In these days when violins small enough to fit into a diaper bag are thrust into the hands of toddlers, my granddaughter Violette started taking lessons at the relatively late age of eight. She practices on a 3/4 size instrument that has tapes on the fingerboard showing her where the notes are. The kindest thing you can say about this instrument is that it is serviceable. She treats it as casually as an old teddy bear, setting the case down on the floor, dragging the violin around the house, letting it accumulate a fine powdering of rosin. I am both alarmed and charmed by her blithe treatment of her fiddle. From earliest infancy I was taught to treat any string instrument with reverence and awe.
No violin got more of both than my father's violin, which he bought from a gipsy who showed up unannounced at our apartment in Barcelona. As a toddler, I was allowed as a special treat to pluck a single string ("pizzicato" was one of my first words) while my father held the instrument securely in his hands. On our first Atlantic crossing on the way to Ecuador, in a fat Pan Am prop plane, the violin traveled with us in the cabin, like a person.
It is a good, though not an extraordinary, violin, rather small for a full-size, and with a clear, clean sound, just right for chamber music. It is accompanied by superb bow, made by the fabled and now defunct Hill's of London. Eventually my father had a new violin made for him, one with the big sound required by larger spaces. This, and his viola were sold by my mother years after he died.
But the gipsy's violin, the one with the worn varnish where for years his hand had hit the higher notes, came to live with me. For over forty years I carted it from house to house during our many moves. On a couple of occasions I had it repaired (violins disintegrate if they're not played regularly) and the bow re-haired, with a view to resuming my practice. But that never happened, and the violin would go back into its case for another long sleep.
Then this Christmas, when Violette was visiting, I remembered the violin in the closet and thought, why not? I could at least let her try it on for size. Our family, I am happy to say, is blessed with long arms, and when Violette, who is nine now, tucked the fiddle under her chin, her hand effortlessly reached the right spot on the finger board. I replaced a broken D string, tuned it up for her, and suggested that she play one of her pieces.
This violin, needless to say, had no tapes prompting her finger positions, and the distances on the fingerboard were proportionately larger than on her small instrument. Yet she adjusted her fingering quickly, by ear, like a real musician. And the whole family gathered around her sighed with pleasure at the clarity of the sound she made.
Four generations.... This violin paid for tuition at my German nuns' school, the Sunday paella, the airfare to Ecuador and, four years later, to the U.S. Now it's in the hands of Violette, who I hope was sufficiently impressed by my cautions to treat it with at least some reverence and awe. My father would be pleased to hear her play. He would, I'm certain, say she has "conditions." And then, like he told me a million times, he would tell her to practice her bowing.