Me and the violin

I took up the violin at age 9. By the time I was 14 it was a major part of my life – but I hated it, and was miserable.

It started with me being a shy, self-conscious child; the one-on-one nature of violin lessons was uncomfortable for me. I was secretly mortified at being under such close scrutiny, learning, trying. My teacher would try to draw me out of my shell; would sometimes take hold of my bowing hand and forcibly animate me, pushing and pulling in big dramatic motions, which only made me feel even less ‘safe’.

On top of this, it turned out that some aspects of music came quite naturally to me – to the excitement of several family members, who made a fuss of my supposed talent. How could this be a negative? I think the attention this generated felt nice, but it also felt seriously undeserved. Every harmless little test of my supposed ‘perfect pitch’ was an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, and I had no control over it: I guess it seemed that talent was what mattered, not effort. The prospect of failing to live up to what was expected thus held more than just embarrassment for me; it would mean that I didn’t ‘have it’ after all, and the approval would end along with the discomfort. This was very inhibiting for me.

My mathematical brain easily picked up musical notation; learned where the notes were on the violin; and could translate a desired interval into a position on a string from a given starting point, so that I could play by ear. I was sensitive enough to tuning and timing errors to be able to keep those aspects fairly accurate. Because of all this, I got through the lessons quite easily without a lot of practice effort. It was embarrassing; at one point I was sharing lessons with another girl, and when she was berated for not practising enough, for holding me back… I felt awful.

While my technique languished at beginner level, these other abilities carried me through the pieces I had to play. I even won a regional competition, beating two significantly better competitors from my own school: although it was noted that my technique was inferior, the musicality made up for it in the adjudicator’s eyes. It agonised me to win; I hadn’t wished for anything more than to not fuck up in front of a room full of people, and now here I was robbing two people of a prize that was clearly expected to go to one of them. And I didn’t understand it.

My shyness, my self-consciousness about having my learning observed, kept me from putting in the work to develop more advanced skills. As did the bad taste of undeserved success in my mouth, and the fear, either of being ‘found out’ or of generating yet more uncomfortable hype. And with such success, there was clearly no incentive, no urgency, to work hard or to improve my technique. It just didn’t seem to matter that much. What did seem to matter was this nebulous ‘talent’ thing that felt like the emperor’s new clothes. I was a fraud, constantly hiding my musical nakedness. All of the ingredients were in place for hating the whole business with a passion by the time I was in my teens, and being thoroughly confused as to why.

I’m fully aware that these are very much problems of a privileged childhood, and I feel a bit ashamed of the indulgence in writing this post. But I’ve recently been reading some old diaries from that period, and have been taken aback by how desperate and, well, depressed I sound in those writings. I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile that.

I was eventually permitted to give it all up. And I basically didn’t touch the instrument again until 2013. By then, one of its seams had opened a crack and a trip to the violin doctor was in order, but it came out of its surgery sounding gorgeous.

The first time I played it in public again was at the launch of the Sunday Assembly, on “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. It felt awkward, stilted, a little reminiscent of school orchestra. But over the course of a year of playing occasional parts in pop songs in this way, I have shed a lot of the emotional baggage associated with it. I still get more reliable enjoyment, and feel more like myself, playing guitar (an instrument I took up for fun at 17) – but I am gradually learning to have fun with the violin, too. My technique is still shit. Occasionally, horse hair, steel string, finger flesh and neurons all connect and fireworks happen in my head. I’m in another little band where I write my own parts to my band-mate’s reflective and moody songs. That is the most freeing of all, as what I’m doing there is no-one’s but mine.

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