Series: How I Came To Be A Violinist, or An Ode To My Teachers

As I puzzle and process the latest developments in the DMPS orchestra and budget snafu, I’m thinking about teachers. Specifically, the teachers who made significant impressions on my life. They aren’t all music teachers, but they all hold a special place in my heart and my memories, and their legacies are passed on in each of the lessons I teach to my own students. I’d like to share some of those memories here. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

When I started kindergarten, I was a bit of a pill. I had a new baby brother and a life devoted to playing with toys.

I was sort of different. I could read when I started kindergarten. A lot of kids in my generation could read when they started school, but not at James Monroe Elementary School. The thing that excited me most about school wasn’t the library, or the playground or getting to walk to school a whole six (count ’em SIX!) blocks on a busy street by myself, but the CORNERS. The doll corner with its miniature kitchen and dishes, and dolls of all shapes and sizes. The block corner with so many blocks we couldn’t count them all. The book corner which was boring in comparison to all else. Well, except for rest time. Sometimes, I got to sit in the book corner during rest time, which beat resting anytime.

I remember three other things about kindergarten. First, I rarely got to play in the doll corner. To this day, I’m not sure why. Second, Mrs. Schwertley drew a lovely silhouette portrait of each of her students, that we took home later and gave our parents. Third, at some point during the school year I got transferred from the afternoon class to the morning class. My social skills were not as mature as most of my first-semester birthday classmates, and the younger Ks went in the mornings. I had a really hard time with the whole sit-still-and-listen thing. I still do, at least with the sit-still part. Listening is what I do for a living, and I do it well, but it was not one of my better-trained abilities in kindergarten. I was careful, very careful, not to misbehave enough to get sent to the principal’s office. Mrs. Patrick had a paddle and I had heard through the classmate grapevine that she used it when necessary.

Moving on to first grade: same issues, but all day long instead of half days. One minor difference was that I went to the second grade classroom for reading and spelling.  Mid-year, I had my tonsils removed. When I returned to school (it seemed like a month later, but was probably only a couple of weeks), I had managed to do my make-up work so well that I was ahead of the rest of the class by several weeks in some subjects. I often wonder, did I have ADHD before it was “popular?” Was I actually a bully, in today’s terms, instead of hyper or extra-assertive? Ahead of my time? Was it a simple case of jealousy (of my little brother)? Too much sugar? A combination of these things, perhaps? Regardless of what caused it, I can remember being a bossy know-it-all. My hand was either up with the answer, or (much more often) my mouth was inadvertently blurting out the answer.

At some point, my lovely patient teacher Mrs. Cole decided that the most appropriate action was to turn me into A Leader. If I behaved appropriately, I was allowed to wear a Big Yellow Star, that I made myself, pinned to my dress, that authorized me to be A Leader. I don’t remember what I was specifically A Leader of, or even if The Star subdued my impulsiveness or in any other way made me tolerable to my classmates, but I do know that it began to channel the desire a couple of different directions. First, I figured out that not everyone was cool with one person being smarter than everyone else, especially when that one person has no qualms letting everyone know it. I took my share of teasing (and bullying) from kids several grades ahead of me for being “smart.”  I learned that if you are even the least bit Geek, it can be wiser to keep it to yourself until it’s truly needed. And second, I became a teacher, a profession where passion has a direct influence on knowledge retention and student achievement.

When I was in first grade, one magical day changed the course of my life: I heard a violin for the first time. It is one of the most amazing memories I have of my entire childhood. Even now, using words to describe it seems futile, useless, inarticulate. It’s one of those things where only people who have had a similar defining experience can even begin to understand the power and depth of it.  When I remember, the memory is tangible; every sense in my body comes to life.  I can see the classroom like it was yesterday. I can see the performance and remember the piece. I remember the performers, Renee and Danielle, who were only a year older than I.  I get the same goosebumps now that overwhelmed me that day. To this day, it is still so real that I feel like I am actually transported back to Mrs. Wilson’s second grade classroom, sitting on the floor, rising to my feet, eyes bugging out of my head, heart racing, listening to that wonderful, incredible cascade of notes that washed over my ears and instantly commanded my complete focus and attention.

Truth be told, practicing is in fact the only time that I have ever completely focused on anything, my entire life. Which is sort of scary actually. It is amazing that I have never caused a car accident, gotten lost traveling, or started a fire in the kitchen. My grades in college, even though they were very good, were obtained courtesy of not concentrating. My academic papers and research were done while thinking about other important things, like what was for dinner, if I needed to stop for gas on the way home, or if my butt looked big in those pants.  It’s amazing that I gave birth to two babies, because I don’t remember focusing on those activities, either. My whole life has been lived in divided attention mode. Except for when I have a violin in my hands.

I had to wait two more years, until I started fourth grade, to begin violin lessons. Part of the reason was that the school district started strings at fourth grade. I’ve also been told that it was iffy whether I was really serious about playing. It’s strange perhaps that I don’t remember the demo at the beginning of the school year. At all. I do remember being allowed to touch a violin. It felt like I was literally touching something much larger than myself, the face of God perhaps. It was a moment filled with electricity, respect, awe, wonder and wow. Maybe love as well, if you believe that such things can be loved. I’ve experienced only a couple of other moments like that since, that had absolutely nothing to do with music. I remember the general music teacher, Miss Rosalie Peterson, handing me the necessary paper to take home.

And then. And Then!

On Wednesday, October 29, 1975,  I had my first violin lesson. And I met the man who would change my life forever, and the lives of many, many other young string players in the DMPS: Jim Brauninger.

To be continued…

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