My husband and I haven’t bought gifts for one another at Christmas in probably 8 or 9 years. The first few times it didn’t go especially well (like, the year he bought me a VACCUM, for instance.) So when, on Christmas morning, he walked in with a fiddle-shaped package, I was thrilled. I’ve had the slightest music-crush on Amanda Shires (wife of Jason Isbell, whom we’ve seen many times) for some time. The violin is like a voice–when I hear it, it sings to me. And I’ve been wanting to learn it.
As the kids played with their new toys and slime on Christmas morning, I watched youtube videos and learned where the notes were, how to hold the thing, what the rosin was for, how to tighten the bow, all of that. I could read music because my mom taught me when I was little and I had learned other instruments growing up–piano, clarinet, guitar. But this fiddle is different. You don’t play by sight so much as you play by feel and sound–two things I’ve never been trained to do and two things that don’t come naturally.
I signed up for a lesson at the music story where the instrument was purchased. My first lesson, titled on my calendar ‘fiddle lesson #1’ was just OK. The instructor talked an awful lot about himself, all the instruments he played, how long he’d been playing, how much his fiddle was worth, and how he hated playing ‘second fiddle’ in the orchestra. I can’t say I learned anything about playing that I hadn’t learned on youtube–which was disappointing because the point of lessons is to have real-time feedback.
A friend told me about another place that gives lessons so I gave them a try. ‘Fiddle lesson #2’ showed up on my calendar and I went. As I waited, I spied on the lesson in the next room over. The door was wide open so I could hear the teacher with the student. He had her sing a little and play a little. And they talked about how music was like a language. When you’re new at reading words, you register the steps slowly and methodically. That’s letter ‘C’. And the ‘A’ and ‘R’. That makes the sounds k-a-r. Car! Once you’ve been reading a while, you see those letters in a sentence and it’s automatic. The car turned the corner. You don’t even consciously think about it. That’s how it is with music, he said. Right now you’re still registering each note and it’s a lot of work. But it won’t always be as long as you keep reading. I thought, yeah. That’s exactly right.
It was my turn. The teacher asked a lot about me. Where did I work? What kind of music did I like? What about the fiddle did I enjoy? What did I want to learn? He looked at my instrument and decided that the pegs needed to be more ‘sticky’. This would help it tune better. So he worked on sticky-ing up my fiddle pegs. And while he did, he explained how it was built, how it was put together. Why the substance he put on it would work the way it did. Then, while he worked, he said he wanted to hear what I could play. So he handed me his instrument. It was old and beautiful and sounded amazing. I played one of the few songs I’ve taught myself, “Just As I Am”–an old hymn that was played at my wedding. I did a terrible job because I was nervous. And I was giddy because I was actually enjoying myself.
After he finished the work on my pegs, we talked a little. About the ways you could hold the bow and the physics of it. Where on the strings made what kinds of sounds and the physics of that. He drew pictures of where the notes hit and we talked about frequencies and pitch and why certain things sound good to our ears and other things don’t. He showed me a few tricks about how to learn chords and it was mostly math and science. He tuned my instrument by ear while he played it. He made me some worksheets and gave me some real homework to do. We talked about posture–playing with confidence–and he even referenced the TED talk by Amy Cuddy.
Then, before I left, he said: “Every year or two I pick up a new instrument and try to learn it from scratch.” Why? He did it because he wanted to always remember what it was like to be a student–to not know anything about what you were doing. He said he thought it helped him be a better teacher. I said I thought it was working. I took my homework, packed up my newly sticky fiddle and went on my way, saying I’d call to set up the next one.
An hour of my life couldn’t have been better spent anywhere else. He taught me about trust when he handed me, a novice, his antique instrument. He taught me about the importance of being a student, especially in our quest to lead. He reminded me that I could, in fact, learn something new. He created a space where I could have fun doing it.
A few good friends have reminded me about two things I could stand to do a little more of in 2016: To start fully receiving the good that comes my way; and to play a little more. I’m grateful that this tricky little instrument will allow me to do both.