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Playing for pleasure

I write a lot about the performing arts I watch other people engaging in. Last week, for a change, it was my turn. I went to Benslow Music in Hitchin for three days – for the sixth or seventh time and immersed myself in string quartets for three days. It was my birthday on the middle day and I have to say it was “different” but one of the best for several years.

I began playing the violin when I was seven in a primary school class of eight children – formed on the basis of “Would anyone like to learn the violin?” and provided completely free. When I got to grammar school I wanted to continue and my father paid for individual lessons (£4.00 per term!) for the next seven years. I did graded exams, scraping though the higher ones with minimum marks to pass, and took part in lots of musical events both in and out of school. I quite liked doing it but I wasn’t good at diligent practice and was clearly never going to be more than a very mediocre amateur musician.

When I left school I played a bit at college and in community orchestras in my twenties. Somehow, though, it eventually fell away. I had two children, a job, a home to run and there wasn’t much spare time. The final nail in the coffin, with hindsight, was my elder son rapidly overtaking me. He passed the higher grades with dozens (and dozens) more marks than I had and went on to do a music degree. Today he sings, acts, arranges, plays in orchestras and music-directs in every moment he can spare from the day job.

I didn’t play at all for over 30 years. Then, in early 2014, when I was beginning to turn out cupboards with a view to moving house at some point in the following few years, I found my violin. I looked at it and thought: “Well what am I going to do with this then. Sell it?” Something snapped to attention in my head. “No!” I declared to myself. “I’m going to PLAY it!”

I bought a new case because I had a nasty case of weevils in the old one and took my poor neglected, stringless instrument to a luthier with instructions to bring it up to playing condition and rehair my bow, all of which he did within a couple of weeks.

Then I brought it home, unpacked it and attempted to play a tune. The result was dismally excruciating. My intonation had gone AWOL along with my ability to practise for more than a few minutes without wilting. And my fingers wouldn’t do as they were told. That was January 2014 and a great deal of perseverance followed. I used folk dance tunes – good exercise to get the fingers moving fluently – as a restoration tool and I had some lessons.  The only good thing to have emerged from that 30 year gap was that I had sung in a choir for most of it and my sight reading seemed to have improved. I was no longer the world’s worst sight reader – just the third or fourth worst.

I joined a little community orchestra in Ashford (Kent) which specialises in “returners” in summer 2014. At the first rehearsal I went to – and, crikey, was I nervous! – they were working on the first movement of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the conductor playing the solo part. I managed more or less to get through the second violin part and finish with everyone else – at which point I had a little cry. I’d never dreamed that I’d ever be able to take part in anything like that again So bloody uplifting.

I went to fabulous, marvellous, life changing Benslow for the first time in October 2014, learned loads and managed to sight read a movement of a Mozart string quartet, playing one to a part, to my own astonishment. Since then I’ve been there about twice a year, having fallen in love with chamber music and formed a quartet with three other like minded people which meets regularly. We were at Benslow together last week and will be there again in December

I also attend regular workshops in Folkestone and Canterbury as well as still playing in my original orchestra although I can’t get to Ashford every week now that I’ve moved to London. And the icing on the cake is the orchestra I play in locally. It does three concerts a year (next is 23 June at St Francis Church, West Wickham if you’re in the vicinity!) and I enjoy every single minute. Every week I learn a lot – lovely people – and I drive away on a high at the end of the evening.

What a journey. I just wish my dad, no mean fiddler himself, were around to see us playing again – my younger sister is the other violin in the quartet.

And the moral of this story? If you have a musical instrument lurking in your cupboard from years ago, get it out and play it. It’s never too late. There’s good news, too. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t take quite so long to re-acquire the techniques as it did to learn them in the first place. It’s still in there somewhere if you can find a way of unlocking it.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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