I closed my eyes and let the sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons bloom around me, the hisses and pops of the record player almost loud enough to be felt. Mom said yes! I smiled to myself. After years of wanting to play the violin, years of begging my mom to get a violin, years of being told to practice the piano instead… my mom had just told me that I would be getting a violin for my birthday. I leaned into the music… letting the trilling sounds of the bird float around me. Soon that will be me, I thought. Soon I’ll be strumming away, bow sweeping through the air, fingers flying.
I sighed and let my arm fall to my side, holding my violin with just my chin. Learning to play was harder than I’d thought. Even after a year of lessons, when I practiced for long periods of time, I would just need to shake out my arm and give it a rest. My thumb absentmindedly caressed the small calluses that had formed on the fingers of my left hand. There were signs that I was growing. I could play hymns from the psalter hymnal now, the big songbook that we used in church. My dad could even sing along with me when I did so.
“Beth! Mom says dinner’s ready!” my younger sister Karianne called from downstairs. Reluctantly I put down my violin. I would need to finish practice after dinner. I hadn’t yet mastered the new hymn I was learning. Four flats! I thought in annoyance. Why did they print the song in Ab? I thought. I carefully laid my violin inside its case. Even though I would be back right after dinner and dishes, I still took the time to gently and lovingly wipe the excess rosin powder off my violin and loosen the horsehair strings of my bow.
“Beth, get your shoes on! We need to leave now!” Hearing my mom’s voice, I quickly shoved the book I was reading into my backpack. It would get taken away if I kept reading it and didn’t get ready to go right away.
“How long does it take to get to St. Thomas, Mom?” I asked. My beloved violin teacher had gotten married and moved away during the summer. This was my first day with a new teacher. My mom had called around everywhere, trying to find someone good for me. This was the closest teacher we could find who came highly recommended.
“It’s at least half an hour. And I’m exactly sure where it is. We need enough time in case we get lost.” Like me, my mom was a big fan of getting to places early. Maybe I had actually learned it from her.
“My name is Pieter,” said the big man in front of me. I was a little shocked. My old teacher had been a petite blond lady, nothing like this hulking, hairy giant, speaking with a thick accent. I timidly entered the room and put my violin case down, opening it and starting to prepare it to play. Getting it ready was a calming ritual, a feeling as familiar as home. I picked up the violin, turned it over in my arm, and slid on the shoulder rest, all under the watchful eye of my new teacher.
“No, not like that,” he said brusquely. His voice boomed in the quiet of the room, all blank wooden walls. I looked up, puzzled. This is how I always put on the shoulder rest. How can I be doing that wrong? It feels right when the violin is on my shoulder!
Pieter’s large hands picked up the violin from mine, surprisingly deft, and he slid the shoulder rest around an infinitesimal amount. “See?” I did not see how his position was any different from mine.
Carefully, I laid the violin on the table beside the case. I flipped open the small compartment and grabbed the block of rosin, and then turned the piece of plastic holding my bow in place in the top of the case. For a moment I juggled both the bow and rosin while trying to tighten the hairs on my bow. I was flustered, being watched with Pieter’s eagle eye. Suddenly each step of the routine felt awkward and new, not the familiar friend I was used to. What are you doing, Beth? I asked myself, annoyed. You should be able to do this in your sleep!
Pieter watched as I tried to complete the task. I could feel the heat creep up in my cheeks and knew my face was turning red. I finally put the block of rosin down on the table, grasping my bow in both my hands. I turned the metal end 8 times, like usual, then tested the springiness of the horse hairs, pressing them against the back of the bow. Perfect, I thought. I picked up the rosin again.
“No, no.” I flinched involuntarily at the big voice in my ear. Again, Pieter reached for my bow. He loosened the hairs ever so slightly, then held the bow out in front of himself, analyzing it critically. “Yes.” He nodded, looking very pleased with himself. “You see?”
I did not see. How is that any different from what I had before? I wondered. I sighed internally, not sure what he was asking me to notice. I took the bow back into my hands, holding it my left, the block of rosin in my right. Swish, swish, swish, swish. The rosin sang its nearly imperceptible song as it swept along, up, down, up, down. I put the block down.
This time I was ready for the voice from behind me. “No. More here.” Once again, the bow was lifted out of my hands. Once again, he swiped rosin just along the end of my bow. Swish, swish. “Like so.”
Each moment of the lesson continued as it had begun. I stood to play, feet planted, and lifted the violin to my shoulder. “No, move your foot like so.” I raised my right arm to sweep the box down. “No, lift your elbow like this.” Pieter asked me to play a G scale. Easy, I thought. First scale I learned! Now he’ll see that I can play. Pieter stopped me after two notes. “Your fingers. Why do they clench like this? Loosen them. Let them dance.” He picked up his own violin and his fingers danced up the fingerboard, bow sweeping through the notes of the scale. He finished with a flourish, the final notes ringing in the room around us. My chest tightened. I don’t sound like that yet, I thought. I took a deep breath, holding my violin with my chin and wiping my palm on the leg of my jeans. Take two.
Again, I was stopped three notes in. I could feel the tightness in my throat, the burning in my eyes that meant tears were on their way. I’m better than this, I thought. Why can’t he just let me play? Again, Pieter showed me a tiny change to make. The first tear slipped out of my right eye, and I felt its hot trail all the way down my cheek. I turned slightly away so that he would not see it trickle down. This time I made it to the top of the scale before being stopped. Again, Pieter demonstrated a change in bowing he wanted me to make. I lifted my violin and began, my eyes overflowing and tears streaming down both cheeks as I blinked and sniffled. At least I have the scale memorized, I thought morosely. I don’t need to look at any music.
“Why you cry?” Pieter’s voice cut through my silent pity party.
I just stared for a moment. Because you are correcting me at every single step. Because apparently I can’t do anything right. Because this is my dream, but apparently it’s actually a nightmare. Because you don’t seem to see or care that I actually know what I’m doing! For a brief second I considered speaking these thoughts aloud, imagined hurling the words at him like little daggers of self-defense. But I knew that speaking would turn the tears trickling down my cheeks into actual sobs. Instead, I shook my head, angrily brushed away the tears from my cheeks, sniffed, and lifted my violin again, part defiance, part stubbornness, part desperation to just get through this lesson and then tell my mom I wanted to quit.
The lesson seemed interminable.
“Okay, Beth. Tell me once and for all why you’re crying.” My mom had asked several times during the drive home, but I had sat stubbornly, face turned to the window, tears trickling down my cheeks silently as the fields slid by outside of the van. My dad had asked too, coming to meet us when we arrived back home, the surprise showing on his face when I slid out of the van, refusing to talk, only going inside and lying down on my bed. Lunch was done, dishes were finished, and my mom had called me to the living room alone, away from all of my siblings. I knew I wasn’t going to get out of this one.
“Because… because…” Immediately, the chest tightness, the ache in my throat, the sting in my eyes all rushed back in. “Because I actually CAN play the violin, and Pieter just wouldn’t let me!” I was now nearly shouting through my tears, great heaving gasps of air rushing in and out of my lungs between phrases. “Because he wouldn’t just let me play! Because every single thing I did was wrong! I thought I was good at that, but I’m not and I hate it and I never want to take lessons again and I don’t want to play ever again!” The last words came out in a rush and surprised even me. I knew even as I said them that they weren’t true. But my dreams of being a concert violinist seemed dashed, broken, lying in pieces on the floor around me.
My mom sat back in her seat. A smile played around her lips. “Oh, Ashes,” she said, her favourite nickname for me. “You don’t take lessons for things you can already do! You take lessons because you need to learn something!”
“Yes, but he’s making me do all the things I knew already! I can’t do any of it right!”
“Does Pieter play better than Marijka did?” Mom asked thoughtfully.
I flopped back in the couch, crossing my arms begrudgingly. “Yeah, but -”
Mom cut me off. “Then he will teach you well.” She got up. Clearly in her mind the conversation was over.
“But Mom! Didn’t you hear me? I can’t… actually… play!” I emphasized each word clearly, trying to stress the importance of this to my mom, who didn’t seem to understand.
“Exactly, Beth. That’s why you’re learning. Why don’t you go practice what you covered in your lesson today before you forget the finer points?”
I picked up the violin out of my case, slipping on the shoulder rest just so. I twisted the end of my bow, gauging how much curve there was in it. The rosin swished across, up, down, up, down, up, down. I planted my feet, raised the violin, and began playing, the sounds of the Bach Minuet filling the air around me. It wasn’t Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but four months with Pieter had me sounding better than ever. I would get there. With enough practice and hard work, I would get there.