August 13

A Long Awaited Homecoming

I asked my parents to bring my violin along when they came to visit.  I’m keeping it and may use it for a music project – though I won’t use it unless I can give it the respect it deserves.  But this violin and I go way back.

Many years ago, after winning a Midwest regional music competition for the violin, I was sent to the national competition, organized biennially, by the American String Teachers Association.  Actually, the year that I was sent was the 50th Anniversary of the competition.  At the time, I had for financial reasons, parted ways with the Juilliard School, and become a musical recluse of sorts – venturing out on my own and holed up in my hometown of Ames, Iowa, without the imprimatur of that storied musical institution.

My violin was a relatively cheap thing, crafted by an American luthier named Benjamin W. Ruth.  It was an instrument that I had chosen to match my aggressive, free-wheeling interpretive style – an instrument that could both take a beating, and express itself with grunts and crunches when I commanded it.  In fact, given how I played the violin, that one expensive name brand, the Stradivarius, was never going to work out for me.  You play a Stradivarius with a light touch, drawing its characteristic tone without forcing it out.  A Stradivarius does not take very well to expressing noise, and it’s exactly why I dislike playing them.  Not that I could afford it anyway.  As a matter of pure price, my violin was by far the cheapest one at the competition – regularly outpriced by even the violins that my friends had at music camp.

As it turns out, the competition featured a competitor who had had a Stradivarius lent to her by a wealthy benefactor.  I believe another competitor was in temporary possession of a Vuillaume – a French-made violin, known for its uniquely frosty tone.  This is to say that there was some heavy investing of resources by certain institutions, made no doubt to try and ensure a win for their favored candidate.  Many of the competitors were the heralded champions of their respective classical music enclaves.

Nevertheless, the judges gave First Prize to the unaffiliated violinist from the great state of Iowa – still a mere 16 years of age.  It was a vindication of sorts, knowing that I had the technical and interpretive skill to compete on my own.  It was also a vindication of a style that I had developed – one which placed a higher priority on expressive and interpretive breadth as opposed to a pretty tone.  It’s a battle that plays itself out in classical music, but also has equivalents in every other branch of music.  It’s something I have come to know, as your resident musical time-traveler – having traversed several centuries of music over the last fifteen years or so.

Anyway, that was a long time ago.  It’s just nice to have it around so I can remember.  Sometimes you need the physical object to help you remember after a while.  Maybe I’ll break it out again.  But again, only if I can give it the respect that it deserves.