2009 Honorable Mention in Prose
GRACE NOTES by Charlotte Dillon
This is what I’ve been told: a boy in my kindergarten class brought in a violin for show-and-tell, and I came home announcing I wanted to play. My parents bought my first instrument not long after I started playing at the Neighborhood Music School. My new violin was smaller than the length of my forearm, and frail. Small violins, like small children, are delicate, and it’s with immense precision that knobs are fastened, soundposts slid in, and tweaks made to bring out the fullest sound from an instrument only one-foot long. Mine would have cracked like a fortune cookie had I held too tight. Later, when practicing went wrong, I would imagine thrusting this dollhouse instrument at the ground, picture watching my light-up sneakers flash on a pile of crumbled wood and strings. But I didn’t, though my stubby dirt-nailed fingers barely reached the written notes, and my bow followed a path of its’ own.
Frustrating as this was, I took better care of this first violin than I did myself. I wiped the resin-dust off from under the strings almost daily, polished the scroll, and before packing it away in jack-o-lantern orange velvet, loosened the bowstring, though I never understood why this action was necessary. This excessive care, this love and caution, was probably not needed, seeing as the previous owner had treated this instrument as if it were a first grader’s notebook. It was covered in stickers. Together, we were cute: the kind of cute that warrants cheek-pinches and comments, mostly regarding the frog-sticker on the frog of the bow (the type that requires long fingernails to pick off and leaves traces of glue behind that no amount of scraping can erase.)
I eventually learned that taking great care of my violin would not make me any better of a player. Memories of my first lessons are blurry images of a woman whose name and face are smeared like runny finger paintings. All I could play after one semester was Mississippi Stop-Stop: Variation A, which entailed nothing more than running the bow on the A-string to the beat of the words Mississippi stop-stop. I later learned to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to this beat, and this is what I played for my first recital.
We were a large group, the newbies, the littles, and though I don’t have a photograph, I’m sure we must have been laughable. The event was called Spooky Suzuki, a Halloween festival in which performers wear costumes. I was a cat, in black clothes and whiskered cheeks sketched in eyeliner. I’m sure they were smudged hours before the accompanist coughed. That was our cue to get ready. Bow out, chin up, tuck it tight, scroll towards the audience. The piano played the introduction, the unfamiliar teacher lifted her hand, and I can’t recall an emotion here, only the sensation of being blinded. You’d be surprised how many pushy parents wanted documentation of their child’s crying on stage because his bow got stuck on Pumpkin-Girl’s costume.
Though it grew campier as I got older, I continued to attend the annual Spooky Suzuki festival, partly for the costumes (I’ve never seen more people dress up as upright basses before) but mostly because I think I was too shy to say no.
In general, I was too shy to speak. I never protested to teachers, even though my first group ensemble was too difficult and my face flushed during solos because I couldn’t do pizzicato like John could. The result was my banishment to the Basement Group, appropriately named for our rehearsal area. The five of us were put together because we were the slackers: our sole and constant discussion was that we never practiced. I dreaded those Thursday evenings in that room, it was cold and grey, and the cement walls looked similar to leftover sidewalk squares. It took us a year, but by June we could collectively play all eleven versions of “Boil ‘Em Cabbage Down” in our book. In the traffic jams home, stuck in the Toyota between frozen light-cycles, I’d threaten to quit. It must have been weekly, and each time I protested, I’d hear that I just had to wait until the semester was over.
But when summer ended and fall clothes were fetched, I opened the case that had lain in cobwebbed attic corners; stroked the wood grains and signed up for group lessons again. But by some chance, some stroke of luck, I was not placed in the same sextet as the previous year, I was bumped to an ensemble, and this is when I first remember being proud: this is when I loved to play. I ran home from the bus stop, kicking crunched leaves out of my way as I rushed the one block stop to my house to practice violin.
I was determined: problems couldn’t stop me. Ensemble started Saturdays at nine: I bought an alarm clock. We needed more books: I searched jaundiced stacks to find them. The conductor, Grace, ran a sightreading festival: I came and sat in the back, a quiet ten-year-old tentatively inching her bow on unfamiliar notes. Most were professionals, and I was awed with the sound. Our sound. Those days, I lived for Saturday mornings: waits outside the double doors and corner-clutters of stands in that pencil-yellow room. Even then, I knew why. Grace was an artist. She drew in charcoal: black shades on tracing paper that hid a viola de gamba or cello within a sketch of a leaf. She tacked them to the window: the one with ornaments hanging from the ceiling and the potted tree whose roots tore at its’ container.
I liked to think that I was continuing something. The Bach minuets and Teleman concertos that came from my violin had been played hundreds of years ago, sure to be forgotten if people like me didn’t play them. This was not the case with private lessons. There, I was still stuck on songs with Rachel, the latest in a series of young teachers who were juggling school, family, and work. She had beautiful brown hair, long and smooth, and it never got caught under her chinrest like mine did. One Thursday I came to my lesson to find that her hair was gone. All that was left were tiny short curls that hugged her skull. I think this is when I stopped practicing. The results were obvious. I didn’t improve from week to week, so after being yelled at by Rachel, I began to pick up the violin at home once again. But after weeks of not being able to master vibrato (even though I had tried ever so hard,) Rachel announced that she was giving up. I could not learn it, she told me. “You sound like a gerbil singing opera,” she said, and I laughed. I laughed with her, though this was the most insulting thing I had ever been told at this point in my life. When that lesson was done, I packed up fast, swallowing sobs. I forgot to loosen my bowstring.
Rachel is not my teacher anymore. I quit private lessons because I never practiced; I was tired of hearing whispers when I played, my teacher’s vibrato over mine, and dust clouds from the resin I forgot to wipe from the strings. I only practiced for Grace’s Baroque Quartet. I’ve never been recommended for a youth orchestra, have never received a green flyer telling me I’d graduated from ensembles, but I don’t think that would changed anything. I still look forward to that glass-doored foyer, the slanted skylights and the potted tree (planted in a new container but I already see bulges.) On the walk to the building, the shade from its branches stretches toward Grace’s drawings taped to the glass; on sunny days I stop. This is what I know: when I look to see her pictures, light glazing through skin-thin paper, there is music in those limbs and leaves.