strung out
                  my life as an amateur violist

     a late start  |  # a

A tall, rabbity-looking guy strode into our fourth grade classroom. “Class, this is Mr. Huff, the orchestra teacher. He’s here to see if any of you would like to learn how to play a stringed instrument”, explained Mrs. Brown, the youngish brunette teacher that inspired the obligatory schoolboy crush.  

Mr. Huff’s recruiting technique consisted of walking from student to student inspecting hand size and uttering his prognosis: “Violin. Hmmm. Violin. Violin. Let’s see... You could probably play the cello.” We had no idea what was going on here, but it seemed the bigger your hands, the more exotic sounding the instrument you qualified for (which wasn’t entirely off the mark). In spite of disappointment at my simple violin verdict, my interest was piqued.  

It’s odd, but twenty four years later, I can recall precisely the unease, anxiety and worry I felt in the Autumn of 1973. Consider the zeitgeist - Vietnam, Watergate, hyper-inflation, Led Zep - this was a truly messed-up period of American history. I don’t know how or why I picked up on that vibe, but I vividly remember it. At some level I was also probably subconsciously tuned into my parents disintegrating marriage. I was a worried little man who kept it all bottled up inside.  


Mr. Huff finished his palm reading and made a hasty exit. I thought about it for a day or so and then made my decision. Orchestras and violins sounded solid and rooted. Yeah, I was a little intrigued. Sure, maybe this violin thing would be kinda fun, but honest to god, deep down my hope was that this instrument would make me feel grounded in something that lasted, something with a tradition, something that mattered.  

We rented a beat up, used violin (“No Mom, this one’s o.k.” - that old Norwegian self-denial at work, even at age 10!) and I unknowingly took the first step of a long, strange journey.  

Rehearsals took place on a musty old wooden stage where a heavy red curtain separated us from the gym. There were about six students that sat in a semi-circle around the teacher/conductor as he taught us in twice a week hour-long sessions how to draw the bow across the strings and make a semblance of a tone. Yes, I can tell you we were truly awful.  

Stringed instruments are notorious for their tortured sounds in the hands of beginners. And not undeservedly so. The violin is a very difficult instrument. A violin has no keys, no pistons, no frets, no buttons. Nada. You’ve got to learn to feel and hear where your fingers should go *exactly* on the fingerboard. At the same time you’ve got a two foot long stick with horsehair (or fiberglass, in my unfortunate case) that you have to press and glide along a one inch zone of the strings between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge.  

Compound that technical difficulty with a teacher split between six students and you’ve got a situation. Can you say Kobayashi Maru?  

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, we began to learn how to read music and make something akin to melody. It helped that Mr. Huff was, uh, let's say, unconventional in his teaching technique. I believe his twisted demeanor saved him from total madness. We would be crashing our way through one of the classics (Old McDonald, I believe) when he would point at one of us and scream out, “Communist!”. Whoa. The accused would freeze and look up with wide-eyed terror. “You’re rushin’!” (Attack of the Homonyms! Russian=rushin' - get it?) It took us a while to figure that one out, but we were ten years old. Lesson #1 translated: Rhythm is the beginning.  

Here’s another one of his favorites. To get around on the instrument you need to support the neck (the long thin part) without clutching it. Try this. Hold your left hand up as if you were carrying a tray at about face level. Your wrist is at a 90 degree angle. That’s what happens when you buttress the weight of the neck with your palm. Mr. Huff would stand up and strut around with arms at his sides and his wrists crooked out at angles -- sort of a Shirley Temple prance. “You don’t walk around the playground like this do you?” Lesson #2: Form matters.  


About a year and a half later, we had our first concert. The orchestra was on the school program and it was our big night. We actually sounded like a real musical ensemble as we worked our way through Our First March. I’ve always been somewhat of a sentimental fool. (Yes, really. As if you hadn't noticed... ;-)  [run!  emoticon!  -the editors]  You see, sometimes a simple thing happens when musicians of nearly any skill level come together to work their craft. An unspoken agreement. I’m going to help build something that only exists for a moment in the ear, but maybe for a lifetime in the mind’s ear. I’ll do my part to make a whole. It's more than the notes -- it's me. And in turn, the others wordlessly agree.  

And at that moment I felt that elusive something running through me, my instrument, through the others and out into the ether for anyone else who could open themselves to it. I was nearly overwhelmed as I felt myself being filled up, rising and expanding, nearly bursting. I can’t explain it, but I nearly wept. Over this silly little piece of music we were making. You could have been sitting right next to me or in the audience and probably not have felt one iota of that, I know this is true. But that didn’t matter. It was real to me. I knew deep in my heart that this was something I could not let go. >>