Category: Music

A violin with a rose on the tailpiece

The smell of rosin takes me back to being eight years old, when I started to learn the violin. The rosin is a hard amber lump, wrapped in cloth inside a dark red box. I tighten the bow by turning the screw on the heel, rub the rosin up and down the taut hairs, testing the bounce on my hand before playing.

The violin has new strings; the old ones were in a bad state. The instrument hasn’t been out of its case for years. I tune the strings: A D G E. The intervals are ingrained in my memory, from when Miss Moss would hit A on the piano. We tuned that string first, then the others by ear: A D G E, the highest-pitched string last. Karen Jewell had pitch pipes, one for each note: A D G E. I had a recorder at home, to blow an A with two fingers on the top holes, thumb over the hole at the back.

There were six of us that started together at St Joseph’s school – Karen Jewell, Sharon Corr, Kevin O’Doherty and me. The names of the others escape me. We hired three-quarter sized instruments at first. Then came the time to buy a violin. There was a bus ride to Ashtead from Epsom, with my mum, then a walk down several streets until we reached an ordinary-looking house. A man showed us to an upstairs room where there were violins for sale and waiting to be repaired. The one I chose had a small rose on the tailpiece with an inset of mother of pearl. 

I practised in the bedroom, alone. I cried because it sounded horrible. I couldn’t get it right. The tears flowed freely in my hormonal teens. Practising for grade exams, year on year, at which I got steadily worse: Merit, Pass, Pass, Fail. I sat in the waiting room to take my grade exams, a low-ceilinged, wood-panelled room. My mum was with me, but then I had to go in alone. There were prepared pieces to play, sight-reading, scales, an interval sung (or was it played?) by the examiner, which I had to name. A third – While Shepherds Watched. A fifth – Baa Baa Black Sheep. No reaction from the examiner. One was a lanky man who remained side-on to me throughout the exam. He didn’t look at me at all. His chair was tipped back, his feet on the desk, he barely acknowledged that I was there. I remember the shape of that man, his trousers with turn-ups, his feet crossed on the desk. I see my fingers on the strings, the bow moving up and down.

Then the wait, the brown envelope with the results. The marks for different pieces, sight-reading, aural tests, the overall result: Grade 1, Merit; Grade 2, Pass; Grade 3, Pass; Grade 4, Fail.

Miss Moss saw me through all those exams, up to Grade 4, except she rarely turned up for lessons in the two terms before my last exam. She had married that year, and the story my mother told was that Miss Moss couldn’t be bothered, was more interested in her husband. She could have been ill; but we were never told. She didn’t return at all the term after I failed Grade 4. There was a man in her place when I went for my lesson. I didn’t take to him, found him scary. ‘I wouldn’t have put you in for Grade 4 if you weren’t ready,’ he said. In retrospect, a reasonable comment, but I wasn’t used to failure. That shameful word on the folded paper, ‘Fail’, was enough to tell me that I was no good and should give up playing.

I was in a Maths lesson when the music teacher hauled me out of class. She seemed angry. ‘What do you think you’re doing, giving up the violin?’ she said. I mumbled something about getting a job in Woolworth’s after school. Said nothing about my developing interest in boys – no time for the violin. She looked furious, turned away in disgust, stomped off down the corridor. I think she was trying to tell me that I was good at the violin, not to give up on music. But people didn’t say that kind of thing in the 1970s. No one ever said it at home, that I played well. It was years later, maybe twenty years, that my mother said, ‘We used to listen to you downstairs. It sounded lovely.’ One word of encouragement might have saved me from giving away my violin to my brother, who had started learning by then.

The violin I play today belongs to my daughter. It’s still hers, if she wants to claim it. She used to practise in her room, but also downstairs, in front of me and her sister. She had lessons until she was 18, the summer before she left for University.

I manage some scales. A few off-key notes, but the fingers of my left hand remember where to go on the strings; the fingers of my right on top of the bow, by the heel, the thumb beneath. My wrists tire quickly. Chronic Fatigue does that to wrists. I pack the violin into its case, loosen the hairs on the bow and tuck it into the slots in the top of the case before clicking it shut. The violin is staying downstairs, to be played a little a few times a week. I won’t be playing alone, shut up in a bedroom.  I shall play along to records, find folk tunes to practise. I won’t be taking any grades.

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