Grandfather’s violin

10 things I know to be true: two.

me and dad, pic taken by grandfather.

Thrice a week for five years — be it rainy or sunny, holiday or school day, busy or free, grandfather would drive me, on his rustic, old-fashioned bicycle, to violin classes.

The violin was small enough to fit on my little back; the colour of its case slightly wore off. When I first opened the case to touch the rough and unpolished surface of the aged instrument, a strong, strange smell pleasantly rose up, drawing me in all at once. Turns out, the scent was from this solidified palm resin. It is used to rub the hair of the violin bow, making the strings’ vibration more elegant and the sound brighter.

Anyhow, at that time I had no interest in its technical beauty. All that excited me was that special rosin scent. I then agreed with my grandfather to start learning the violin.

Every week, I would sneak out of my classroom, after asking teacher to save me a lunch portion to eat later and saying goodbye to the school guardian, to quickly run to grandfather. He would already be waiting outside, with the little violin case and a water bottle, his eyes smiled: “Are you ready? Lesson will be great today!”

Every class, while struggling for half an hour repeatedly striking again and again the 4 strings “G-D-A-E” and another half interpreting new compositions under the teacher’s close guidance, I could always see, in the corner of my eyes, grandfather’s worried and happy look through the half-open door. He stood there to make sure that I didn’t feel left out or pushed too hard. And he stood there, so that after I finished, he could stroke my head and tell me with the proudest voice: “You did such a great job today!”

I know, he actually lied, most of the times. Practicing the violin was one of the toughest things I’d ever done in my life. I can still now vividly remember the image of that 7-year-old, body-sweated, muscle-strained, and chin-hurt little girl struggling to create “true” music. My father said: “Every note must sound like it has emotion inside. Play with your heart, not your hands.” At the same time, every note must be in-tone, and harmoniously blended, making the sound neither too bright nor too dark. This is extremely difficult, for violin demands a very high level of musical precision. Of all instruments, violin is the only one that doesn’t demonstrate the correct position for each note, to find which the players can only count on their musical instinct, and in many case years of experience.

I wasn’t very bad, to be honest. Despite my several attempts to quit, grandfather was pleased to see me well-dressed and professional-looking every school final and semi-final, praised by the teachers with good, clean performances. I was even chosen to record for the school CD, and play in the annual “Young Talent Show”.

It wasn’t enough to please my father, however. He told me that, although clean, technically correct performances are enough for easy listeners; true music cannot be created with semi-enthusiasm and half-assed emotions. “You’ve got to flare the instrument with passion and feelings”.

That was when grandfather and father started the fight. Grandfather argued that I was just a kid and with time my love for the fiddle would grow. My father disagreed, saying how he was trained since five and his passion shone through early on. He couldn’t see that in me. Grandfather got angry: being my father’s first teacher, he believed his vision for the grandchild was just as right as the one for his own child.

The fight continued for a few more years until I was 13. My father eventually won, with great help from the “she’s busy with studying” excuse, which started to overtake my life. With less and less time to practice, I could not improve my violin skill as fast as I hoped. The next thing I knew, my supposed-to-be 5th year of violin was replaced by a successful entrance into a regional Math contest. Grandfather, heartbroken and devastated, put the little violin, my companion for 5 years, away. He didn’t talk to my father for long after that.

As for me, I didn’t regret the decision at all! It was such a relief for me to finally get rid of endless daily practices and nerve-wracking monthly exams.

I guess grandfather was actually right. Growing up did nourish my love for music. Slowly, I started to find out how music never went away, how much I loved singing, dancing, trying new instruments. I recorded songs. I learned to play the piano on my own. I sang whenever possible.

I also started longing for the rosin scent, the torturing practices, and especially my grandfather’s presence. Unfortunately with violin, you drop one day, you lose one day (unlike some other instruments.) Eight years of no practice means that I would have to learn the basics all over again.

The other day, I saw my father pick up the violin again after not touching it for 10 years. I remember thinking: This is what he meant by “flaring the instrument with passion and feelings”. I used to think that I would never be half as good as my father, because I was simply not as talented. But passion, yes, passion was what I lacked.

And I asked my grandfather, for the first time after 8 years, for my, no, grandfather’s violin, back.

The rosin scent, the wore-off-case, the slender bow were still there. The patina of age had made the violin even prettier than before.

But it had become too small for me!

Originally published at on July 23, 2010.