When it all goes quiet


The viola's the big one ...

The viola’s the big one …

Quite by chance, I used to play the viola. When I was nine, someone from the Local Education Authority visited the school and offered anyone who wanted the chance, with no charge, to learn how to play a stringed instrument. (That was in the days when education wasn’t just about exam results. Don’t get me started). I stood in the queue for wanna-be violinists – it was a looong queue – and finally reached the front. No violins left. The last one had just been allocated. But, how about a viola? What’s a viola? A sort of big violin, not much difference really and you’re tall for your age; you could handle a viola. Alright then.

Youth orchestra circa 1975 - I'm about in the middle, wearing light top.

Youth orchestra circa 1975 – I’m about in the middle, wearing light top.

Years passed and I learned that, if I wanted to play the viola well, I had to practise (that’s another story, but let’s just say it took me a long time to discover the difference between imagining playing well and the hours of frustration, ear-achingly awful failure and disappointment that taught me creativity is more about commitment and perseverance than dreaming.) The day arrived when I passed the audition to join the city’s Youth Orchestra. That’s when I found myself amongst truly gifted musicians. It’s also when I learned why all the pieces I had played until then were compositions that had been ‘transcribed for viola’: the viola section rarely (and never in my limited orchestral experience) plays a leading role. It was in the viola section (supported by third violinists who always looked rather annoyed to be lumped with the ‘big violins’) that I discovered how much music involves waiting and counting. It could go on for bars and bars.

I’ve never been much good at anything to do with numbers, and I can’t count the number of times I lost my place in the music. On occasions, I finished my part long before the rest of the orchestra and tried to hide the fact by miming. On others, I still had two pages left when the last chord was played. It was a frequent occurrence to have the conductor stop the whole orchestra and ask them to go back to the bar I knew I’d just ruined by sounding a note out of place. On other occasions, the viola section was sent to another room to practise alone. There was no hiding then; with only two other viola players and a couple of third violinists, my short-comings always shone through. Being part of an orchestra taught me an invaluable lesson; the pauses and the silences are as important to a composition as any note in any chord. Pauses and silences demand skill; it’s vital to listen and wait and know just the right moment to break them, and that involves not taking your eyes off the conductor.

Recently, as a result of a particularly vicious virus, I lost my voice. It didn’t matter what I wanted speak or sing, nothing beyond a pathetic croak left my mouth. Not that I felt much like speaking or singing, pinned as I was for almost two weeks to my bed. During that time, and in the slow period of recovery afterwards, it wasn’t just my physical voice I couldn’t use; I couldn’t read. And I couldn’t write. What physical resources I had were all focussed on repairing my body. Rest and brief interactions with family who ensured I was comfortable and hydrated, were all I could physically cope with. Sick as I was, I was tempted to succumb to frustration, after all, I had plans for time being wasted on illness. And then I remembered the pauses, the silences that are as much a part of a composition as the notes.

In my most recent pause, I have learned more about praying for friends who are going through far greater trials than me. I have had time to reflect on the countless (yes, I still struggle with numbers) blessings in my own life. And as for my writing? I have had insights and breakthroughs about the way to tackle some particularly tricky sticking points I’d come up against. When my next pause comes, I don’t want to waste time being frustrated; keeping my eye on the conductor, I want to listen to what it teaches me.