i got music, part iii: i like my hands (and will not cut them off)

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS

PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Take a wild guess 

I woke and walked to class, my heart thudding away with nerves. In the little sunny room I set down my case, tightened my bow, resined it up and removed my violin – actually one of two I own.

The first is my mother’s. Mama was a concert violinist; it was made for her in 1962 by a Swiss-American luthier named Karl August Berger. It’s a world-class instrument, singing, ringing, golden-toned and bloody loud.

The second is my late father-in-law’s. Eugene was an amateur who studied – extremely weird coincidence – with the same teacher as my mother, Chester La Follette. Eugene’s fiddle is a 1928 German reproduction of a 1685 Francesco Ruggieri. It’s huskier than Mama’s violin, browner in tone, rougher around the edges, softer.

Not something I ever want to see.

I agonized over which one to bring to Django in June, spending an hour sequestered in my bedroom, playing bits of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” on both. I was unsure which sounded better with jazz. I was also unsure how I felt about playing my mother’s, which was so heavily burdened with memory. Playing it brought to life all the music she played on it, all the heights of Bach and depths of Brahms; the music I made on this same instrument could not compare and never would. They are lesser sounds. I am a lesser musician. So her violin has always cowed me a little, even now, 22 years after her death.

And yet I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s her.

I stared at the two violins on my bed, stricken with indecision. Only one thing for it.

MITCHELL!!! I hollered, summoning the genial 15-year-old with whom I happen to share a house and a large percentage of deoxyribonucleic acid. MITCHELL!! I NEED YOUR EARS!!

Mitchell hustled upstairs and listened. I didn’t tell him which violin was which. His keen powers of perception and succinct musical insights proved a godsend in my hour of need.

Me: Which violin should I bring to Django in June? This one? (Plays Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s).

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: This one? (Play’s Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: Which one?

Mitchell: That one.

Me: This one? (Plays Eugene’s.)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

So here I am, Eugene’s axe on my lap, sitting in that little plastic folding chair in that little tidy building for a little morning violin class that serves to remind me, once again, that I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I am brought face-to-face with the profundity of my inadequacy on this instrument. I peer inside and find a soul-sucking black hole where the music should be.

The extent of what I don’t know is truly breathtaking. I don’t know chords, of course. I don’t know their horizontal counterparts, arpeggios. I don’t know scales, modals, roots, diminished this, augmented that. In short, I don’t know squat or anything remotely resembling squat. And here in this wee classroom at Django in June, it shows.

Right now the great man is talking about arpeggios.

“Arpeggios are important, yes?” he asks rhetorically.

Yes.

“You all know arpeggios, yes?” has asks, again rhetorically.

No.

I know so little about arpeggios that he might as well be speaking Mandarin. Or Serbo-Croatian. Or some madeupsky gibberish designed by linguists moonlighting as sadists. Who knows the flipper-dee-whacknut arpeggio? The flitzen-burger scale with the diminished zoinkling? How about the major-minor-seventh-zipplepiffle chord with the diminished splark? Does anyone know that one? Oh! Everyone knows that one! Everyone plays it! Everyone LOVES diminished splarks!

He names more chords I don’t know, then plays them as arpeggios. The Q-minor Augmented Whoodle. The Major-Minor Z-chord with Cream Cheese Frosting. The Marginally Deficient Spleet.

He plays something else. Something I can’t identify and articulate in the language of theory. But something I can hear and translate, maybe, to my fingers.

“Who can improvise using only those notes?,” he asks, then plays them again.

I listen as one brave camper after another ad-libs several bars of decent, melodic, musically fitting improvisation, and I wonder if I have it in me to try. Probably I don’t, but that’s never stopped me from attempting anything else outside my capabilities: All my life, I’ve been the extroverted introvert who cowers in silence before making lots of noise. And if that noise resembles a squirrel, that’s okay, right? It won’t actually kill anyone? And no will shoot me?

Another student plays. Then another. And another.

“Good,” the great man says. “Anyone else want to try?”

I volunteer, then immediately regret it. I think: I must be crazy! I am crazy! Help! Help! Then I think: Someone’s going to shoot me. Cue funeral march.

Hands shaking, I lift the fiddle to my chin. The left hand snaps its fingers down. The right hand waggles the horse-haired stick. Together, they approximate pitch and loose a few sound waves into the air. And I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.

As anticipated, I hit wrong notes. But miracle of miracles, I also hit some right ones, and I make it through the rest of morning class. I do NOT collapse in tears. I do NOT run screaming across campus. I do NOT cut off my hands and burn my instrument, although really, if I decided to go that route, I’d have to burn my instrument first.

And I don’t want to. I like my fiddles. I like my hands. I like music. I want to play it. I want to play it better. I want to grow. I want to swing. I want to feel the thrill of being in the music, the joy of being present with friends, the wonder of being inside that mystical, metrical, syncopated pocket swirling around the two and the four in a four-beat measure.

I want to be here, learning. I don’t want to cut off my hands or do violence to violins of any sort, be it Eugene’s or Mama’s. And, you know, maybe that’s a start.

5 thoughts on “i got music, part iii: i like my hands (and will not cut them off)

  1. Amy – this is brilliant. The former violinist in me laughed at your descriptions. The grieving sister of a music teacher who had her music leave us too soon teared up. If you write a full length piece, I’ll buy it.

  2. Amy, I loved this, & only have the teensy-est comparative experience, with my clarinet, a workshop at a Paul Winter Consort weekend in the Berkshires. I would have needed more, to really have the courage to improvise more. But I so identified with your account! And I have been remiss til now in telling you how very much I loved your newspaper account of the young people’s Yo Yo Ma workshop. That was some very fine journalism!

  3. Hi, I’ve just listened to your life story on you tube. You’re amazing, your strength of mind is amazing. In July 2014 our 16 yr old son attempted to take his own life after parting from his girlfriend.He sustained a severe traumatic brain injury and after 18 months in hospital he is now being cared for in a brain injury unit.He cannot talk or move his arms or legs purposefully.He is aware at times, on a massive amount of medication which makes him sleepy.We always have hope of a miracle and that he regains some improved cognition but are also realistic. Just writing to support you and say that you’re not suffering alone. We always remain positive and draw strength from amazing people like you. We send our love.X

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