November 7, 2005 at 6:45 AMSo 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.
I wonder how many kids give up merely because it sounds so bad?
Conversely, it is amazing and beautiful to watch a child's face light up with utter joy at the sound of an instrument that works.
My son (8) came up with a novel idea at his birthday party: He made a "music" table where he put out a bunch of his instruments, for his friends to try. He had ukuleles, guitars, a mandolin, dulcimer, all kinds of percussion, concertinas etc. He also put out our charango--a small south american instrument that is small, fretted and has double courses.
Well, each child that tried instruments out, gravitated, after experimentation, to one of them more than the others. One child in particular, tried a few, and then he tried the charango (a real luthier made instrument---probably the best in out whole house). I watched him try it for the 1st time. He strummed it, and his face lit up--big smile.
When they all came back inside after the party games, he made a bee-line for that instrument....I doubt this would have happened had it been all out of tune and badly set-up.
And so, your efforts to fix up, tune up and set up those violins will do much more than the technical--you will enable real musical joy to blossom.
I had an experience similar to Bill's. A large music store/school here sponsors petting zoos, in which kids can try out different instruments and see what they like. I helped on a volunteer basis earlier this year, and it was great fun. The kids were so eager to try the violins, and some of them got rerally excited when they held them and played a few notes. I decided that I wanted to do some volunteer work, as Laurie does, introducing classical music to kids in school. I've been stymied. The local public schools teach a standardized curriculum with no improvisations or variations because of the No Child Left Behind Act and standardized testing. I asked the mother of one of my students who goes to a private school about volunteering there, but they don't even have or want a music program. This is so sad. Does anyone have any suggestions about other ways I could help? I can't fly to California once a week to help Laurie.
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