My career was failing, and it was time to learn something new.
The camera sat there waiting, and for the first time in years, I didn’t know what to say. The camera sat on the tripod. One minute. Two. Then it blinked off. I touched the screen. The camera started again. I froze.
I had spent months learning how to produce video. I had played with sound, tweaked the lighting. I had shot and deleted videos for six months until I got it right. Then the camera came on and I could not say a word.
One day, I asked the big question, the one that always lurks under the surface:
What would my violin teachers say?
Much to my surprise, I heard an answer.
Don’t you tiptoe onto that stage. Walk out there like you own the place.
I haven’t played the violin in 25 years, but I still attack every problem like a violinist.
I started playing late — when I was 7 — but I built upon the piano lessons that had started at age 4. I entered competition at 14. After one rough showing, the accolades rolled in.
The camera still glared at me.
What is wrong with you? Don’t you know that you can step onto that stage any time you want?
Yes, I do know that. In fact, that’s why I’m staring down a camera right now — to alleviate the sense that, in a year of stalled goals and dormant projects, my dreams are slipping away.
It’s not a year to write another book. Nor is it time to sit idle and wonder what the world will look like in a few months. No. It feels very much like a year when all my writing markets will evaporate like a creek during a dry summer.
It’s time to try video instead.
Look at you, freezing up like that. Surely we taught you better.
Yes. Yes, you did. I have to tell you, too, that I have spent a lifetime learning to overcome your training. I learned, a little too late, that not everyone plays as rough as a competitive musician.
By the time you had trained me for competition, I did not know any adults who could tell me that people worked any other way.
I came from a family that left me largely on my own as they dealt with the cascading disasters of a collapsing backcountry society. I had to figure out the 20th-century world on my own. Surely, I thought, in the working world, the discipline and fearlessness of a violinist would be welcome. I was wrong.
It was very appealing, you know: A world where you don’t merely hide any glimmer of doubt; you exterminate it. You erase it from your character.
You want to win? You walk onto that stage, you play your piece, and you’ll either win or you’ll lose. If you show any doubt, you’re more likely to lose.
Not everyone works like that. People misunderstood.
Well, if people don’t know the basic principles of performance, then whose fault is it?
I agree with you. Unfortunately, outside the music world, that’s the wrong answer.
Believe it or not, the working world is geared for compliance, not for competition.
Also, those stories? Those crazy stories you told about the music world? That lore was deceptive. All those times you told me you were much more compassionate than your teachers, those brutal taskmasters from Eastern Europe.
Difficult men. Very difficult. You had it easy.
You never told me what you were trying to achieve during those lessons.
I’ve done some reading, however. Your methods were fashioned by a ruthless school of training that merged flawless technique, vivid musicality, and perfect performance to produce superstar concert pianists and violinists.
The Hungarian School: In the 19th century, Hungarian music masters were trying to prove their greatness in the waning days of empire. (The Russians joined in, too.) Their brutal training regimen started with a piano school, but violin teachers soon took up the same methods.
Franz Liszt. Béla Bartók. Leopold Auer, and, by extension, his students, Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, and Georges Boulanger.
Instead of traditional lessons, Auer, a great teacher in the tradition, would require students to prepare a movement of a major work, then perform it in front of dignitaries and prominent musicians.
According to the Leopold Auer Society, during these lessons, Auer “would walk around the room, observing, correcting, exhorting, scolding, shaping the interpretation” in front of the audience.
That’s right. If you recall, we called such gatherings “music parties.” The point being?
According to the Auer Society, “if a student ran into a technical problem, Auer did not offer any solutions. Neither was he inclined to pick up a bow to demonstrate a passage.”
Is that why you never showed me how to play anything, no matter how much I asked?
I see you have a camera here. Why don’t you say something?
Well, I would tell you, but it sounds kind of dumb.
What is it? What’s getting in your way? Break it down.
I can’t step in front of a camera looking like this, with pandemic hair, deathly pale from months in lockdown. Maybe I should say something about it. Make some excuses about my appearance so I can speak.
You can’t be serious.
You remember what I told you, about that lady in the fifth row? You know, the one with the blinding jewelry? If you blow a passage, she’ll never know. She’s a patron, you know. She needs to think the performance is perfect. It’s your job to sell it.
All right, all right. You taught me how to breathe. I can breathe.
Remember: You are the most important person in the room.
Hardly. You should see my sales from last year.
It’s your stage. If you’re not the most important person the room, then you have no business being there.
All right. How about this? I’ll think about the first note — or, in this case, the first word. Think about the first word, and the third word, and the second will come without a thought. Then I won’t have any trouble with the rest.
I’ll grant that you occasionally nail the opening.
That’s right. I always knew how to open. All I have to do is think about striking that first note. See it. Feel it. Bring down the bow. Treat it like a German symphony that starts big and builds from there.
Start the camera.
I did it. I said something.
Start it again.
I shouldn’t mention this, but we never worried about the musicality with you. You always knew what you wanted to say. That’s why we were willing to work with you.
The only reason.
I mean, here I was, competing against players with their $10,000 violins, and mine didn’t even have a label.
I would have let you play one of mine. I told you that.
Yes, and I told you I wasn’t going to compete like that. If I walked out onto that stage destitute, coming from one of the worst neighborhoods in Kansas City, then, by God, I was going to compete with a third-rate instrument.
Sometimes you even managed to win.
I didn’t care about winning, though. Not in music. I understood that to continue with the violin, I would have to eat, sleep and dream the violin. It made no sense in a world that needed so much improvement.
I didn’t have the love for the instrument. I only had that love for one thing . . .
I don’t want to hear about it. Like I told you, I could have sent you to Juilliard.
I’m glad you taught me how to dress. Look at what I’m wearing here, on this first day of filming.
Wait a minute. No. This is awful. Good God, I look like Walking Death in midnight blue.
You really do. What are you going to do about it?
Well, I don’t have much choice. I have to rip everything out of my wardrobe. I’m going to try on everything I own, systematically, in every type of light.
The green sweater?
The red T-shirt.
It turns you red.
The Ralph Lauren knit, in sapphire?
Sorry. You’re not a princess.
What about this one? What a color! Surely not.
Yes. I think you’ve got it . . .
You’re right. At long last, here it is. Exactly the right uniform. Orange? Yes. Orange.
That’s right. Don’t you dare tiptoe onto that stage.
The “Reckless Violinist” series appears in essay and video form.
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