A Fiddler’s Tale

By Alice Maxwell, Isle of Arran, 20th April 2021

The violin is a most democratic instrument and since its appearance in the 16th century it has remained wonderfully oblivious to social boundaries. It has graced the music of common folk, gypsies, the church and the aristocracy and its versatility perfectly suits widely differing musical styles – it moves from the fast and furious to the sad and sombre with total ease.

At the age of seven I was presented with my great grandmother’s violin (which must have been far too big for me), and provided with wonderful teachers who taught me classical repertoire and technique. I was a good student – I practiced, passed exams and gained a Bachelor of Music. Years passed and I now teach the violin.

When I started teaching a fellow teacher said to me “teaching’s easy – if you can play, you can teach!”. Personally, I did not find this to be true – my early attempts at teaching were woefully inadequate. I needed to find out how to teach.

I started having lessons, and discovered many wonderful teaching methods. I am especially grateful to the tutors from the Benedetti Foundation, whose holistic approach includes ways to release tension, mindfulness, positivity and engaging the imagination. These not only aid violin playing, but are of course positive influences on our daily lives.

I like to think of teaching as a two-way communication of joy. A good teacher bursts with enthusiasm and positivity for the subject in hand and celebrates the different ways in which pupils learn, adapting teaching techniques to suit each individual. He or she must also be an excellent listener, so the pupil can be assured of the teacher’s full attention.

When life presents difficulties, our gut reaction is to tense up with fear, which adds a second layer of difficulty to the situation, created entirely by ourselves. Tension arises between what is actually happening and what we think should, or should not, be happening. We turn our mole hills into threatening, unconquerable mountains because we cannot release our grip on how we think life should be. If we manage to release this grip, we start to appreciate situations as they actually are, and life becomes malleable and fun.

A vice-like grip of the violin seems to come naturally to beginners, perhaps from fear of dropping the instrument but perhaps because it has simply not occurred to them to relax their hands. The release of that grip is essential, as it stops the violin vibrating to its full capacity, and deadens the sound, as well as causing possible physical problems to the player in future. By releasing my grip of the instrument, I allow the fiddle to be itself – to sing beautifully and vibrate freely. When my touch is light my body automatically relaxes and I walk on air.

There are a wealth of exercises which help the violinist to be aware of body tension and allow it to flow gently away. On a physical level, stretches, yoga and breathing exercises are excellent while a positive mental attitude is also essential. I imagine each stroke to be one of positivity and rather than gritting my teeth as I attempt a difficult passage, I discover that playing with kindness is far more effective. I imagine that passage to be my best friend, I visualize myself playing it perfectly, I let the fear of it dissolve.

Of course, I have fallen victim to fear many a time. I once played the violin solo of Vaughan William’s Serenade for Music at Lamlash High School. As the tricky bits approached I was overcome with terror – my body tensed up, I was convinced I would miss an important entry, and play wrong notes – so of course that’s what happened! My panic had made a workable situation into a flop!

Before attempting a Bach Sarabande, a pupil recently said to me “this is going to be terrible”. When asked to repeat the piece, this time firmly believing in her abilities, there was a definite improvement as her confidence shone through the music. Our thoughts and intentions govern everything we do, so why not ensure they work for us, not against us?

What is the intention of a musician? The late cellist Paul Tortelier once said that a quiet life on a Kibbutz would have been preferable to that of his lonely existence as a world-famous virtuoso musician, adored by many but with few opportunities to make real friends. He chose the latter because he felt duty bound to offer his extraordinary musical talent to humanity.

The co-existence of greatness and humility is explained by Yehudi Menuhin when discussing the music of Bach. There is no lack of pride, of grandeur, but at the very same time there is humility and respect. This is something which is perhaps lost to our day for we look upon these qualities as antagonistic and mutually exclusive, but they are not. When they are united, they produce a valuable, balanced and worthwhile person.

Mastery over the instrument is not only about developing physical techniques. Technique must be a means to a musical end – a means of communicating music from the heart, a touchstone from which to develop one’s own musical voice. For my finals at university, I played a Bach sonata, and was asked afterwards why I played with so much emotion, surely inappropriate to baroque music? I was so stunned by the question that I was unable to answer it in any depth, so I will answer it here – over thirty years later!

Music and the musician are completely intertwined. My rendering of Bach is not about re-creating a museum piece from three hundred years ago. Instead, I offer something of myself – my life experience, my personality, my love of the music which I hope all shine through the performance, bringing it to life, making it relevant to the twenty first century and touching the hearts of the listeners.
Bach’s music is deeply spiritual, yet he was no stranger to the joys and sufferings of worldy life. He had twenty children, many of whom died in infancy, so he surely understood emotion. His music is often playful (perhaps his children’s influence) and evokes childlike wonder.

The word play means to have childlike enjoyment. I am blessed that playing the fiddle gives me so much joy and I will play anywhere at any time given half a chance. I have happily performed a Bach violin concerto in my pyjamas to paying breakfast guests, and once gave an astonished stranger in Saltcoats little choice but to listen to my rendition of Scotland the Brave after she happened to ask what was in my violin case.

And what better way to infuse music with playfulness than through the music of ordinary folk. Foot stomping jigs and reels, sensuous tangos, whirling gypsy jazz – all are an invitation to dance. These tunes were originally passed down the generations as an aural tradition, with no written music. After all these years of relying on written music, I am surprised to discover what a different musical experience it is to play without it. I rely solely on my musical ear, and the muscle memory of my fingers. I feel closer to the music and my listening and concentration improve. I am pleased to discover that learning has no end.

And this is a tale without end. My fiddle shows me that the art of teaching is a road of perpetual discovery, as is life itself. She teaches me to be alert and fully alive in each moment, and she helps me appreciate the endless opportunities that life presents to grow in kindness. And most of all she encourages me to maintain a child- like curiosity, and to view life as the eternally youthful Peter Pan did – as A Great Adventure.

I am so grateful to my fiddle.

Violin drawing by Ed Maxwell.

I would like to express my thanks to the Benedetti Foundation for providing much of the inspiration behind this article. If you would like to donate to the Foundation please visit my Just Giving Page.

Featured image shows author Alice Maxwell with her violin.

See Edward Maxwell Drawings Facebook page for more illustrations.