truth, is a young person’s art. It’s not particularly accommodating in later years, although I pushed hard to sustain it, packing up a leotard and pink leather slippers alongside my skirts and shirts for my two year Peace Corps stint in Africa. I pushed through the career years afterwards, forcing myself to take a weekly ballet class, muttering to myself that it was my art, which I desperately needed after a grueling day as a sales representative. When expatriate travel, then writing, replaced the salaried work, I felt the desperate need subside. I found a laid-back dance class at my local gym, which suited my budget and my schedule nicely. When the teacher moved away four years later, I knew in my heart that my dance practice was coming to an end.
I was proud of myself for seeing it this way. Out with the old, in with the new. Time to put the dolls away and become a full-fledged adult. I had a child and a home to run, which instantly sucked me up into the daily grind we call life. Alongside my exercise regime and a few precious hours of writing, it gobbled up every free hour of my day. I told myself my weekly yoga class and kickboxing class were appeasing the pangs my body felt from losing dance. That I was fine.
Then came the hunger to write novels, to write one about a violinist and the impact of music in her life. But now, six months after I’ve begun, six months since I first picked up a violin, why is it that the hunger has grown and now feels more like starvation? Like something’s burning and I can’t put out the fire? That’s when I went looking inside myself. And I saw it there, the broken dreams of my former art. I’d long ago outgrown it—why, I wondered, did it still hurt so much? Maybe it’s because when you’re young and suffering, you comfort yourself with your gift, confident it will sustain you throughout your life. Except that it didn’t. Ballet was no longer mine.
But there’s still the music, a voice whispered to me, What on earth had I been thinking, that I needed to go without that as well? I’d been starving my soul without even realizing it. So I picked up that music muse, lying there among the bits, dusted it off and slipped it into my pocket.
That’s where I’m at now, this new realization in my mind and heart. I’m clumsy as anything on the violin. Who would have thought six months of lessons would have produced such humble results? The rage kicks up in me periodically. I’m used to being good at my art. Really good, like lead roles, solo curtain calls and other ego-gratifiers. But that was another life. Now, I’m just one more goofy-looking (and sounding) adult beginner. I’m inclined to think that this alone might stop a results-driven person from picking up the violin. You’re basically conscripting yourself to look like an idiot for the next eighteen months. (If my assessment is off here and the idiot phase extends further than this, there’s really no need to tell me. Really.) And yet, something here is working. I can feel it, deep, deep inside me, when I’m holding my violin. The first time I heard the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings ring out when I played the same notes elsewhere, it made my heart leap and my throat catch. Best of all, I like this little violin in a way I never liked my pointe shoes. I marvel at how pretty it is, delicate and vulnerable, like a baby. I feel like I owe it to the both of us to give it my all. If all I ever produce are childlike sounds, well, it’s still better than sitting there in the dark, grieving what I’d lost.
A long-winded way to answer the question of why this adult chose to pick up the violin. How about you others? The answers might surprise us. Then again, they might surprise you.
It was around two weeks ago that I found myself on the steps of St. Marylebone Parish Church in London, located across the street from the Royal Academy of Music. I plopped down, staring at the Academy’s locked front doors, sick with frustration and a sense of loss I find hard to explain. Closed for the holidays, the sign on the doors had read. For the next twelve days, starting that day, through January 2nd, the day of my return to California.
I’d intended to visit the RAM the afternoon before, as soon as my family and I arrived in London. My sister’s flat, where we were staying for a week, was just a ten-minute walk from Marylebone Street. Perfect, I’d thought. Just enough time to drop off the bags, run to the RAM and check out the York Gate Collections as well before it all closed up. But then the porter at my sister’s building informed me the RAM was on the far end of Marylebone Road. It was almost 4:30pm, and rush hour, to boot. Even in a taxi, the porter said, I probably wouldn’t make it before 5:00pm. I decided to wait until the next morning.
But we all know what I found the next morning. So all I could do was peer inside the barred glass doors, walk the periphery of the building and take a few snapshots. Then I crossed the street and sat on the chilly stone steps of St. Marylebone Church, feeling a great lump rise in my throat.
I suppose I should back up a bit and explain. My interest wasn’t simply the longings of a beginning violin student and classical music enthusiast wanting to check out a great institution. In truth, this felt more like chasing down a ghost—going to the source of something that’s been haunting me. I blame it all on this character I’ve created for my novel-in-progress. She’s a violinist, an orchestral soloist who studied at the RAM. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel in the violin world for this obsession that descends upon you when you’re deep in the artistic process. The best I can liken it to is being a teenager with a hopeless, irrevocable crush on an actor or musician. You dream about them, you can’t stop thinking about them, you seek out any information you can about them. Being close to anything or any place they were in gives you a visceral thrill. (I’ll admit it—this is the real reason I picked up the violin for the first time six months ago.)
Yes, I’m aware this is a fictional character I’m pining after. This longing, oddly akin to grief, makes little sense, even to me. But in a way, it reminds me of the soul-stirring feeling I get when I listen to a recording/performance of some really good music. It opens up something deep inside me and makes me feel both elated and full of some nameless pain, all at the same time. It makes me want to reach for my violin and head off in pursuit of the same destination, as if it were some mystery I could solve if I worked hard enough at it (like… decades).
Does anyone else feel like that when they play or hear the violin? Like you’re chasing something eternal, divine, so breathtakingly perfect and sweet that as you get closer to it, you can’t help but feel your throat tighten and tears sting your eyes? You might sense you’re getting closer, but in the end, you always come up against a sort of glass wall that eternally separates the mortal world from the divine. These kind of feelings haunt me so much. So there I sat, on the steps of St. Marylebone Church, seeing the RAM in front of me, wanting so desperately to get inside, as if the halls might whisper their secrets to me; as if I might catch a glimpse of my character. So close and yet so far.
Now I’m back in California, with Europe, London and the RAM far behind. The memories of the trip are sweet and yet they sting—I’m never ready to say goodbye to Europe, to its wonderfully old architecture and sense of history and spirit. At least now I can return to my writing practice and then go pick up my violin, which I lugged with me to London in spite of my husband’s protests. I like to think it picked up some of that European soulfulness.
I’ll close with a request. If you’ve been to the RAM (or a similar European institution), as a student or simply as a visitor, and can remember a specific detail, I’d love to hear it. It could be something about the high-ceilinged practice rooms or the way the radiators clanked, or the chilly hallways where you could hear the wind whistle in a mournful way. Or maybe it was the warm, steamy, bright pub/café that was located two blocks away where everyone congregated at the end of the day. Or the tutoring sessions. Group chamber music classes. Exams. The teachers/professors/tutors (anyone know what the RAM term most often used?). The tiny details are what I hunger for – the general stuff I can find in books, brochures, on the Internet, etc. And to any of you lucky enough to live in London or Paris -- let me know if you see my character walking around. Tell her I was looking for her.
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Terez Mertes is from Boulder Creek, California. Biography
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