What I Learned by Playing the Violin Badly

I started “playing” violin in third grade. My school had free instruments, and an orchestra class that met three times a week. 

And I was lousy. I didn’t practice much. Practicing  involved several simultaneous levels of pain. The sounds I made — the squeaks, squawks, caterwauling, and scratchings tortured me. The noise resembled nothing I heard on records. And, yes, every now and then our pet German Shepard would howl. In pain. Right on cue as I ground out a scale or two.

Apart from the ear torture, practicing bored me. And when it didn’t bore me, making repeated mistakes frustrated me.

The violin may be one of the hardest, if not the hardest instrument to learn. You have to learn correct fingering. Plonk down that finger a whisker away from the right spot and, ouch, it hurts the ears, it does. By comparison, with the piano, you land your finger on the right key, and at least it’s in tune. So, the fingering’s tough. Then you have to coordinate that with bowing, and that isn’t easy either.

By comparison, you can learn three chords on a guitar and strum out a lot of excellent songs. You can cut a cool figure playing, I dunno, Hey Jude around a campfire, work up a repertoire of folk songs or Coldplay hits. It’ll take you two years — at least! — of diligent practice on the violin before you sound good enough for any one to let you within a hundred miles of a campfire.

In elementary school, the orchestra teacher was a mustached teddy bear of a man. He beamed and wrapped us in the sunshine of his happiness. He encouraged us. God alone knows what we sounded like as we scraped through “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”, but he made us feel like virtuosos.

(All of this — the free instruments, the musical instruction, a string orchestra in elementary school has mostly vanished now, thanks to tax cuts, greed, and the general philistinism that seems to rule our society. And whenever I read about some hedge fudge manager with, say, a $650 shower curtain, I think, gee, that could’ve paid for a clarinet at a public school. But I digress.)

Crushed and a Crush

That changed with junior high. Mr. Shadwell directed the orchestra. He was a slim, elegant man, handsome, with the piercing blue eyes of a movie star. Mr. Shadwell had standards. He had ambitions. And he dedicated himself to making the best music possible. 

Mr. Shadwell

Whenever I made a mistake, Mr. Shadwell would train those burning-tungsten bright blue eyes on me and scorch me to my marrow.  I could never understand how, in that huge wail of sound, he knew instantly that it was I who had hit the note flat when it should have been sharp. Uncanny.

Then he’d ask me to play the offending passage, just to be sure it was me.

It always was.

Mr, Shadwell told me to get private lessons. My parents agreed, and I ended up in a closet-sized space in the back of a piano dealership in the Bear Valley Shopping Mall with Mr. Sam Chernyk.

All I knew about Mr. Chernyk was that he played in the Denver Symphony, so he had to be good, and that he had an unusual accent. Long nose, snapping green eyes, bald, and about the same height I was in seventh grade — 5’ 4’’. He smelled, somehow comfortingly, of sweat and had a funny habit of hitching up his belly before making a point — a move I’ve never encountered anywhere else. 

To my dismay and wonderment, he would take up his violin and make ungodly lovely, melting sounds right in front of my eyes. Out of the very piece I was massacring.

Now I realize he must have been one of the lucky ones to make it out of Eastern Europe in time. Commies, Nazis, — who knows who he escaped from to land in the middle of the US.

Only to be tortured by the likes of me.

Paralyzed with fear, I shut down and squeaked out notes, mechanical as the metronome on the shelf. That itself is a sin against the nature of the violin. He was patient. Mostly. 

Poor Mr Chernyk must have wondered if emigrating was worth it after all if he had to sit with this mulish pupil every week. But he seemed to have had an easy sardonic outlook on life. I guess he managed.

In the brief periods when I worked on the pieces, I’d improve. What a surprise. When that happened, it shocked everyone — me, Mr. Chernyk, and especially Mr. Shadwell. My progress seemed to annoy them as much as my laziness. 

At the time, this offended me. C’mon guys, I’m kinda decent with this, can’t you be a little happier? Now, I can see it as a case of my displaying most irritating quality of all: when someone can do better, but doesn’t. 

Why? Oh, why?

So, why? Why did I drain my poor parent’s savings account for lessons? Why did I hang on to the damned violin? 

Without being too melodramatic about it, Beethoven saved my life. Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, too. Classical music (and the books I read) offered an escape, a place far away from the grind of classrooms and clocks, of teachers and the thousands of petty insults that rain down on you as a kid. I wanted to be part of that.

So if you’d asked me, and if I’d reflected on it, I would’ve said: I love the music, and have faith that if I just keep at it, sooner or later the noise I make will sound more like the music I listen to on the stereo.

And to play inside an orchestra — to feel that music all around you and to know you are, even in your own lame and pathetic way, a part of that rush of sound — is completely intoxicating. We played some good music in junior high and high school: Vivaldi, Copland, Beethoven, Haydn, Sibelius. To be in the middle of that, bringing old Ludwig van to glorious life with your own damned fingers sends you to a special place, a heaven built with the work of everyone around you. 

Bliss.

Also, and this is important, too: I adored Kay, our concert mistress. Not only did she have a heart-shaped face, ash blonde hair and Brittany bay sea-blue eyes, but she played violin like an angel. It was hard to believe we played the same instrument. Mr Shadwell, our orchestra teacher would have her play out tricky passages as examples. She always delivered with poise and singing sounds.

Right in front of my eyes, Kay drew heavenly, luscious tones from her violin. So, I knew it was possible — and not just for a virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz.

Kay was, in fact, one of the best student violinists in Colorado. She won prizes, solo’d often. She deserved it, too.

Or course, I had a massive crush on her. I looked forward to seeing her every day. Just the chance to gaze on her got me through geometry and gym class. Because I was in a serious religious phase and out of respect to her, I tried not to notice that Kay, under the prim blouses she always wore, was, as my mother would say, maturing early. I failed.

photo of timothy roessler
Me in junior high. Poised, as usual.

Pathetically, I didn’t act on my infatuation. Rarely, I managed to smile and choke out a desperate hello to her. Back then, I was cursed with a complexion that flushed easily, and I remember how my cheeks and ears would flush every time around her.

I wanted to hold her hand, propose marriage, carry her away, but your options as a 12 year old are limited, even if you act on your desires. I didn’t. The the gap between us seemed too great. I was mere stinky clay with thick, clumsy fingers. I had nothing to offer her then but my puppy love, and I instinctively knew that would not be enough.

The End of the Affair

I moved on to tenth grade. Because of a desegregation plan, Kay and I ended up in different high schools. We lost touch.

In high school, I changed my approach. Instead of ignoring work I didn’t want to do, I made a token effort. I turned in assignments and even did algebra homework for the first time. I practiced the violin a bit more. By simply running through my pieces with Mr. Chernyk and doing a few Czerny études, I got better at the violin.

None of this was out of new-found diligence. Slothful me finally realized that life was much easier if you did enough work to keep everyone off your back. Now, I’d always worked hard at subjects I liked. But it didn’t feel like work to read literature or study history or even learn a language.

It’s painful but necessary to face up to one’s own limitations. I believe in innate talent. Some people simply have a knack for calculus, or Mozart sonatas, or drawing still lifes. Sure, you can make up for deficiency of talent with hard work, but unless you have some sort of bare minimum to begin with, face it: You’re doomed. That 10,000 hours of work idea only applies if you’ve got that intangible something to begin with.

Often, when people talk about high school, they’ll talk about how the realized they’d never be a major league baseball star. That insight would lead them to something else, usually their true calling.

Classical music is more rigorous than sports, by far. No one bats 1000, or sinks every basket. But even a mediocre musician must play perfectly, every time. I realized I’d never be even a middling player, let alone good at the instrument.

Luckily, by the time I hit ninth grade, I’d found other things I was much better at than playing the violin. I was cast as the lead in school plays. I carried a notebook around and wrote poetry (for which there is no real modern standard). I was an aesthete and smart ass, and I read Camus, goddammit. So my bruised ego found satisfaction in softer places.

And I stopped torturing my poor instrument.

But I’m glad I studied the violin. I wish I’d worked harder at it. Sometimes I even think of picking it up again. Mostly, I’m grateful for the lessons it taught me.

That discipline is freedom.

That beauty requires sacrifice and suffering.

And the violin gave me beauty and desire.

And with those gifts, it made me human.