Except for the low hum of the air conditioner and the occasional grumble from the antique refrigerator in my kitchen, the house was quiet.
There wouldn’t be a better time to practice. There was no one to pointedly shut their door or turn up the television to drown me out.
It was just me and the dogs, both of whom were peacefully dozing in the living room.
I unpacked my violin carefully, attached the shoulder rest, set the instrument under my chin and held the neck of the violin with my left hand. There were taped lines to indicate where my fingers were supposed to go to form the notes of the musical alphabet I was starting to learn.
I got in position and began to fiddle around with the violin.
I thought my classes at John Adams Middle School, through the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s student string program, were going well. The other kids had gone from making sidelong glances in my direction to talking to me a little.
Nobody seemed interested in why I was there or what I was doing. At least, they didn’t ask about it. Instead, we discussed shoes and the sound financial sense of owning your own horse.
If we each had our own horse, we’d all have access to fresh horsehair to replace whatever snapped off in our violin bows.
Our violin teacher, Ms. Perrett, didn’t seem to think that was a great idea and mentioned that it was a lengthy process to clean the horsehair and string it. But I was surprised that violin bow-makers still used animal hair. I’d thought in this brave new world of the Impossible Whopper, there would be a comparable vegan/vegetarian alternative.
While I wouldn’t say I was any kind of violin prodigy (that boat sailed back when Ronald Reagan was president), I felt like I was kind of getting the gist of how to play.
Yes, I was still having trouble getting my right hand to hold the bow correctly. I gripped it kind of like how I hold a cereal spoon.
“Getting the bow hold right can take weeks, months even,” Ms. Perrett told me patiently, after the third or fourth time she had to help me adjust my grip.
I couldn’t help but notice that she wasn’t regularly adjusting anyone else’s grip. The 11-year-olds mostly had this one down.
Finally, I decided to ask her to take pictures of my hand with my phone that I could study on my own. I’d done something similar when I’d spent a month with the Charleston Ballet preparing for “The Nutcracker.”
I’d been unable to keep the steps and turns in my head and had finally just shot a video of the sequence, which I watched over and over.
Honestly, I’d never performed the steps exactly right, but I got pretty close — close enough to get away with it without anyone really noticing.
It helped that I wasn’t at the very front of the stage.
With the picture, I thought I could look at the bow hold whenever I took the instrument out to practice — but I wasn’t really practicing all that much. I’d had a busy couple of weeks and hadn’t done much beyond looking at the instruction book while shoveling food in my mouth during lunch at my desk.
Practice, practice, practice
On a Sunday, after I’d made my weekly long run, I’d taken the violin in a back studio at West Virginia Public Broadcasting while looking at the playlist for my Saturday night radio show. I’d plucked a few blunt notes, away from anyone who’d offer a word of commentary, but I hadn’t spent more than a couple of minutes out of fear someone would stumble in.
There are enough people at WVPB who know what a violin is supposed to sound like. I really couldn’t handle the pity.
A day later, in my office at the house, I held the violin in place and began plucking out the first notes of the scale we’d learned in class.
In the next room, Penny, the Jack Russell terrier, scampered to the window and began to yap. She barked even as I yelled, ‘Hey, it was me. I was making the noise. It’s fine.”
Penny continued to bark until I finally gave up and put the violin away.
Rudy, the black lab mix, never made a sound, never stirred from the chair he usually occupies, but he hardly cared what I did as long as I wasn’t dressed like a UPS driver.
The barking rattled me a little.
It was a couple of days before I decided that, yes, this is my house and, yes, I can practice the violin if I want to, even if my dog doesn’t think much of my playing.
Once again, the sound of me plinking the notes out set her off, though she never seemed to be able to figure out where it was coming from. She kept barking at the window.
I wanted to practice. We had made more progress in class. We had begun to do more exercises with the bows.
Ms. Perrett helped us (mostly, helped me) fasten cardboard tubes to the bridge of our violins, so we could work on bowing as a group without sounding like we were being attacked by a horde of angry cats.
We practiced resting the bow across the correct strings in the correct way — you want the bow to cross the strings perpendicularly and not at an angle.
Ms. Perrett showed us how to lift our right, bowing arms to angle the bow to go from string to string. Later, we might learn about playing multiple strings, but in the beginning, it was just supposed to be one string at a time.
Finally, it was time to make some noise.
I rested the bow across the strings of my violin. I stared up toward the tip of the violin, the scroll, not sure which string the horsehair of my bow rested on.
It might be the D string, but it might be the A string. This close, the strings looked blurry. I should’ve brought my reading glasses to class.
I squinted and then closed one eye. That helped. I angled the bow to get it where it was supposed to go, then pulled downward.
At last, the violin made something like music. I smiled. Well, what do you know?
Almost as good as applause
At home to practice, alone again except for the dogs, I broke out the beginner’s book and my instrument. I spent a couple of minutes listening to Penny in the next room barking.
Then, I took out the bow and carefully scratched out the scale we’d plucked out in class earlier that day. It was something we hadn’t actually done. We’d only played a couple of simple exercises, but I wanted to see if it would sound the way it was supposed to.
Slowly, I sawed away while adding fingers one, two and three to the D string and then following the same pattern with the A string.
It wasn’t particularly smooth, but I’d made actual notes and the dog had stopped barking.
Penny sat in the floor by my feet, looking up, not offended, only curious and waiting to see what I’d do next.