Life in the Pit (Part I)

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violin-player-1565772The young mother worried as she made her way to the teacher conference. Her third grade son’s violin instructor had asked her “if she had time to talk.” As a teacher herself, the boy’s mom knew what this meant. She had already begun to imagine various excuses she could offer. “I try everything to get him to practice, but he’s more interested in listening to football with his father.” “His first choice was to play the trumpet, but the school’s music people said he didn’t have the right lips.” “Actually, he really wanted to play the drums, but we thought it would be too loud.”

Most of all she worried about her son. It was her first. With another son following only 15 months behind and now a baby daughter, she realized what every parent realizes at this point – she and her husband were outnumbered. Was she spending too much time with her youngest at the expense of her oldest? She had witnessed such downward spirals first hand in the students she taught. Was she becoming the mother she, in her own role as teacher, once haughtily disdained?

She was about to find out.

Resigned to getting an old-fashioned whipping by an aged schoolmarm, she meekly rapped on the door with her knuckles. It was slightly ajar and her force nudged it further, so she simply opened it and let herself in.

What she saw startled her.

This wasn’t some gray-haired leftover from the Victorian Era. This was a… a girl!

“Excuse me, Miss Avalon,” offered the meekish mom, “but you wanted to see me. About my son, I’m sorry that…”

“Yes, yes… do come in!” said the cheerful Miss Avalon. “You’re son is such a delight.” This was a curve ball the mother didn’t expect. Miss Avalon continued, “But there’s something you need to know…” This was it. This was the hammer about to come down. “…he has a real talent.” Ah, the old compliment before the awful truth. But, oddly, that was all Miss Avalon said.

“What?” asked the now confused mother, whose memory was forever etched by the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard sound she remembered hearing during the rare times her son scratched away at practice.

“It’s true,” said Miss Avalon. The violin teacher, however, could detect the skepticism in the mother’s face. She had seen this plenty of times before. As much as she knew while women generally envied her youthful appearance, it was a liability when it came to speaking with any authority. “Here,” she told the doubtful mom as she handed her several tickets, “go see this performance and you’ll see what I mean.”

So the mother reluctantly convinced the children’s father to drive them all to a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert. All the way there, the mother couldn’t believe this “girl” would give her son such false hopes. Yes, she knew he had talents – she had seen it a couple years earlier – but music wasn’t one of them. As the family got comfortable in their seats, she looked to see what revelation she would discover in her son’s face as the curtain opened and the orchestra began to play.

But the awe did not appear in her son’s face, it appeared in hers. There, sitting in the spot of the principal cellist was Miss Avalon, vigorously bowing as the lead of her section. The mother now believed.

* * * * *

Yes, that was my mom and I was the son with “talent.” If I ever had any talent as a violinist, I disguised it well, preferring the role of rebel rather than virtuoso. I credit Miss Avalon with this. I really did want to play the trumpet or the drums and was left with no choice but the violin when I failed the trumpet test and the (quite loud) drumming of our neighbor’s son dissuaded my parents from allowing that instrument anywhere near me. Miss Avalon knew this, but also knew enough other things about me to know I had a latent knack for “fiddlin’ around.”

We had traditional violin primers, including one written by a fellow named Herman Dilmore. Yes, I hacked my way through them, but even at that young age I wanted to go beyond the book. After watching a particular Three Stooges episode (the one where Curly gains superhuman strength upon hearing the tune Pop Goes the Weasel as played by Larry on his violin), I, too, desired to mimic Larry and play that song on my violin. There was a problem – Pop Goes the Weasel was not in any of the music books I had. I tried guessing the notes and did get a few of them right before Miss Avalon was onto me. She took out a blank piece of music paper and penciled in the notes. That night at home I practiced the most I ever did. I think even my father enjoyed the show, he being a big fan of the Three Stooges. I still have that penciled Pop Goes the Weasel somewhere in my vast archives of Carosa arcana.

A few months later I put on another show. This time I was the one who penciled the notes on the music paper. The song was Happy Birthday. I experimented with my fingers until the notes sounded right, then I wrote them down. Fortunately, the song has a lot of repetition. I played it for my sister on her birthday. Like my rendition of Pop Goes the Weasel, there was a noticeable lack of scratchiness.

Off-road violining was fun. The instrument became a part of persona. When Rosie Grier famously said he knitted so that guys who played the violin wouldn’t be made fun of by their friends, I thought it to be an odd sentiment. My friends never made fun of me for playing the violin. In fact, they thought my impersonation of Jack Benny was a riot. (They did make fun of me, but, then again, we all made fun of each other. It was part of a time-honored male bonding ritual, but that’s the subject for another time.)

The violin was me and I was the violin. We were one. I couldn’t imagine a me without my violin. But then, something terrible happened.

(What was this horrific event? What new truths did it yield? And what about Naomi? Stay tuned for Part II of “Life in the Pit,” appropriately titled “Life in the Pit (Part II)” – coming in the March 17, 2016 issue.)

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