A Cunning Blog

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Back on the fiddle


I’ve never been one of those musicians who finds practising easy. It’s always been a bit like going to the gym — you enjoy having practised, or having done a 2km swim. Working up to practising (or exercising for that matter) you can almost see a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other.

ANGEL: “You know you need to work on that passage in the E major. Just be a good little fiddler, take it slowly, break it down into bars, listen carefully…”

DEVIL: “Spicks and Specks is on TV. You owe it to yourself to put your feet up with that nice bar of berry chocolate…”

ANGEL: “You promised. A 2km swim and 40 mins a day”


I broke my arm in ’99, which obviously put paid to practising for a bit, and not long after got into childbearing mode, at which point the devil sat back with a smug smile and let sleep deprivation and toddlers do the work while the angel sobbed in the corner.

Ten years on, and I’m now trying to persuade little people to practise their respective instruments and wondering how my mother managed to do it and stay sane. Until the answer dawns on me. Forget trying to explain how to practise verbally. Get out your violin and show them. Show them how crap it sounds at first, and how soon it gets better, and what fun it is to play duets, and how satisfying it is to play perfectly in tune. Not instant gratification, granted, but the journey from can’t-even-smell-it to pretty-much-there is not insurmountable.

This realisation came, co-incidentally, within days of Charlotte Higgins blogging about playing chamber music. I read it with an uncanny sense of recognition. That was me – the nerdy girl on the train crashing into people with her schoolbag and violin, school orchestra, youth orchestra, orchestra camp, the Saturday morning rehearsals,  weekly lessons. I flirted with the idea of studying music, and even spent a year at Dartington College of Arts, practising three hours a day. It was intense. It was also not me. Like @chiggi, the student newspaper hooked me, and I found I was much better at writing about music than playing it. I still played at university – in fact,  I worked out that with orchestra, chamber orchestra, string quartets and pit band work it was an average of two a week while I was at university. But for me performing was always the least important part of playing music. Piecing together a new composition, or getting to know a great symphony from within an orchestra  or discovering Beethoven’s late quartets from the second violin part … it was enthralling.

Back to the future, and the fog is lifting. There are two cellists in the next street, and one of them is also a pianist, so there’s a potential trio. I’m a second violin by choice, so I’m still on the prowl for a fiddle player who likes the dazzly bits, and a viola player who tells good jokes. In the meantime, I’ve rehaired my bow, dug out the Sonatas and Partitas, and am having a fine old time. I’ve discovered that practising in the bathroom, while running the bath for small people, sounds marvellous to the practiser and delightfully muffled to anyone else and that, for the moment, suits me very well.

As time goes by I may start practising without the bath running, and even leave the bathroom altogether. Who knows, whether I’ll ever play late Beethoven again? (It might be better for all concerned if I didn’t). But the fiddler is back.

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