By the time the dust settled around the loss of my mother, it was springtime. The weekly fiddle slow jams ceased for the summer. I vowed to practice on my own and I managed to do so, a couple of times. Relieved that I could still flounder my way through Golden Slippers and Flop Eared Mule, I lacked the self discipline to do much else. Summer came and went. In late August, I returned to the Brooklyn fair. Emerging from one of the animal barns, I heard the faint sound of fiddles. While my husband and grandson headed for the midway, I followed the music. There they were, beneath a big, white tent. I stood off to the side and listened, with tears in my eyes. That old excitement filled me again, just like it did one year earlier.
Missy invited me to repeat the five-week class, which I politely declined. I’d still had enough basic music theory to last the rest of my life. But I asked to be included when the Monday night slow jams resumed and she welcomed me, with open arms.
My progress was slow and frustrating. After a couple of months, I decided to pursue private lessons. I still had a slip of paper with the name of an accomplished local musician who gave lessons. It had been in the case since I rented the fiddle. I Googled her. Yikes! She was pretty impressive. We spoke on the phone and she was warm and friendly. She was also too busy to accept a new student. I was so disappointed. She gave the name of another teacher and assured me that he was more than competent. I had my doubts. I called him anyway. With the sounds of a student’s screechy fiddle in the background, he offered me an appointment later in the week and I accepted. Amazingly, he lived just fifteen minutes away. That never happens when you live in the country. I really had no excuse this time.
My first few lessons were beyond uncomfortable. Being mostly self-taught had disadvantages and I had a lot to overcome. My fundamental mechanics were way off. I was doing everything wrong. I was receiving so much direction that I became completely overwhelmed. There was so much to think about! If I concentrated on my fingering, then my bow went askew. When I tried to play the correct notes, I couldn’t keep time. I was so tense that my hand cramped and my shoulder hurt. To make matters worse, the instructor was relentless. When I heard the frustration in his voice, I drove home close to tears. I couldn’t even look at the fiddle for a few days. I knew I’d be in trouble the following week but I just didn’t care. I considered quitting. Three lessons was all it took to make me feel hopeless. I was sad that my dream of playing the fiddle was coming to an end.
What I didn’t realize, was that it was just beginning.
I arrived at what I was beginning to think of as my final lesson. With a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I warned him that the only thing I had accomplished the previous week was that I hadn’t quit. Yet. Only half joking, I told him I was thinking about taking up the ukulele. Half kidding (I hope), he suggested the harmonica. We talked a bit about my difficulties and disillusionment. Gently, he led me through the lesson. At the end of the hour, I had softened. I had managed not to shed any tears, at least. As is the routine, I paid up for the next month. He playfully agreed that he had managed to get me to commit to another four weeks.
This is where my journey truly begins. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had achieved a kind of milestone. I had told myself that I didn’t have to do this. And yet, here I was. In the coming weeks, although progress was slow and my frustration remained, I kept going. Thankfully, the Monday night slow jams continued. The opportunity to play for fun among friends who encouraged and supported really sustained me. After that one, particular week of my third lesson, I forced myself to go to slow jam, talking myself out of turning around all the way there. At the end of the evening, I was so glad I had not.
Learning to play music was only a small part of the expedition. I was learning so much more. My weaknesses were exposed in a way that I have managed to avoid for most of my life. Being vulnerable is not something I’m good at. I am impatient. I am a perfectionist. Somehow, I have managed to succeed at most everything else I’ve tried, thus far in life, without having to face the real possibility of failure. With the fiddle, the harder I worked, the more there was to learn. I corrected one thing and another three things became glaringly in need of repair. My notes were flat (or sharp), my timing was off and bow hand seemed to have a mind entirely of its own.
To make matters worse, I developed a severe case of performance anxiety. Even when a piece sounded pretty decent at home, it came out badly at lessons and slow jam. Now, if you know me at all, you know that I am not shy. I can talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything. But put a fiddle in my hands and all bets are off. I hold on so hard that my hand cramps. “You don’t have to kill it,” my teacher tells me, week after week. “Relax your death grip!” (What I really fear is that it might just kill me!)
We’ve gone back to basics for my lessons. I’m struggling to make the connections between the music I’m reading, the notes my fingers are playing and what my ears are hearing. It’s not enough to simply be able to play the notes I see. Music is much deeper than that. I am finally starting to get that. I’ve had some “ah-ha” moments that often have little to do with sharps and flats and everything to do with my own tenacity.
Something inside of me has been cracked wide open by this journey. It’s surprising, at this stage of life, to be blindsided by your own susceptibility. Some days, I am amazed by my capacity to persevere. Other days, I want to smash the fiddle against the wall. Mostly, I do the best I can and try to find the satisfaction in it. When I become frustrated, I go back to the earliest tunes I learned and recall how challenging they were, as I breeze through them. That’s progress!
Throughout this, I began to yearn for my guitar. I was afraid to confuse my already deluged brain by expecting my fingers to play the same notes in different positions, on different strings. A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved in, after I dreamed that I was playing. What an emotional roller coaster! Of course, I’ve forgotten more than I ever learned. But it felt like hugging a dear old friend who has been away for a long, long time. My life feels so different now than the last time I played. We have a lot of catching up to do.
And so the journey continues. I am no longer focused on the end result or the goal of being able to play. I am learning to savor each step along the way – the good days and the ones when I just don’t feel it. Every now and then, something clicks and I get it: I finally play the right note on a difficult song or I understand what personal barrier is preventing me from embracing a new concept. Like running a race, it’s about endurance, not the finish line.
Along the way, I am blessed with finding the right people when I need them. I’ve made some really good friends. Fiddle players rock! From the skilled artistry of Mike Lyons to the generous inspiration of Missy Joyal to the gifted teaching of Kevin Fallon, I am finding my way. The path is crooked and I occasionally wander off. But, however long it takes, I am making my dream come true. You can count on it.