My first instrument was the flute in the third grade. I cried until I got the lessons I wanted and then cried until I was allowed to quit. I wanted to play music, not learn to play music. I’ve never been good at practicing.

violin displayed in case
Little Fiddle

I got a violin in the fifth grade because back then schools had school orchestras and it was free.

I chose the violin because my parents had given me a guitar and I figured since violins and guitars both have strings they would be the same. They do both have strings.

My parents, holding no grudges from the flute fiasco, gave me private lessons. My teacher was a college student majoring in violin. I don’t know how she could have put up with me. I had quit the crying strategy, but I still didn’t practice. About ten minutes before she came over to give me a lesson, I would panic, practice (which was pointless at that point), and she would patiently play along with me the piece I should have learned long ago. As I remember it, we played the same Mozart concerto in G for years. The first page. I always enjoyed the lessons themselves because I didn’t have to be able to read music so much when someone else was playing. She did teach me to get a good tone and I’ve always been proud of that. Whatever I do right I owe to her and whatever I do wrong I thought of myself. I think she got a dollar an hour. Can you believe it? She drove to my house and taught me an hour, often staying longer. Poor lady.

I began college as a music major. Music majors were given free lessons so that seemed to be the smart thing to do. I continued for a couple of years until, as a music major, I could no longer avoid giving a recital. I changed majors to a non-music one because I had terrible stage fright. I continued playing in the college symphony. I wanted to play with others and perform. Since I was never seated in the front of the stage and my seat partners seemed to know what they were doing, on hard passages I could copy their bowing up and down and not make any noise that would harm the performance. I was cool with that.

I found a fiddler in town who gave lessons and I finally got up the nerve to go to him even though it meant playing in front of a stranger. I had always wanted to play fiddly stuff, lively music. I took my cassette recorder to the lesson and he showed me how to play fiddle. I was excited because he showed me what the traditional fiddle shuffle was and some real cool fiddly sounds. When I got home I discovered I hadn’t pressed record properly and nothing was recorded. I couldn’t remember anything either, so out of embarrassment I never went back for a second lesson.

I graduated from college with a major in language. I had always wanted to learn Japanese so I decided to go to Japan. That is where I finally became able to play. I met a group of bluegrass fanatics who invited me to play with them. The Japanese have a nice custom of praising whatever someone else does, declaring the person the best in the world no matter how poor the performance. It is meant as encouragement to keep at it, with the idea that someday the person will get better. It worked for me. I have no problem with feeling good about complimentary lies about me, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous. I finally began to get over my stage fright and my playing took off.

The lessons that my teachers had suffered through for years finally bore fruit. Arpeggios and scales finally translated into my fingers going to the next note of the tune. And I finally practiced by just playing music I liked, hundreds of fiddle tunes, country music, and some jazz.