The Common Good
January 2007

The Name is "Maestro"

by Ed Spivey Jr. | January 2007

Just try to play the violin under a low-hanging ceiling fan.

There comes a time in a man’s life when he needs to take on new challenges, to stretch himself, to spread his wings, even though, if history is any guide, they will be wings of mediocrity. As one who proudly uses the term “above average” in his résumé, who becomes swollen with misplaced pride after accomplishing the simplest of tasks, such as flossing, I nonetheless wanted to try something completely different. Plus, there was nothing good on TV.

For a middle-aged man looking for new pursuits, the choices are unlimited. The interests of my youth were still tempting, of course, but I didn’t want to settle too quickly on becoming a cowboy or astronaut. Nuclear science sounded like a good hobby, but it would probably require some remedial study. Likewise, weekend fishmonger carries a certain cachet, what with the cool rubber apron. But in the end, I settled on the violin.

I mean, how hard could it be? Several of my friends have young children who take lessons, and they don’t have half the life skills I could apply to learning the instrument. (I’m an excellent typist, for example, giving me the dexterity one needs to play in, like, the New York Philharmonica, or whatever.) Plus, attending weekly beginners classes with 5- to 8-year-olds would mean that, finally, I’d be the big kid in school. (Oh, yes ... it’s payback time.) Unfortunately, a person my age is not welcome in that class, so my mother won’t experience the joy of attending a concert and whispering to a friend, “That’s my son, the tall one in the back.”

So I settled for a private teacher, a respected soloist who was a child prodigy at age 12 and, unlike most prodigies, grew up to be the size of an offensive lineman. This is definitely NOT a guy whose motorcycle you want to mess with, if he has one, which he doesn’t, although he sure looks like he does.

Turns out, he’s also a licensed dog rescuer. So when I waited for my first lesson in his living room, several large animals surrounded me, drooling and nudging me to find a meaty part to chew on. Dog breath notwithstanding, the hardest part of waiting was listening to a beautiful Beethoven interpretation coming from the other room—and then watching as a teenager walks out, chewing her gum in a superior manner. (You know how violinists can get. I hear Itzhak Perlman gives noogies to lesser musicians when he passes by.)

Then it was my turn. I walked in with my rented violin and confidently assured the teacher that I should have no trouble learning the instrument, just as soon as the pit bull lets go of my leg. (“Peanut, put him down!”) Peanut? Impressed at my self-confidence, he immediately assigned me a difficult classical piece by Mozart. (You didn’t know that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was by Mozart, did you?)

IT HAS BEEN SAID that the violin is the only instrument that can replicate the complexity of the human voice or, in my case, the voice of a human that just slammed his fingers in the car door. Frankly, I was surprised at the difficulty of learning the instrument, despite the rigorous discipline of playing several minutes each day. My failure to master the violin has left me with only one conclusion: There is a fundamental design flaw in the instrument.

For one thing, the violin doesn’t come with a strap, so you have to—get this—actually hold it against your neck. I kid you not. Like you’re changing a pillow case or something. Plus, it gives you a double chin, and at my age who needs that?

The finger board of the violin contains no frets, thus permitting an endless variation on a single note, all but one of which is terribly, painfully, insufferably wrong. Either you play the note precisely right, or the cats walk around with a migraine and small cracks appear in your home’s foundation.

And then there’s the bow. What, all that creativity during the Renaissance and they couldn’t invent the guitar pick? (And just try to play the violin under a low-hanging ceiling fan. Trust me, you only do that once.)

On the other hand, the bow is useful for pointing out unwashed dishes in the sink and for scratching your back after a shower. And it’s great for poking the cats to get off things.

As hard as it is to play, at least the violin looks good around the house. It’s kind of artistic, resting on the antique cabinet in the dining room, like one of those Cézanne still lifes: You know, Violin With Wild Flowers and Wild Game, perhaps. Or, in my case, Violin With Unfolded Laundry and Remote Control. (So THAT’S where it is!)

BUT, UNDAUNTED, I will continue to practice for the day that I can provide musical gravitas to our office worship services. I can already imagine the grateful wincing of joy in the faces of the congregation, with every head bowed and every hair reverently standing on end. And I just thought of something: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is sort of an Advent song, right?

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of
Sojourners.

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