Tag Archives: violin

Re-learning to play

I played the violin for about 25 years – once I got out of the exam treadmill, I played folk, and acoustic rock and was much happier. During my twenties, it was a big part of my life, and music was central to how I communicated with people, and to a number of my most cherished relationships.

Some years ago, an elderly and much loved cat decided he wanted to spend the winter (his last winter, it turned out) sat on my left shoulder. He was not a small cat. He’d get up there and I’d let him stay until my left hand went numb – which it invariably did. The result of this, after some months, was some kind of compression injury, and my shoulder joint locked down. I lost a great deal of mobility. I couldn’t swim, I could barely get my hands round the bouzouki and I could not get my left arm to a place where I could play the violin. At its worst, I couldn’t reliably dress myself.

It took me a long time to rebuild strength and flexibility. I’ve been able to swim for the last few years and I can do most everyday things with no trouble. I don’t have full movement and most specifically, I cannot get my hand into a position that would allow me to play the violin. I’ve come to a point of accepting that I might never get that back.

I do have enough flexibility to get my hands round the viola – which is bigger, and doesn’t require getting my hand as close to my shoulder. For some time now, I’ve been relearning my violin repertoire on this instrument instead. Given that most of what I know is in terms of muscle memory, and the physical shape of tunes is different on a bigger instrument, this has been a bit of a thing. I’m nowhere like as good as I used to be and I have a lot of work to do.

On the plus side, the viola is the better instrument to sing with. I have ventured a thing…

Fiddling druid

I’ve played the violin for something disturbingly like 25 years now, which rather makes me feel I should be better at it than I am. I’m a folk fiddler, my double jointed hands not able to hold anything the ‘right’ way, and I play a lot of O’Carolan. If you’ve not heard of him, he was the last great Irish bard, a blind harper and writer of many amazing tunes. He should be required encountering for bards, I think.

My current violin was bought years ago at a folk festival. I knew, the moment I put my hand on it, that this was mine. It spoke. It also did wonders for the quality of my playing. Mine is not the prettiest fiddle, the wood is grainy and on the back has a knot in it, the scroll is unevenly carved, its a bit worn in places. There’s a lot of character though. It’s a fiddle with soul. Sometimes, when I am very low, I’ll just sit and hold the case against my chest. The case saved me once, I fell down a flight of concrete stairs, and the fiddle case (different instrument inside it) got under my neck and head, and protected me. I could easily have broken my neck otherwise. As I’d fainted, it wasn’t a conscious choice to protect myself.

I’ve played over the years, with some lovely people, mostly in folk clubs. I’ve done a lot of jamming. I’ve busked in the street and caused children to dance. Last winter I was so sick, so deep in depression with the backlash from everything I’d been though, that I simply couldn’t play. I didn’t get the fiddle out for months. The cold conditions and a lack of checking meant that an old problem kicked off again, and the back started to peel off my violin. I felt just as guilty as I would have done if I had injured a person that badly through neglect. The violin is like a person to me. A friend. A co-creator. It’s taken months of love and care to put it all right again, and today I stood in a shop, trying out new bows, and playing. My fingers are rusty, the tunes no longer fall easily and I’ve got work to do, to regain the ground I‘ve lost. The violin is well, and appears to hold no grudges.

There’s something of the human voice in a violin played well. They can cry and mourn, dance and sing in ways that call to my heart. Making music with the fiddle is time out of time, it’s a whole other way of being. I need to refind that.

This has been a roller coaster of a week, emotionally, practically. Fights to take on, practical things to sort, progress towards becoming an OBOD tutor, acceptance into The Society of Authors, the closing of a publishing house I’ve worked with for 8 years, an invitation to make an epic journey… my head is spinning. Tomorrow we are at Saul Church and people are welcome to come and draw monsters with us.

Despite the mayhem, this evening it will just be me, and that glorious melding of wood, metal and horsehair with a little nylon in the strings… the magic that is a musical instrument, and melodies handed down from my ancestors of tradition. Time to be on the fiddle…