My violin: a revelation

I don’t exactly “play” the violin. To be more accurate, what I do is I “torture” it.

I took violin lessons for two or three years as a kid. At the end of that, I realized that without private lessons (just school ones) I didn’t make any progress. That meant I had no talent, so I stopped playing.

Nowadays, I realize just about no one gets better without private lessons. A little under a year ago, I ended up with a century-old violin and a book about teaching yourself, and I tried to revive the old memories. (A lot more came back than you’d think, but don’t expect sound files on the weblog in the near future.)

As a kid, I always had problems holding the violin. If I didn’t have the neck in a death grip, the instrument would fall. My great-uncle, a fabulous violinist and instructor, never succeeded in correcting my hold. What they finally did to stop the pain and wedge the violin in place was use two shoulder rests, one positioned upside-down. (Can you say ‘cluge’?)

My uncle had me tug the violin from his chin and collar bone, and I couldn’t get it out. That was what he wanted from me. I couldn’t even position the violin there. As an adult, I still couldn’t. I read everything I could find and eventually, through tears of frustration, I decided I have a Mutant Collar Bone.

I gave in and bought a shoulder rest. That kept the violin from falling to the floor, and with it, I had hope of shifting positions and eventually doing vibrato (two things the school never even thought of teaching.)

Last week at a salvage shop with Kiddo#3, I found a trashed half-size violin. It had no tailpiece, no strings, and no chin rest. Curious, I raised it to Kiddo#3’s shoulder and discovered even a half-size is way too big for him–his arm doesn’t reach the fingerboard. But Kiddo#3 laughed and told me to play it. So I tucked it under my chin.

And it stayed there.

The stupid wrecked cheapo violin STAYED IN PLACE. You have no idea what that was like, that moment when I stood there holding a naked violin with nothing but my chin and my collarbone. If Jesus had returned at that moment and said, “Would you like to tour Heaven?” I’d probably have said, “Can you wait a minute?”

Because all along, everyone assumed my problem was that my neck was too long–and it’s not that at all. It’s too short! My collarbone has too high an arch, and my neck is shorter than it should be, and here I was with a half-size violin in place perfectly.

There was another half-size there that still had its chin rest, so I picked that up and tried to hold it–and again: the dig into my neck and the sharp pain in my collar bone. I couldn’t keep it in place.

So you know what I did? I went home and took the chin rest off my violin, an instant savings of 3/4 of an inch.

I still can’t hold a naked violin. But now I’m playing with the shoulder rest dialed all the way down (instead of all the way up) and it’s ten times more comfortable. It’s enjoyable. I still want to put my chin over the tailpiece, but holding it easier is something I never thought I’d be able to do. The violin is right there under my ear, and it’s happy. And a happy violin makes me happy.


  1. bloodinside

    Hm, despite all those happy things and happy violins and your happiness i gotta ask – wouldn’t it be easier to switch onto guitar? 😉

  2. philangelus

    Good point! I also play guitar badly after taking lessons for four years as an adult. I do enjoy it, and I don’t have a mutant lap, so I *can* hold the guitar.

    But I haven’t even taken the guitar out of the case since Kiddo#3 was born, sadly. For some reason, it doesn’t have the same romantic appeal as the violin. No guitar ever has “old violin smell,” and the sound isn’t a part of you the way it is from a violin. (It’s coming from your front and projecting outward rather than emerging from under your ear and projecting all around you.

  3. Diinzumo

    I’ve always wanted to play the guitar. I bought a garage sale cheapie and took lessons when I was in high school (also played bass guitar), but my instructor, being a highly talented guitarist but still a high school age boy, put the make on me and I quit. I always grow my nails on the wrong hand and the music didn’t come as easily as I’d hoped, but I’ll have to try lessons again.

    Knowing how frustrating fret-work can be, I stand in awe of your perserverence with the violin.

  4. philangelus

    Don’t stand in awe–you haven’t heard how bad I am. Really. Stand in relief of that much!

    Why don’t you try lessons again? My guitar was only $99 (on sale) and my instructor said it didn’t sound all that bad, considering. My first lesson was from Sarah out of Glory and Praise I, and after half an hour, I knew enough to get by.

    Catholic worship music gets a bad rap, but seriously, there were four or five songs that *only* required the D, A, E and G chords. You can’t beat that with a stick for early learning! “Isaiah 49” is the “Lightly Row” of guitar method. 🙂

    1. cricketB

      The Four Chord Song: (Possible nsfw.)

      1. philangelus

        We LOVE that video!!! My Patient Husband and I will often just look at each other and say, “It’s a bird-plane. A lousy bird-plane.”

        (And yes, we know they don’t use the word lousy. We do.)

  5. Diinzumo

    That’s a good idea, but I think first I need to get my piano (that Mom bought to learn on, lost interest, and eventally installed in my room) tuned and take lessons on that. It’s a Yamaha and it sounds gorgeous, and it’s being wasted just sitting in the living room right now. I used to be able to play, but years typing on a computer keyboard completely messed up my feel for the piano keys. My fingers go where they’re not supposed to, accompanied by my discordant wails of, “AAAUUGH!”

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