March 2006

Dueling Stringed Instruments

March 17, 2006 07:19

Advisory: this blog entry carries with it a *NSPCMOBG rating and may not be suitable for young guitarists.

I hurried to my violin lesson earlier this week, passing through the local music store where a few customers were experimenting with guitars, to arrive in back where two lesson rooms are located. My teacher’s room was still dark and silent. When I didn’t hear the twang of a bass guitar in the adjacent room, my hopes soared. Maybe he’d gone away. Then I saw him, hunched down over his guitar in the second room, plucking at the strings. My heart sank. Bass Guitar Man had clearly not gone away.

Bass Guitar Man -- brooding, tallish, thinnish, bad hair. Guitar player. You know the type. (Or maybe you ARE the type, in which case, please note aforementioned advisory.) My teacher Laurie and I had met him a few months ago. He’d taken the music stand from our room. Laurie came in, noticed it was missing, then went into the other room—now empty—and got it back. Two minutes later, the guy showed up at our door, a dark frown creasing his face. “Where did my stand go?” he asked in a petulant voice.

“Well, actually, this stand belongs in this room.” Laurie kept her voice bright.

He stood there without replying. His lip curled up in a sneer. His eyes narrowed. Then he swung around and strode back to his room. Laurie and I exchanged bemused glances. “Excuse me for just a second,” she told me. I nodded and she stepped over to the adjacent room. “Um, hi,” I heard her say. “I’ve been teaching here for ten years and gosh, you know, I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

And thus it began. It’s funny how you know about someone in an instant that you two will never be friends. Each week when I come for my lesson, he’s there in the room next to us, sometimes with a student, sometimes just twanging on his own. I always feel a thud of disappointment, followed by annoyance at the unlikable music that emanates from his room. Disdain makes my shoulders pinch with disapproval. I’m not a snob. Wait. Yes I am. But, you see, it comes so naturally to me that really, it’s not being a snob at all. It’s just being refined. What a trial it is to have been born with refined tastes and have to suffer the uncouth behavior and appalling bad tastes of everyone around you.

Bass Guitar Man returns my sentiments. I can feel his irritation seeping through the walls. I know my violin sounds irritate him. So I try and play louder.

But he’s got ammunition. An amplifier.

Then again, I’ve got an E string.

This past week when I arrived, he was sitting there, hunched over his guitar, twanging out dull-sounding notes thoughtfully, head cocked to the side as if receiving a transmission of divine assistance. (God, it would appear, is a guitar player. After all, we know who plays the violin in the afterworld…) When I began warming up in preparation for Laurie’s arrival, the door to the other room shut with a bang, as I knew it would. “Violinists,” the slam seemed to say. “Guitar players,” my bow, commencing an A major scale, replied.

This lesson, however, it was not the amplifier but the accompanying music that held me prisoner. Stevie Wonder wailed out “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” punctuated by lethargic plunks from the bass guitar. The song climbed into my head, dampening my spirit, my concentration. It blasted out, offending not only my auditory sensibilities, but issuing forth a bad ‘70’s flashback, normally best combated with noise-canceling earphones and/or copious amounts of alcohol, neither of which were available to me in the room that afternoon. I used Zen techniques and Eastern philosophy throughout the lesson to work through the distraction. But it’s like trying to meditate while two people are having a spirited conversation just outside your room. You tell yourself, “I can accept and thus transcend this irritant. The situation is what it is. I welcome this opportunity to keep myself present and focused on my breath. This is…” until the mantras dissolves into, “WILL SOMEONE TELL THOSE GUYS TO GO CARRY ON THEIR CONVERSATION ELSEWHERE BEFORE I FREAK OUT HERE?”

Mercifully, Laurie finally frowned at the music next door. “What is this Stevie Wonder business?” she asked.

“It’s HIM,” I said, injecting as much venom as I could as I indicated the adjacent room with a toss of my head. Bass Guitar Man.

“That’s loud.”

“It IS.”

Fortunately, his student arrived a few minutes later. Stevie was replaced by mumbled conversation and then intermittent student twangings that apparently qualified as music in their book. And shortly thereafter, my lesson came to a close. Relief, at last. Or is it? The reality is, next week, Bass Guitar Man will be there. The reality is, I’m paying a lot of money for these lessons. It saddens me to think this is the way it has to be: gritting my teeth, clinging to my concentration as I play my pieces, not out of the joy of performing what I practiced, but instead using the notes as a defense weapon of sorts, the proverbial finger plugged into the leaking dike to stop my wall of concentration from crumbling.

Perhaps this is the nature of music lessons in a culture that values guitar playing over violin playing. I’m sure my local music shop makes a lot more money from guitar related inventory than any other instrument combined. But I wonder—is it eternally destined to be a cat and dog relationship? Can violinists and bass guitarists live together in harmony? (I think Stevie himself has offered a few comment on this issue.)

In the end, I head back to the Eastern philosophy for answers. It is what it is. Concentrate. Focus on the present. And try to make music out of all that is around you.


*NSPCMOBG = Not So Politically Correct and May Offend Bass Guitarists

**Yet another warning for those of you who like to read warnings: Neither the author nor the administrators of this site can be held responsible for renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” or “Ebony and Ivory” that might continue to play on in head long after departure from this site. For assistance in this matter, please contact your local “Singalong Disney Songs With Elmo” website, where you will be given a new song to fill your head for the rest of the day.

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