At some point in my early life, I started collecting ideas about what I was not:
- I’m not a dog person.
- I’ve never been athletic.
- I’m no artist.
- I’m certainly not a skydiver.
- I’m never going to be a poet.
- I’m not good at math.
- I’m not a singer, not a dancer, not an actor, not a musician.
You get the picture.
Soon after I turned 40, a book fell into my hands at the downtown public library. This happens to me a lot because I go looking for it. It’s a variation on what SARK calls a miracle walk, where I walk through the stacks alert for a book to jump out at me.
The book in this case was Barbara Sher‘s Creating Your Second Life After 40. It seemed appropriate. Despite going through a major life transition six years earlier (I came out at 34 and left my marriage) I was still a stay-at-home mom. My two sons were growing up and they no longer needed me to be at home. Besides, I was restless. I was ready for new challenges, a change in direction.
But which direction?
Sher advised that I make a list of everything I dreamed of doing when I was 18 and everything I dreamed of doing now. My list was lengthy. Some of the wishes surprised me: sing a duet of Jaded Lover with Jerry Jeff Walker, learn to play the violin.
Play the violin? Where did that come from? Sure, I loved to hear the violin. I loved listening to music of all kinds, folk music in particular—a result, no doubt, of coming of age against a soundtrack of Vietnam protest songs. But loving music didn’t make me a musician of any stripe. As a child I played piano and I clearly had no natural talent. I couldn’t play by ear, and I translated what I read from sheet music clumsily, no matter how many times I practiced my scales. I have nightmares still about piano recitals where I shook so violently that my fingers couldn’t hit the right notes. In junior high school, too fearful to sign up for drama or art, which I secretly wanted to do, I chose band as my elective. My career as an alto saxophone player was painful and brief.
Violin music, though, stirs me in a way I have never fully understood. Apart from the human voice—certain voices more than others—Andrea Bocelli, Sarah McLaughlin, kd lang—no instrument unleashes my imagination or resonates my spirit like the clear, spacious sound of bow across string.
One day about 15 years ago I was in my Fairfield living room listening to the CD of a local folk singer, Kevin Woodward. Kevin had recorded a song by the late T.R. Ritchie, I’ll Meet You Halfway, with an evocative violin solo after the second verse played by local fiddler Caridwen Irvine. I stood in front of the picture window listening to the song and feeling my heart expand with every note of Caridwen’s solo.
I want to play that passage, I allowed myself to think.
That very second, Caridwen strode past my house, her dark hair flying out behind her as she half-ran to meet some deadline, or perhaps she was moving in time to a rapidly accelerating klezmer fiddle tune, the kind I’d heard her play at the Norway House Folk on Sunday nights. I was so shocked to see her at that moment that I ran out the door without thinking.
“Caridwen! Listen! That’s you!”
She whirls around and peers at me like her glasses are fogged up. Silently her face asks, “Who are you?”
“Listen. It’s your solo on I’ll Meet You Halfway on Kevin’s CD.”
She listens until the music clicks. “Oh, right!”
“Could you teach me to play that?”
“Do you play the violin?”
“No, not a note, but I want to learn.”
Caridwen tells me to call Old Town Strings, the shop in Market Square where she teaches several days a week, and book a time slot. For the next few months, I show up every Wednesday at 2 p.m. for my lesson, and I practice faithfully every day.
I’d like to be able to tell you that I play the violin beautifully now, but in truth, I took pity on my family and our basement tenants and quit after squeaking out Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star a gazillion more times than any of us ever wanted to hear.
Don’t blame Caridwen. I sucked.
Of course, I realize now that I simply couldn’t tolerate the excruciating discomfort and embarrassment of being a beginner. I’ve read Outliers, and I believe Malcolm Gladwell that the primary difference between a person who is “gifted” in just about any field and a person who sucks the way I sucked at playing the violin is about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. I’m fairly certain that if I had stayed with it, I’d now be able to play that violin passage on I’ll Meet You Halfway. Who knows? I might even manage an allegro klezmer tune.
But I didn’t stay with it, and I can’t play the passage. I’m okay with that. We all have limited time on the planet, and we have to prioritize our dreams. Playing the violin is too far down my list. Besides, I can listen to Caridwen play it any time I want. I own the CD.
On the other hand, as long as Jerry Jeff Walker and I are both drawing breath, I won’t give up my dream of singing a duet of Jaded Lover with him. I’m still practicing!
Photo credit: lightfoot, morguefile