The Common Good
December 2007

Seriously, Is This What Hell Is Like?

by Ed Spivey Jr. | December 2007

Someone foolishly suggested I should actually play in public.

After less than a year of violin lessons, I am already reaping the rewards of music training. Before my instruction, I didn’t know the difference between Brahms and Beethoven. Now, as a classically trained musician, I know that Beethoven has more letters than Brahms, not to mention two more syllables.

Despite this newfound knowledge and confidence, I was ill-prepared to hear it was time for my first public recital. This ludicrous suggestion, monstrous in its presumptiveness, was made by a madman who we shall call, simply, The Violin Teacher.

Recovering speech, I asked if “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played very slowly, would be acceptable for my debut. The fiend turned, a sadistic twinkle in his eye—if, in fact, fiends can twinkle—and placed two pages on the music stand. It was “Concerto No. 5,” by Friedrich Seitz, a German composer who suffered from a unique form of dementia, the symptoms of which include putting excessive numbers of notes on a page and, having done so, putting them REAL close together.

(And what’s the deal with using numbers instead of names for classical pieces? Was Beethoven so exhausted after composing his masterpiece that all he had left was “Okay, the last one was ‘Symphony No. 4,’ so I’ll call this one, um, ‘No. 5’”? Why not something evocative, like “Winter’s Morn is a Breakin’ Over a Mist-Shrouded Lake,” or “My Achy Breaky Hearth”? Or, in the case of Seitz’s “Concerto No. 5,” “Tchyeah, Like You Could Play This.”)

I had six weeks to prepare, six short weeks to come up with the precise medical condition that would, sadly, force me to stay home the day of the recital. “It’s probably the bug that’s been going around,” I would speak into my teacher’s voicemail, unless he picked up the phone, in which case I would breathe heavily, mumble something about cholera, and hang up.

Short of this, however, my only consolation was that I was not required to invite anyone to the recital, which, if people asked, would be held at an undisclosed location. (Actually, it was in a church, an apparently godless place where my desperate prayers for deliverance went unheeded. In fact, I think I saw God sitting in the back row, giggling when it was my turn to perform.)

IN FAIRNESS TO my teacher, he tried to prepare me as best he could. He stressed that, when playing before an audience, it is absolutely crucial to try really, REALLY HARD ... to relax. To the nonmusician, this may seem counterintuitive. But to me, an experienced student of the violin, it is completely idiotic. “Trying hard” and “relaxing” are two different universes. It’s not apples and oranges. It’s apples and small appliances. Relaxing comes from being comfortable and has nothing to do with perspiring profusely, which was the second thing I did when I arrived for the recital. The first thing was attempt to run over my violin while parking the car, but I got the angle wrong. So I blew that excuse.

I WAS PLACED AT the end of the program, presumably to allow more time for the blood to rush to my head, my palms to sweat, and a nervous twitch to develop in my left eye. Add to these my recent discovery that, while playing intently, I sometimes drool out of the right side of my mouth, and I knew I would make a strong impression on the 100 or so people at hand.

When my name was finally called, I stood and slowly approached the podium (I’m pretty sure I heard someone whisper “dead man walking” as I passed by). I faced the audience, a sea of nameless faces, mainly parents of the younger performers who—and I don’t want to brag here—were much shorter than me. I brought the instrument to my shoulder and waited for the pianist to finish his lengthy and exuberant introduction, the kind of introduction that suggested that something really special was about to happen. By the way, this was easy for him because, unlike me, he had been practicing since the 20th century.

My teacher nodded for me to begin, and that’s the last thing I remember. I vaguely recall making a sort of flailing movement with my bow (note to musicians: This technique is patent-pending, so I’ll expect royalties if you use it), then feeling a massive change in barometric pressure that filled my ears with the sound of rushing water. A polite applause broke through when I had apparently finished, either shortly before or long after the pianist stopped. And then my feet walked me back to my seat.

A glance at my instructor’s eyes revealed that I had been either stupifyingly bad or just this side of awful. The pianist just stared wide-eyed, his mouth open, although—and I’m just guessing here—I don’t think he was about to cry out “Genius!”

I quietly put my instrument away, relieved that the ordeal was over and confident that, even though this wasn’t a competition and the performers tried their very best, I definitely had the best violin case.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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