I started learning how to play the violin when I was just two and a half years old, my mother being a music teacher and all, not a minute of potential was going to pass me by. Consequently, the feel of a fiddle under my chin is second nature – even when I don’t pick it up for years – and reading music is a little bit like looking at another language which I know almost as well as my first.
But despite that (or perhaps because of it), I have had a push-pull relationship with playing music for most of my life. I quit lessons when I was fifteen, started busking at 20 (and paid my way through my first year of college), put my instrument away until I was 24 when I pulled it out again for a university breadth requirement. That course lead me to the Flying Folk Army, a band I established with six other people in 1998 and played with until about 2005. And now? Other than a few forays, I haven’t played at all in the past five years. Five years! That’s after a playing schedule that involved at least one practice and one gig per week for a long time – not to mention the 3 and 4 gig weeks during out busiest periods….. The music, it just slipped out of my life once the band eroded into other lives (we never did break up, we just stopped having time for one another as other things took over).
For the first couple of years I didn’t miss it, a band is a lot of work after all – and after awhile it had begun to feel more like work than I wanted it to. I had taken over gig scheduling and promotion and organizing rehearsals early on, and so I felt a bit burdened by the responsibility of making sure everything ran right in addition to just busting it out on stage. I needed a break from playing and at the time I hoped that the break would morph into some other musical project after I had recouped myself a little. But instead of seeking out other projects, I found myself loathe to look at my violin – preferring instead to sing along to my badly-played guitar which at least I had the excuse to suck at.
And that’s how it’s been, with the exception of some weddings and half-hearted jams. I haven’t wanted to play at all.
Sort of. I mean, I thought I didn’t want to play at all, but then it started that I would hear music recordings that sounded like they were made in a kitchen and I found myself turning them off because it hurt me to hear. Like I’m locked out of that kitchen music and I want back in so bad I could cry from it, and so instead I’ve found myself tuning it out. I stopped going to the gigs of friends for similar reasons, which I thought was a jealousy about being on stage, but recently have discovered that it’s something quite different I miss.
That realization came from a conversation among my old bandmates on Facebook, when afterwards I could hear a particular song echoing in my head all the way home on the bus. Titled “The Ukranian Song” on an old piece of sheet music (that can *not* be its actual name), it is comprised of a slow part and then a fast part (a really fast part) which I used to play in harmony with our accordionist to a backdrop of guitar shots and encouraging shouts by the rest of the band. I wish I had a recording of it handy – but for now you’ll have to put up with this description and believe me when I say it was the kind of song that drove crowds into wild dancing and hollering. Amazing. Anyhow, as I was thinking about all of this I realized that what I missed most of all – more than the creative connection, more than the stage, more than the crazy dancing fools – was the feeling of pure empowered joy that ran through me when I played those insanely speedy numbers. The strength of my fingers, the courage of my physical being to stand up there in front of others and challenge the strings and my fingers to keep up without breaking. That! That is an incredible feeling and I don’t know anything else like it.
It’s what I miss. The melodic to the frenetic, the angst driven into the strings, the blocking out of everything except getting the notes down in the right order, the muscle memory the retains the melody long after the mind has forgotten it. I can’t sing the damn song to this day, but I can still play it (albeit slowly at the moment) if I let my mind go and my body take over.
Remembering that, I feel a pain well up inside me, a trapped impulse to get back to that place of ability and joy, but I don’t want to dial it down anymore. I want to let it out! and as a result I have recently picked up my fiddle. In the living room, sheet music stacked on top of the piano, I hammer my fingers down in exercises designed to bring strength and dexterity back, regain the fine muscle control needed for such daring feats of sound. I swoop my bow out in stretches that reach all the way around my shoulderblades, into my lower back – and I pace with them, improvising on chords and scales, filling the wood up with vibrations in order to restore the sound to my underplayed instrument.
It’s painful at the moment, my mind moves faster than my fingers (it should be the other way round), I trip on the fast runs and my waltzes aren’t light enough. And it hurts! A half hour of playing and my arms are sore from the effort, my lower back doesn’t like the fact I’m sitting at the piano instead of standing and moving my body with the bow. But at the same time I’m reminded how second-nature my instrument is to me – I can pick it up and still play the ten songs embedded in my body, I can improvise on a theme without giving it too much thought. This makes it believable that I might make myself good enough to play with others again, sometime in the not too far future. Perhaps the Flying Folk Army reunion hang-out, perhaps a random jam, perhaps a solo or two at the labour cabaret next month?
I’m not sure if I’ll even keep it up, but answering this call right now seems essential as I seek more ways to incorporate creativity into my life. If ever I could refashion myself, it would be to work less and create more. More of what’s real. More meaning. More joy and beauty. More excitement and freedom of spirit!
My fiddle is just one way to do that. And I am finding my way back stroke, by stroke.