Three violins sit in my guest room. I can feel them throbbing, giving off invisible energy in their respective cases, like radioactive material. At least one of them will go back to its shop on Monday. One will most likely remain and take my student violin’s place.
I’ve sampled roughly 40 violins in the past 4 ½ months. One, three months ago, made my heart catch: a late 19th century Stainer copy, Czech, with that battered, scratched look I find so intriguing. A look that tells me it’s been Somewhere. It has a story to tell. Just what I’ve longed for. But, at $2200.00, it’s a bit over budget. My instincts (and a clerk at a competing shop) tell me it is overpriced. The workmanship shows flaws and it will need some touching up. But it has continued to tug at my heart and beat out competitors I’ve introduced as I’ve made my rounds to music shops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Jose.
I’m in no hurry to buy. I told myself it would be a year-long process. My goal has been to visit five shops and listen to at least 50 violins before embarking on any sort of decision. The queen bee, the Czech violin, located in the Santa Cruz music store where my lesson takes place, has been hanging in the shop for some time now. I’ve told myself if it was meant to be, it will wait for me. It has.
Last Monday, a breakthrough in the fifth shop—a Palo Alto store that specializes in guitars. Low expectations from the start. The first violin the clerk hands me seems equally unassuming. A new violin, a Strad copy. Romanian. With a budget of 2K, I have little interest in testing an $850.00 violin. “Trust me,” the man says.
I trust him. Damn. He’s right. A feeling of quiet excitement descends over me. Hey.
But wait—my heart is set on something old. Yes, I tell the clerk, I realize the new ones, particularly those Chinese-made ones, generally cost less and sound better than their elders. Much better. But they have no story, no soul. The clerk nods and brings over another contender—a German 1930 Strad copy, at $1880.00.
Nice. Big sound, clear tone, much like the Romanian. This, then, might be the best compromise.
Forty-five minutes later, I hear myself asking the clerk what their policy is on taking out two violins. Wait. I’m not ready to advance to this level of commitment. Am I? Because I sense Something is about to happen and there will be no turning back.
The test during my class the following day—queen bee meets the contenders—is objective and unbiased. My eyes are shut as my teacher hands me one violin after another to play. Deprived of my vision, my other senses leap around. Feels nice in my hands. The tone—wow, it’s clear. This one, not so much on the G string. Sweet E strings, all of them. The bow skitters a bit on that one—must be the higher bridge. But which one is my queen bee? Damn. I’m not sure.
Next, my teacher plays all three, while my eyes remain shut. Ooh. What a sound, soaring from that first violin. And on that one, as well. This one—it’s the German, for sure. And the other one with the slightly muffled G string—that must be the queen bee. I feel a pang of disloyalty. I realize I’m not rooting for the queen anymore.
The results after thirty minutes of this are comically mixed. I have ranked all three as first at one point or another. My teachers confesses that she, too, can’t name one clear winner. “I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these,” she tells me.
My heart is in turmoil. The test has done its dirty work. Could I possibly justify paying so much extra for a violin with a Story? The painful truth: the story has no bearing on the sound. The second painful truth—when my eyes were shut, all three violins sang to me.
“Want to know the prices?” I ask my teacher as I pack up.
“It’s not what’s important,” she says, “but… what the heck.”
I relish the stunned expression that crosses her face when she learns the Romanian comes in at $1350.00 less than the queen bee. Only then does the full impact of it hit me too. “Well,” she says, “Easy to see where the value is.”
Decision time. Meaning pre-purchase jitters. It has to be the Romanian, of course. Too much points that way. But I’ll have to let go of something in my heart. An illusion, perhaps nothing more. But oh, such a sweet illusion. Such bittersweetness to choose.
Would welcome anyone else’s story of violins acquired and difficult decisions made.
I have limited visitation rights with the violin world and my novel this month. I’m working on a short-term project – a short story set in Africa. I love the world of my novel. It nourishes and sustains me, in no small part, I’m sure, due to the strong violin and classical music angle. I’m wildly infatuated with that world. Which is funny, because two years ago, I was wildly infatuated with Africa (the setting for my previous novel). Dangerously so. I was sick at the thought of putting Africa behind me in order to move on. It was just like being in love for the first time. (Okay, maybe some of you younger members haven’t even been in love like that yet. Use your imagination.) That kind of love hurts. It gobbles you up, turns your world into a multi-sensory, Technicolor parade of emotions and feelings that sweep everything else away. You can’t believe, not for a minute, that you can ever love this way again.
How ironic, then, that I’m back with the former infatuation and I’m pining for the latter. No real surprise, though, given the subject. I’ve enjoyed classical music all my life. Listening to it has always been a sanctuary. Africa, on the other hand, grabs you by the neck and gives you a good shake, the minute you approach the subject. In a matter of seconds, I’m back in Africa—the heat, the sweat, the spirits swirling around me, the way Africa doesn’t make sense—the latter particularly evident in my work. The story has tentacles like an octopus that extend, flailing and writhing, in all directions. I’ve decided it’s impossible for me to write about Africa without the material spiraling out of control.
See, that’s Africa. You try to explore it, solve a problem or two, and boom, it’s sucked you in. The ensuing issues become so wildly complicated, it takes your breath away, it throws your good intentions to the wind, where they scatter and land in places you hadn’t anticipated.
But here’s the ultimate silver lining to Africa’s turmoil: her music. African music rocks. It just sings. Particularly the drums.
The drums, I’ve decided, are the sound of the earth. They announce all aspects of life -- birth, initiation, marriage, death. They soften the impact of a harsh, unforgiving world, with its innumerable health crises, drought and famine, civil war, AIDS. You name it, Africa’s been hit with it. But the music seems to summon a spirit that allows something in you to transcend the ugliness and find the beauty of it all. When I listen to it, something primal in me awakens. I’m transported.
What a shock, then, to return to the violin and my practice for an hour each day. After the intensity of the day’s writing, the purity of the violin’s tone—even a simple bowing across open strings—feels like an angel descending. Cliché, perhaps, but that’s exactly what it feels like.
The violin is the sky. The drums are the earth. It would appear I need both in my life. Alternating classical music with African serves to remind me that the world is not just one place or the other. Amid stirring beauty lies great pain. Amid catastrophe and strife exist soothing cadences and timeless melodies. Drums and violins. How wonderful music is, to be able to teach us so much about the world, about life.
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