Friday, 4 January 2013

Violin (Part The First)

Recently I decided that I was going to learn to play the violin. 

Really, actually, properly learn to play. 
Not just thinking about it for a while before giving up.  
Not just watching a few YouTube 'How To ...' guides. 
Not just going into shops and browsing Amazon.

I was going to practice for hours, and make some money, and practice some more, and pay a teacher for lessons, and practice extra more, and all the other minutiae involved in learning a new skill. I was going to play a musical instrument before it was too late, or die trying ... or give myself tinnitus. My new hearing aid’s working wonders by the way.

(Turns out it's hard work. Who knew?)
 This has been a dramatic imperative for me, because I consider myself the least musically gifted man in the British Isles. No prodigy I dear readers, and not for want of trying. Musical aptitude was something both of my schools took very seriously, so various teachers and tutors tried and failed to get me fluent. Well-meaning souls they were, but they proved ultimately ineffective. I remained stubbornly useless, despite the best laid plans of mice and men.

I was introduced to the recorder at the age of seven; and I remember being quite excited by the flimsy stick of plastic. Yet even then I demonstrated nothing but fundamental misunderstanding: for about five days I paraded about the house, tootling away at my shiny new toy for hours on end, substituting tune for volume. My early compositions could be described as a form of post-modern acid-jazz improv, the effect of which was akin to having your ears water-boarded. I’m surprised my family still talks to me.  

(I looked just like this kid, only slightly less psychotic.)
But I wouldn’t be silenced. I was definitely making a noise, with the recorder no less, and anyway I liked the sound of it. Who were they to tell me any different?

My childhood self also doubted the effectiveness of practice, which was often suggested to me by individuals who’d lacked the foresight to invest in earplugs. I think the reason I mistrusted it was because I felt that it was just learning the same thing twice, which seemed illogical to me. When you solved an equation in maths, you didn’t solve the problem better because you did it multiple times. Why should music be any different?

Practice was also hard work, so it had to be avoided and abominated at all costs. Thus my teachers would prescribe simple melodies for homework, but once I’d been given the photocopy the sheet music would be stuffed into my rucksack, where it remained undisturbed for the duration of the semester. When questioned, I would claim to have lost the photocopy, and another would be printed out for me, and the cycle would continue ad nauseum. As a result of this, my only memories of my time with the recorder are of cleaning dried spittle out of the mouthpiece. Lovely.

At the age of nine I moved on to the piano. The piano, readers, is not a good instrument for the casual learner. It is large, it is loud, it is cumbersome and it is expensive. Yet my parents, in a display of generosity they would regret for years to come, bought me a piano and arranged for weekly lessons.

Since the recorder had caused such strife, I endeavored to pay more attention to the piano. I think in my own idiotic way I was earnest about wanting to become a pianist; I thought it would be fun anyway.

Nevertheless things didn’t work out. I did practice this time, and I understood the component parts of each piece I was assigned; the value of each note, the tune, dynamics and rhythm, but I was too scatterbrained to remember them all-together, and to combine them into a harmonious whole. Not only this, but in classic boy-who-cried-wolf fashion, I actually was constantly losing my sheet music this time around. Because I had nothing to bring with me to lessons we’d have to resort to scales for want of things to do. We did scales and arpeggios every week. Consequently I became adept at scales and arpeggios, but nothing else. To be honest I think my teacher gave me up as a lost cause after about a month, and was afterwords happy to have me around as a source of steady pay-cheques.
I can’t remember what happened to my piano ... 

(Not pictured: the £1000 this bad-boy costs)
From then on, music was just something that happened to other people, and what little I knew of the mystic arts faded away. Until now, the only music I practiced in the last decade was whistling. Whistling is not a form of expression appreciated by the public at large. It isn’t cool, or profound or sexy. The only time it’s commented upon is when people ask me to stop doing it.

My friends were the talented ones. One of my friends has a positively angelic voice, one of the loveliest you’d ever hear, and so she was always performing in choirs and the like, and she’s currently studying proper music with nobs on down in Manchester. I have another friend who can sing AND play guitar AND play the keyboard, he’s been in about three bands since he was sixteen. Or is it four? It’s hard to keep track. I’ve another mate who plays the drums, another who plays electric guitar, a flatmate who sings in musicals, listing their abilities will take all day.

The point is that music was quite simply a mystery to me; it might as well have been magic. I didn’t understand how it was composed, or adapted or improved. I had no ear for style or genre, could grasp only the most unsophisticated of movements, and only struggle to appreciate the complex. It was something above and beyond my intellect, a mode of expression so scintillating, addictive, passionate and beautiful and pure and good as to be almost divine. And I couldn’t do it. That sucked.

(They're all at it, the smug bastards)
So why have I decided to pursue the violin now you ask? (Or you would if you’re actually interested. You might not be of course, I don’t know, but I’m 793 words into this tirade already so you might as well let me carry on) Well there are a few reasons. I think I should learn to play something before I die, music's a part of the rich tapestry of life. It’s an elegant, beautiful instrument, and it seems like one of those things which, if played very well, can make anything sound exquisite ... but it has to be played VERY well, I cannot stress that enough. 

But mostly it was because I needed something to do in the wake of an extremely traumatic break-up, which you’ll all hear more about in the coming weeks as I continue this catalogue of neurosis. I imagine “lose the girl =  learn instrument” is the kind of reaction to heartbreak stereotyped by shit rom-coms, which you must all find quite pretentious and gauche. I suppose in that regard getting dumped is at least conducive to new experiences.

I won’t get onto the specifics of the incident just yet; those will be saved for more sombre posts later on. The gist of it is that during the summer I was dumped by someone I cared about very deeply, someone I was profoundly attracted to. In the aftermath of the catastrophe I realized, to my complete horror, that without my girlfriend I had nothing. She was the only thing that gave me any sense of validation. I’d been so comfortable in that safe little affair, playing at houses and all the usual lovey-dovey shit, that I hadn’t cultivated anything else in my life, and now there was just this vast empty space between me and death and I had nothing to fill in the time: just nothing at all. 

(Insert Morrissey lyric where appropriate) 
I was miserable of course, but for once I realized that I couldn’t just let apathy overcome me. Yes I’d fallen, but I’d only fallen so far because I had no other safety nets. Oh there was university of course, and friends and family, my flat and the car, and I’m not ungrateful for any of these wonderful things. But without my girl there wasn’t much to me; a scrawny, insecure wannabe-author with mental problems and a big library, and the chances of me having affection reciprocated ever again, as I was, seemed infinitesimally slim.

The only way forward was via self-improvement. So I got my hair cut, and highlighted and started to try and tame it with gel and a comb. I went to the gym three times a week, and drank all sorts of ghastly protein concoctions to put on muscle. I had my teeth whitened and straightened. I read as much as I could, and wrote more, and I spent more time in the library and reading notes, and I got a part-time job.

And I decided to learn to play the violin.

(Yesterday I watched the cult horror/sci-fi/dystopian Japanese film ‘Tokyo Gore Police’ with two of my favorite people ... It was grotesque ... I don’t want to talk about it.)  

(This happened. I can never unsee this, and now neither can you)

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