She Plays the Violin- Part 1

The first time Violet holds a violin, she is eight years old. Ms. Greiner takes her class of fifteen wriggling second-graders to the gym after recess, where the band and orchestra teachers have set up stations for each section of instruments: percussion by the water fountain, brass in the patch of sun streaming through the wide windows, woodwinds in front of the bleachers, and strings underneath one of the basketball hoops.

“This will be a chance for you to try out different instruments, so you can decide whether you want to join a musical group next year after school,” Ms. Greiner said that morning. All throughout math and reading group, and then lunch and recess, Violet has been curious. No one in her family plays anything. Her father spends more time reading books than anything else – long books, with tiny print. Her mother sings sometimes, with a high, pretty voice that sounds like a stream in the summertime, but Violet never understands the words. Her older sister, Lina, would rather play make-believe in the woods behind their house, and Gus and Merle are still babies, really.

Once, when she went over to her cousin Maria’s house in first grade, Maria had pointed at the piano in her living room. “I can play that,” Maria said. “I’ve been taking lessons for a year.”

“Show me,” Violet said, crossing her arms.

Maria placed her fingers on the long row of white and black keys and began to play. Though she hesitated sometimes, or hit the wrong note, Violet felt like she could see the shape of the sonata underneath: deep, and velvety, and sad.

“Teach me some,” Violet said, when Maria was done.

A half hour later, she could play the first few bars of the same sonata, slowly but correctly. It felt so good it made her dizzy. She kept playing until Aunt Alicia came in and told them to stop, they were giving her a headache from repeating the same song over and over again, and couldn’t they go make noise outside?

Now, though, there isn’t a piano in the gym for Violet to play. She watches one boy lift a trumpet to his lips and puff up his cheeks like little balloons. A wet, choking noise comes out of the instrument. She giggles. Across the room, a girl seizes a pair of drumsticks and pounds on a timpani until the band teacher tells her to stop. After a few minutes, Violet’s gaze settles on the string instruments. As the orchestra teacher lifts a violin to his chin, demonstrating good posture, glimmers of light run like quicksilver down the sides of the wooden body.

Eventually, he motions her over. “I saw you looking. Do you want to give it a try?” he says, offering her the bow.

“But I don’t know how-”

“That’s what I’m for.”

She wraps her fingers around the bow and lifts her face so that the orchestra teacher can settle the violin between her chin and shoulder, like a key in a slot. “There,” he says. “Now take your fingers and put them here – good – and try making a sound with the bow. Just run it slowly across the strings.”

The sound that comes out of the violin is thin and uneven, and reminds her of a door creaking closed.

“Try holding the bow with a steadier grip,” says the teacher, “so that it glides evenly. You’re making it jump a little bit.”

She does, and the noise comes into focus. Violet saws the bow back and forth across the strings, falling deeper and deeper into the long stream of sound.

“Very nice!” the orchestra teacher says, returning her to the hazy heat of the gym, and she can tell he means it. “You have naturally good posture.” As he’s handing the violin and bow off to another girl to try, he says, “Were you thinking about joining the orchestra next year? You should really talk to your parents about it.”

“Um,” says Violet. She winds her fingers in fistfuls of dark hair, thinking. “I don’t know how to read music.”

“We’ll teach you, over the summer. It’s not very hard, I promise. You just have to be willing to try something new. Think you might be?”

“Maybe,” Violet tells him, feeling jealous as the other girl wraps her fingers around the bow. She doesn’t know if her mother and dad will take her to a summer camp for music. Her dad is always doing research at his university, even in the summer, and her mother doesn’t have a very good memory for everyday things, like carpools and washing the dishes.

“Just think it over.” He smiles.

“I will,” she says, and she means it.

Read Part 2