yesterday was my 44th birthday. to me, this means today is the first day of my 45th year because i hit the 44th year mark yesterday at approximately 3:53pm. but i won’t get into details.
for people mostly those past their 30s, birthdays are oftentimes opportunities for reflection and assessment. are we where we hoped we’d be? did we have a plan or idea about where we are now? are we happy? what is happy? are we doing what we thought we could when we thought about doing it?
i can say that i have done/achieved a lot of things and most of them i didn’t plan on. by sheer grace and divine providence, i am here to say that. the things i did in my youth, i am largely still able to do.
i realize as i typed that last line that i sound like i should be surprised by that because 44 is so, y’know, ancient. i don’t think it’s ancient. i think it’s the beginning of calcification, however, if i don’t pay attention.
the other day, i picked up my violin. i haven’t really sat down and played it, more than a couple scales or arpeggios in decades. three to be exact. my fingers were rusty and they had no interest in doing scales. as a youngster, my father often impressed upon me the importance of practicing… . “DO YOUR SCALES.” … “I DON’T HEAR ANY SCALES.” … “SLOW DOWN.” … “AGAIN…. FROM THE BEGINNING.”
i took up violin because i couldn’t carry a piano.
also, because my dad took me to see Lord Yehudi Menuhin when i was 8. for an hour or so, it was just me and Dad and about 2,000 other people at the buffalo philharmonic symphony house with its polished mahogany walls, crystal chandeliers, sloping ceiling, tiffany sconces, elegant trolley bars selling cokes in glasses dotted with the half-circles on the bottom, and sapphire-blue carpeting with the golden stars in it. to me, it was just me and Dad.
we sat in the dark and listened to Lord Menuhin play with two other people whom i’m sure i was supposed to be impressed by, but it was Yehudi i was interested in. after the show, Dad got us behind stage and i held out my program for Lord Menuhin to sign and he did. it wasn’t a “i’ll never wash this program again” moment for me because it wasn’t a crush i had on him; rather, i was mesmerized by him. he was elegant, in his tuxedo, so refined, and graceful; like a slow and steady arpeggio or a sip of fine wine. he smiled at me, got down on his haunches and talked to me. i didn’t know what to say; i don’t know if i said anything but for me having this genius whose virtue calmed me just by doing what he loved was beyond special. i was a child and all i knew was that it felt good. i felt lucky.
i kept that program on my roll-top desk blotter for years. i spilled chocolate milk on it and it missed the autograph but it stiffened the paper and glued the sheets together inside. now i had my two favorite things together: the memory of that day and chocolate milk.
so last week, when i picked up the violin my parents bought me when i still showed interest in high school, a rich voiced, amber-toned, “single back” (which is unusual, most violins are split backs) Karl Hofner (#165) built in 1979 in Bubenreuth, Germany it felt very natural. i was fully conscious of what i was doing; it wasn’t like i was guided to it by some mystery music nymph. i thought about it.
i thought: am i doing this because i want to recapture some of my youth? am i crazy, thinking i can do this? how stupid is this?
but i picked it up because i wanted to and because i knew it would be a little hard, but that i and the situation would be OK because things are different now. there is no need to be perfect, to get it just right. for now, the exercise is in the joy of just doing it.
and we were OK, my violin and i; we related almost immediately. it felt like an old friend who’d been in the neighborhood and who wanted to stop in and say hi. it was out of tune, but not awfully and once i’d tuned it up and put rosin on my bow, i did what i used to do: i skipped scales and arpeggios (sorry, Dad) and went on brain memory and muscle memory to bring me to a place where i felt confident to continue.
i tried some Bach and Mozart (Twinkle-Twinkle) and tooled around with it. the Bach was hard so i went back to what always impresses but is actually pretty easy: Vivaldi. i don’t know why i think Vivaldi is easy — the Vivaldi i know is intense, angry music. oh, now i know why i think it’s easy: because i’m pretty intense and can be quick to temper. Vivaldi goes high on the finger board into octaves that could shatter glass. once i felt comfortable with my old friend, i decided to forage for more. the memory banks were depleted but i still wanted to go on because i was very excited that my playing didn’t sound like a dying forest animal.
i went to set up my music stand and grabbed some music i knew i could play because i just had played some of it from memory, but i wanted to finish the rest of it.
memory is powerful: it can help you cook, drive a car, dial a phone to call a friend, sing a song; but memories are linked to emotions which are like the water that creates its own way, no matter what you’re doing or how composed you think you are; when emotions flood into memories, all bets are off. bringing out those music books changed everything.
it wasn’t even seeing the notes on the page that shifted things for me, but rather the comments in handwriting from my father and my various teachers over the years that opened up a giant hole into which i slipped and lost time. the comments were foreign to me, speaking to a child who really had no sense of “Feeling!” or “Expression!” as proposed by the teachers. i saw my Dad’s iconic green felt-tip markings on the sheet, working hard with me to keep my strokes up or down and helping me stay on course. his comments, “S-L-O-W” here and “Gentle” there in his loopy almost illegible, save for the few entitled, scrawl. they stopped me in my tracks. i don’t have many notes from my Dad.
have i always been rushing? have i always been trying to get to the next place? even as a child? not savoring the moment? but probably enjoying (i hope) them nonetheless… today’s myriad insistences that we “live in the moment”; “slow down to savor” each and every … thing implies that we’re not ever enjoying what we have before us. how do you marry “live each day” with “a rolling stone gathers no moss” while honoring the intensity of emotions evoked by memories that crowd your body without losing perspective? which is right? savoring or rolling? feeling or moving? growing or learning? i don’t know. can you do both — learn and grow from savoring? yes. but you don’t want to sit still all the time either because then you don’t “LIVE!”
engrossed with the covers, feeling the yellowed, velvety dog-eared and soft edges of clearly well-worn and turned-over music books, all with my pre-teen bubble writing, claiming ownership, i pick one up, turn to page 20 and lo and behold, i see in my own hand in pencil at the top of the page: “Count!!” and i’d “pinked” all the Ps and Fs and dolces and mFs and cresc. markings.
i guess i knew even then. or someone told me to … pay attention.
my career with the violin didn’t last more than 9 years. i wanted to “take a break” and ultimately gave up soon after i asked my teacher to give me music i’d heard on the radio or that i would love. i asked for Bach. even then, i knew (well, when you hang out with music geeks, you learn what you like) that i loved Bach. i think that upset my teacher. he had me playing pedantic exercises by some dude named “Keyser” and others. but i was on a different plane: i had grown beyond that child who didn’t know what “Expression!” sounded like in music. i was able to identify with the music on an emotional level (i was 17 and had learned how sadness and disappointment could feel) and i felt i was ready to play music that mattered. to me. at this point i was ready to stop entirely. while i knew i had a lot of time invested in it and it mattered to me to keep trying, i also wanted to assert myself.
i felt that if i was going to continue, i should at least try playing something i like… to keep me interested. of course i would play classical music; playing the Beatles didn’t even occur to me. i remember the conversation distinctly still. so in a bit of a snit, he gave me some Bach. music by Bach that was so complex and accomplished, and frankly, impressive but sterile sounding to me, it was what my father identified as “warm ups” for Itzhak Perlman. Perlman, a violinist so well-known, so genius, so beyond my league, that i felt defeated. i was excited that it was Bach, but i was aware of the implicit message from my teacher, “if you think you’re so hot and you know so much about it all, try this…” when he presented the music he sorta flinged it at me.
to him, i was rebelling because i thought i was hot stuff; to me, i was rebelling because i was losing interest fast and i wanted to play something i’d like because i still liked the violin. it wasn’t rocket science and it sure as hell wasn’t about him. being 44 now, i can see how his overinflated, thus fragile ego could make it about himself; he was first chair viola for the national symphony orchestra who grew tired with my half-assed interest in his experienced tutelage; we were wasting each others’ time. he was where i am now: including in the mix as many things as possible that bring pleasure and tossing out anything that brings drama.
so when i saw that Bach book the other day, i picked it up and leafed through the pages, still awed by the music in front of me. it still intimidates; it breathes. it’s Bach Concerto in A Minor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pz7QJF2uIS0&feature=related) but i was determined. i picked up my Hofner 165, sat up nice and tall, fingers going where they remembered, poised my bow, inhaled and played something entirely different.
my kids, fresh from their various cleansing rituals, came in one by one and in the doorway stood to listen to me. it was not bad; it was rusty and a little halty-grindy, but i knew what i was doing. they were kind; kinder to me than my brothers ever were when i played as a child (i was pretty good, too) and they smiled with pride at me, their mom, who until now never played a note near them.
Thing 3 came up to me later and said, “i didn’t know you played the violin, mommy.” and i said, “yes, i used to play it all the time. now i just have a violin.” and he said, “no, you played it. i heard music. but why did you play it?” and after a pause, i thought about it: i have the itch now. i have the patience now; it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just can be pleasing. and i don’t have Mr. FancyPants flinging music at me any more. said, “because i still can.”