I found myself laughing out loud at the predicament of my Florida friend.
“Now she’s sobbing between songs.”
Sideways glances on the bus directed towards my quiet chuckles and shaking shoulders made me laugh even more. Yes, I was chuckling at the discomfort of a child being structured to practice her violin by her father. She had forgotten to log her time and he made her go back into the bathroom where she could see her posture in the mirror and practice the songs on her list.
First she started to rebel by saying her fingers hurt, and dad had an answer for that too. “Well are they bleeding?” He had once taken his own masochism so far as to practice his guitar until his fingers were bleeding from the constant touch of the strings.
“She was sobbing because her back itched.”
The text on my phone buzzed with an additional:
“I must not understand females.”
This was the exchange that got me laughing so much my shoulders were shaking. It wasn’t about women, or girls for that matter. It was more about the different ways that you could procrastinate so that your parent(s) would finally give up out of frustration. I remember not necessarily refusing the task put to me by my father or mother, since that would be outright rebellion. I would find as many reasons as possible to find more important things to do. I distinctly recall my older brother, Reinhold, always going to visit the bathroom immediately following a meal. My dad would always make the comment that he was making more room, but I was certain that Reinhold was doing it specifically to avoid doing the dishes.
“I’m sorry, I can’t stop laughing,” I told him.
“It’s so funny,” was my reply. “You can scratch it for her?”
“I did,” he responded, “Pissed her off even more. Glad my turmoil is entertaining you!”
A few minutes later he told me, “Apparently I scratched too hard.”
By the time I replied I was dying with laughter,” … of course you did…”
I winced as I had the thought, but my Florida friend was allowing me to live vicariously through him and his children. I wondered if Paul had lived if he and I would have ended up having the same conversation about his kids. In my life plan, he was going to be the awesome father and I was going to be the crazy aunt. Parenting is hard and children have minds of their own. Structure and discipline have fine lines that involve playing a game with them and yourself so that no one ends up losing their mind from frustration. It’s our job as children (and adults) to push that line and see how far we can stretch the rules by finding other reasons to follow different ones. I had to commend him for winning the “game” by asking if she would like to come out into the living room to perform. There’s nothing like acknowledgement from dad and the two sisters to be a new motivational tool.
I don’t remember much about the practice structure that my parents put in place when I started playing the viola. It makes me want to say that there wasn’t one.
The rules I do remember were that at the very beginning we weren’t allowed to use the bow. I did pizzicato with my right hand, thumb pressed on the edge of the finger board while I pressed my fingers into the stickers that had been placed on my fingerboard. We weren’t allowed to tune our instruments either, and before each class at school would like up with our instruments with our teacher tuning them one by one at the piano.
I know that it didn’t take long for me to decide that I couldn’t wait for the next class to have my instrument tuned. I would have my instrument at home and I would turn them in secret to get them to where I knew they needed to be. I also remember thinking my stickers were just a little bit off and just placed my fingers “just so” in order to get the sound that I thought I should be hearing. I was very pleased when my teacher would make nearly no adjustments to my viola when I brought it in line at the piano.
Then one day while I was tuning my viola at home, the A string snapped. It whipped against my hand like a tiny slap and the sting against my skin was minor compared to the giant sinking in my heart. I started bawling, thinking that this would be the proof my teacher needed to know that I was tuning my own instrument against the rules and she would take it away. She would take my viola away!
I showed up in orchestra class two days later with a heavy heart and hanging head and told her that my string had broken. She didn’t yell or scold me. She told me that sometimes those things happen and she put a new A string on my viola that sounded strange and bright to my ears. I went home that evening and kept plucking tunes against the A string, shifting my fingers on and around the stickers to tickle my ears with the tones.
I don’t know when music became the place that I always went to escape. I remember always exploring the sounds against the strings as I graduated to using the bow, but always coming back to pizzicato when the mood was right. I remember making excuses about ringing hand bells on treble clef because it wasn’t what I knew as a viola player. I would sing with my sister on our walks home from school taking songs we knew and then tacking on whatever we wanted to them. I even wrote songs in middle school, learning enough to fill in the eighth notes methodically on the alto clef like any twelve year old would so that other viola players could play the song with me. That first song I wrote out on paper twelve years old has had many iterations in my life by many names, the most recent known as “The Process” with Athens at Dawn or “The Geli Snort” with SeaStar.
Music was so saturated in my soul even as a child, and I was thirsty for more. When my dad got a new job in Hickory, North Carolina it was time to move again. I started at a new school in a new county my freshman year with no orchestra program. I was living in a desert.
I know it was hard for me, and my dad made the effort to find some after school extra-curricular orchestra but all I had was hard sheet music in front of me and strangers all around me. I remember sitting there amongst other student players, trying to hear or understand the music but no one around me was welcoming or understanding. I felt like my instrument was dust and I was just sitting inert with no encouragement or connection to the music. I don’t know if it was my voiced displeasure with that whole experience or the logistics of getting me to that group after school, but I never returned.
So when push came to shove and I had a million other considerations to move to my mom’s house, I know that I liked the idea of being able to play in an orchestra with other string players again.
When I did move, I was the new girl again with two years of dust collecting on my viola which is a lot of time at the age of 16. I practiced and practiced to make sure that I would be able to catch up. It was my time and space. Music was the vortex I wrapped around myself to be in a place I could control.
I started to drive myself to school and I got there early so that I could find parking on the street. I was early enough that I would go in through the cafeteria where everyone would wait for the first bell to ring before pouring into the rest of the school. And I would break the rules. Again.
I would leave the cafeteria and make my way to the auditorium with my viola. Not to put it on the shelf to wait for me to open up my case at the end of the day; here I had time. I would go into the dimly lit auditorium and climb the steps of the stage to push aside the black curtain and pull up a chair and a stand behind it. My case would open, and I would begin to play music.
At first I would play the sheet music we had been assigned. The next pieces we needed to know for the next concert. But I would stray away from the black notes on the paper and start exploring the strings again like I did as a child, but with more confidence. I was old enough to be trusted to tune my own instrument. And this space; this place behind the heavy black curtains was mine.
There was one day, either at the beginning of orchestra, or during a break when I heard the bass player and pianist noodling around with some song I’d never heard. Even with the curtains up and lights on for class, I felt like I could speak my musical voice in this space. I started doing my own noodling around, laughing as I went.
After started looks at my tones, they started whispering to each other, “She’s laughing.”
It was the dark-haired, blue eyed heartbreaker that decided to brave my laughter.
“Have you ever heard of the Dave Matthews Band?” he asked.
I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter. I learned. I learned how to listen and mimic and also add my own flare. We even played at a graduation party. One of the seniors saw me, a junior and a viola player wielding the violin and asked if I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t a 17 year old, white Boyd Tinsley, but I knew enough. I knew enough that she didn’t ask me again after we played our set.
Fast forwarding to fifteen years later and I’ve learned a much more delicate touch. I’ve learned the art of listening to not only notes, but intent and heart. A woman I had never met but saw me play improvisationally in a songwriting circle referred to me as the “nearly psychic fiddle player.” Sonya, a woman I had just met on her tour from NYC, called me an alien. Maybe I am. I am the great and powerful OZ.
Because I still inhabit that space behind the black curtains. The sight of the dim lights, the feel of my viola, closing my eyes to the music that starts tugging itself from out of my heart are where I go. I listen. I hear the conversation, and I start talking back with the instrument that is tucked safely under my chin. “You’ve had the power all along,” I tell everyone as I float away. “You’ve been there all along.”
“There’s no place like home.”