When I first came to China and tried to play Mark O’Connor’s rendition of “Midnight on the Water,” I sucked. I mean, the notes were right and all that, but I still sucked.
I mean, it’s written in such a way that one hardly needs to try at all to make it sound good. Same with the violin I was using at the time—my precious Meinel, which is awaiting my return from China. On that instrument, you don’t need to be all that talented to sound good. So…why couldn’t I get it?
Maybe it was because I was watching Mark O’Connor perform the piece too many times and was trying too hard to copy him. Maybe it was because I had no sense of dynamics and more or less played mezzo forte the whole time.
Why was I playing it at all, you might ask?
Because I wanted to sound good. But maybe, that’s not the point.
I started on the violin before I could count to ten without pausing to think about it. Honestly speaking, I don’t remember a time in my life when I was not playing violin. I have played in recitals growing up, concert halls, orchestras, string quartets, and at weddings. I’ve grown up with a series of violins: 1/8size, all the way up to full-size, lamenting when my dampit got trapped in my violin, and dutifully scraping the rosin off of the strings—ignoring the pained looks of those around me cringing at sound of cloth on dirty string. I devoted hours to practicing music and then performed it.
But amid all of this heartache, I never asked: Why?
Here in China, I’ve sent the Meinel back to America, bought a cheap instrument named Mimi, and have entered a completely different arena of violin performance. Yes, there are classical corners, but I seem not to have found them. Friends ask me to play something for them in dingy practice rooms. I bring it into class to saw out Christmas carols come December. I hack away at bluegrass even though I’m from Minnesota.
Does it sound good? Maybe good enough.
And I still never paused to ask why I now owned an extra thing to carry back with me to the US. I have no ambition to be a professional musician, no dreams to make millions off of my strings.
And then a family that I’ve gotten close with in China got the opportunity to go to America for an indefinite amount of time. They were having a music party as a sort of send-off. They wanted me to play.
I took out “Midnight on the Water,” which is something I wanted to perform for a long time anyway. But there was a problem: I now had less time to prepare, and also didn’t have as nice a violin as I used to. I had also never solved the problem of why I sucked.
There’s a repeat of the slow, melodic section, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured, play louder, right? Crescendos are good. Except, then it ended up being a flat slab of noise. Pretty notes, no heart. Why am I playing this? Why am I playing this when I know I won’t sound the best?
Before, when I thought of “Midnight on the Water,” I thought of myself on a stage, playing it and sounding good and people being impressed. This time, I had no such illusions. Instead, I thought of the family, and how kind they’d been to me, and how much I’d miss them when they went away. I thought of all the times they invited me into their home, fed me, took me to interesting places around Hangzhou, told me stories, and how when I got sick, they were there to help. When I thought of Future Hannah playing this piece, I thought of how I never really did want that song to end. I wanted them to know that I cared, and that the time spent with me was not fickle or easily forgotten.
I decided to slow down in the repeated section and not to interrupt long notes with vibrato. I wanted notes to sound like the pause you make before turning around that last time to see if the person is still waving goodbye. I wanted to cup each note close to me like a firefly flickering in the night.
I’ll never know for sure whether or not it worked. But that’s not what matters. Together, with friends and other teachers, we held onto the time, enveloped in a hush within an otherwise noise-filled world. And after almost 20 years of playing the violin, I think I finally understood why anybody makes music: because there’s something beating inside, and because there’s someone listening.