My son was 4 when we began taking him to the Columbus Symphony's kids' series concerts. He loves trying out the violins and trumpets in the lobby and conducting the musicians with a baton from the edge of a seat where his feet dangle. He recognizes the “William Tell Overture”—although he knows it primarily as the exciting “How fast can you get your jammies on?” soundtrack.
Experts seem to agree that kids benefit from playing an instrument, and I wonder if my son will become fluent in this universal language—a language that brings people together even when, counterintuitively, there are a million different interpretations of the same piece. It educates and it heals. It was there when I needed it.
When I was my son's age, the local newspaper wrote that I was the youngest regular attendee of community concerts. My dad (who began his career as a music teacher and band director) and my mom (who backed anything that could take me and my sister places) took me to the concerts at what was less a high school auditorium and more a honeypot of musical discovery. It was transportation—to Germany for a dreamy sonata or Austria, where instruments conversed via chamber music. I'd listen with my eyes wide until I either fell asleep on my dad's shoulder or my legs fizzed with what's now called Restless Leg Syndrome. I loved everything about the music. But I didn't yet see myself in the musicians.
My path to contented mediocrity began at a mall. I was 9 years old.
I might have expected to hear Muzak that day, or maybe Phil Collins' "Sussudio" leaking from Record Town. Instead, I heard real music take shape—full of mellifluous curves and possibility. I'd happened upon an ensemble of violinists not much older than I was, with their synchronized bows and disciplined black and white outfits.
These kids weren't at home chancing just how close the vacuum could get to their pigtails without incident, or diving under a closing garage door to see if they'd slide through unscathed.
I'd taken piano lessons, but my goal had always been to play a piece as fast as possible. Adagio be damned, 9-year-old me had the theme from "Ice Castles" to race through.
This was different. This was Music, and these kids were just shorter versions of the practiced performers I'd watched on stage at community concerts. I wanted to inhale what they were doing and keep it inside me forever. I vowed thatIwould one day make those velvety sounds.Iwould perform outside an Orange Julius.
My goals were modest, but in retrospect, they fit my aptitude. My discipline, too, if I'm being honest. And I probably still lay too much blame at the feet of my toe-like thumbs, which were at odds with the lithe fingers of other violinists. (My first words after delivering my son: “Someone check his thumbs.”)
I did have my moments as a musician, though, and the instrument always took care of me. I just didn't have what it took to go far.
I've always wondered what it does take, so I asked Joanna Frankel, concertmaster for the CSO. She was 2 1/2 years old when she began asking for a violin after her dad took her to a performance at the Academy of Children's Music outside Philadelphia. Frankel got her one-thirty-second-size violin a year later and began studying via The Suzuki Method, a mother-tongue approach in which children develop their technical skill before learning to read music. In grade school, I'd whisper “Suzuki” in violin circles with the same reverence people reserve for “cancer.” But Suzuki kids weren't deadly. Just hardcore.
Frankel's road diverged from mine pretty early. At 14, she was studying under Robert Chen, who is now concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony.
At 14, I was taking lessons from a local violinist with the kind of temperament I imagine a gargoyle might have. She once yelled at a diabetic kid for eating an apple as he awaited a lesson in what I swear was a chair from Ethan Allen's Medieval Dungeon line. She was all precision, no patience. I quit her—at least, I thought I did. It occurs to me now that she probably told my parents I should find other tutelage.
Frankel practiced eight hours daily, inching her way to recognition through audition tapes. It earned her hours upon hours in planes, trains and cars. Then Juilliard, which wasn't the passport I'd assumed. "The truth is," she told me, "for many, conservatory training is just the beginning, and it takes many more years on top of that to be able to find your way in a very elite and competitive world."
I competed, too, but at area contests on school stages, accompanied only by the Greek chorus in my head: Your black hole of anxiety radiates with abandon." My nerves cornered the notes so everything was staccato when the score didn't call for it.
I wouldn't be a virtuoso like Frankel, who performs the world over. Still, the role of "violinist" worked for me. In the grand tradition of high school and its miasma of angst, there were times I used sheet music to paper over a nearly constant depression. I was a fervent introvert, always thinking too hard about what I'd say next and instantly regretting quips that were meant to be playful but somehow landed as “cold prickles,” as one gym teacher forced into our vernacular.
I also used the violin to sidetrack my darkest fears as my mom battled cancer. Some days I practiced until my fingertips were angry and red, but I always felt better.
My new violin teacher, warm and forgiving, suggested I try my hand at the youth symphony. I'd seen those kids perform. The audience always gave a standing ovation. I auditioned, and gained a spot among the kindest, funniest, weirdest group of kids I'd known. It was therapy.
Cue the oboe's melancholy A, the standard to which the rest of the orchestra would tune, and my soul would swell with wanderlust and pride. I'd forget my paralyzing self-awareness.
In the last few months before I left the youth symphony for college, I sat first chair in the second violin section. I earned the position by wrestling the tryout excerpt—a harmonics-laden monstrosity by Sibelius—until it came to life. I played it, and it was money. But the rest of the piece was a handful of spare change, a random token and probably an old button. I did my best to lead the section in rehearsals, but my bow often zigged when others' zagged. Still, no one seemed to mind.
The morning of the last concert, I woke to an eyelid swollen like it housed a golf ball. My family called it “Big Eye,” and reacted with both horror and awe when they saw it coming. It happened inexplicably one or two times a year and puzzles me to this day. Despite no luck with ice packs and steroids, I promised myself I wouldn't let aesthetics or lack of depth perception keep me from this graduation of sorts. Tripping over just one metal music stand (the theater's acoustics were made for that sort of thing), I took the stage dressed in the disciplined white and black. Quasimodo chic.
My friends only asked what happened, then shrugged and went about organizing the evening's sheet music. A few minutes later: the melancholy standard A. Dvorak's “New World Symphony.” Big Eye seemed like a distant rumor.
The concert was being televised on a local public channel. Later, I'd watch the slow focus of the camera coming for me. Then a sudden jerk, thanks to what I bet was a control-room guy in an instantly sweat-stained T-shirt yelling something like, “The humanity!” and “Pull back!” before a quick cut to the lithe-fingered first-chair cellist.
In May of this year, 23 years after my final performance, I went with my dad to see Joshua Bell perform with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Bell started out at age 4 as a rubber-band phenom, stretching the elastic over drawer knobs and adjusting the tension so he could play back whatever music he'd just heard. He eventually traded his rubber bands for a $4 million Stradivarius, which he played with his bow on the strings like ribbon through water.
I felt a twang. I'd turned out to be a soberingly average violinist, but only in ability and technique. To my mind, I reaped benefits as valuable as those achieved by the Bells and the Frankels of the world.
Now, we're typically about 17 minutes into a concert before my son's Restless Leg Syndrome and some concession-stand Skittles hit peak persuasion. I'll eye the exits and plan a discreet departure, but still, I call it a win. I hope he learns this universal language—the one replete with friendship, therapy, confidence and wanderlust. Even for a distant-second violinist.