June 2006

Happy Anniversary, Little Violin

June 26, 2006 05:57

It started the way many a love affair has -- a starry June night, a chance encounter in a hot tub, the gentle swoosh of the Pacific Ocean beneath us, a conversation that led to That Subject. “You’re a violinist?” I asked the woman in the hot tub across from me. “Oh this is such a coincidence! I’m about to start a writing project that has a violinist as one of its characters and I plan on learning everything I can in the next year. Maybe even take a lesson or two!” Then came the proposition. “So… if I paid you for a few lessons, would you, like, play some tunes for me during that session?”

Thus was voiced the first of my naïve assumptions that now, a year later, has me cringing in shame. But I’ve always found shameful confessions in my writing to be good for a laugh. Therefore, without further ado, I present my list of top ten stupid assumptions I’d made this time last year, before ever picking up a fiddle. That’s right, folks. I’d neven ever touched a fiddle. Oh, the shame…


Top 10 Assumptions

10) That I could learn all I needed to know about being a violinist by taking four or five lessons.

9) That my plan was simply to conduct field research and not get emotionally involved. Never had been a musician, never would be, and that sort of thing.

8) That an investment of $250.00 in a violin was rather extravagant.

7) That a year spent reading sheet music would mean that I’d be a pro at sight-reading and not have to murmur “Every good boy does fine” to myself when struggling through a new tune.

6) That I’d be able to keep my fingernails long and pretty.

5) That not having the aforementioned would bother me terribly.

4) That after a year of lessons, I’d be able to play with vibrato.

3) That intonation was something you “got” after a few months, like the chicken pox or the clap, and then it was done and you could move on, issue addressed and conquered.

2) That after an entire year of study, I wouldn’t be a beginner anymore.

1) That I’d be posting these confessions on my own blog at violinist.com, a forum that was so irrevocably out of my league twelve months ago, it might have been in a foreign language.

Pausing from my snarky tone to extend my humble thanks to all of you here for helping me learn so much in the past year.

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When Performing Meets Parenting

June 8, 2006 11:36


I’ll preface this by admitting it has nothing to do with playing the violin. But it has to do with performing, so hopefully that covers me here.

Wednesday evening my husband and seven-year-old son drove with me to San Francisco. I’m a contributor to a 2005 anthology on Italy, and I was joining my editor, Camille, there for a book reading and discussion. As the evening was focused more on her 2006 anthology, I was aware that I probably wouldn’t read, but would be part of the panel discussion. This changed at the last minute when Camille looked at her watch and invited me to read a few pages of my work. I leapt up, warning my son, sitting up front with me, to behave.

I’m a performer at heart. I know how to read dramatically, to project my voice and create a mood that envelops the listener in the world I’m describing. But I ran into a problem that invariable confronts all performers. What do you do when there is a distraction in the room? As we all know, you rise above it. You pour all your concentration into the work you are performing. You narrow the scope of your vision to encompass only the words and the instrument you’re using to transport it -- in this case, my voice.

Now, what do you do when that distraction is your child? Your son, who doesn’t like sharing his mother’s attention. He edged up alongside me, respectful at first, but in no time he was fidgeting, nudging, reaching, pressing -- anything that might get Mom’s attention.

As I was reading, several thoughts still managed to race through my head: the knowledge that the audience was engrossed in spite of the distraction and it was my job to sustain the mood; the painful awareness of every annoying movement my son was making. I remembered in a flash the dilemma a fellow contributor had had at a similar book reading three years earlier. Same scenario -- reading Mommy, unruly kid nearby, high on the euphoria of “Boy, I’m getting away with a LOT.” My colleague, however, chose to pause during her reading, turn toward her daughter and say in a firm voice, “I need you to sit back down and be quiet.” The pause extended into an excruciating twenty seconds while mother and daughter battled wills. It was awful. Broken mood? Try shattered. The mother finally won, and promptly began reading again, but she’d destroyed that delicate link between audience and artist so crucial for a performance to succeed. She’d made a choice. She’d chosen parenting. I made my choice. I chose performing.

My reading was brief and the mood in the room relaxed. No harm done. I shuttled my son away from the mic with a clawing “that wasn’t behaving” grip on his arm, as Camille began the panel discussion. After the event had ended, a few people approached me to compliment my story, my reading of it. That part of an event is always great fun for the ego. Clearly, in spite of my squirming child, I’d performed well.

Nothing is without a price, however. And mine came at the end of the evening when I noticed a woman hovering nearby as I was finishing up a conversation with another audience member. She swooped down on me once I was free. “May I speak with you, please?” she asked, almost anxiously. She was a nervous-looking woman dressed in sagging slacks and an ancient cardigan, hair slipping out of an untidy braid. Judging by her appearance (I confess, I confess -- I do this), she was most likely not an agent leaping to offer me representation. Another admirer, then? Or perhaps an editor asking if I’d be willing to contribute a piece to her anthology? Oh, the ridiculous places a stroked ego will take you…

She led me to a spot away from the others. “It’s your son,” she blurted out.

“My son?” This baffled me. My son didn’t even write.

“He has some serious issues.” She saw the confusion on my face and continued in a rush. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is a disturbed child. He has some serious border issues.”

I gaped. I asked her to explain herself further. She was a therapist, she told me. She knew problems when she saw them -- the squirming; the jockeying for my attention. I found myself trying to explain how I’d based my decision to ignore him on my colleague’s experience. She waved away my words.

“No. This is about him,” she insisted. “This is a child with serious problems. No one has ever told you that before?” Her eyebrows, misaligned with eyebrow pencil, shot up in disbelief.

My child is willful and spirited on the best of days. On the worst, he can be a terror. I know this. My husband and I are constantly challenged by this. We know all about borders (although “border issues” was a quaint term I’d yet to use, sounding too much like something to do with immigration). And because we watch him closely, we know what he is not. He is not a disturbed child. This woman was insulting both me and my child. And if she was a therapist, well, then I’m a violinist.

The woman was still speaking, her eyes a bit wild now. “I say this with love,” she said, extending her two hands out to me. “And that child,” she stabbed a finger in the air in the direction where my son was sitting quite calmly with my husband on the couch, “that child is suffering.”

I’d had it. What kind of therapist approaches a guest speaker and within minutes has managed to alienate, insult and repel that speaker? This woman’s comments, so reminiscent of the Symphony Snob of my May blog, were like a fist to my gut. But this time I had ammunition. My husband, my greatest champion, sat less than ten feet away.

“Well, you’ve certainly given me something to think about!” I told her.

“Don’t just think about this,” she warned.

“In fact,” I said, ignoring her comment, “I think you should tell my husband right here what you just told me.” My voice rang out, the words and body language clear and incisive. The performer had returned. “Tell him exactly what you just told me.”

She took a step back. “Oh, no. No, that’s not necessary. I’ve said too much already.”

She certainly had. A poor time to figure it out, however. “No, really. It’s clear this is an issue he should know about.” My eyes wouldn’t let her go.

She ducked, mumbled a few inaudible words, then scurried away like a rat to the far side of the room. I was shaking with rage, but managed to incorporate a sweet voice as I collected my family and bade goodbye to my editor. When I told my husband -- the wisest, smartest man I know -- about what the woman had said, he laughed and shook his head. Which told me all I needed to know.

A day later, I’m able to analyze the situation with better perspective. I wonder, should I have taken the route of my colleague and put parenting first? Anyone else confronted with a similar situation? Or a story about overcoming any distraction? Please share. After last night’s unsolicited psychotherapeutic advice, I could use a good laugh.

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