Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Rosin up your bows, boys!

Across from our cabinet maker is a small shop that produces rosin - rosin for bows used on stringed instruments. Hearing about them unleashed a bunch of memories about my own years playing the violin and carrying around a little chunk of cheap rosin for my own bow.

Rosin: the yellowish to amber, translucent, hard,brittle, fragmented resin left after distilling the oil of turpentine from the crude oleoresin of the pine: used chiefly in making varnishes, varnish and paint driers, printing inks, and for rubbing on the bows of such string instruments as the violin. Source: dictionary.com

I both hated and loved my first violin teacher. I hated her because she attached colored pipe cleaner "butterfly wings" across my bridge to correct my crooked bowing.  Before the first concert for our parents, I begged her to remove them and she refused.  How serious could this concert have been? In my memory it was like appearing in Carnegie Hall  - and I was going to be dressed in a clown suit. On the big day, I played my piece on stage with wings; the only kid so restricted.  Discouraged, I didn't practise enough going forward. My teacher's approval seemed unachievable. I was eight years old and mediocre.

A Strad...perhaps if I'd had a better instrument?
Every year our goal was to pass another set of exams from the Royal Conservatory of Music*. The tests were grim affairs; three somber examiners had you run through the a gamut of prepared scales, studies, pieces. How did these examiners stand it; one squawking kid after another? Hopefully, they were smoking pot.

The only fun part for me was sight reading. They'd drop a piece of music on your stand and you had a few minutes to look it over and then play. All musical notations had to be observed as well as the notes:  tempo, bow strokes, rests, mood and so on. It was game-like relief from the drudgery of the rest of the test and I got good scores.

By contrast to my negative feelings for my teacher, I can easily conjure up the image I loved of her; head cocked, undoing the black satin bow on her little suede wrapped package of black rosin. Two or three swipes of her bow and she'd re-tie the package with her lovely hands. The rosining was ritualized and she did it exactly the same way each time, like a benediction. She was graceful, intelligent, serious and fully engaged in her teaching.  I remember the light glinting off her glasses and a gold tooth showing when she smiled. The smiling was rare - when we were with her it was work, work, work. Once in a while, she'd play for us and it was wonderful. I remember the heart-stopping sound of her violin bouncing around in that small house.

Every week I'd tell my mother I couldn't go to my music lesson because I had a stomach ache. I put more effort into thinking of an excuse for missing the lesson than I did into practicing. Every week, my mother would listen, grit her teeth and push me out the door. I'd trudge down the street to the bus stop and my hour of torture.

After a couple of years of this, everything changed; a wonderful violin-teaching nun appeared on the scene. She was moved to our local convent and my parents switched me over to her. I can remember going to my first lesson with her anticipating the worst.  A nun! Now there'd be strapping for punishment and even more reserve and severity. But no, she was a fantastic human being who loved her students and loved teaching.  For a precious hour each week we shared a tiny room, just large enough for her piano and my violin stand. The first ten minutes was talk: we'd talk about my week of practice experience and she'd tell me stories about being a nun. She was young, curious and full of fun - her stories were funny and she made me feel like a conspirator in her antics. That lovely person provided respite from the horrible teenage years full of acne and agony. I was a different person in there with her. She liked me (or she made me think she did) - and maybe was the first adult I'd had that kind of relationship with. Her attention and encouragement gradually rebuilt the self esteem that had evaporated under the stern eye of my former teacher.

I never really got very good and I can't say I ever played the instrument for my own pleasure, unlike my grandmother, a fiddler. I dragged it around with me for decades intending one day to "get back at it."Finally, mice built a nest in my case with the rosin as the centerpiece of the construction and I had to throw it out. Violin-free at last.

* It couldn't have been all bad.  Famous graduates include Oscar Peterson, Diane Krall, Glen Gould, Robert Goulet. I suspect they were having more fun at it than I was.


  1. Golf, violin!!!!!
    Will the surprises never cease!!!!
    This was fascinating, so interesting and,as usual so well written.
    Your fan, Barbara

  2. Thank you Barbara, my one and only fan. You're too kind.