During a tough time about three years ago, I took up the violin again and started playing music with friends. When I play and sing harmony, my attention stays on music. I have to listen to others and concentrate. I can’t think about anything besides trying to hit the right notes––resonant and complementary.
Now, since I can’t rehearse with my friends, I’ve stepped up my practicing. The only problem is that I live in a large studio without solid inside walls. If it’s too cold or wet to go outside, and my husband’s around, he has no choice. He has to listen to my scales.
He says it’s fine, but it’s not, really.
Our bedroom and my practice area are separated from the main room by a thin wall, but a violin is a penetrating instrument, and the problem is the repetitiveness of practicing––and scales.
To me, scales are a necessary warm-up, developing my concentration. Scales don’t require decisions—they just are. Scales are the yoga of music.
I try to practice when Chad is working outside because, even though I’ve tried to explain it, I know he still wonders what I’m practicing for––playing in tune? A better tone? Don’t I have that down by now?
The other day, I figured out that I’ve been playing some of the more difficult scales hoping for the right note, rather than making it happen. Like riding a horse to a jump, you can’t just canter along, hoping to find a spot to leave the ground––you make the spot depending on your rhythm. And with any fretless instrument: you have to make the note happen.
Playing scales, I can hear myself cheating certain notes. So many notes on a violin resonate with open strings that I aim to make as many notes as possible luminous or that’s how I think of it. In any given scale, I want the G, D, A, or E to be perfectly in tune so that the open string also vibrates. Practicing scales, I have time to feel if I’m lifting my bowing arm to “cheat” a note I’m not confident about hitting correctly––rather than making sure my left hand is flexible and accurate.
Now, in this time of isolation, inertia sets in because I can’t play music with my friends. I miss The Magpies. I miss playing with Terry Gray, who said about practicing alone, “The motor is started, but it’s hard to get in gear.” Yes, exactly.
Initially, I guiltily thought of this quiet time with a small measure of relief, but as the weeks go by, and the reality of it all sinks in, I’m starting to feel the weight of being in this for the long haul.
Terry has said it’s hard to practice, not feeling light-hearted, and that’s part of it too. The world and its angers press in on me. Recently, the anti-lockdown protests, people harassing nurses, make me really angry. Last week, after the Easter snowstorm, I didn’t practice for a few days. But I picked up again. I worked out some lines by ear that I never would have taken the time to do before.
I’m working my way into some gypsy jazz. I’ve always wanted to try it, but its speed & fluidity seemed beyond my reach. I love the minor notes and swung rhythms. A musicologist could parse the relationship between gypsy jazz and klezmer music, but to me, they both have a sensuousness and sadness and vitality in the face of pain that embodies so much of what I’m feeling now. We want to create beauty in the face of the world’s ugliness, luminosity against the dark.
–April 24, 2020
Elizabeth Oness is a poet, fiction writer, & musician, who lives on a biodynamic farm in Southeast Minnesota. Her poems and stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, The Tahoma Literary Review, and other magazines. Her stories have received an O. Henry Prize, a Nelson Algren Award, and the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize. Her books include: Articles of Faith, Departures, Twelve Rivers of the Body, Fallibility and Leaving Milan. Elizabeth directs marketing and development for Sutton Hoo Press, a literary fine press, and is a professor of English at Winona State University.