Okay, I caved. After one year without a violin, I decided that enough was enough, went to a corner shop, tested out all of the dirt cheap, basically-tissue-box instruments, and by the grace of a “Christmas discount” am now the proud owner of what the owner could only comment as “Why not try a different one?”
I knew it was bad before I even picked it off of the hook. There were absolutely no details on the thing, which meant that it was probably just a factory chew-toy, and the owner hadn’t even bothered to put the bridge on or tune the strings.
“This one is really bad,” he said handing it to me.
“I know.” And really, I did.
But after noodling around on the fingerboard (and this particular fingerboard left black marks on my finger tips) and trying different places on the strings, I concluded that it was still an improvement over silence and went ahead and got it.
Merry Christmas to me.
My new violin is nothing like my old one, which is this incredible Meinel instrument, which one of my friends calls “The Chocolate Violin” because it’s so delicious when it gets to playing. I named it Gerald. Gerald came with me to Vienna. Gerald was my only companion when I first came to China, when my baggage got trapped in Beijing, and all I had with were my backpack and my violin. (And no, that’s not as exciting and vagabond-y as it sounds). Gerald came with to Yangzhou in the countryside, and it was with Gerald that I played for the occasional audience. The back is striped in golds and darker browns, and it stays in tune for weeks, which is an excellent trait for the lazy violinist.
But, Gerald is a classy fellow. And when you live in a place that doesn’t have central heating in the winter, you’re not about to leave classy fellows behind to crack and die. So Gerald went back to Minnesota when my mom came last year. And there were no sad violins to play him a farewell song. Poor Gerald.
My new violin, well. First of all, there is no name. I mean, if there was a maker, they did not write their name in it, and so this instrument is like a shadow, a secret, nameless as if having materialized out of nothing. So I decided to name it myself, just so that it wouldn’t seem so junky. Her name is Mimi (秘密 mi mi which is the Chinese word for “secret”). Mimi did not come with a shoulder rest, and there’s a funny ringing sound if I’m playing too far away from the bridge. It’s pretty muffled, as though I’m playing from under a blanket, and it took a lot of rosin to make the bow actually grip the string.
But, hell. I can bang on it as much as I want, I can pass it on to other people who want to play without having an aneurism, and I can bring it anywhere I want without worrying too much about dampits or humidity levels.
So I brought Mimi to class today to bang out some Christmas carols (which Gerald would have done, too, but would have insisted on more finesse). We sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” and when the end of class came near, I was sad, because I was saying goodbye to the kind of class I will reminisce about in later months when I face new, confused students.
“Miss Hannah, can I play it?” a student named Grace asked. Without hesitation I said sure, because it was just Mimi, and so I tuned it better for her and handed it over. Grace played the theme from “Castle in the Sky” with very precise, if somewhat stiff fingers. I’ve heard that song in just about every Chinese old town, in the old ocarina shops, and really anywhere that’s trying to create ambience. But there, in a cold classroom in China, we had music.
After Grace was done and we applauded her, I said class had ended, and the words sounded weak and stupid even as I said them. I mean, this was a class that actually ran itself once when we had a debate, and who ran up after class was done to fight over who would erase the board for me and who came with PPT presentations just to share current events.
“Well, okay, I guess I can play another one for you…” I said. I began to play “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto.”
The thing with “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” is that it’s overdone in China. It’s a gorgeous piece of music, but it has also been translated into a car horn. I play it for Chinese friends, because they usually get a kick out of something familiar and are mostly just impressed that I know it at all, regardless of whether or not I get it right.
But this time, there was something special. Last night, for the first time, a listener at a Christmas party actually told me I was playing too fast and that maybe I should linger more. I’ll admit that sometimes I go on autopilot for that song, or that I’ll think so much about getting slides and notes right that I miss out on the heart of the thing. So in that cold classroom, on a shoddy violin, in China of all places, I lingered and tasted every note, especially since it meant more time with some great students.
Gerald would have played it better, and I definitely stopped before the more difficult fast passage to save face. But I swear the room was humming with more than the instrument, and the song was alive–a living, breathing organism evolving with each pair of ears listening. I’ve gotten this feeling playing with an orchestra before, but never on my own. On my own, it has always been about performing, not participating. This time, when I was done, I wanted to keep playing and playing and playing all the way until I closed my eyes to sleep. (But I think my class would have resented skipping dinner for that).
It’s funny how these sorts of things work out, though. Who knew that my greatest solo performance to date would be in China with Mimi in a cold classroom wearing a Santa hat?