I started playing violin when I was about 8 years old and I can still remember the day I was given the violin to take home. We’d all been called into the school hall in our PE kit. There were visiting teachers asking us to stamp and clap to rhythms. Then, unaware of what all this was about, a few of us were picked out and lined up outside a classroom to be seen individually. I was asked to sing, to copy what I’d heard played on the piano. Then I was given a slip of paper and told to take it to the next room. All this time I had no idea what any of this was about, but I worked out I probably wasn’t in trouble and at my school that was my main concern. Our headmistress was an awful woman who used the cane and I was very frightened of her.
So I took my slip of paper into the next room and was shown a violin. I had to hold it to check it was the right size and was told to remember the names of the strings with the mnemonic ‘Elephants Are Dark Grey’, EADG, from the highest string to the lowest.
The group lessons must have started a few days later – there were four of us with violins and four with cellos. (I was always a bit envious of the cellists because I loved the sound). I played for about six months before I took a grade 1 which I failed (I got 99 points and I needed 100 to pass) because my sight reading was so poor. It still is. I mainly play by ear, I find music very difficult to see, and despite the fact I’m working on grade 8 and diploma music I still find myself confused over the note names!
I think my problems might be a consequence of the way I was taught. As an example, the note B, which you find in first position by placing your first finger on the A string, was not written as B, but as A1. The note C was A2. And so on. I think that this was an experimental way of teaching music at that time, but it just confused me. At my school we had already been having regular music theory lessons which included learning the notes on the stave and the note lengths. The entire A1, A2 thing was an exercise in futility.
I played for about 9 months, but eventually I chose to give up because my parents always complained if I practiced and complained if I didn’t, and because I wanted to get back at my headteacher.
I finally lost my fear of her one day when she’d done something awful and clearly enjoyed it, so I stormed up to her at the end of a school assembly and quit both orchestra and choir. To see the panic on her face was just brilliant. It was worth it for me at the time.
So fast forward quite a long time. I was approaching one of my main birthdays and I was in a thoughtful mood. Sometimes you have those periods where you reflect on your life and think about what it all means and try not to get maudlin. This was one of those. I was thinking about what I’d achieved so far and if there were any areas in my life where I felt regret. I suppose I wanted to be able to identify them and face them so that I could deal with them there and then while I still had the chance. (All of this was probably inspired by reading books by and about Carl Jung).
I realised that one of the only things I really regretted was not playing a musical instrument, I regretted giving up violin. I was annoyed that the grade 1 was the only exam I had ever taken that I had failed. And so I resolved to do something about that.
I’m really lucky that in my town, less than a ten minute walk away, is a place called Dorset Rural Music School. I plucked up the courage to go in one day, and found myself chatting with Brian, the administrator. I walked out with a rental violin and a date for my first ever one to one lesson.
That was September 2012. In December 2012 I took my grade 1 again and this time I passed with distinction. That was all I had wanted to achieve originally, but I really enjoy playing and I really like my teacher Richard and so I carried on.
By December 2013 I had passed my grade 5 violin and grade 5 music theory.
I had been planning on taking grade 8 violin in the summer of 2016, but that didn’t work out because I moved to America for a bit. So I’m working on that now, along with some diploma pieces.
I practice most days, probably for an hour or so. I’m trying to be more thoughtful and am taking my teacher’s advice about being more focused on achieving particular results – mastering a bar or two – rather than feeling I have to play through entire pieces of music.
I’m trying to be more thorough with scales. That means 3 octaves of G# harmonic and melodic minor this week, and realistically probably for the next few weeks. On the violin this is a very difficult scale because there are very few overtones to hear. Without those overtones there are very few clues if I start to hit the wrong notes. I’m lucky I have the piano next to me when I practice so I can check against that, but without it I’d be struggling even more.
I’m also learning cello, which I have to admit I am totally in love with, and I have just got a rental viola too. I occasionally attempt piano and I’ve had a few lessons in the past; I find it frustratingly difficult reading two staves at once but I’m sure I will get there eventually.
I’ve also just joined the choir at the music school. I’ve only been going for a few weeks and my main motivation had been learning to sing from sheet music for my violin exam. But I find I’m actually quite enjoying it. I’m singing alto and I find that challenging because you’re not usually singing the tune. So I sing quietly and try and stand in front of or next to someone who sounds like they know what they’re doing. Once I’ve heard them do it, I can do it. Without that initial copying, I admit I am lost.
My latest piece of violin music to learn is the 1st movement from J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A minor (BWV 1041). I got this last week as an extra grade 8 piece because I am finding the beginning of the Vivaldi I had been playing very difficult and I’m not sure if I can get it fast enough for an examiner.
I’d like to learn some folk music and some more modern music. I feel a bit ‘out of it’ with classical as it’s not what I choose to listen to in general (although sometimes if I am in the mood for it I will). As far as classical goes I like Baroque, which is so not the done thing among those in the know, but I don’t care. I love Vivaldi.
I’ve played with an orchestra before, but the orchestra tends to be a Saturday morning thing and that means it messes up Shabbos so I cannot commit to it. I can play in the county orchestra but I don’t think my sight reading is good enough for that. I’ve also played in a quartet, but I have the same sight reading issues. It is something I need to work on and conquer now.
Music I Love
My favourite bands are Muse, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, Japan / David Sylvian, Florence and the Machine, Kate Bush (in moderation), David Bowie and Cocteau Twins (I love Cocteau Twins so much). At the weekend I got some new CDs – Kate Bush, The Verve, Arctic Monkeys and Air. So that’s what I’m listening to at the moment (although I’m listening to Hate To Say I Told You So by The Hives right now – I’m in that mood).
I was brought up listening to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez at my dads house and shitty worship songs at my mums. As a teenager I drowned out all the awful music my mum played with Duran Duran. I could not drown out Dylan because my dad had the largest speakers I’ve seen outside of a nightclub in his house, and if I managed to escape those he took me to Dylan concerts. But he also took me to see Nils Lofgren and Bruce Springsteen so I can’t really complain. My dad listens to music constantly, I think it is genuinely the most important thing in his life (and I can’t say ‘except for his family’ because I don’t believe that), but he doesn’t play an instrument.
My children however, do. As I write this my eldest son is playing the piano (Harry Potter theme), and he has passed exams in clarinet which I wish he would take up again. I have just given him my daughter’s old saxophone to use, but as yet have not heard much of that. My youngest son started with violin. Richard, who has been teaching for as long as I’ve been alive, told me that apart from me my son is the fastest learner he’s ever seen. Unfortunately he gave up violin, but now plays bass guitar and guitar. He began playing bass by copying Muse bass lines; he doesn’t make it easy for himself.
So that’s a bit of my past, present and future in music.