By Kate Levin | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
My violin is beautiful. Its glossy surface is intermittently disturbed by slight cracks in the varnish that make it more rather than less beautiful. The golden-brown body contrasts with the stark black fingerboard, the empty darkness of the F-holes, and the burnished silver of the strings. The varnish on the back of the neck has been worn off or perhaps was never there—I don’t remember.
I lift my violin and nestle it under my chin. My left hand supports the neck in the V between thumb and index finger. My right hand grasps the bow—thumb under the stick, index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and pinky across the top. I draw the bow back and forth across the strings to tune. Start with the A and adjust the other strings to that pitch—the double-stop of A and D, then the D with the G’s low growl. Back to the A and add the E’s high shrillness. I play a three-octave G-major scale, starting with two notes to a bow, increasing to three, four, six, all the way to an improbable 24. I play ten measures of Fiocco’s Allegro before I make a mistake, surprised that my fingers still know what to do.
My violin traveled from Philadelphia to Cincinnati in 1976 as an eagerly anticipated 14th-birthday present from my parents, who heeded my teacher’s advice that I was finally ready for a high-quality instrument. Even though it was my constant companion throughout two orchestras, three years of state competitions, four summers of music camp, and hundreds of private lessons, my violin and I had an ambivalent relationship. It gifted me with music-making and friendship, but although I played well enough, I was a perfectionist who never played as well as I thought I should. After high school graduation, my violin accompanied me everywhere but has mostly lived under my bed, untouched and unloved.
During New York City’s lockdown last spring, my daughter half-jokingly suggested that we form a family band with her on vocals, my husband on piano, and me on violin. We managed two practices before moving on to other quarantine pursuits, like cooking complicated recipes from Bon Appétit, walking in Central Park, and addressing postcards to restore voting rights in North Carolina and Georgia. Long after the band broke up, I kept playing my violin. My violin provided an escape from the constant wail of ambulance sirens in early April. My violin has provided and continues to provide an escape from the loneliness and stress of these uncertain times.
I now practice 30 minutes almost every day and Zoom with my teacher every Friday afternoon. I begin each practice with scales, arpeggios, and études. Next, I work on music, revisiting old acquaintances like the Allegro and Kreisler’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon. Last week I added Mozart’sConcerto No. 3 to the repertoire; it is currently too hard for me but fun to attempt. Some days I would rather be anywhere else; my mind screams, “It’s too hard! Let’s eat cookies and watch The Great British Baking Show!” Other days I enter a meditative state where it’s just me and my violin—at least for those 30 minutes. My rusty skills are improving and I’m discovering that practice does make, if not perfect, at least better. And best of all, time has allowed me to eschew the perfectionism of my youth and enjoy making music for music’s sake (most of the time).
Recently my violin has also given me unexpected musical community. For my teacher’s Zoom recital last month, I chose Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a composition whose lyrical beauty I’ve admired on the cello but never imagined that I would play. I located a pre-recorded piano accompaniment on YouTube and practiced the piece so often that my husband could probably play it by heart. The afternoon of the recital, my husband, daughter, and I gathered around the computer in our guest bedroom, programs in hand and expectations low. “I’m near the end, so you don’t have to stay for the whole thing,” I told them.
From the moment that the first performer, a tiny, pigtailed violinist in a sparkly blue dress, appeared onscreen to squawk out Mozart’s Twinkle Variation A on her 1/4-size violin, we were hooked.
The musicians varied by instrument (strings, woodwinds, brass), age (five to 60), and geography (all over the US and a couple in Europe). Most of us played classical works but some of the younger performers chose popular songs—I can now tell you that “Old Town Road” sounds great on solo violin. Some were beginners, some budding professionals. Regardless of each player’s proficiency, we watched and listened and cheered and clapped, muted but enthusiastic.
When it was my turn, I stood in front of the screen and cued my husband to start the accompaniment. My knees were shaking and there was buzzing in my ears, but I took a deep breath and began to play. The familiar peace of the swan inhabited me as I glided gracefully through the water under a cloudless blue sky. The swan came to its rest with the final G and I came back to the room. I bowed and sat down as the screen displayed audience members applauding and complimenting me in the chat. Even though it wasn’t like performing in a recital hall, and the musicians weren’t able to celebrate together in person, it was much better than nothing.
My violin and I look forward to doing it again soon.