Life (With Strings Attached)

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Sitting in the balcony at the First Presbyterian Church on North Main Street in Honeoye Falls, I couldn’t help but wonder. It was Ray Milne’s funeral service. He was an amazing man. Long ago, during my term of public service, he offered sound and wise advice. He was a man many could look to as a community role model. I only wish I could accomplish half of what he did.

But that’s not what I was wondering about. The setting itself took me back. When I first moved back to Mendon in the late 1980s, I joined many civic groups, hoping to discover what I could offer my adopted hometown. Several of those groups convened in the meeting rooms of the church.

That was a time long ago. I started thinking about all the people I knew back then. Some of them were in that church celebrating Ray’s life. Most of them were celebrating with Ray.

The solemn but sweet music coming from the organ helped place me in the mood to wonder. I wished I could play the organ that way. Yes, I taught myself the keyboard on one of those inexpensive miniature electronic organs. My parents bought one used, so it was even less expensive.

But it worked. It was about two-and-a-half octaves. Enough for right-hand melody and left-hand chords.

Ah, the chords. When you picture a classical pianist, you see hands strolling across the keyboard. The fingers dance along the keys with smooth elegance. Just like a professional typist.

Now, contrast that to the form of a hunt and peck typist. That’s how I played the keyboard. My left (chord-playing) hand was so stiff it earned me the nickname “The Claw.”

Ironically, the visual appearance of my violin playing gave one the impression I was some sort of aficionado. I can’t say I was, but I can say I truly enjoyed playing the violin. Still, unlike the keyboard, with the violin I had the advantage of professional instruction.

And I wanted my kids to experience that same joy. In fact, they excelled at varying combinations of the talent, the discipline, and the fun offered by fiddling around. Maybe each focused on one more than the other, but they all shared all these traits.

But they loved complaining about having to play the instrument. At first, it was something new and interesting. Soon, and in some cases quickly, it became old and tired. Other musical instruments had more allure. We got an electronic keyboard. They explored it. A couple of them even became proficient at it.

Sometimes you have to start down one path to understand why you prefer another.

I did not differ from them. I didn’t want to play the violin. I wanted to play the trumpet or the drums. I’m pretty sure my parents nixed that idea because of the volume. Since the violin was my third choice, they convinced me it was my first choice.

I treated it like any other school class. Learn, practice, demonstrate. I didn’t feel like I was an artist. I felt more like a mercenary. It was just a job. The teacher gave me a book called A Tune A Day. She told me what songs to practice. I would practice those songs.

Until I got bored.

Not with the violin, but with the songs. So, I stopped practicing.

My teacher sensed this, so she asked me what songs I’d rather play. I remembered a Three Stooges short where Larry would play his violin to inspire Curly to box like a winner. He played the same song over and over. It was “Pop Goes The Weasel.” The country dance tune caught my ear and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

My understanding teacher grabbed a pencil and paper, drew a pair of five-line staffs. She then colored in the notes to “Pop Goes The Weasel.”

I started practicing again.

After a few weeks, my teacher noticed an improvement. She said, if you like “Pop Goes The Weasel,” you’ll really like this one. She pulled out another page of handwritten sheet music. It was “The Irish Washerwoman.”

I was hooked. She then pulled out a new book, Breeze-Easy Method for Strings. It had abridged versions of similar songs, including “Pop Goes The Weasel,” “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” (which the book listed as “Volga Boat Song”), and “Carnival of Venice.” I played with gusto.

Until we moved away.

At the new school, it was non-stop Suzuki. Who heard of those songs? And what was the point of playing the same song over and over again? I stopped practicing. More precisely, I stopped practicing what the teacher assigned me.

Thirsty for anything that wasn’t Suzuki, I returned to my old books. Sure, A Tune A Day never disappointed. I played “Santa Lucia” with a big Italian heart. But it was the undiscovered gems in Breeze-Easy Method for Strings that caught my attention. Especially “Red River Valley.” (Incidentally, this would be my go-to song when I learned to play the harmonica.)

As I progressed through school, my teachers learned if they wanted to keep my interest, they’d have to provide music I liked. I didn’t know it, but the string program was operating on a shoestring. They couldn’t afford to lose students.

Not that I intended to leave. Quite the opposite. The more they challenged me with popular music, the more I practiced. I wasn’t perfect, but I developed a passion that wasn’t there before.

Don’t get me wrong. I still wasn’t an aficionado. I still preferred The Beatles to Beethoven. I still favored the music of math rather than the math of music (that was before I realized they were the same thing).

As my teachers challenged me, I challenged them. Things came to a head junior year. Tired of my complaining about the blunt ending of the “Beatles Medley” we were to play at our next concert, the teacher, Mr. Dilmore, jokingly suggested I rewrite the ending. I did. Much to my surprise, he let us play it.

Mr. Dilmore was one of the teachers on the orchestra merry-go-round. He was only there for a year. I kind of think my hi-jinks drove him away. (Again, I didn’t know there was a bigger problem with the school budget and the string program was hanging by, well, a string.)

Imagine my surprise when, one day, trying to find which room my group was meeting in at the First Presbyterian Church, I opened up a door and discovered the wrong group. It was the choir group, but that’s not what stunned me. There was Mr. Dilmore, staring right at me. We exchanged pleasantries and never saw each other again.

But that’s not the twist. You see, this wasn’t the last time Mr. Hermon Dilmore crossed my path.

I would regularly break out my sheet music and play my violin. Just for fun. No one was around. I just enjoyed it.

Now, I had a few favorite songs. Some I could play by heart, including “The Irish Washerwoman,” “Santa Lucia,” and several Beatles songs. Every once in a while, I’d pull out one of the old books. One day, something compelled me to reach for Breeze-Easy Method for Strings. I did a double take at the name on the cover. “Hermon Dilmore.”

Yes, it was the same one.

Little did I know, but the path that began my violin playing career had come full circle, connected from beginning to end by a single string.

Sometimes what you think is an alternative path really isn’t.

And it comforts you to know that.


  1. […] unexpected ways. How do you respond when you discover this? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Life (With Strings Attached),” to relive a true story with a satisfying […]

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