Motherhood, for all its beautiful moments, is an incredibly humbling experience.
Especially if you want to keep playing the violin.
I know this from personal experience: taking an audition while six months pregnant (I didn't win), pumping milk so Robert could feed the baby when I had a rehearsal or concert, struggling to keep the house presentable for students when the little chaos-makers were running about in diapers, looking desperately for a middle-of-the-day babysitter so that I could drive across town and take a lesson...
My kids are a bit older now, ages five and eight, and it's easier in certain ways than it was. I can practice when they are in school, for example. But I remember.
My adult student Caroline first came to me, wanting to brush up on her own playing as she trains in Suzuki pedagogy. She's been working on getting the stress out of her playing, developing a comfortable and effective technique. She's also learning the same juggling act I am – she has two girls, ages three and five.
“WHEN do you practice?” she asked in exasperation one week. “It's impossible!”
“It's just really hard when they are so young,” I said, as if I know anything. I struggle with it, too.
“Just hang on to a thread of yourself, Caroline,” I said. “Sometimes that's all it can be, just a thread. You have to be with your kids, you want to be with your kids. Enjoy them, and give them what they need. But keep that little bit of yourself, practice when you can. Even if it's just 15 minutes a day, it will help.”
Though she wanted to study the necessary Suzuki repertoire to qualify for the certification work, it was clear that Caroline needed a little something for the soul. So I suggested “Meditation from Thais.”
She decided, several months ago, that she would play it in my studio's fall recital. I told her to have it completely memorized a full month in advance. She did. She didn't always get to practice when she wanted to, but she found times to do it, and she kept with her goals.
The studio recital was two weeks ago, and I was so proud of every student. Two beginners performed for the first time: Maggie put all her lungs into the Rest Position Song, and Chellie showed us a perfect numbers game. Addison played the May Song with great presence, Caelan remembered every repetitive detail of Gossec Gavotte. Sarah and Caroline both played fiddle tunes as well as Suzuki repertoire, and my adult beginner, Anne, is almost through Book 1, playing Bach Minuet 1. Bill played the first movement of Mozart 5 from memory, with a fantastic cadenza. I played Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and it was so fun that instead of thinking, “Thank GOD that's over!” I thought, “I'd love to do that again!”
But Caroline...she was inspired.
When she arrived at the recital with her kids, husband and in-laws, she joked, “I bet you've never seen me with make-up on!” I hadn't, and she looked great!
When it was her turn, third to last, she stepped out from the pew behind me and walked up to the front of the church. As she bowed, I heard her three-year-old, Katherine, whisper, “Go Mommy! You can do it!”
And she did, from start to finish. She played with beautiful tone, all from memory, and with a lovely musicality that kept her and us all into the music. After her performance, she was beaming.
“Wow, how did THAT happen?” she laughed, as she talked to me after the recital. She knew she had done well, and I can tell her how it happened: she made it happen!
So many ghosts dwell in an empty music room.
I met a number of them Friday, while volunteering at McKinley School, my children's school in Pasadena. Yes, my volunteer's job is a bit of an odd one -- I'm the....
The idea of organizing the class picnic, fundraiser or a bake sale makes me hyperventilate in terror. But tuning violins? Yes, I can do that. Really well!
The music teacher, Ms. Orlova, had told me, "It's hard, when I have a class of 39 kids, to tune all the violins. If we could just tune them once a week..."
Lordie, once a week? "I'm there!" I said.
So last Friday I went, for the second time, armed with my plastic shoebox full of fingerboard tape, scissors, peg dope, baby powder (to counter the peg dope), sponges, extra pegs, and a cleaning cloth.
Though tuning 40 violins did not actually seem quite as enticing as, say, taking the most advanced students and forming a chamber group, it might be more important for this teacher and this school, at this time. This public elementary/middle school was started only three years ago, and the music program is still getting its legs. But it all starts with these violins.
When I went in, I noticed that she was still using the fingerboard tape I bought for the school three years ago, and she'd kept the Blue Note jazz poster I'd laminated and donated back then.
I volunteered first thing in the morning, and after the children had settled into their classes, I found myself alone in a very quiet music room. Just me and forty violins.
I opened the first case. The child had not put the bow away properly, so it laid loosely over the violin, which was in fifths, though about a step low.
As I went from chair to chair, opening up the many violin cases, I found myself meeting many other silent personalities. For example, who decided to cut a bridge with the D and A strings so close together? What vigilante luthier (a wood-working father?) decided to replace the nut on a violin with some kind of scrap wood? Who put in an E string for a D string? Where was this violin before, that someone used masking tape instead of striping tape to mark the fingerboard?
The jury-rigging on some of these violins defied not only my sense of propriety, but also my understanding of physics. How on earth was such a frayed, way-too-short E string possibly still hanging on? Who lopped off the top of this bridge, and how is this violin still making a sound? How could four pegs be so different?
I fixed what I could, and though more remained to be done, I felt pleased. Won't some kid be just a little tickled to find that the violin that had no tapes on it now has four shiny new yellow ones, in just the right places? And won't someone be happy that the pegs now turn? Won't these strings stay in tune longer, with a D string for a D string?
The Violin Fairy is scheduled to come by every Friday. I hope to get all the fiddles in good working order over the next few weeks, so that all I have to do is come in and tune.
If every kid who is struggling to learn in this difficult setting has a working, in-tune violin, I hope it will make a difference. If nothing else, I hope it gives a very overworked teacher a break.
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles went to Austin, Texas to cover the Menuhin Competition 2014, watching some of the world's top young violinists. Read her ongoing coverage.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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