I had an uncle who, intermittently and not necessarily simultaneously, wore a kilt and played the violin. Each for me was exotic—two roads to freedom from the dullness of a prosaic, Southern English youth. For a short time I started highland dancing, with real swords and modest skill. I was seven when I begged to go to the new string class at school. Above all, I wanted the “equipment”: an eighth size violin and silk scarf to wrap it in, violin bow, spare strings, heavy wooden box with green felt lining (just like I used the kilt, jacket, sporran, jabot, and special lace-ups to wear). dancing).
The other kids soon lost weight, bored of playing long, slow notes on open strings. It was indeed deadly and sounded horrific. There is no quick way to become even a modestly experienced violinist. Left alone, it progressed. The nice teacher complimented me on my “good ear” as I saw through Will you no come back again?. I won a place in the junior section of a London conservatory, I went alone, aged 11 until I left school, every Saturday morning: negotiating public transport, having breakfast in cafes and spending the afternoon wandering up and down Charing Cross Road, wondering the mysterious rubber ‘health’ objects (health means sex) hidden in the back of seedy second hand bookstores. It was an education. It was also a miracle that I got out unharmed. A few scary flashes aside, I was left alone.
The only abuse I got, looking back, was from the bullying violin teacher I was assigned. Unfortunately, the experience of being cooped up in a small rehearsal room with an emotionally and psychologically threatening adult is not rare for children learning musical instruments. The necessary intimacy of one-on-one lessons can be a joy or a danger, the risks are only very recently made public, and checked. The same couldn’t happen now. In my case, the problem was not sexual. This teacher, I call her Mme Lorgnette — you have to imagine her, clad in the improbable garb of a gold lamé tuxedo jacket and matching skirt, and muddy brogues — arrived late every week, puffing and blasphemous, pulled by her charmless dog.
While I struggled to do boring technical exercises, Madame blew smoke rings out of her cigarillos and read her newspaper, occasionally yelling “Shut up!” to the dog (or it may have been to me) as he howled in an open contest. Both the dog and the owner were bitingly malodorous, the windowless room an excuse. Every minute was an agony.
At the end of each session, I had to take the dog outside (“make sure it does its job”), making me late for my next lesson elsewhere in the large building. But I had a scholarship. I was lucky enough to be there. My parents were proud. How did people complain at that age? No one ever asked how I was doing, or watched a lesson, or wondered why my progress was so woefully slow and lackluster.
Fortunately, I had no intention of becoming a professional violinist, due to aptitude, application and self-awareness in performing. I can’t totally blame that teacher, but the experience shut down options. I learned less than I could have done. Yet those Saturdays were part of my identity and, in a combative way, the passport to a wider horizon that I so desperately wanted. Although my playing was stalled, I loved the other lessons: the theory and orchestra and music history. Without realizing it, I was equipping myself for the job I would eventually have: writing about music.
After I stopped taking classes and toiling exams, everything changed — late, but just in time. I took exciting music courses and played every spare moment in student ensembles. Nobody yelled at me. There was even laughter. Music came to life, it became life. I started playing in string quartets (usually two violins, viola and cello) with friends and sometimes with strangers. There’s an unparalleled joy in playing chamber music: a joint venture where just getting through can be more difficult and rewarding than you’d ever think. New worlds opened up. To forge the link between myself and the violin – now in my first job as a journalist – I ordered a new instrument, not a common procedure, for amateurs or professionals. I met a violin maker, Julia Barker, who was just setting up a major English violin making school in Cambridge. Every month I saved my meager earnings to pay it, and watched, for two or more years, weathered white wood turn to varnished gold and become an instrument. No one else has ever played that violin. It is far better than anything I could have afforded otherwise, with old Italian instruments being par excellence. It remains my precious possession.
The brakes came on when children arrived. I was a violinist, but one who rested. The children grew up. I started playing again, as far as a busy schedule allowed, and reunited with the same friends. They had continued to play in the intervening years and opened the circle to let me back in.
Then, not long ago, I hit my left arm, the one that makes the notes. Surgery and metal worked wonders, but left it stiff. A Schubert string quartet can last 40 minutes. Extending the arm afterwards requires some teeth grinding. For a professional player, that everyday accident would have ended their career.
As so often in life – read Marcel Proust, read Anthony Powell – the music of the time has danced its forward dance. New tenants, models of the kind, withdrawn, one a master luthier, or maker of stringed instruments. The quiet strumming of lute or oud sometimes floats through the floorboards (a rare boast in South East London Peckham). Could he put a little love back in my fiddle, neglected in lockdown? He took it to his workshop, discovered its maker – now a respected pioneer and veteran of the 90s – and admired its craft. He renews the glue and adjusts parts that were cracked or shifted, restoring the sound and vitality of the instrument. I cannot call playing the violin a hobby. It’s a part of me, silent or not. Like everyone else, I will be making several unlikely resolutions for the new year. If I can get together in one room with friends and play quartets or trios or duos, then I’ll be fine. Don’t expect me to do it alone.
How do you do that
The rise of online classes means an army of tutors is waiting for the chance to discover your sleeping virtuoso. Websites like music teachers or Private music lessons are good places to look. Arts Council England-supported music hubs can also help you access classes or groups in England. Many centers of musical excellence – such as Sage Gateshead and the Royal Academy of Music – Offering classes and community programs for beginners and enthusiasts. The British Council has a list of national initiatives that might inspire you. If you’re a run-down musician and want to find other people to play with, check out Make music or Contemporary music for everyone. On both sites you can search for groups in your area, from choir associations to samba bands. Someone from the neighborhood is singing your tune.