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Memories of High School, or My Horsehair Shirt April 12, 2007

Posted by KG in Books, Music.
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1.  My Favorite Author from 1994-1996 or so was Kurt Vonnegut, and I think he’s an ideal Favorite Author for anyone going through that horrible time of life known as adolescence.  Vonnegut’s propensity to boil down many of his stories to koan-like phrases is both seductive and reductive; when you’re searching for identity, they make sense in a bumper-sticker kind of way.  That isn’t to denigrate Vonnegut as a writer, but complexity and nuance were never his strong suit.  I’m pretty sure he’s okay with that.  It doesn’t make him a worse writer than any other — just an ideal writer for certain times in your life. 

Despite an overall love for Slaughterhouse-5 as an introduction to his oeuvre, my favorite Vonnegut novels are Mother Night and Bluebeard.   Neither compare to Welcome to the Monkey House, which, all criticism aside, is one of the finest collections of short stories ever written.

2.  By the time my violin teacher handed me Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (age: 17), my attitude was pretty poor.  I started playing the fiddle when I was 5, and never really took to the whole “practice” part of it.  Better to play what I wanted, and not Suzuki etudes, or so I figured.  These are the things that attitude got me: poor violin posture, a crappy arm vibrato, and a perpetual seat as lead 2nd violin or 3rd chair.  It didn’t help that there were seriously talented violinists ahead and behind me in school, and that other things (that litany is very, very long) often got in the way of learning to play in fifth position.  So after hacking away at the 2nd movement of Partita #2 for months, I got tired of trying.  It’s precisely when I decided to give up the violin.

To this day, I maintain that I had no natural or innate musical talent.  I can parrot pretty well and I have a fairly decent ear, but I have no real skills.  There’s a causality question buried here: was I unable to nurture innate talent because I was lazy and unfocused?  Did I realize I was lazy and unfocused early enough that I never gave the violin my all?  I’m not sure.   I’m fortunate that those Sunday morning violin lessons gave me an ongoing appreciation of classical music.  That doesn’t make it any easier to admit that I gave the violin up primarily out of self-centered laziness.  That Partita — and I remember it well, in the yellow book, staring back at me, mocking my fingers and their lack of grace — was a breaking point, and it wasn’t long before I put my violin in my bedroom closet and stopped thinking about it.  Well, sort of. 

Sunday’s Post magazine had a heavily blogged article about Joshua Bell giving an impromptu violin performance in L’Enfant Plaza.  The results of the “sociological experiment” (no spoilers — read the article!) were entirely unsurprising.  Some of the corrolary observations (Children like music!  People recognize beauty!) were painfully banal.  But the article struck — ahem — a chord. That’s probably because a large part of it was devoted to the violin, and specifically to the Chaconne, the fifth movement of Bach’s Partita #2.   Maybe I’d have stopped and listened to Bell that morning, and maybe not.  But the article did inspire me to get some more classical music in my collection, for the sake of reminiscing (if not outright self-flagellation).  

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