By Lilli Summerlin | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Once upon a January 2012 day, with a radiant heart, I stepped into the studio of an amazing teacher for my very first violin lesson. I was 47 on that day, and it was a very special and long-awaited moment in my life. There I was, with my violin and bow, ready and eager to begin my endeavor. As a very young child, my soul knew the violin and its beautifully complex world had chosen me. I wanted to be part of that beautiful world filled with exquisite instruments, classical music, and captivating vibrato. A world whose sound holds the power to stir up emotions and awaken one’s imagination.
We (music and I) had been introduced by way of radio and television. Hearing and experiencing it was received by me like a gift. A gift delicately wrapped in the prettiest of paper garnished with ribbons of delight, joy, and sometimes tears and sorrow. I’d always wished to be the giver of such a precious gift.
With nothing more than a weekly music class in elementary school and not knowing a single thing about music theory or playing an instrument, decades later, my chance had finally arrived. With a fierce and fiery commitment I dove wholeheartedly into my childhood dream. At first my practices were just a few minutes long, but they soon grew into hours long on just about a daily basis. In my second year of learning, I estimated 1,000 hours of practice, including lesson time. I had much catching up to do since I had been on life’s waiting list for so long. The basics, such as notes on the staff and their place in the music, were a mystery at first. With time, it was amazing to finally see my passion for learning the music and instrument beginning to come to fruition. Although these days, my practice time isn’t nearly as lengthy as in my second year, I do practice most days in the light of the morning sun with a cup of coffee and my two cats by my side.
Three years in, my teacher encouraged me to join a regional orchestra of musicians from all walks of life—from high-school age to those with decades of musicianship to their credit. With an abundance of warmth and encouragement, they welcomed me in as their own from the very first minute. My skill set being in its infantile stages made me feel nervous, as there were many things I still didn’t know. Luckily the no-judgement environment helped put my fears aside. Among the many things I admire, a string player’s vibrato is one of them, as I still struggle with producing such lovely and elegant ornamentation. One thing I know for sure: what I lacked in playing proficiency, I made up for in heart and gratitude when I was offered a seat in the orchestra. In that first rehearsal, upon hearing the sounds of instruments tuning, I felt as though I belonged.
Private lessons coupled with a place in the orchestra provide me with a wonderful music education. I still take lessons and I’m currently in my seventh season with the orchestra. It’s prepared me for such times as playing for church services. Especially meaningful to me is the honor of playing on Christmas Eve for the last several years, for which my favorite piece is “What Child Is This?” I’ve also had the privilege of playing for inspirational music time in a hospital’s chapel, a local fundraiser, and in a nearby tiny town’s little art gallery. The warm acoustics of the onetime one-room country schoolhouse made for a perfect invitation for visitors to stroll in and enjoy the current art installation.
Living in a rural area adds to the many challenges one encounters as a string player. Finding a teacher and long travel times are just a couple of examples. Despite the added difficulties, I’ve had ample opportunities available for growth in my studies and practice. In the first couple of years, I, along with other local beginners, created a fellowship of attending lessons and practicing together. We shared our music at nursing, assisted, and senior-living homes, as well as at a few churches. I’ve participated in workshops, master classes, rehearsals, playing side by side with a professional orchestra’s outreach, and fiddle contests. Some of these opportunities have come easily and others I’ve had to create, such as organizing a master class. It’s quite the undertaking, learning to read and understand music as well as taking on a difficult stringed instrument, especially as an adult.
For me, it’s a delicate balance in a swirling world of taking care of family, home, and whatever else life tosses my way. I progress at a snail’s pace, complete with peaks and valleys. I’ve learned to accept this about myself as well as letting go of comparing myself to others, the latter of which derails focus and diminishes the joy of it all. As with any worthwhile thing in life, integrity, diligent work, and determination (along with the occasional coattails ride) bring about the most rewarding achievements. I am grateful for the much-needed support and encouragement of my beloved husband and family, as well as my friends and teacher; my taking on such an intricate path can be overwhelming at times. My grandchildren are among my dearest supporters. I love being a model of inspiration, courage, and lifelong learning for them.
As for my vibrato—although not yet beautiful, it’s beginning to emerge through my fingers, from my soul. As for the gift—it is my humble wish that I be considered a giver of such.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.