Blame it on the Bucket List, Part 3


My violin – fiddle.

Author’s note March 23: I haven’t been practicing; I’ve been out and about.

I’m teaching myself how to play the violin. I’m channeling Beethoven and Mozart, Mahler and Americana. I really like to play Irish folk tunes again and again as fast as I can.

I first decided I wanted to learn in 1999. It seemed an ominous time and having a skill that brings music to a table might garner a person some food. I blame Prince: “Mommy, why does everyone have a bomb?” I figured we were doomed one way or another. I started late picking up an instrument, but at least I picked one easy to pick-up – carry, that is.

At the time some of my best friends were musicians. As I struggled to sound tolerable, they would say, “Why did you pick the hardest instrument to learn?” I blamed Sherlock Holmes, BBC, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It started with them. And Jeremy Brett. I saw the stage production in London before the television series, which I watched every Sunday night and mourned the day it was done. I read the complete works to satisfy my craving. I decided to add a soundtrack. I went to the local music store and a nice man helped chose my violin. It came with a hard case. He gave the name of someone to take lessons with and so I began. For a few months, anyway.

I picked it up again seven years ago, in conjunction with my bucket list obsession. I decided to learn the fiddle, took a few lessons and drank a few Guinness. The two went well together. But I didn’t have the privacy I needed to sound awful. To my dismay, I felt too embarrassed to practice in earshot of neighbors and set the instrument down, again.

Then I moved in a house with a yard. I had space. No one could hear me and if they did this was a neighborhood of kids, so I could just be one of them. A kid I knew had just picked up the violin. Lucky girl, band was part of her required curriculum in grade school. As far as I was concerned she and I were on par in accomplishment and I wanted to someday play a duet. I heard that she was practicing without having to be told. Knowing that motivated me. (As did the discovery of – wait for it – the new Sherlock Holmes. Oh, how that satisfies many cravings all at once. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman you rock my world.)

I disciplined myself for 20 minutes a day. It was frustrating. There were times I wanted to smash my precious instrument.

A professional said to me, “Practice your scales.” An opera singer told me it was all about consistency and muscle memory.

I persevered. I practiced my scales. I played songs over and over. I kept my eyes on the digital tuner. I watched videos generously posted by master players. I tried different holding positions, practiced half hour sessions; I began to sound better.

One day, I sounded good. For real good. It was magic. It came and went, but was staying longer. I was so excited I played for an hour and didn’t even notice. I did this again and again for weeks. I began to pay attention. I asked, “What was I doing different when I sounded good to when I sounded bad? Why was it still hit and miss on the intonation? The bowing?”

I realized it was about not thinking, just listening, deep breaths in and out, totally relaxing and allowing my body to move however it wants. It was about communicating freely. Having fun. I played for an hour and a half every night, still practicing my scales, the playing the same songs over and over, and expanding my repertoire. Two hours at a time. And counting.

Maybe the next thing on my bucket list should be, instead of learning Spanish, go to a pub in Ireland and join in the music around a fire. Then onward to Spain.

###      (I loved David Burke, too)

In my book, A Blue Moon in China, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map. Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.” Feel free to contact me:  My website has lots of pictures: If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from your local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection. $18.99 softcover ISBN: 978-0-9904251-9-9


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Filed under Bucket List, Essay, learning to play the violin - fiddle, Music, Writers

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