Pride and Play

In order to possess what you do not possess
        You must go by the way of dispossession.

—T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “East Coker,” movement III, 140-141

My father made going to the symphony a rite of passage for me at age 7. But first, he lectured me on the protocol to make sure no one would grimace at my youth: I should look for my violin teacher, I should read the program, I should clap at the end of pieces but not between movements. No moving, no whispering, and definitely no talking . . . until intermission. Repeat until the finale.

I wore the white eyelet dress with red ribbons, and my yet-too-young sister stayed home with her matching dress and a babysitter. In the end, my mother took me by herself because my father received a late call to cut someone open (in a former life, he occupied himself as a surgeon). But I had been primed to make that first trip to the symphony an exercise in observation: the people, the ceremony. At that young age, I learned the slick pages of the program, the liturgy of entrances and exits, the silence before the orchestra tuned itself, the right precaution to avoid a cough.

Photo: Jennifer Strange

My performance apparently followed enough of the rules, because my parents soon invested in season tickets for the whole family. Having taken violin lessons in the Suzuki Method since age 5, I found the whole procedure affirmative: hearing the live ensemble regularly tuned my ear to the timbre of each instrument, and seeing the various postures of the soloists showed me a kind of celebrity elegance. I watched the local musicians move up and down in the ranks and memorized the way they held their instruments, the grimaces for martelé and smiles for sautillé on the strings, the long rests of the winds and brass and percussion.

This was my education in the finer things, which was also an education in social pride. As I grew older, my delight in the whole symphony experience at least partly reflected my sense that I was moving through tighter and tighter circles, becoming distanced from those who did not care or did not know any better. I loved the live performance of Bach and Mozart for all the right reasons and for all the wrong reasons, too. The risk of a group of instruments tuned to one another in a humid town. The risk of human masters determined to follow their distinct parts, unified by their own ears and the wagging of a conductor’s baton. The harmony, the dissonance, the harmony after the dissonance. But then the raised eyebrows at the discordant crinkle of a peppermint being unwrapped, the cringe at a viola played flat, the confidence that the performance had not been worthy of that ovation. The merciful are blessed because they shall receive mercy, and I had no mercy.

My middle-school self thus subconsciously understood that regularly patronizing the symphony would pay off eventually by putting me in a distinctly elite class. Playing the violin, however, seriously endangered my social life. Sure, it had benefits. For example, I regularly and with permission skipped some class or other so that the orchestra director could drive us across town and sit us in top chairs of the high school orchestra, which I took to reflect my obvious talent rather than my long years of forced practice. But I had no time for softball, and my obvious lack of talent there did not keep me from assuming I would excel in it if just given a chance. In the end, playing the violin presented a serious burden for a girl on the verge of hopeless un-cool.

Thus, one night in middle school, I announced that I wanted to stop playing the violin. My father, who no longer played the trombone and no longer played the piano, took a particularly serious tone: “If you really want to do that, we will consider it. But I will tell you now that if you do quit, you will regret it.” Our dining room had padded fabric walls and cold marble floors, and his own deep regret thudded throughout it. I never spoke it again, if only to avoid disappointing him.

Not many years later, I mastered the Suzuki Method with a Mozart concerto and enjoyed a small music scholarship to keep me playing in college. There, I finally played violin because I enjoyed making music. I learned the glories of unaccompanied Bach partitas. Chamber music thrilled me even though our quartet could have played the wedding repertoire while asleep. And those 15 years of steady scales paid off in graduate school when I easily got a top spot in the university orchestra and auditioned for and earned my first professional symphony seat. That first year in graduate school was a picture of discipline, though the typing and bowing finally did their worst to my carpal tunnels and something had to give — alas, the violin. But I can still play the old standards (if poorly) from memory and hum most of what local public radio dishes out.

I hate that I don’t play the violin regularly anymore, but I know I will pick it up again. Sooner rather than later if our son will start his scratching at the same age when I started mine. But my joy in the listening has increased during my sabbatical. At some point, without my noticing a shift, patronizing the local symphony orchestra became a privilege rather than a presumption, much to my glad surprise. For so long, I thought that was just something one did. Now I see it is something one gets to do. It’s a shame that I spent so many visits laboring under the burden of pride, as though enjoying the live performance of a symphony orchestra was primarily a means to some elitist end. That’s a small end for a small person.

My father kept our season tickets just for him and me after the divorce, and I am thankful that he made that space for us and for music. My first year in college, he wore his tuxedo to opening night and picked me up from the dorm while all the T-shirted co-eds stared. We always watched for the bald man who also had season tickets and who carried a cane (merely for show, we thought), and we learned the conversation of critique. Every month, we summed it all up over late pasta at a local bistro.

But the glory of art is in receipt more than critique. We must analyze, but are we changed? The shudder of a managed pianissimo, the intensity of a full crescendo, the organized chaos of each part obeying its notes perfectly — the body of the symphony moving all its parts should make me marvel. And now I see that having played violin regularly for twenty years increases my delight in hearing someone else play.  

When my husband and I sit together at the symphony, we have completely different experiences. He loves it because he loves music, but he cannot love it like I do. He can probably hear the broad stroke more easily than I do, and he can describe how he feels at the end without getting distracted by the ups and downs of the performance. But he has never played an instrument, cannot read music, and does not know the names, much less the timbres, of most instruments in the ensemble. He cannot anticipate what Vivaldi will sound like or read the program to tell what movement we’re in, because he does not know the difference between adagio and scherzo. Even if he learned it all today, he could never know it like I do, because I have a 30-year advance on the knowledge and the ear-training and the callous-inducing practice.

The last few times we have seen our local symphony orchestra, that girl I was nearly 30 years ago has come along. So the wonder of hearing that first symphony performance has begun to accompany my practiced ear. I am learning to set down my harsh metronome and relax my shoulders. I am learning to possess what I do not possess, through awe.

Jennifer Strange is the assistant editor of the Art House America Blog. Also a wife, mother, teacher, writer, editor, Twitterer (@strangejkp). She is glad to have poems forthcoming in The Other Journal while others have found homes in The Oxford American, Rock and Sling, Christianity and Literature, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IV: Louisiana published by Texas Review Press.

New Creations: A Bookbinder’s Passion

Beauty in the Blend