I used to be a musician. In my early years, it was my destiny, my fate, and my doom.
It was my destiny because of my mother. Her father was a music teacher and she herself played piano. She encouraged all her children to enjoy and play music, leading us in “kitchen band” sessions where we accompanied her rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” with our percussion section made of pots and spoons. I showed an aptitude for it, and thus I graduated from a ladle-struck saucier to a real instrument: a violin.
Fate stepped in when it became clear that my aptitude was actually a talent. In addition to playing in school orchestra (back when every public school had a music program) I also began private lessons. These torture sessions–scales, arpeggios, the dreaded Kreutzer etudes–were held in the back room at a neighborhood music shop. The shop was a dark, cluttered space that smelled of rosin and slide grease. Instruments hung on the walls like hunter’s trophies, and the glass case was filled with paraphernalia of all kinds, from strings to reed cutters to mutes of all sorts. Mr. Meacham, my violin teacher, was a stern, unhappy man with curly grey hair and a prim smile that never reached his eyes. He set a very high bar which I approached but never met; it always seemed to be just out of reach, moving higher each time my skills improved.
I call music my Doom because, in the jungle world of the suburban public school system, a thin, bespectacled, bookish boy already has a few strikes against him. Put a violin in his hands and he is marked for social death. Guilt by musical association earned me new labels like”fag” and “queer,” to go with the “four-eyes,” “egg-head,” and “pussy” epithets that had already become part of my daily education. As I carried my violin to school or to my after-hour lessons, my shoulders bowed under this onus, a shameful weight that could not be lifted through parental chiding or by Mr. Meacham’s mantra of “Shoulders back, head up, elbow under, wrist straight.”
Eventually, I accepted and finally embraced this musical path. In my little world, I excelled. At teachers’ urging I picked up other instruments–viola, tuba, baritone, bass guitar–then taught myself French horn and bassoon. Viola became my specialty, and when given the opportunity to try my hand at conducting the high school orchestra, I finally discovered true passion. I conducted symphonies and musicals, I led bands and choirs, and I performed operas staged by local theater groups. When I entered university, a performance major was a given despite my grandfather’s advice that I concentrate on a teaching career, as something to “fall back on.” Refusing to plan for failure, I pressed onward.
I met my second doom in college, where the conducting curriculum required me to play piano. I could play piano, but only by memorizing the music. I had tried piano before, had tried harp as well, but reading two staves–treble and bass–simultaneously was simply beyond my brain’s abilities. Ironically, I could read a full orchestral score in a glance, could pull in trumps and strings with a wave of my hand all on precise cue, but reading just two staves with my hands on piano keys…utter failure. A career as a conductor was denied me.
Unwilling to give up, I struggled onward, got myself a scholarship at a music academy in Jerusalem, but eventually I dropped out. For years afterward, I played with regional symphonies, gaining posts as principal violist, and over the years became increasingly dissatisfied and bored with alternating between winter concerts of the greatest hits of the 19th century and “Edelweiss” during summer “pops” concerts at the winery.
I stopped playing altogether when I turned my interests to writing. Since the day my first short story was published, my viola and violin have rested beneath my bed, their curved cases more like coffins holding their wooden bones. Their bodies are still sound, but the horsehair is off all the bows, and their strings are thin and overstretched.
Today, I’m taking them out. We’ve been apart for too long, and today, I’m taking them to the luthier to fit them up and rejuvenate their desiccated forms. New strings, new hair, repairs to perfling and joints, perhaps even a new case for Natalie (my viola) whose nice, woody voice was the envy of all who heard her.
For, you see, I intend on playing them again. Not in an orchestra or quartet…just by myself, playing solo works or having my own symphonic version of karaoke. It will take me a while to recover all the ground I’ve lost. I will have to start slowly, back to scales and arpeggios, then on to early Mozart and easy Bach, before I can even think of returning to my Hindemith and Piston and Enesco, but I’ll get there. I have time to learn it all again, but I don’t have time to waste.