When I was in the third grade, my mother took me to the music teacher at school in order to sign up for music lessons. While standing in the music room, I noticed a violin on the wall. I pointed to it and said I wanted to play it. The nun replied, “Oh no. You can’t play that instrument.”
So my mom enrolled me in piano lessons, which I took through eighth grade. When I went to high school, I joined the orchestra, where I was introduced to a second instrument: the clarinet, which the head of the band gave me. Several years later, he told me to take up the bass clarinet as well, and I played it while in the All Catholic Orchestra.
But the violin and I reunited later in life, when a family friend heard I was interested in playing the first instrument I’d chosen as a child. He proceeded to show up at my house with no less than three old violins. One was able to be restored; the others were, unfortunately, beyond redemption.
So in my seventies, not typically a time to undertake a new instrument, I enrolled in violin lessons.
Now, the violin is not an easy instrument to play; in fact, it’s physically quite demanding. There are no frets, or markers, to show you where to place your fingers on the strings to sound a given note. The instrument requires the whole of your attention. While you’re pressing down on the strings with one hand, you need to be able to move the bow across them properly, read the music and, if you’re playing in an ensemble, keep your eyes on your fellow musicians and the conductor – all while cradling the instrument between your shoulder and face.
But properly tuned and played, the violin produces beautiful music. When my teacher, who works for Settlement Music School, played my instrument, it was as though we were in a heavenly sphere. I could never get it to sound as good as when she played. Of course, she began violin lessons when she was five years old, not in her seventies, so obviously starting to play at an early age is significant.
However, I’ve persisted, and I eventually upgraded to my current violin, which I bought from a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments and a master craftsman. (Oddly, he doesn’t play the violin; he only rehabs them and maintains them for the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as schools throughout the Delaware Valley.)
For all my struggles with the violin – the roundabout journey to the instrument, the late start in learning it, and the physical pain that extended playing can cause – I thank God for it. The music it yields, and the lessons it has taught me, have been a way of drawing closer to the divine.
I thank God for this gift, and I invite you to look for the violins in your own life, and let the Lord show you how to play them.
Retired permanent Deacon Lou Malfara is a parishioner of St. Cecilia in Northeast Philadelphia.
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