A discovery that would open up his heart and his memories was simply waiting under the bed
by Rhiannon Schmitt of http://www.fiddleheads.ca
Frank put up with music. He put up with it in a way that a sleeping cat deals with a toddler tugging on it's tail: ears folded back in distain and tail twitching in obvious annoyance, but stubbornly refusing to move to an uninterrupted space.
Usually Frank blocked out music, and sometimes he just plain avoided it. When he hard it on the speakers at the corner store during his frequent cigarette trips, his hairy ears recognized it as unnecessary noise, a waste of his time and a waste of airspace. He greeted the tune by coughing loudly and nastily, thick phlegm rattling in his ribs, and usually setting off the young nurse in training who worked the cash register late nights.
"Cough's not getting any better," she chirped with a sickening, sugary smile to the old man, who usually responded with a well-rehearsed scowl as he snatched up his three nightly packs of life-saving nicotine.
Frank was in his late 70's and looked far older for the scornful expression he always wore. Though he retired from sales over 25 years earlier, his most unfortunate wardrobe was kept in commission. He was reasonably clean, well, at least for a man who'd never had a wife to nag him to bathe and chip his nails regularly. He was never the marrying type. He wasn't any type at all. He was simply isolated and closed-minded. He lived alone in a dark basement suite below a dry-cleaning business and kept the yellowed curtains shut even on the sunniest and loveliest of days.
It was on a senior's savings day at the local discount food warehouse when music finally made its way into Frank's lonely life. He was forcing a squeaking grocery cart burdened with instant oatmeal, Kraft dinner and other gluey bachelor meals past blue-haired matrons and other grimacing old men in 30-year-old polyester trousers when something from above him made the fuzz in his wrinkled ears twitch.
It was a high sound, a sweet and lovely sound and it was surrounding him. Frank almost plowed into a pyramid of canned corn for to find the origin of this most pleasing and wondrous noise. A young violinist was busking outside the store as she had been for the past two years every weekend. Frank had learned to ignore her squeaks and squawks. But today was different. She was playing a simple and almost ancient tune.
The simple melody of only a few notes wafted up and down, but oh, it was so sweet. Frank suddenly realised it was the very tune mother played for him every night as he went to sleep as a small child. Frank's eyes nearly watered as he abandoned his cart and fled the store for the comfort of his home, away from any more music. Away from his memories.
A few sleepless days passed and Frank was looking for a plastic lighter which he was sure he dropped under the bed. His joints and muscles ached in protest as Frank got down on all fours to retrieve the escaped tool for his nicotine habit. His eyes narrowed on a dark shape under the bed frame. He reached out tentatively past the dust bunnies and pulled out a black, coffin shaped box about 2 feet in length.
It was his mother's violin. "Esther Smith: Leaf Rapids, Manitoba" was hand-written on the tag attached to the handle of the case. His hands shaked as he opened the case to find the violin sleeping serenely under a silk scarf. His mother's scarf. She left it to him this way.
Frank remembered the last time she played it, lying in bed frail and pale. He was only 6 years old and didn't understand why mother couldn't get up and play with him; he didn't understand death. Mother pulled the bow weakly across the strings, but still the old instrument cooed like a soft white dove. She played the song that only a few old fiddlers still knew from their homeland, a song that was almost entirely lost with their relocation to Canada and that only a handful of players knew.
"Mother is tired dear," she coughed. "Please put my violin away for me." He obeyed. "And Frank," she said. "Make sure that it never stops singing." As he left the room Esther Smith fell into a peaceful sleep and never woke again.
The violin was the only thing he was allowed to keep when the social workers took him. He put up a such a strong fight that three grown adults conceded and allowed the child to take it on the long rail trip to BC. Frank was then passed from distant relatives to cousins and then on to foster homes until he was grown. The violin always stayed with him, but also stayed shut away in its box.
For the first time in over 70 years Frank opened the violin case. He smelled his mother's scent on the silk scarf cocooning her violin. And there, kneeling beside his bed, Frank wept for the loss of his mother for the first time.
The violin consumed Frank. What used to be days of chain smoking and literally watching the wallpaper peel away from the wall became days of scratching the bow across the strings, experimenting and improving. He treated the violin to a new set of strings and a polish and the bow to a new ribbon of white horsehair. He opened the curtains and let the sunlight warm his skin and glisten off the tiger-striped grain of the instrument. The violin and Frank both seemed to have awoken from a long coma and were enjoying their new life together.
As the months and years went by, Frank found he no longer made any late night trips to the corner store for his cigarettes, but rather trips to the library to get his eager hands on more sheet music. He whistled chirpy tunes at the bus stop and made converation with people he used to pass in silence. He taught himself the scales and the notes and a healthy vibrato until one day he was producing a sweet tone. "Now it's time to play her song," he smiled to himself.
His old, arthritic fingers found their way expertly around the fingerboard and suddenly he was playing Mother's homeland song. He had tried all those years to force the song out of his out for fear he would feel the pain of his loss, but the music was still there. It was waiting to be born from his hands.
This same song had revisited him at the grocery store that fateful day several years back and wouldn't leave his mind since. After all that practice he was finally playing it and was giddy with joy and disbelief. His grimace was permanently replaced with a grin of satisfaction and joy.
Frank's newfound happiness survived the grueling tests at the hospital in the coming months. Music notes swam in his head like golden coy when his doctor explained how the cancer was spreading. Frank was in another world, a world of music and wonder, and death didn't scare him anymore.
Once again he found himself fighting off adults who later resigned to let him take the violin with him into the intensive care ward. He played it for the other dying people and for himself when the others were too tired or weak to listen anymore. He prayed that the music might touch their lives as it touched his.
At night in the darkness and silence Frank reflected how the violin had changed his life and connected him to his mother in a way he had never imagined were possible. It was like he was breathing the same air she was. The violin was a conduit to her spirit and memory and her love. His only regret in life now was that he hadn't discovered it all sooner.
It was on a sunny day in the spring that Frank Smith stopped breathing and passed away, peaceful and contented. The morning nurse discovered the violin, wrapped in a sweet-smelling silk scarf inside the relic of a case. A note accompanied the package.
"May this violin find its way to the musician whose music found its way to me," it said. Scribbled beside it was the name of his supermarket and the words "To the kid with the fiddle: Make sure that it never stops singing."
Merry Christmas from Fiddleheads
The Classical Origins of Our Most Cherished Carols
by Rhiannon Schmitt of http://www.fiddleheads.ca
The “Ave Maria Polka” is blaring on the radio, "Jingle Cats” are meowing “Greensleeves,” and the doorbell is chiming a shrill “Silent Night.” To the untrained ear this musical goulash may seem tacky and not, by any means, traditional. However, this festive household has been influenced by many sophisticated classical composers!
It’s easy to forget the classical origins of our most cherished carols when the 9-year-old next door is hollering “Batman Smells!” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” To most children’s (and adults’) surprise those “dead guys with wigs” are responsible for many of their favourite holiday tunes.
German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concertos, masses and hundreds of other works. Strangely his most recognizable piece, excluding his popular “Wedding March,” is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It was written in 1840 as a part of his cantata Festgesang that honored printer Johann Gutenberg and the invention of printing!
The original lyrics were written by Charles Wesley 99 years before the music, but were changed to suit the cantata. Ironically, Wesley had specifically requested slow solemn music for his words. To top it all off, Mendelssohn had made it clear that his music was for secular use only!
Though it was written 260 years ago, George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is the most performed Christmas work in symphonies around the world. Oddly enough, it was composed while Handel suffered partial paralysis on his left side as a consequence of a stroke and took only 3 weeks to write! Even stranger was the cool reception it received during Handel’s lifetime. It was only through annual Eastertide performances to benefit the Foundling Hospital that “Messiah” was heard at all!
Music historians have recently discovered an embarrassing credit error. Cleric Isaac Watts published “Psalms of David,” based on Psalm 98 of the “Old Testament,” in 1719. In 1839 American composer Lowell Mason decided to set Watts’ translations to music and “Joy to the World” was born.
The confusion came from Mason’s modest footnote, "From George Frederick Handel," which was said to be a tribute to the late composer. A misunderstanding was soon accepted as truth and for 100 years Handel was given credit for writing the music to “Joy to the World!”
Other music greats such as Beethoven, J.S. Bach, Holst, Corelli, Saint-Saëns and Vaughan Williams are responsible for lovely Christmas Cantatas, Oratorios, and Carols we hear every December. Whether they meant to or not, these beloved artists have inspired generations of carolers.
Yes, even the off-key 9-year-old next door.
Suffering a Musician's Fate Each December
by Rhiannon Schmitt of http://www.fiddleheads.ca
“If I hear Jingle Bells one more time I’m going to jump off a cliff!”
I had just immigrated to Canada one month earlier as a self-employed musician. I made my living by playing hours of Christmas music at malls, craft fairs and parties. I was happy to have the work, but the long hours playing lively violin carols were physically and mentally exhausting.
I started to keep track of how many times I played Jingle Bells that season and lost count somewhere around 200. Every night as I tried to fall asleep, the annoying chorus rang deafeningly in my ears. My digits involuntarily twitched and repeated the irritating fingering patterns incessantly. Then I thought of the people passing by with their packages, singing along merrily. “Well, I can put up with it a bit longer” I said to myself.
Christmas 1998: With a few hundred hours of playing booked and several students in my weekly routine, I was developing an itchy allergy to the tune’s cadence, “one-horse open sleigh.” The mere mention of Jingle Bells caused my eyes start watering and nose running. Even my feline friend flinched whenever CBC Radio played Christmas music, as “sung” by the digitally edited “Jingle Cats” chorus. Our eyes widened with panic and we both hid under the couch until the song was over.
But any time I found myself about to bellow a scratchy “Bah Humbug,” a parent would tell me how playing Jingle Bells had made a positive difference in their child’s practice. I found myself saying, “It’s one of my favourites” and stifling a cough.
Christmas 1999-2001: Each year brought me increased performances and students, whom all requested the dreaded Jingle Bells. Each year I reluctantly played it for joyful audiences of shoppers. Oddly, each year I seemed to develop a bizarre appreciation for the song that struck fear in the hearts of musicians. I found myself embracing the chorus’ cute little quarter and half notes. “Do do doo, Do do doo” I sang in the shower gleefully. “I’m going mad,” I thought, laughing all the way, HA HA HA!
Christmas 2002: “Jingle Bells” blasts out in the still, winter air as I play the triumphant chorus with my violin students. We clap the charming little rhythm (tap tap taap!) then play the delightful melody on our instruments!
I am raising a relentless arsenal of “Junior Jingle Bells Radicals” (JJBRs) with a mission to gain support and appreciation for this much misunderstood song. Our upcoming Christmas recital will be a glorious display of over fifteen variations of the tune. I’m having the time of my life.
My doctor has an explanation for this unexpected turn of events. According to elaborate medical research, I have apparently built up an immunity to Jingle Bells’ harmful effects. Doc tells me I’m one of the lucky few; an advanced case which has shown miraculous recovery from the plague that strikes so many victims. But I know it’s simpler than that: I just had a change of heart.
I, like many others, felt burdened and overwhelmed by the barrage of Christmas music, decorations and commercials that strained my enjoyment of the holiday season. At times, it seemed like the meaning of Christmas was lost in all the commercialism and hype.
The change came when I played Jingle Bells for the 2,798th time. I then realized that each time I had ever played that silly little song, someone experienced joy.
I learned that all one has to do to find the true meaning of Christmas is to watch people. See the child giggling on Santa’s knee, the newlyweds holding mitten hands as they shop for the in-laws, a great-grandmother kneading her special cookie dough for her 80th Christmas celebration. Watch them and you will learn the true meaning of Christmas is “joy.”
I am thankful to have musical skill so I can witness joy manifest itself in teary smiles and beaming grins every year. This brings me Christmas joy.
*Please share your experiences of "Jingle Bells" and other Christmas Carols in the comments section**
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Rhiannon Schmitt is from Salmon Arm/Canoe, Canada. Biography
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