Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.
~Samuel Butler, “Speech at the Somerville Club,” 27 February 1895
This past weekend I had the occasion to do something delightful. Absolutely delightful. Part of what made it so was the unexpectedness of it all.
A colleague and I drove a few hours away to a neighboring state to attend a one-day conference. We volunteered to give up a Saturday and go, of our own choosing and at our own cost, just because it sounded fun. And because we really wanted, yes even needed, a girls’ day out. We talked and laughed and talked some more. All the way there, through lunch, and back again. It was a good day out.
After the conference, we had an extra hour or so to look around. The meeting was held at the Indiana Historical Society, a relatively new facility located in the heart of Indianapolis. In creating a showcase for the best of Indiana history, it was a masterfully designed example of historical interpretation at its most current. The most impressive sections were the rooms created as part of the “You Are There” exhibits. The institution truly makes photographs come to life. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. There are four rooms, each telling a different story, from a different moment in time. The “door” to the room is water vapor, with a photograph projected onto it. When you enter the staged scene, you literally walk through the photograph, which then comes to full three-dimensional life before your eyes. You step into the world of the photograph. You are there. Historical interpreters, well-trained at their craft, interact with you in the moment captured in the photograph. The rooms change periodically. One of the newest had just opened a few weeks earlier. It was 1968, and Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis to give a speech. But he didn’t give the one he intended to, because it was also the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy gave a speech that changed lives, and this exhibit demonstrates how and why.
That scene was intriguing. The living history participants were eager, lively. My colleague and I, not so much. I had a hard time “being” historical. Odd, for a history major, but I’m used to seeing history as just that – history, the past, behind me. Not there in my face, alive, breathing.
That changed in the second room we visited. With our time drawing to a close as the museum ended its Saturday hours, we had to skip two rooms. We ended up in one tucked away on the second floor of the building. The room was set in 1914, in Indianapolis, the shop of a German immigrant. A violin maker and his wife, with his wife’s sister visiting them. I was enchanted. Delighted. Absorbed. I fell into the scene as though born for it, chatting with the wife about violin bridges that were available for sale. Another two-some, a father and daughter from the look of them, were talking to the violin maker himself. The girl was playing. Beautifully. My fingers itched, a long familiar, but long absent itch. I wanted to play.
You see, not many people know that a long time ago, I played the violin. Studied it, worked at it, drilled at it. In all honesty, I never really “played” the violin. It was far too serious to call it that. I played before I could read, books or music. I played before I remember doing anything else, even playing. According to family stories, I was shy. I know, I know, hard to believe now, yes? But I was. I have the newspaper headline to prove it: Shy 3-Year-Old Girl Learns Violin. My parents firmly believed that all their children needed to be able to play at least one musical instrument. My oldest brother played violin and guitar, and he sang. My middle brother played trumpet and piano, and still has a singing voice to be envied, one he used often in community theater work. My sister played piano and guitar, sang like an angel, and composed music as well. I had nothing. But then again, I was only three. They chose the violin. Evidently I was fascinated by watching my older brother, or so I was told. At the age of three, I began professional lessons, training with a husband and wife teaching team. Practiced daily, memorized, trained, and performed. I have articles and clippings, blue ribbons and credits, from various events and recitals. By the time I was in high school, I was getting paid to play, at weddings, at local events, and with a professional orchestra in a nearby town. I spent 7 years with the orchestra, all through high school and college. A variety of stars performed with the orchestra, including Doc Severinson, Shari Lewis (and Lambchop), and Wynton Marsalis to name but a few. But after college, I walked away, knowing that despite my love for it, I didn’t want to make a music career into my life. Despite spending nearly twenty years at it already. I hardly ever touched my violin again. But I still have one. Tucked away, far in the back of some dim closet, where I keep the things I can’t bear to look at or to part with, there in the dark.
The violin maker overheard me tell his wife that I appreciated the offer, but didn’t want to play. “Are you disparaging my violins? The work of my hands?” he asked, playing the offended role to the hilt. “No,” I said. “I’m disparaging the player.” He smiled, a gentle twinkle in his elderly blue eyes. “Come. You play.” He ran his hand down a line of his hand-crafted instruments hanging from the wall. “I have just the one for you.” The finish on the wood glinted like caramel in the sun. The rosin on the bow as he prepared it danced at my nose with remembered sensations. “Try.” So I did. I tucked the instrument under my chin, swinging my hand into position as though I still did this every day. My right hand curved slightly over the grip of the bow, flexing against the pressure as it touched the strings. “Try.” He stepped away, watching. I closed my eyes and did what came naturally – I ran my scales, up and down, trilling and whistling. It didn’t matter that there were no markings on the fingerboard; my fingers knew exactly where to fall. First position, second, even third. Up and down, back and forth. A slip of vibrato into a note or two as I segued into an old favorite piece. When finished, I opened my eyes, catching the soft smile of the violin maker. “Your form is most excellent, as is your ear. You are welcome to play one of my violins whenever you would like.” I smiled and said my thanks as I handed him back his violin.
We got stalled in traffic on the way out of town, moving less than five miles in the first hour on the road. I called my husband to let him know we would be later than planned. “How was it?” he asked. “Delightful,” I said. “Just delightful.”
Oftentimes for me, the most delightful things are the ones that find me unawares, an unexpected touch of joy. How about you? What delights you, brings you an unexpected moment of joy?
[Note: This post is #4 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]