From torment to pleasure: how playing the violin became part of me


I had an uncle who, intermittently and not necessarily simultaneously, wore a kilt and played the violin. Each to me was exotic – twin roads to freedom from the dullness of a prosaic, southern English childhood. For a short time I took up highland dancing, with real swords and modest skill. I was seven when I begged to be allowed to join the new string class at school. Above all, I wanted the “equipment”: an eighth-sized violin and silk scarf to wrap it in, bow, spare strings, heavy wooden case with green felt lining (just as I’d wanted the kilt, jacket, sporran, jabot and special laced shoes for dancing).

The other children soon dropped out, bored by playing long, slow notes on open strings. It was deadly indeed and sounded awful. There’s no quick path to becoming even a modestly accomplished violinist. Left on my own, things progressed. The nice teacher complimented me on my “good ear” as I sawed through Will Ye No Come Back Again. I won a place at the junior department of a London conservatoire, going by myself, aged 11 until I left school, every Saturday morning: negotiating public transport, having breakfast in cafes and spending the afternoon wandering up and down Charing Cross Road, wondering at the mysterious rubber “health” objects (health meaning sex) hidden at the back of seedier secondhand bookshops. It was an education. It was, too, a wonder I escaped unscathed. A few creepy flashers aside, I was left alone.

The only abuse I got, looking back, was from the bullying violin teacher I was assigned. The experience of being confined in a tiny practice room with an emotionally and psychologically threatening adult is, alas, not rare for children learning musical instruments. The necessary intimacy of one-to-one lessons can be a joy or a peril, the risks only very recently brought into the open, and monitored. The same could not happen now. In my case, the problem was not sexual. This teacher, I’ll call her Mme Lorgnette – you must picture her, squeezed into the unlikely attire of gold lamé smoking jacket and matching skirt, and muddied brogues – arrived late every week, puffing and blaspheming, pulled by her charmless dog.

While I struggled to play dull technical exercises, madame blew smoke rings from her cigarillos and read her newspaper, occasionally screaming “Shut up!” at the dog (or it may have been at me) as it yowled in open contest. Both dog and owner were acridly malodorous, the windowless room a fug. Every minute was torment.

The only abuse I got, looking back, was from the bullying violin teacher I was assigned.
At the end of each session, I had to take the dog outside (“make sure it does its business”), making me late for my next lesson elsewhere in the large building. But I had a scholarship. I was lucky to be there. My parents were proud. How did one complain, by oneself, at that age? No one ever asked how I was getting on, or inspected a lesson, or wondered why my progress was so pitifully slow and lacklustre.

Fortunately, I had no intention of becoming a professional violinist, for reasons of aptitude, application and self-consciousness at performing. I can’t entirely blame that teacher, but the experience closed off options. I learned less than I might have done. Yet those Saturdays were part of my identity and, in a combative way, the passport to wider horizons I so wanted. Though my playing had stalled, I loved the other lessons: the theory and orchestra and music history. Without realising, I was equipping myself for the job I would eventually have: writing about music.

After I’d stopped lessons and the drudge of exams, everything changed – too late, yet just in time. I went on exciting music courses and spent every spare moment playing in student ensembles. No one shouted at me. There was, even, laughter. Music came alive, it became life. I began to play in string quartets (that is, usually, two violins, viola and cello) with friends and sometimes strangers. There’s an unrivalled pleasure in playing chamber music: a joint venture in which merely getting through can be harder, and more rewarding, than you’d ever think. New worlds opened. To forge the link between myself and the violin – by now in my first job as a journalist – I commissioned a new instrument, not a common procedure, for amateurs or professionals. I was introduced to a violin-maker, Juliet Barker, who was just establishing an important English violin-making school in Cambridge. I saved my meagre earnings each month to pay for it, and watched as, over two or more years, seasoned white wood turned to varnished gold and became an instrument. No one else has ever played that violin. It’s far superior to any I could otherwise have afforded, old Italian instruments being preeminent. It remains my prized possession.

I began to play in string quartets with friends. There’s an unrivalled pleasure in playing chamber music.
The brakes went on when children arrived. I was a violinist but one who was resting. The children grew up. I started playing again, as far as a busy schedule would allow, and reunited with the same friends. They’d gone on playing in the intervening years and opened the circle to let me back in.

Then, not long ago, I smashed my left arm, the one that creates the notes. Surgery and metal worked miracles but left it stiff. A Schubert string quartet can last 40 minutes. Straightening the arm afterwards takes a bit of teeth gritting. For a professional player, that everyday accident would have ended their career.

As so often in life – read Marcel Proust, read Anthony Powell – the music of time has danced its onward dance. New lodgers, models of the species, moved in, one a master luthier, or maker of stringed instruments. The quiet plucking of lute or oud sometimes wafts up through the floorboards (a rare boast in Peckham, south-east London). Could he put a little love back into my violin, neglected in lockdown? He took it off to his workshop, discovered its maker – now a revered pioneer and veteran in her 90s – and admired her craft. He renewed the glue and adjusted parts that had cracked or shifted, restoring the instrument’s tone and vitality. I can’t call playing the violin a hobby. It’s part of me, silent or not. Like everyone, I’ll make various improbable resolutions for the new year. If I can get together with friends in one room to play quartets or trios or duos, I’ll be OK. Just don’t expect me to go it alone.