herald

Sunday 22 October 2017

how i hit the play button 
after a long musical pause

it turns out that something might have stuck from those music lessons you had as a teen!

My maternal grandfather was a musician. He played many instruments, but the violin was his favourite. Music formed a vital part of him, as crucial as a limb, as important as a heart.

He played with dance bands, orchestras, traditional session musicians. He played in halls and pubs and on the back of lorries. He played in my grandmother's kitchen and sometimes it drove her scatty.

After he died, she was sorry for sometimes telling him to stop playing so she could hear the wireless, watch The Late Late. After he died, she said that if he were alive, she would tell him to play on.

I began to play the violin as a scrawny 12-year-old. My mother bought me my first violin in a dark, narrow little music shop on Liffey Street. I remember an old man behind the counter, although this memory may not be reliable. When you're a kid, all adults over the age of 30 seem old. The shop smelled of wood and resin. "You've to practise every day," the man said, shaking his head as if he was pretty sure I wouldn't.

My poor mother during those early months, downstairs at the kitchen sink with her Marigolds, listening with hope as I stood in my bedroom, scratching the bow furiously across the strings. Oh, how difficult it is to make a violin sing when you're a beginner. How much easier to make it howl like the death rattle of a man who should have died long ago. Mam told me to keep my bedroom window shut tight, even in the summer. "Especially in the summer," she said. "The neighbours might be in their gardens."

When I was tall enough, she gave me her father's violin. The case was battered and bruised on the outside but, when I opened it, pop's violin lay on a bed of softest gold velvet. The wood of the instrument was darker than mine, its smell somehow more exotic and mysterious, like the smell of time itself.

When I plucked at the strings, the sound was immediately sweeter, more mellow than the noise I could manage on my beginner's violin. I tucked the instrument under my chin and vowed to practice every day, to be better than I was, to make my mother glad she gave me her father's violin.

angst

I joined the North Dublin Youth Orchestra, I practised every day, I passed exams. And then, one day, I stopped. I don't remember which day it was. I don't remember any particular reason, although I could probably file it under 'teenage angst'. I can file many things under that banner. I returned the violin to the case, locked it and slid it under my bed, where it remained for 25 years.

I moved from country to country, flat to flat, then to a house, then to another house and each time I moved, I pulled the violin out from under my bed and brought it with me, slid it under a different bed. It never made a sound.

Then one day last spring, I heard about the orchestra. Offbeat Ensemble. A string orchestra in Phibsborough. An orchestra for beginners. And for people who could play but did not. People who hadn't played in years but who thought about it anytime they searched for a shoe under their bed.

The smell was the same when I opened the violin case that night. It rushed at me, like an old friend you might meet in the back of a pub one night. The friend who moved away. The one you promised you'd write to. The one you never wrote to. The who says it's lovely to see you and means it.

The feeling I had the first time I walked into St Peter's school where the orchestra was tuning up was similar to the feeling I had when I joined my first creative writing class. I felt like a hermit crab between shells. Exposed. There was no escaping the shape of the violin case tucked under my arm. There I was walking down St. Peter's Road, declaring myself to the world.

I Am Musician.

I wasn't sure if I'd remember how to do any of it; hold the violin, slide the bow along the strings, read the music. But it's a bit like Irish. You think there're no words left in your memory until you're in a tiny shop in the Gaeltacht, asking for a carton of bainne, le do thoil. And then you go ahead and ask for cais, not because you're in a terrible way for a wedge of Brie but because you suddenly remember that's the word for cheese and you're delighted with yourself. The cupla focail.

The conductor - Nathan Sherman - speaks to us as if we are professional musicians. We strain towards his expectations. Ciara Cavanagh teaches the beginners with the kind of gentle confidence that inspires. We tune up. We scan the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Finale. Fortissimo, it says. Moderato assai, very grand, it says. We place our bows on the string, press the pads of our fingers along the D string, wait for the lift of the baton.

And then we begin.

Again.

I think about my grandfather. Pop. What might he say, if he could see me now? I'd like to think that he would tell me to keep playing.

That he would tell me to 
play on.

Ciara Geraghty's book Now That I've Found You, is published by Hachette, priced €14.99

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