Oberlin Blogs

A Letter to My Violin

February 1, 2016

Calley Pierce ’19

Dear French box of wood,

I was eight when your first ancestor made its way into my life. We met in the basement of my house. My mom had played that violin as a child, and when I was a few years into lessons, I found vintage candy wrappers in the music pocket of the case.

The violin was zebra-striped. Milk chocolate brown and dark chocolate brown. An unusual looking instrument. It said "Stradivarius" or something bombastic on the scroll. I made ungodly sounds on it, scrubbing the strings with the violent and honest eagerness of childhood. But I still made my family smile and clap along, giving the illusion of a fiddler, sawing along but making no melodies.

"Try putting your fingers on it." My dad pushed my first and second fingers down (two of my fingers were the width of a single one of his fingers). It was some note on the D string. Who knows what it was. Probably a relative of F sharp. I saw my reflection in the dining room stereo, watching the little fingers push timidly onto the string.

I probably tried to put more fingers down, but I felt I was mishandling the instrument and I wanted a Proper Learning of the Violin. We got an appropriately sized violin and I started lessons with a lady who would train me for seven years. It was she who worked to make my sounds sophisticated, in pursuit of that cool elegance of masterful players, with their easy and deeply technical movements. The mechanics required constant maintenance and the voice constant critique.

I amassed repertoire. I felt encyclopedic. A whole world of advanced knowledge that separated me from the masses. Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - II. Romance by Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was the sweetest thing I ever heard. My colleagues and I had tears dripping onto our instruments when we rehearsed Elgar's Enigma Variations - Nimrod. Scheherazade took me deep into a world of shipwrecks, heroines, love across races and continents, so vivid I escape to it for its full 45 minutes every now and then.

Thank you, Beasts of the Southern Wild, for some of my favorite sounds the violin has ever made.

Here's where I began to change, roughly at competency with my technique. I fiddled around every now and then--country music, the layman's stuff, Irish jigs, so on. But every type of playing is a sea of genealogical intricacy, fiddlers grown and shaped by their regions and languages--the supremacy of classical playing was rendered an utter illusion. I approached fiddling timidly, without method or system, immediately my heart swollen from imagining I was playing something my ancestors had heard. Irish, black, Southern--anything. To think that they had clapped and danced to something similar made me happier to be a ferocious amalgamation of peoples. We all are quilts of our ancestors' fabrics. I, descendant of slaves and slavemasters, Christians and atheists, Native Americans and colonists, could try to speak to my progenitors in my small way with a fancy shaped box made by a Frenchman.

But I was left split across worlds--a public school student, who always had cultural distance from my youth orchestra's largely conservative, Christian, home-schooled population. Hardly any room designated for people of my gender or color in the vast historical expanse of classical music. Unable to reconcile that it was an instrument of ever deepening assimilation, whether I liked it or not. I could not ignore that even just seventy years ago, I would not be allowed into this world. Unwilling to spill my whole being, ripen my strength and talent, for a path so esoteric, so representative of something I could never fully be. This is how it was for me.

My skin is thicker on the left side of my jaw. My left collarbone is contoured to a violin shoulder rest. My left hand's fingers are tough, quick to callus. My hands are always sharply precise, a product of nine years of training in musical accuracy. I chew off all my nails. I carry lotion constantly. I probably hear a little better out of my right ear, the side that doesn't get the blast of volume. Violin has left its marks and indentations.

But it was never one thing: my entire, utter voice.

It was a beautiful, militaristic exercise. It was an artistic, mathematical endeavor. But I forced myself to speak out of it, only to see my voice come out garbled, uninspired, diffident. I realized I had nowhere to explore; I felt I knew the house of violin, its various creative rooms, but none of them had fully captured the rhythm inside my ribs.

It was like an extended stay in a beautiful house that I did not own.

This was my first introduction to devastation. I peeled myself from the clutches of violin, its embrace now suffocating, crumbling from the poison of my self-doubt and endlessly high aspirations, ripping off an age-old vision of my mastery. I leaned into practice room pianos and cried. I curled up in bed and cried. I went home, curled up on my couch, and wept symphonies.

I made a choice. I rose from the ashes--no, I just rose from the couch. I left the conservatory.

Music, my violin, which had become synonymous with my sense of self, moved delicately to another space in my life.

It is not the sort of thing that leaves you, or ends. It just changes shape. It will never leave the angled, exact shape of my trained grasp, nor the slanted, throw-it-out-the-window scrub of my fiddling imagination. But it will be an unstressed symptom of a fever long past; just a simple means of introspection and repose.

I don't love you any less, French wooden creation. It was necessary you make room for my continents of other ideas.

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