When I finished my medical internship, I decided to take violin lessons. My life had become defined by a career that threatened to consume all my time and energy, and I thought playing the violin would help keep me sane.
A friend introduced me to a graduate student at New England Conservatory and I told her my plan. I didn’t have a violin. I had never even touched a violin, and I wouldn’t have much time to practice. Despite all that, Diane said she’d love to teach me and even loaned me an old violin. It had the head of Beethoven carved into its scroll, and weighed as much as a small cello. Diane didn’t have an extra violin bow, but she lent me one for a viola. I didn’t know there was a difference.
I had played the piano when I was a kid, and thought learning to play the violin would have a similar learning curve. What was I thinking? On a piano, you pound a key and a note comes out. It may be the wrong note, but it sounds familiar and often pleasant. You play the violin by suspending it between your chin and your shoulder, and placing your finger on a precise yet invisible location on a string. Balancing the bow between your thumb and little finger, you then draw it across the string. There’s no reason why anyone would dream of making music this way, but when it’s played correctly, I think the violin sounds like the voice of an angel.
The sounds that came from my violin were not angelic. They were screeching, ear piercing wails. The sounds of cats being tortured, the sounds of Satan and all that is evil in this world. But despite those horrendous sounds emanating inches from my left ear, every night when I got home from the hospital, I practiced. And I loved it. All the sickness and responsibility that surrounded me during the day vanished as I held my violin and tried to make music.
I should have learned from my day job that everything comes with side effects. I lived alone in an apartment building in Brookline, and never spoke to my neighbors, until one called me on the phone. He was a truck driver who was trying to sleep while I practiced.
“I wonder if you could practice your cello some other time?” he asked.
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry!” I said. So I started practicing at five in the morning before I left for work.
After several years, I got to the point where for just a few notes in just a few pieces, I didn’t sound horrible. At about the same time, my partner, Shelley, and I decided to move to the Cape and open my practice.
I tried to continue taking lessons, but practicing medicine left no time to practice anything else. My violin stayed in its case for thirty years. All around the house, violin mementos reminded me of my dream. The clay woman playing her fiddle on my bookcase, the antique photo of a young girl with her violin hanging in my study, the sterling silver violin pin I couldn’t bear to wear.
Then Mrs. Heremens came into my office. At the age of 90, she had taken up the cello.
“I’ve always wanted to play,” she told me. “I realized time was short, so I’d better get to it.” She loved playing, but arthritis in her hips made it difficult, and eventually she had to give it up. When she told me she’d stopped playing, I asked if she was disappointed.
“Not really,” she said. “I always wanted to play the cello. And I did. Now I’m taking up the piano.”
As I approached my retirement I remembered Mrs. Heremens, and I remembered my violin.
I found a new teacher. Yoko is a kind young woman with the patience of a mother of three small children. Sometimes I have trouble understanding her English, but the word she says most often is easy to understand: “Again”. “Play again,” she says. And I do. Every day I shut the door of my room, and make screeching, dissonant sounds that could burst an eardrum. I play scales over and over, correcting my mistakes like a woman who has nowhere else she needs to be. I play etudes and pieces from Suzuki books eight-year olds have mastered.
Recently, Yoko asked me if I’d like to play in a recital.
“Oh no,” I told her. “I’m not good enough.”
“You don’t have to be good,” she said, “You just have to play. That is enough.”