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Playing the Violin

By Anamika Mukherjee

When I was ten, I got my first violin. I had actually wanted to play the piano, but it seemed unlikely that one would fit through any of the doors to our house, so a violin it was. It doesn’t seem a very inspiring reason to take up a musical instrument, but that’s the truth.

My fascination with music began with the piano at school. We would sing along with it at Assembly and I was always dying to fiddle with this huge, seemingly immovable thing which could produce such lovely tunes. Later on in life, I lost my adoration for the piano, but that was probably due to my involvement with the violin. I found the latter to be (in more capable hands than mine) an instrument of infinite moods.

Perhaps it was just that someone told me the violin was the King of all instruments. This appealed to my (no doubt inflated) ten-year-old ego.

Learning to play a musical instrument, any musical instrument, is not easy. It takes a long time before one can get a decent sound out of it, and this is something which your family has to bear with not just silence, but fortitude, offering sincere encouragement all the while. On the violin, with luck and perseverance, you might produce noises remotely resembling music after a year or so of sincere dedication.

But that’s no reason to lose heart. Music has its own rewards, even if they are slow in coming. For one thing, nothing ever sounds really bad to the person who wields the instrument. So long as you don’t make the mistake of recording it and listening to the result. Then it sounds so godawful that you are forced to conclude that you need a new recording machine, or, better still, need to make a better recording, at a recording studio. This latter course of action must not be followed at any cost: it will only lead to greater disillusionment. The former course of action, of course, does no harm to anything except the family finances. But then, no music lover could ever have too many music systems in the house. (Ask my family: at one stage we had ten cassette decks in a five-room house. That was before CDs came into fashion.)

Many people think the hardest part of learning music is to read musical notation. In this they are mistaken: that is the easiest part. It is even easier than learning the correct way to hold a violin. There is only one way to read music and that is the right way. On the other hand, there are hundreds of ways to hold a violin, and all of them are wrong but for only one which is right, and that which is right for you may not be right for anyone else.

In the initial few weeks of learning to play the violin, as I remember it, things move pretty fast. First you use only the bow and play only open strings. (If your teacher is so inclined, he may even make you practice without using the violin, restricting you to miming the bowing action.) You don't have to practise much at this stage: there’s only so much you can do when your entire repertoire is limited to four notes.

The next few weeks have you using your left hand, one finger at a time. There are loads of boring exercises written to develop technique and strengthen the fingers of the left hand. After a few weeks of this, you can actually produce tunes.

The problem with the violin is, you can put your fingers absolutely anywhere on the string. Pianos have keys, so you can either hit this key, or that one (or both, to produce absolute dissonance). Guitars have frets, so you can get this fret or the next. (Sometimes you can land in between frets, but this still gives the correct sound, albeit only a weak, fuzzy one.) Wind instruments, almost all of them, have keys or holes. But instruments of the violin family have no markers to indicate whereabouts you should place your finger to get a particular sound. This makes for an infinite variety of notes, very few of which are correct. Multiply that into the number of notes in even a short song, and you have literally thousands of variations on a tune. Getting it right, intentionally, every time, is known as having good intonation.

It takes a while to start getting the approximately right sound when you place your fingers. And just when you begin to think you might get it after all, another factor is introduced into the picture. Positions. The fact is, with four fingers on your hand, and four strings, you get only 16 notes (well, 17, actually, if you include the open G string). But if you move your left hand up and down the strings, you have a wider range of notes at your disposal. The starting position of the left hand is known as the first position, and moving the entire hand up by one note gives you second position. Another note up is third position and so on. At the end of it, you have increased the number of notes at your disposal to close to 30, though the upper end of the range initially sounds shrill and screechy.

There are, of course, many other things to learn. And not all to do with the left hand. If you ever watch a violinist playing, it looks as though the left hand is doing all the work, but it is the right hand which actually produces a sound. And whether it is smooth and velvety, or melancholy, or violent, or growly, or furious and thundering, is decided almost entirely by the right hand.

It takes a relatively short time to learn to play tunes, but it takes a long time to make music: to take a piece of music, a lot of black dots and lines, and make them mean something. And it can take a lifetime to learn to produce all the different tones and emotions that the instrument is capable of.

But the learning process itself is fulfilling. Not always. There are times when you struggle with a piece, or with a certain technique. Times when you practice till you are sick, and you still can’t get it right, the way you know it should be. Times when you know you can’t do it, so you might as well give up. But then, after the despair, there is a time when you know precisely how a piece must sound and you try to get it to sound that way and it does. Those are the times when you know in your heart that you’ve got it right, that the notes are saying just what you want them to say. That’s when those hours of practice seem worthwhile, and you feel the kind of happiness which only artistic satisfaction can give.

Music is not about reaching some place, it is about the journey itself. There is much to be discovered along the way, and it is often a journey which never ends. Even if you are blessed enough to achieve eminence, it is not the end. There is always more music to play, more feelings to express, more stories to tell.

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Comments and information welcome. Write to anamika dot mukherjee at amukherjeeworld dot net
Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.