I am one of the eager faces staring up at two grown-ups visiting Forestville Preschool today. The lady holds a book; the man a violin. She begins to read a story and he, with proud posture and easy hands, plays along.
It’s a story about a little bull called Ferdinand (long bow strokes, a playful melody) who’s different to the other young, rough-and-tumble bulls (boisterous, the bow crunches across multiple strings at the same time). His mother, a voluptuous cow (sultry glissandos), implores him to play with the others. He’d rather not. When they grow up, the hot-headed bulls vie for the attention of the men sent to choose the best candidate to fight the matador before the crowds in Madrid (grunting sounds as the bow ricochets from the lower to higher strings). Preferring to sit in the shade and watch this spectacle, Ferdinand unwittingly sits on a bee (the dissonant buzz of minor seconds, then – the violin shrieks!). He runs around madly (the music rises in pitch, sets a frenetic pace), dragging his sorry bull butt through rock walls, trees, other bulls and right up to the astonished men. Triumphant, they cart Ferdinand off to Madrid. (Pompous pizzicato and spiccato.) The matador enters the arena. Ferdinand is released. Instead of fighting, he just smells the flowers in the matador’s buttonhole (the long-bowed, peaceful melody returns). The people do everything they can to provoke the bull to fight (tremolo rumbles and rises)… to no avail. Nonplussed, the men return Ferdinand to his home where he lives peacefully among the trees and the flowers. (A pizzicato major chord, the final flourish.)*
The story is captivating — we preschoolers lose it in the part about the bee sting. The lady is so, so pretty and the man plays with such virtuosic ease that he can smile or grimace to the story at the same time. When it’s over, the applause is uproarious and a little awe-struck. I look around, my face shining because these two brilliant grown-ups are my parents.
Like every school hall on the evening of the annual band concert, the room smells like wood varnish and body odour. Where I am standing, it’s dusty curtains and the resin I’ve just rubbed on my bow. Palms sweaty (might even have had mum’s spaghetti for dinner beforehand). I’d better lose myself in the music.
The junior band has shuffled off and it’s time for my dad and me to take centre stage. I begin. Eight bars later, he joins in. Together, we untangle fugal threads, passing baroque sequences back and forth to one another before finally resolving, the last cadence, in unison. We just performed the first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. It’s wordless repartee, two people speaking seriously, with their hands, about something playful. Or, in this case, it’s a piece that tells the story of what happens when I practise my violin at home:
My dad, from the upstairs bathroom: ‘The C sharp is flat!’
Me, from the lounge room downstairs: ‘Leave me alone!’
Him: ‘Every time. It’s flat every time. It’s a C sharp, not a C natural…’
Me, under my breath: ‘I wish you’d B flat…’
Then, aloud: ‘You’re not my teacher! Mrs Cooper will tell me if it’s flat.’
Him, leaning over the bannister: ‘Stop playing it that way; you’ll form bad habits.’
Me, fuming: ‘Muuuuuuuummy, he’s interrupting my practice… Again!’
My dad and Year 5 me had the ideal dynamic, you see, to entertain an audience with that piece – even if the ends of our arguments were never as tidy as the one Bach wrote.
Having lugged his violin case around the house from age two, I went on to play ‘seriously’ for fifteen years, uncovering a talent similar to my dad’s – well, actually not at all similar. He’s a deadset freak; I’m just diligent. Still, when you play the thing as much as I did, it becomes a part of you. Its shape is as familiar to my hands as cutlery and, though I don’t have perfect pitch, if I’m listening to a violin being played, I can tell you which finger on which string is making any given note. So, maybe you can understand why, when my relationship with my dad changed, so did my relationship with the violin.
There were good things about having his expertise on hand. For example, after I performed Dvorak’s Humoresque in a masterclass one time, he bought me a block of dark chocolate (my favourite) to celebrate the rich sound I’d produced in the dramatic middle section of that piece. However, on the whole, having a pro in the house wasn’t the wonderful blessing people gushed about. The violin is a difficult instrument, requiring absolute precision in technique. While I’m not saying he never worked hard (he bloody did), he’d been a prodigy from the start. That’s hard to be around when you’re not one. Still, because of him I found out that the violin was my sound, too.
I remember the day in 2003 when I played two pieces for some scary adults sitting in a row in an empty hall at Roseville College, holding pencils — and all looking at me. My dad accompanied me on piano for one of them; the other was unaccompanied so he had to wait outside and it was just my sound reverberating around the room I would spend hours in over the next six years, including to sit my HSC exams. That day, the violin became my curly wooden ticket to a high school education I’ll always cherish.
I might’ve shown up to play the music on the day but, truly, the credit must go to my violin teacher Mrs Jan Cooper, to my mum and to my dad. We’re all capable of getting some things right.
This story is dedicated to my friend Leslie, with whom I played music at church, in honour of her donation to my Writers Residency fundraising campaign. She is an organised, enthusiastic and joyful musician. I am so grateful for her support.
*The story of Ferdinand was written by Munro Leaf in the 1930s. It was adapted and set to music by Alain Ridout in 1971.