I tried to carry on the family tradition of playing the violin even though I didn’t have the passion or the skills
When I started studying the violin, my father, whom Grandfather taught, practiced with me frequently. The practices had the gravity of carrying on a Bolton family tradition – even as a child, I knew that. Dad started by putting my quarter-sized violin under his chin, a one-man orchestra tuning. In a final bouquet, he would perfectly capture the harmony of the violin when playing the strings together.
During the six years that I tried to play, he asked the same question to a succession of my teachers: “Is she talented?” He witnessed my general musical illiteracy. Many years after he quietly brought my full-size violin back to the music store to sell, I realized that for him playing the violin was not achieving perfection; he was playing because of the love and desire the music stirred in him.
I once caught sight of my father in the family lair shakily leading Gilbert and Sullivan from his recliner, scratched records playing loudly on the old turntable. By then, Parkinson’s had robbed him of most of his voice and his walking – but he was determined and fierce, a wizard with a wand, as he pretended there was an entire orchestra. in front of him to lead.
Janet Farrar was my last violin teacher. I was a young teenager and her goal was to wean me off the Suzuki Method and teach me to read music. She would come home on Saturday mornings in a dark blue Volkswagen that matched the corduroy pants she always wore. Every time I leaned in the wrong direction, she gently squeezed my shoulder. If the piece I was playing was madly out of tune, it would move my fingers up and down on the strings.
“Let’s try something different,” Miss Farrar said during one of our last lessons. “Music without playing an instrument.” She introduced me to John Cage’s Silent Symphony, 4 ′ 33 ″, so named for the 4 minutes and 33 seconds in which a performer sits in total silence. Instruments perched on our knees, we sat in a calm dotted with the squeaking noises of the house, the sounds of my father’s footsteps on the stairs, and the cars driving up and down Asylum Avenue.
In the end, I was missing the skills of a grandfather and the passion of a dad for making music. I couldn’t keep imitating something I didn’t feel.
After so long, it’s funny what the body remembers. I am 55 years old; I haven’t touched a violin since I was 15. Putting daddy’s violin under my chin, I thought of tuning him my little violin, and Miss Farrar, and I automatically fingered Vivaldi’s. Concerto in a minor on the graceful ebony handle. I made no noise; it was just the fingers of my left hand connecting to the strings. The bow in my right hand hung down beside me. I trembled in the musical silence that Miss Farrar had created for me.
A few years before composing 4 ′ 33 ″, Cage visited an anechoic chamber – a space completely devoid of noise – to encounter silence in its purest form. Even there he managed to hear distinct ups and downs. The high pitched sound turned out to be his nervous system at work. The deep sound was his blood flowing. The body continually plays its own music in harmony.
Like Cage, I heard similar symphonies in my body, complemented by the high and low sounds of soul and heart. I heard them in the blazing red of passion and the light green of memory. I heard them when I fell in love with my husband. I heard them when my children were born.
The silent symphony was the rhythm of my baby moving within me. It was the involuntary flapping of my father’s Parkinson’s hand on my pregnant belly. It was the silence before and after the shovelfuls of earth that thudded against the lid of his coffin. It was the silence between regret and forgiveness.
Adapted from Asylum: a memory of family secrets, by Judy Bolton-Fasman, out August 24 by Mandel Vilar Press. Send your comments to [email protected] Tell your story. Email your 650 word essay on a relationship to [email protected] Please Note: We do not respond to submissions that we will not respond to.