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Max Roytenberg

Max roytenberg: Learning How to Play The Violin

by Max Roytenberg, Dublin, June 13, 2013

Mama said that every educated person had to learn how to play a musical instrument. It was a natural part of a person’s education. Money was always tight, but what was more important than a proper education? If we had to scrimp a little more, so be it. We can’t expect a person to learn without lessons. We are not all naturally gifted. Even Moses had to learn from G-D how to speak to the people. Aaron had to be his voice, until he learned the music, and Aaron spoke for him to Pharaoh.

So, I took the lessons. I did the practicing, not nearly enough, way too little. Let’s face it, it was pure pain, painful. It was so for me and to those who might chance to hear me at work. I had neither the ear, the rhythm, nor the touch. I could not get my fingers to obey me. They could not stretch the distances they had to reach. Perhaps that was what the practice was for, to so distort what finger, were so that they would achieve the objective and reach the spots they were supposed to attain.

So, not enough practice and I didn’t reach any objective that satisfied my own critical sense of a quality of my output that might merit appreciation. I can still remember grunting with effort to make the work of the bow, the work of my fingers, produce the melody they were supposed to. I really wanted to do it. I just could not make it happen. I could hear all the wonderful music in my head, but nothing I had to offer came out anything like the music I heard there. The world was full of people who had managed that, and my mother was quick to point them out to me, and quote their names as role models.

My older sister was also subjected to the same rigor, but she worked harder at it, practiced long and faithfully and actually produced lovely sounds, sounds that were like the originals she was trying to duplicate. It was not that she was ready to be a concert violinist, and anyway she ultimately preferred the role of a homemaker, but her performances were credible. This was something, it appeared, that I did not have the wherewithal to attain.

This realization did not come easily. Surely there were things, almost all things, that could be attained with the assiduous application of sufficient effort. There was so much more I could do to train those recalcitrant digits to run skippingly over the strings. Surely the mind was my servant, and I could master the intricacies of musical notation so that the language would be one with which I would be at home. Surely I could feel the beat, sense it in harmony with the metronome in my chest, in my head. Couldn’t I learn to beat with my feet?

Are you ready to admit to failure? Do you mean to say that there are really things you can’t do even if you set your mind to it? Could you let this be a prelude to a pattern, the first of many failures in your life, when you are only starting out? This was a big issue. No doubt about it.

In the end my teacher asked me what I really wanted to do in life most of all. I admitted that I really wanted to be a good basketball player. That’s me, all of five foot seven, less even, wanting to be a good basketball player. That didn’t stop my teacher from suggesting I devote myself to basketball and give up the violin. I took his advice with alacrity. Obviously, I was no more successful with that, in the end, than I was with the violin. So much for childhood ambitions.

Don’t we all need, somewhere in our lives, the sense that we have done a worthwhile thing? Whether it is thirty years of faithful service at a task that permitted us to sustain those we cared for, something that others might consider menial or below what they consider worthy, or, some task so difficult, that many people depended on us and believed totally, that we were the only person who could have possibly managed the task. If we can generate for ourselves the sentiment that we have done something worthwhile, we can be at peace with ourselves. Most of us need that. For me, it was not going to be playing the violin that was going to do it for me. I had to give up on that for myself. I had to go on looking for something else to do the trick. It wasn’t going to be playing basketball, either.

We all know that the achievement of excellence in most cases is ninety-five per cent perspiration and five per cent inspiration. There are exceptions of course. There are naturally occurring talents, few and far between, but we are blessed with them. For the rest of us there is left nothing but hard work. And those of us who can muster that devotion, can achieve a certain mastery in those activities into which we choose to pour our effort. But, oh how dispiriting it is to come across those natural talents in our chosen endeavour. How bitter is the bile in our throats. Still we must do what we must do, and we go on searching  for perfection in that endeavour we have chosen as a life work knowing that, at its heart, we are a mediocre talent flagellating ourselves in the search for perfection. Our mothers would have been satisfied with that, but not us. I must bless that music teacher who recommended I turn to basketball.


Now, I think I might have a talent for putting words on a page in an interesting way. What do you think? I think I should practice some more.




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