Down the Rabbit Hole of Research

A few months into crafting the first few letters of my epistolary novel, “Imagining Violet”, loosely based on my grandmother’s life, I began to read what I could about violins and violinists. I was going to write about a young girl studying music at the Leipzig Conservatory in the 1890s, and I had never held a violin in my hands.

I read about the various schools of violin instruction over time and I watched some violin teaching videos, hoping to glean something of the basics of the instrument. But these explorations were superficial and did not generate the experience or knowledge needed to write with confidence and credibility.

As a 70th birthday challenge and to further my research, I decided to learn to play the violin. To begin, I rented a violin and tried a few tutorials on YouTube. That lasted about five minutes. I quickly realized that I needed to take real lessons. As I live on an island, population 10,000, my choices of teachers were limited. My neighbour Carolyn teaches kids, and she wouldn’t have me. I asked her how long it would take me to make a decent sound on the violin. Five years, she told me. I was seventy, I said, I didn’t have that long. A friend recommended Suzanne and my lessons began.

I knew I would be doing this for a while and decided to buy a beginner’s violin. I paid $100 for an outfit (violin, bow, case) from a local fellow, one he’d bought but never used. It seemed okay to me, but I knew nothing.

Six months into my lessons, Suzanne insisted that I upgrade to a better instrument. This I did, thanks to my neighbour Carolyn, the violin teacher who wouldn’t have me. Her luthier friend Ross comes regularly to our west coast island from his home in Calgary. Ross sold me a Romanian violin, almost new, for $700. That was as much as I could afford or was willing to invest.

After eighteen months of lessons, Suzanne tossed me out of the nest saying she’d taken me as far as she could. I come from a musical family, with musical genes on both sides. I sing in a community choir and I’ve played the piano since I was four years old. It’s fair to say that I’m musically literate. So some aspects of playing the violin came quickly. I’d always watched in awe as violinists found the right notes without any frets. I couldn’t imagine how they did it. But finding the right notes wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected and I seemed to be progressing well. I was stiff and tense and clenched my jaw when I practised, but I’d get over that.

Suzanne’s prompting coincided with the arrival on the island of the amazing violinist, Joan Blackman. Joan wanted to build a roster of students and to my astonishment, was willing to take on a geriatric beginner. Under her instruction, I moved quickly through Suzuki Book Two and Three. Joan concentrated on my bowing and constantly adjusted my bow hold. In the spring of 2016, she declared that I was ready to join Orchestra 101, an amateur group of string players led by ‘cellist Paula Kiffner, herself a superb player and highly regarded teacher. Throughout this period of about two years, I became more and more confident writing about my Violet’s progress at the Leipzig Conservatory. Now that I played with a group, I had a better understanding of the challenges that ensemble playing had presented to Violet back in the 1890s.

I could find the notes all right, more or less, but bowing was another matter. From the very beginning of my studies, Suzanne stressed that I needed more weight on the bow, I needed to relax, I needed to let my arm become heavy. I didn’t get it. Joan kept advising me to “play in the strings”. I didn’t get it. But it was fuel for my story: I opted to let Violet have the same problems.

Then something quite wonderful happened. I found out that one of my numerous first cousins had inherited our grandmother Violet’s violin. This was stunning news indeed. The cousin had kept it forever, thinking he’d return to his string studies once he retired. Retirement had come, but the violin languished in its cupboard. With a little nudging, he agreed to pass on the instrument. And it came with our grandfather’s gorgeous Brazilian rosewood case.

My daughter undertook to ship Violet’s violin from Toronto to my home on the west coast. It arrived via FedEx in a box that was over five feet high, full of packing peanuts which protected an inner box, which was itself enveloped in bubble wrap. Inside the second box was the violin case, also encased in bubble wrap. My generous daughter wouldn’t admit to the cost of this, but she did say she’d spent an hour and a half at the FedEx office while they packed it up.

Luthier Ross was on the island a month later and agreed to refurbish Violet’s violin. He told me it had been factory built in Germany around 1870 and was a good quality advanced student instrument. He thought he’d need it for about three months, but I was not surprised when it took six. It was glorious to have Violet’s actual violin and to play it. It has a lovely tone and it deepened my sense of connection with its original owner.

For my rather extravagant Christmas present, my dear husband arranged for a marvellous local woodworker to refurbish the beautiful old case. The veneer on the ends of the case was splitting off. Iltydd just happened to have some Brazilian rosewood veneer in his workshop and completely restored the case, which he then advised me to use only on very special occasions.

By early 2017, Joan had become too busy with teaching commitments off-island and touring with her string ensemble to give me lessons. All agreed that I should continue studying and so with fear and trembling, I went back to Carolyn and asked if she’d take me on, now. To my delight, she said “yes”. I didn’t remind her that she’d turned me down four years earlier.

Carolyn took me back to basics. She’s a born teacher and has all manner of tricks and techniques. It’s two years later, and I’m once again working in Suzuki Book Two. And I still play with Orchestra 101, rechristened the Salt String Ensemble to honour our development. The Salt Strings played at the book launch for “Imagining Violet” in November 2018, and we played another concert in April of this year.

Rehearsing with Salt Strings is the highlight of my week. There are eleven of us now, with a wide range of ages, skills, talents, musical experience, professions. Our double bass is a local GP. One of the first violinists is a former judge. Another is a carpenter. To no one’s surprise, there are at least three cyber-techies amongst us plus one graphic designer and one organic farmer, a woman who successfully grows tropical fruit on the west coast of Canada.

You never know where research will take you. “Imagining Violet” is finished and published but I’m a long way from being finished with Violet’s violin.

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Born and educated in Toronto, Mary Elizabeth Hughes has called BC’s Salt Spring Island home since 2002. The author of two volumes of nonfiction, Frank Welsman, Canadian Conductor and The Life and Times of the Floathouse “Zastrozzi,” she published more than 90 feature articles in Canadian trade magazines. Additional publications in 2018 and 2019 include stories in The Muskokan, Cottage Life, More of Our Canada, Bunbury Magazine, The Peacock Journal, and Page&Spine. Her first novel, Imagining Violet, historical fiction and epistolary in format, was published in November of 2018.

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