My month with the violin ended sooner than I planned. With summer winding down, the first couple of weeks of September had been relatively quiet. Getting to class at John Adams Middle School hadn’t really been a problem.
Then, suddenly, it was.
Fall was beginning to start and there were a million things to do.
I sent Ms. Perrett my regrets, apologized for my absence and all but offered to get a note from my boss, excusing me, but she told me it was fine. Instead, she let me know where the rest of the class was and what I should work on.
But I never made it back.
Practice at the house tapered off, much to the unvoiced joy of my dogs.
I could feel that the month was coming to an end, and I’d really never accomplished more than scratching out a simple scale.
Finally, it was time to make plans to return the violin to the symphony. It belonged in the hands of a better student — a more devoted student. One who might have some kind of future in music.
Back at the ranch
I met up with West Virginia Symphony Orchestra president Joe Tackett and vice president of education and operations Betty King in Betty’s office at WVSO headquarters on Charleston’s West Side. We talked a little about the value of the strings programs and what I might have missed out on.
There was a lot. I missed out on a night out, for example.
As part of the program, strings students are given cards that get them into select symphony shows.
“They can bring a parent or a chaperone,” Betty said.
“High school kids probably use it as a cheap date,” Joe said.
Probably, if I’d made it to class the previous week with any regularity, I’d have gotten a card and gone to see Leann Rimes on Saturday instead of watching “Parks and Recreation” on Netflix.
It sort of figures ...
Taking classes with a group of sixth-graders was just an introduction to the program, which is much broader.
“Most students start in fourth grade,” Betty said. “They make progress and, by the fifth grade, Sandra Groce starts recruiting for the youth symphony and different ensembles within it.”
In middle school, she explained, lots of things change. Some kids peel away and pursue other interests — sports or theater, maybe. They might move into school band, put down the violin and pick up the trumpet or the drums.
Others continue on, which Betty said was always fun to watch when Kanawha County Schools presented its All County Strings concert in May.
“The fourth-graders will come out and do something like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ and then you’ll have the fifth- and sixth-graders,” Betty said. “By the time you get to high school, it’s wow.”
The goal of the program, they pointed out, wasn’t to create the next Joshua Bell, but to create a positive musical experience for the kids. Maybe they would stick with it. If they had some talent and worked hard, music could help them in school.
Mark Davis, fine arts coordinator for Kanawha County Schools, told me music taught kids to be creative and solve problems differently.
Playing music might also help them get into colleges and pay for their educations.
It paid for Mark, Joe and Betty to attend school and gave them careers, and Mark pointed out that playing music is also valued by some tech companies.
“A lot of tech companies want art degrees to help with apps and programs,” he said. “They want to humanize them, so people can use them. Studying the arts is about studying what it’s like to be human.”
As I turned in my violin — loaned to me through symphony board member Dr. Steven Jubelirer, an amateur violinist — Betty and Joe hoped one of the things I’d take away was how anyone could learn to play an instrument at any age.
I sort of agreed with that, but not entirely.
Not every month goes the way I anticipate — usually, they don’t, actually. I don’t always learn what I set out to learn. Sometimes, I learn something else.
What stuck with me early on was that it seemed like I was picking up the violin pretty easily.
Yes, Ms. Perrett was still trying to get me to relinquish my death grip on the bow all the way up to my last day, but I was beginning to understand what the notes sounded like and where they were on the printed page.
I was as good as a sixth-grader.
Throughout the month, I often thought about my middle school and high school band experience. In sixth grade, I’d picked up a trumpet.
The band director had wanted me to play trombone because he thought I had the right teeth for it. He said my front teeth were nice and straight.
I also had a significant overbite, which an orthodontist would correct — not that it mattered. I’m pretty sure the director just thought he had enough trumpets. He was looking ahead to the high school marching band in a couple of years and was maybe looking to fill up his trombone section.
Maybe I’d have been a better trombone player, but I wasn’t much of a trumpet player. Then I became not much of a baritone player until 10th grade.
I stayed that long because I made friends who were also in marching band. They were smart, bookish, nerdy kids like me, but also a few grades ahead.
My high school music career ended when they graduated — and I never really regretted putting down the baritone.
Music had been a social experience for me, not about learning or loving to play — and certainly not about lugging a heavy, unwieldy piece of brass around a field every Friday night for a couple of months.
I didn’t even like football.
There’s no reason to believe I’d have blossomed as a musician under a strings program, but it might have worked out that way. I might have fallen in love with the violin in a way I never did the baritone.
Who knows? Maybe I’d have continued to play in college or turned the violin into a fiddle and discovered bluegrass at 15, instead of at 35.
So, while I agreed with Betty and Joe about there being no age limit for learning to play an instrument, there is another limit — time.
When I was 10 or 12 years old or even 14 or 15, I had all the time in the world. It wasn’t just that summers seemed to last for years. Every day seemed to go on forever.
There was time to play.
As a card-carrying grown-up, my days are mostly full of obligations and responsibilities. I have a job to do and places to be. At home, there are chores and tasks. Dishes need to be washed. Dogs must be walked, and the grass won’t cut itself.
I don’t think I’m the only one here with this problem.
I get so busy with trying to complete what needs to be done, at the end of the day sometimes I do pretty good just to sink into a chair and watch television for half an hour before falling asleep.
Doing something like picking up a musical instrument and learning to play isn’t impossible, it’s just the reasonable window of time shrinks to the size of a keyhole.
That’s what makes programs like the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s school strings program so valuable.
Your best shot at learning to play an instrument — learning to appreciate any kind of music that isn’t broadcast over the open airways at 100,000 watts with limited commercial interruptions — is when you have the time to do that: while you’re young.