Tuesday, 10 June 2014

On playing my first jig

Eighteen years ago, I got a fiddle for my birthday. It was 1996 and Hi, How Are you Today had been making its way through All Of The Radio Stations. I was wildly in love with Ashley MacIsaac. (This was before I knew that he was gay, obviously.)

Even more than that: I was going to be the next Ashley MacIsaac. I wanted to be stomping and fiddling and winding my way around a stage, somewhere. You could fiddle and dance at the same time. It was the ultimate dream.

I wanted to be Scottish. I wanted to be Irish. I wanted a voice and an accent that was sexier and more musical and more interesting than I could ever hope to be. You could be a writer and a musician, couldn't you? You could write and play piano and play violin and take pictures and be a dancer and do all of these things in exactly the same kind of perfectionist way, couldn't you? You could be good at all of these things, couldn't you?

I took lessons for six months. Maybe a little less. And then I put the violin away and didn't touch it, more or less, for most of the the next sixteen years.

As I got older, Life stretched out in a certain kind of way. Physical things were harder for me to do so I avoided them, or started things--dance classes, yoga, running clubs--only to abandon them time and time again. (See here, about the dancing.) I focused on reading and writing and learning other things. Things I was good at, or had some kind of inkling towards. Photography. Piano. Food food food.

I hated not being good at things.

I still hate it, truth be told.

I stopped dancing and ran only by myself, did yoga alone in my room. I carried the violin to BC and back and then to Scotland and back and told myself: when I have money, I'll take lessons. I will. I will. I can't afford it right now. I just don't have the cash. 

This was partially true. But what's truer is that I didn't have the time. I didn't want to devote time to the violin, or to dancing, or to learning more about yoga beyond the downward-facing dog. Devoting time would mean hours upon hours of being terrible at something and I just couldn't bring myself to do it, to push through the terrible in the hope that maybe something beautiful would be waiting at the end.

Last year, though, when I was still working full time, I decided to enroll in violin lessons again. I did this partly because I hated to see the violin just sitting against my wall, holding space. I did it partly because I was making a decent wage and could actually, for the first time in forever, afford to pay for proper lessons. I also did it because I was bored, and needing a distraction from writing, from the worry and the anxiety that had begun to creep in around this crazy DIY tour that I was going to be embarking on later in the year.

I did it because deep down in some quiet little part of me, there was still an Amanda who wanted to be the next Ashley MacIsaac. So I signed up for lessons, began carting my violin to and fro, and took to practising in my little attic apartment.

And it was awful, more or less. My playing was awful. There were some better-than-other moments but for the most part my violin sounded scratchy, screechy, like fingernails on a chalkboard--all of the cliches that people use when they talk about violins. It was loud. I played and played and hated it and whispered thanks that I was at least playing in an attic apartment, even as I whispered apologies to my poor subjected neighbours all at the same time. Horrible horrible. You will never be a violinist, I told myself during these sessions. You will never get where you want to go.

The year that I got my violin, the principal of my elementary school told me that anyone who picks up a violin after the age of 7 will never really be all that great at it. "It's a lifelong skill," she said. "You need to start early, otherwise they say it just won't work." She was quoting someone else at the time--the words weren't hers--but they might as well have been. And I have carried them around with me ever since. I don't know why. To reinforce the idea that I shouldn't do it, this thing that I'd been thinking about and wanting to do since I was fourteen? You picked up a violin seven years past the arbitrary cut-off so obviously, Amanda, you'll never be the kind of musician that you want to be. You should just give up now.

Anyway. I stuck it out. I stuck it out because there were moments, every now and again, when something would sound close to nice. When I came close to playing a song that sounded familiar and I thought, well, maybe it's not all that bad. 

I also stuck it out because of my teacher, who is amazing. She is funny and kind and encouraging and so very generous with her praise. And so, together, we muddled through my first two books of instruction. Technique, technique, technique. Slowly, things started to make sense. Things became easier. Not amazing--not yet--but easier. Less scratchy. Maybe even sound that came close to beautiful, at points.

At one of my recent lessons, I asked her if she had any fiddle music that I might be able to practise. "If you think I'm ready," I said. And when I came in for my lesson last week, she had a whole book of music ready for me, waiting. Jigs and reels and hornpipes and slipjigs and Scottish ballads, all. I opened the book and took a nervous, gasping breath.

"Let's see how we do," she said. And she picked up her bow, and I picked up mine, and away we went.

And they did not sound awful, these jigs and reels and hornpipes and slipjigs and ballads. They did not sound awful at all. 

I almost cried when we finished. (In fact, I think I did, a little bit.) Do you believe me when I say it was amazing? Months and months of technique and learning and slow slow slow, of worry over tone-weary neighbours and terrible screeching and broken strings, and suddenly, suddenly, you arrive at a point where things have all fallen into place. Practice does make--not perfect, in this case, but it does make something. We played a hornpipe, and then a jig, and then a reel, and I sightread everything and made only a few mistakes. There's obviously still a long way to go--my technique can be better, I know this, I know--but suddenly it all seems easier. Fun, even. Suddenly that dream of playing on that stage doesn't seem so farfetched after all.

Realistically, of course, I know very well that I'm never going to be the next Ashley MacIsaac. But I am thick in the middle of another novel now, and I have arrived at that point where none of it seems to make any sense, where putting one word down in front of another doesn't feel like making all that much progress. My words, if you will, sound screechy. Sometimes it feels like packing this novel up and laying it in a (figurative) case against the (figurative) wall would be the easiest thing to do.

And yet, and yet. How could I stop now, knowing that magic might be waiting if I stick it out for long enough? I am much more comfortable with being a bad violinist now, after these months and months of practice alone in my wee house. (Full disclosure: the purchase of a practice mute also helped, immensely.) And I am also somewhat more comfortable with being a bad first-draftist--consider that coined--after years and years of pushing the words out and getting them down on the page.

It's still hard. I still hate not being good at things, and that includes first drafts. I still wish that I could play things perfectly the first time, and write things perfectly in the first stab at it. And it will doubtless take years and years of practice yet before I approach anything close to Ashley MacIsaac, if I even get there at all. 

But I played a jig, guys. I played the Drowsy Maggie! It's a million times slower than it needs to be and who knows if I'll ever actually get it up to speed, but I played it. And it took a year of technique practice, but I played it. And this novel? It'll get done too, even if that takes me another year or two or three. There is freedom in allowing yourself to be bad at things. In giving yourself the time to stretch and learn and become good.

It just so happens that my next novel -- the one that I'll be writing when this one that I'm currently working on is finished -- takes place in Scotland.

I think this means I'll have to play some reels at the book launch, doesn't it.

Anyone else want to come and play alongside me? Don't worry -- it's a few years away yet. We'll have plenty of time to practice.


  1. Amanda, I love this post. Congratulations on playing your jig, and for having the courage to stick with things that don't come easiest to you, but that you love. I can't believe that principal of yours. Seriously, why do people have to be such downers? What is accomplished by this? Sheesh. It reminds me of being cut from the track meet in grade 6, on the day of the meet, at the track, after I'd shown up believing I would be racing in the 200m. I just wasn't fast enough. I just wasn't good enough. And it set me up to believe I would never be a runner, because apparently you were supposed to be good at sports (and arts) naturally. Why are these things so often viewed as "talents" and not things you can work on and get better at, and valuable even if you are not the best? When I took up running as an adult, at first I couldn't run more than a couple minutes at a time, at a shuffling pace. But I kept at it, and I got fitter and faster, and this past weekend I ran 20 kilometres. Whether I'm a "good" runner or a "bad" runner doesn't matter... I'm just a runner. And you, my friend, are a fiddler. Well done.

  2. I love this: "Sometimes it feels like packing this novel up and laying it in a (figurative) case against the (figurative) wall would be the easiest thing to do.

    And yet, and yet. How could I stop now, knowing that magic might be waiting if I stick it out for long enough?"

    All that is in that: yes.

  3. Amanda...what a great lifrstory of.sticking it thru..your principal...your jobs..etcetc.nothing stopped.you from hitting ur.destination...very proud i could ha e.been.some.sort.of inspiration...and ur violin teacher sounds very chill and professsional...if im ever n ur town playing.come.say hi.and bring.ur.fiddle..ill have u play with me on stage..,Sncerly...ashley macisac:)