Kids with parents and brothers and sisters in tow trickled into the West Side offices of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra on a Friday afternoon. These were eager, aspiring musicians come to call — mostly fourth-graders from Charleston-area schools who’d come to pick up their very first instruments.
Not as eager — and a little wary, if I’m honest — I loitered off to the side, next to a full-size cardboard cutout of WVSO music director and conductor Lawrence Loh, standing a few feet away from the actual conductor who was in town and greeting kids as they stepped into the lobby.
This was something of an annual ritual with the symphony.
New students collected their rental instruments for the year, and a member of the symphony gave them a few pointers on care and cleaning.
The symphony prefers students to get instruments through one of their music-store partners.
Betty King told me, “Every year, someone comes up with a $100 violin they found online, and ...”
She shook her head. Just don’t do it.
At the very least, the rental instruments for the kids were fitted for their child-size bodies. When the students grew, which was likely, they could trade up for the next size.
I already had my violin, anyway. It was a loaner from the symphony, donated by a longtime patron who probably would have wished the instrument had gone to a more deserving or talented musician.
I’d begun my month with the symphony’s string program through Kanawha County Schools nearly a week before, been assigned to a sixth-grade class, which I’d originally took to be a group of fourth-graders, even though they seemed kind of tall and the classes were at John Adams Middle School.
This is NOT brown-nosing
Our teacher was Annaliese Perrett and she was good. I would know. I grew up around teachers. It’s almost weird that I’m not one.
Both of my parents were teachers. Dad taught English, government and history. Mom taught math and ran a high school math department.
My sister, Susan, is an elementary school teacher in Virginia. My sister Laura just started graduate school for special education in Tennessee. My best friend teaches business at the high school where we graduated.
Every year, at the beginning of summer he gloats about not having to go to work. Every year, at the end of summer, I remind him he’ll have to get used to getting up early all over again — plus he’ll have homework.
We will do this until we’re both dead — or he retires. My retirement is tied up in lottery tickets.
Meanwhile, my aunt works for Longwood College; and somewhere in Flint, Michigan, there’s a football field named after my grandfather, who was the head custodian of a school system.
So, maybe I know a little about teachers. And what I liked about Ms. Perrett was that, in addition to being very positive and upbeat, she had nerves of steel.
The little guest-house of education she’d been assigned to teach strings in has a longstanding and ongoing problem with wasps. Half the time I get to class, there’s one or two of these congenitally merciless bugs cruising through the air.
One afternoon, a wasp took a particular liking to Ms. Perrett and landed on her hand. Ms. Perrett remained calm and continued talking about the violin and the cello, even as every eye was on the hateful insect creeping around her knuckles, between her fingers and over her wrist.
The wasp would not leave, but it didn’t sting.
At an even, but unhurried pace, Ms. Perrett walked to the outside door, opened it and gently shooed the wasp out into the daylight.
Then she drew us back into the day’s lesson, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
My acclimation to the violin had been slow, but I’d mostly kept up with the rest of the class. Through the first week, we often held the instrument like a guitar or a mandolin and plucked the strings with our pointer finger.
As long as we didn’t put any pressure on the open strings to change them from the basic E, A, D and G notes, I did pretty good.
Ms. Perrett taught us a song about Every Ant Digging in the Ground to help us remember the order. We sang it in class. We sang it while she played the piano. I sang it in the car on the way back to the office in the middle of the afternoon, and I got most of the words right most of the time.
But things became a lot more complicated when we started applying pressure to the strings to make notes besides the open E, A, D or G.
My impression is that a violin works best when played by someone with strong, agile and small fingers. A violinist needs to be able to spear each string precisely, while leaving the other strings around it untouched.
Ms. Perrett showed us how to curl our fingers around the neck of the violin, to form a kind of “C” over the strings strung across the fingerboard.
We were supposed to press down on the D string to make a G, while still keeping the A string below the D open.
I was awful at that. My thick, tater tot-like fingers mashed the strings, and I had about as much luck hitting only one string as I’ve had with hitting the Powerball.
I wasn’t great at holding the bow either.
It took a while before we broke the bows out of the case, and — like the violins — there was a right way to hold the bow and a wrong way.
The right way is to wedge the wooden rod of the bow between a bent thumb and the middle and forefingers. The pointer finger sort of helps direct the bow, while the pinky helps steady it.
My fingers rebelled against the pose. I wanted to clench the thing in my fist, like a club, but that probably wouldn’t have helped with the sound.
Ms. Perrett said it was normal to struggle with holding the violin and the bow. With playing and practice, we were developing muscles that were seldom used.
“Just keep working on it,” Ms. Perrett said, encouragingly.
She seemed certain I’d get it — eventually.
I’m not sure the other kids in the class agreed.
Every now and again, one of them would look over in my direction, but they didn’t speak to me. I was a curiosity, and the subject of some amusement. They’d been told why I was parked in a seat, that it was part of my job, but I wasn’t acting like a typical adult, like a parent or a teacher.
None of them seemed too crazy about sharing a music stand with me.
I felt like the new kid and that I’d really bought into the entire middle school experience.
The lessons continued.
We plowed through the exercises. Most of them seemed like drills to help drive home the location of specific notes, but we kept our bows in their cases. We continued to tap and pluck the strings with our fingers and a lot of the time, I got the notes right.
A couple of times, I was strumming the wrong string or screwed up the fingerings, but I began to make some progress. Along with the rest of the class, I got better at keeping the rhythm of the music and playing in unison with the other students.
My best moment was when we played a D scale.
Straight out of the textbook, “Essential Elements for Strings” Vol. 1, “A scale is a sequence of notes in ascending or descending order. Like a musical ladder, each note is the next consecutive step of the scale.”
We played D, C sharp, B and A and then played G, F sharp, E and D.
I didn’t miss a single note. Honest.
But I was still a long way from “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”