An Elegy

my violin & me

My violin hasn’t left my dorm room closet since October. It’s sitting there right now, untouched and unplayed, only visible when I dig around for a lost pair of shoes. I can’t help but feel conflicted every time I see it, like it’s begging for a breath of fresh air.

Violin has been a major part of my identity for most of my life. I started playing Twinkle, Twinkle when I was four, painstakingly worked my way through Book Six of the Suzuki Method (if you’ve never heard of it, consider yourself lucky), joined orchestra in sixth grade, and competed in Texas-style fiddle contests during high school. I took weekly lessons for over a decade, frequently accompanied the children’s choir at my church, and performed “Wagon Wheel” and “Orange Blossom Special” at talent shows.

If playing violin is such an integral part of who I am, how do I explain why I haven’t so much as pulled a bow across its strings in months? Partly, it’s just stereotypical college student laziness. It’s so much easier to go out to dinner or hang with friends than confine myself to my dorm room and practice in solitude. The brutal hours I used to spend repeating the same measures over and over in an attempt to perfect my tunes for an upcoming fiddle contest are not exactly fond memories. And my mom’s pestering (“Eliza, tune up your violin and practice!”) isn’t quite as effective over the phone as it is in person.

But I think there’s another reason for my hiatus from violin. As I transition from high school to college, I’m forced to reconsider the significance of my extracurriculars and hobbies. Do I truly love the things I’ve spent the greater part of my life doing? Or were they simply the most convenient, the most prestigious, or maybe the ones I’d grown comfortable with? I wasn’t even in kindergarten when I picked out my first instrument—it might not have been love at first sight at all. Maybe the violin was just the easiest instrument for my small hands to manage.

So perhaps my unwillingness to excavate my violin from the closet is due, in part, to a desire to reassess who I am. I didn’t just let go of my music—I let go of the majority of what made up my high school resume. I was on the newspaper staff for three years, serving as both News Editor and Commentary Editor, but upon arriving at Brown, I intentionally made no effort to join a university publication. I played basketball for 14 years, during which time I never missed a varsity game or even those rough 8 a.m. Saturday morning practices. But neither my skills nor my height measures up to varsity or even club basketball at Brown, and I was too overwhelmed last semester to find or form an intramural team.

While journalism and basketball undeniably played large roles in my life (I have newspaper to thank for any writing, interview, and design skills and basketball for any athleticism I might still possess), I don’t remember anything but complete relief when I graduated and waved goodbye to these activities. And I’ve been content, more or less, to substitute ultimate frisbee for basketball and other types of writing for journalism.

And I’ll admit that when I left for college, I felt unburdened by the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to compete in any fiddle contests for at least a year. Fiddle festivals can be excruciating ordeals. For each one, I would perform two to three complicated tunes on stage with unfamiliar backup guitarists behind me and a row of unforgiving judges and a large audience in front. The competition was stiff; several of the other contestants were former fiddle champions more than 15 years older than me. At more than one contest I attended, I felt so overwhelmed by nerves that I stopped cold in the middle of a tune.

But now that I’ve gone almost five months without it, I’m beginning to understand that violin wasn’t something I did just out of habit or a sense of commitment. I was passionate about the music; I must have been.

I miss playing the fiddle. I miss the ear-splitting squeal when I clean the strings with a rag. I miss busking out on the pedestrian bridge in downtown Austin with my case wide open for tips. I miss hearing my teacher, Jimmie Don, tell me in his gruff way that my performance was “decent” (his sincerest form of praise). I even miss watching my dad dance around the kitchen while I played “Black and White Rag.”

I haven’t yet discovered a way to pursue violin in college. There isn’t a whole lot of Texas-style fiddling taking place in Rhode Island, and I’m not sure my tunes would get the same reaction on Thayer as they did in Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World.” But I don’t want to give up, and I certainly don’t want to lose a skill that I spent so many years trying to master. Maybe I’ll start a band, one where I can play fiddle and sing vocals. Whatever I end up doing, it’s finally time for me to give my violin that much-needed breath of fresh air.
So perhaps it was love at first sight between five-year-old me and my very first violin. Perhaps it wasn’t. But taking a break was just the thing I needed to realize that we’ve built a life-long relationship regardless.