Recently, my husband and I ventured to a nearby violin shop in search of a viola for me. Several reasons played into this decision to upgrade.
After thirty years of playing my current viola, I needed a change. Sometimes a different resonance and tone is required to meet new challenges in life. I realized that what had worked for me at age sixteen–a clear, bright tone similar to a violin–was not what I craved in my middle age or as a musician. I wanted an instrument that would draw my congregation into worship through singing beloved hymns. I also needed to blend in with my fellow violists while playing in my local community orchestra. I desired a depth and kindred extension of myself that I no longer sensed with the viola chosen by a much-younger me.
My husband completely understood. We started dating around the time I switched from playing violin in our high school to joining the much-smaller viola section. The outcry from him and his friends did nothing to deter me. It spurred me on. Although we were not dating yet, I knew I liked him. I also knew I didn’t want to compete with my friend. For the same reason, I flatly refused to throw shotput and discus for the track team because my then-boyfriend had chosen that sport to end his high school sporting career. Also my dad still holds the shotput record at his alma mater. So… no. But, there was another reason.
I didn’t want to make mistakes in front of my new boyfriend.
It was becoming clear to me that, as a string player, I did not enjoy playing in fingering positions close to the tip of my nose. A bit of an exaggeration, yes, but there was a pervading attitude among violinists that I wanted to avoid. I knew I wasn’t a virtuoso. I didn’t want to be. Even though I earned my role as section leader during my senior year, it was for, what my husband calls, the third violin section. I didn’t want my musical prowess to be proven by how proficiently I executed sixteenth-note runs. I longed for sustaining harmonious whole notes and half notes. If I played a melody, I inwardly pleaded for a soothing one.
Much like the Sunday morning hymns I play for worship.
Here I should mention my husband has been accompanying hymns on guitar as I sing. Something has happened to my voice, too, as the years have gone on. While my fingers have become tighter and less flexible, my voice has become looser and lower. I could sing a high B when I was sixteen. I can almost sing a B in tenor range now. So, we had to transpose the music for Sunday morning because singing three high Ds in a row was not going to happen.
The problem was that then I had to ignore the notes on the page. Because I read music when singing, dropping a visible G to an imagined F# was too much for my middle-aged brain. Performance anxiety kicked in while we practiced before leaving for church. So, that’s how it happened.
I made a mistake.
Not only could I not find the first note for one of the hymns, I lost all sense of the melody. We even started over, and I just couldn’t do it. I said something like “Oh, you have no idea. The testing of a marriage.” I stepped back, and let my husband lead through guitar chords as the congregation aptly sang the melody. I waited a verse or two, and then stepped back in to sing the remaining verses with the microphone dropped below projecting-range.
I didn’t raise the microphone for the rest of the hymns that morning. I think I sang better without it. Hearing my own voice reverberating in my ears did little to bolster confidence. Like my new viola, I wanted to blend in to this group of sincere believers. Maybe for the first time, I knew I truly belonged within a church family.
I didn’t expect accolades. I had made a mistake. I didn’t want or need praise. I need what I received.
The smiling thank-yous meant more than I thought they would. Grace in a humiliating moment lifted my spirit. My husband’s arm slung around my shoulder during the sermon assured me of his unconditional love and appreciation for me. So, when a younger man in our congregation thanked us and asked if we had been playing together long, it was as true to say this was only the second time we had played together this way.
It is as true to say we’ve been making music together for as long as we’ve known each other. I believe we will continue until we are no longer able to do so here. I trust we will continue beyond this life as well.
I may have needed a change in my viola, but I certainly didn’t want to change who would be helping me to choose my upgrade. That would have been a big mistake.
So, along with our middle son, my husband and I entered a soundproof room filled with violas. Aside from entering a library, this was a version of earthly heaven! I played through scales, songs, and made-up melodies. He couldn’t help but play a few himself. It made me smile to note he still could play if he wanted. He remarked that his hand naturally fit the larger instrument. That didn’t surprise me so much as that he said it. He enjoyed those running sixteenths far more that the sustaining whole notes when he was “volunteered” to play the viola in junior high. So, my theory is that he shunned the viola because he had been told he should play it. If he had not rebelled, we would not have been buying a viola for me. I would have ended up playing the bass or something.
But, my husband also had a theory.
Violas are not created equal. Unlike violins that have a standard measurement, violas are sized in half inch (sometimes more or less) increments between 14 and 17 inches. I had been playing a 16.5 inch viola. But, my husband and the sales associate at the store suggested I try the 16 and 15.5 models. I was amazed at how easily I could play the smaller instruments and proved my husband’s theory. My hand is not as flexible as it used to be.
After I whittled down the selections to one and chose a lighter-weight bow, my husband and the sales associate swapped stories about their own changes in flexibility with playing guitars. I realized and stated a new insight: the music is hard enough; the instrument shouldn’t make it harder to play.
The same is true in marriage. The fine-tuning happens when we listen, when we observe changes in flexibility, when we adapt by upgrading to the simpler and smaller in order to make life easier to play. Instead of being bright and clear, sometimes it’s more important to blend and to soothe. Sometimes discovering virtuosity is not in proving we can be fast and furious. Sometimes it is to sustain and harmonize.
Always it is to learn from our mistakes. And to laugh when we make them.
I shudder to think my life could be viewed as a performance. I would rather it be seen as practice. Practice sounds loud and awful. It’s out of tune and off-tempo. But, it’s a daily necessity if a song is to be played well in public. Even then, mistakes happen. How to react is most important.
Humor. Affection. Appreciation. Gratitude. All of these in accord resolve unintentional dissonance.
We step back. We move in. We finish the song. That’s the sustaining harmony I love.