The Little Violin That Could

I seem to attract or be attracted to things nobody else wants. Like many, I have a menagerie of stray and rescue animals, and their beauty and value is priceless to me. I marvel at my good fortune in stumbling upon each or that I was stumbled upon by each. But it’s not just the animals. There’s this little violin I found…..

Kevin wants to learn to play fiddle: I thought it would make a great Christmas gift, so I started researching violin procurement. Oh, the things I learned! One article I read suggests that violins be purchased the same way cars are purchased: clunker for learning, nice and sturdy for everyday use, luxury for the pro.  What I didn’t expect to find is that the sticker prices are uncomfortably similar. Yes, a violin would make a great Christmas gift, but I didn’t want it to be his only gift, so I pressed on, undeterred.

I’m a fan of things made in America, so it saddened but didn’t surprise me that, other than handmade violins ($$), there are no violin manufacturers in the States. I’m also a fan of American history, so my interest was piqued when I learned that for a few decades after World War I, the Jackson-Guldan Violin Company of Ohio manufactured violins affordable enough for regular folks to own. The J-GV Co. was in competition with a German company that used a similar manufacturing process, but between the world wars, the American company thrived because the German manufacturer was unable to effectively make or export violins out of Europe. Unfortunately today, J-Gs do not enjoy the respect of most violin aficionados, and violin snobs can be found all over the internet using such derogatory phrases as “lowly J-G” and “used for target practice” and describing them as ugly up close. Some did use phrases such as “dark, rich” and “melancholy tones” and say they sound better than they should, given their construction and price point. Many owners even prefer their J-Gs over their much more expensive violins. Collectors of all things American believe J-Gs will continue to rise in value because they’re rare and they’re American. Inexpensive? Dark, rich, melancholy tones? Made in America? Increasing in value? The hunt was on.

Ebay listed one for $85. I must have pulled that listing up a hundred times, studying the pictures, playing  the video. I read voraciously about violins.  Even if it was no good, I reasoned, it would make great wall art in Kev’s music room, but I had a hunch about this one. Finally, I bid on it and won  –  if that’s what you call it when you’re the only bidder.

It arrived on our doorstep just in time for Christmas, and Laurence and I couldn’t wait to tear into the package. We pulled the case from the box and sat it on the ottoman to take a look. It was a faux alligator case with the letters ” RJH” painted on it with white shoe polish yellowed by time. I held my breath as we raised the lid to reveal the contents of my eBay gamble. We stood up and leaned in to each other, heads together, and we spoke in whispers as we gazed at the little violin nestled in the red velvet.

“It doesn’t look that ugly to me.”

“Me, neither. [Pause] But I don’t know what they’re supposed to look like.”

“Me, neither.”

“The bow is broken.”

“Yeah. The strings are rusty.”

We took it out and and cleaned it. I held it in my hands, elbows propped up on the kitchen island, and I poured over every square inch of it much like I did with my children the first time I held them. As I examained it, I imagined that unplayed music had been building up in it  for years while it sat on a shelf or in a closet and that the violin was just waiting for someone to realize that and restore it to its former glory so the music could flow out. I ran my fingers across the strings. The bridge snapped in half.

Two days after Christmas, we lovingly strapped the violin back in the faux alligator case with shoe polish letters, and the four of us – Laurence, Kevin, Paige and I -proudly walked it into a violin repair shop. New life was about to be breathed into our Charlie Brown violin.

The repairman wouldn’t even pick it up. He turned his nose up at it- curled his lip, actually, and walked past it saying it wasn’t worth the cost of the repair. The chipper little girl behind the counter assured us, however, that  they had plenty of nice violins for sale starting at $595. I smiled sweetly at her and shook my head no as we walked out the door thinking, “Honey, it’ll be a cold day….”  We were wounded, yes, but I was more resolute than ever.

We visited the next violin shop on our list. The young man there was more hopeful and told us, “I can fix it, but it still might sound like crap when I’m done.”  We thanked him for his honesty and left with our violin in tow. Once back in the car, we felt free to wonder aloud why we would want to leave our prized instrument with someone who felt like it might sound like #$@& when he was done with it.  As we pulled away, I entertained myself with other possible scenarios. “I can cut your hair, but it  might look like *%$# when I’m done.”  “I can perform heart surgery on you, but…”  I’m pretty easily entertained.

A few miles down the road, we passed a shopping center that advertised a violin shop. How did we miss that one? On cue, three of us grabbed our smart phones to see what we could learn about the place, and one of us pulled into the parking lot. A new shop in town! Excellent! Closed for the day. Drat.

Laurence and I left the kids at home the next day -no need putting them through that again- and we carried our treasure into the new shop, ready to defend its little honor. To our surprise, though, the man was not put-off at all by our “lowly J-G.”  He called it a  “good beginner violin -old!” and said old wood sounds better than new.  Repairs and a new bow were needed, but it would sound beautiful when he was done.  On Monday we could pick it up and he would play it for us. I couldn’t wait.

On the appointed day and hour, we waited in his outer studio. I wondered if he would come through the door and tell me it was worse than he thought or there was more to repair than he saw at first glance. I think I was more scarred by the first guy than I realized. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be wrong about this. When he came for us, I looked for tell-tale signs of anything revealing  in his speech or demeanor. Nothing.

He led us to the back and offered me a  seat. As he reached for the now familiar red case, he smiled and said something akin to, “It’s beautiful. You’re going to love it.”   Relief flooded by body. I could hardly breathe. He took the little violin and raised it to his shoulder,  resting his cheek on it. After some minor adjustments to the strings, this man who barely spoke English began to play, and an American folk tune poured out. It was loud and strong. I literally felt the vibrations from the instrument resonate in my chest cavity, and it made me feel weepy.  The tones were dark and rich. Melancholy. It probably sounded better than people who know what to look for in an instrument would have thought, and as for me, I thought it was beautiful.

***Epilogue***

As an alpaca rancher, from time to time I get to save lives of unborn baby alpacas and their mothers. I turn breech crias into proper birthing position and untwist knotted legs so babies can make their entrances safely into the world. Each time is scary and special and leaves me with a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction. I’m left with the same feeling about this violin. It came dangerously close to death, but there is life in it again. It is loud and strong, and I look forward to many more weepy moments.

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6 responses to “The Little Violin That Could

  1. I love this. I have a few very nice, expensive, steel-string acoustic guitars. I play them regularly at nursing homes and “gigs.” They are tools. My prized guitar is a 40 year old inexpensive nylon string imported acoustic that was my mother’s. Ten years ago I had it repaired; the repairs far exceeded the cost of the guitar. My mother (who passed away young) taught me to play on that guitar. All old instruments have a story. Someone, at some point (if only briefly) opened their cases with joyous excitement. It’s beautiful to coax new music from old instruments.

    • You, Pat, have the heart of a true musician. I know that with my degree in piano, I can sit at the finest instrument and with its precision and my skill, I can impress a listener. That is a logical outcome of my years of training coupled with the years of training of an instrument maker. My delight, however, comes in sitting at some old honkey-tonker and coaxing beautiful sounds from it (I caught myself smiling as I typed that sentence!), but I have a feeling you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Your mother’s guitar is so much more than a tool or even an instrument. Each time you create sound from it, part of her continues to live. Sometimes things are just things. But sometimes, they’re not. Thank you so much for writing. You made my day!

  2. If a hospital stay can be funny, that one would be it….I think you can get another blog or two out of that time!

  3. I loved your story or adventure. I wish I could have been more help to you. My daughter has an old viola and though she does not play it anymore, she loves it like her own child. Her viola is named, Leopold (Leopold and Kate….based on a movie she saw) and when she does take a moment to play it, it has a low, vibrant tone that I love to hear! Your story brought back memories of her old viola and reminded me of her appreciation for an instrument, that in other people’s eyes, may not be so special…. but is worth millions to her.

    • Thank you so much for your response, Sharon. I absolutely L.O.V.E. it when people share where my stories take their thoughts. I love that she named her viola, and what a great name for her it! I know what you mean about hearing those low, vibrant tones when she plays; I have loved listening to Kevin practice scales, but he’s so musical, he can make scales sound like melodies!

I value your thoughts and comments. Please share them!! ~Donna

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