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A Song on My Shoulder by Justine Saracen

I’d always loved classical music, and living with a pianist for ten years, I had plenty of it in my life. But other than singing in college choruses and working in opera management, I was a purely a consumer. Deutsche Grammophon soaked up a ton of my money over the years. Even after beginning to write, I kept the house filled with music.  

But upon starting my most recent novel, The Hiroshima Violin, about World War 2 in the Pacific and with a subplot of a romance between musicians, I realized had to up my game.

One of the lovers is (surprise, surprise!) an opera singer. Because for me, the sexiest thing in the world is the soprano – and occasionally the mezzo-soprano – voice. I wanted the other woman to have the same dramatic presence and, I decided, it wouldn’t hurt for her be one of the enemy. Say….a Japanese violinist. Melodrama, emotional tension, and a war. I was off to a good start.

However, my artistic integrity – such as it was – required that I know whereof  I write. No problem about opera; I was an expert.  And after decades of research and a doctorate in German History, I knew World War 2 as well. Japan presented a challenge which I could overcome with more research. But that violin thing was a problem. It would be amateurish in the extreme to write about the inner life of a violinist without ever having felt a ‘living’ violin on my shoulder.

A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do. I started lessons.

I soon discovered that the violin is a cruel mistress. If you do not touch her just right, she will shriek, whine, crush your spirit. And it is extremely difficult to touch her just right. You must approach her correctly and with reverence, with a bow properly taut and roughed with resin. You must keep a precise right hand position on the bow, with designated places for each finger, a carefully calculated elevation of the right arm, and an EXACT angle of the bow hairs to address the string. It took months before the teacher even showed me how to use my left hand to play notes other than the ‘open’ strings of G, D, A, and E. The flashy finger movements that make playing the violin look so cool. Though they didn’t look so cool on me.

All these tasks rely on “muscle memory” and, as an over-65 year old, I have neither much muscle nor memory. What remains of those is lethargic, petulant, and seems to ask,  “Why are you doing this to us. Why can’t we just listen on You tube and collect our pension?” They punish me with pain, sore fingertips, hands, swollen elbow (called “tennis elbow” revealing that more people play tennis than violin.)

But after all that, something wondrous began to happen. Slowly, laboriously, I got hints of a delicious sound that, in the hands of others, could express lament, joy, passion, solemnity, hope, bereavement…every emotion, more deeply and directly than I ever could writing fiction. Not that I ever achieved that level of expression with my cloddish hands, of course, but I can strive for it, and occasionally, for the very briefest moment, approach it.

I began with Amazing Grace, achingly plangent on the violin, and not terribly difficult. By Christmas, I’d been studying for six months, and was able to produce Silent Night. Now, a year later, and using simplified adaptations for students, I can play Handel arias. They don’t come easy; my poor neighbors will attest to that. With a rudimentary ability to read music, I piece together note after note and phrase after phrase until I have the whole piece memorized — then forget it all a week later. But that’s all right. For a brief moment, standing in my pyjamas in front of the mirror, I have played the Handel Largo from Xerxes from beginning to end and been transported.

I have no illusions. I will never be a violinist. I will always just be an old lady who plays a few tunes for my own pleasure and for the occasional tolerant friend who knows she will get lunch only after listening to me perform. But I can return to writing the novel now, with an inkling of what it feels like to enter that priesthood, to be the conduit of wisdom that transcends language, that flows from the minds of the great – and not so great – composers, and enters directly to into the heart of the listener.

With any luck, I’ll manage to integrate that mix of discipline and euphoria into my character and, in a year or so, present The Hiroshima Violin to Bold Strokes Books. In the meantime, I have new music to write by, having expanded my listening library collection of sexy opera singers to include sexy violinists. And if I have stimulated any interest in violin music in you, dear reader, I suggest you treat yourself to Anne Sophie Mutter playing the Beethoven violin concerto.

Or any violin performance by anyone (except me.)

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