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.


23 thoughts on “When it all goes quiet

  1. Great telling, Julia! Sorry to hear you were sick. I hope you have made a full recovery. I tried to play the cello for a while when I was a kid, it didn’t go very well. Then a kind of played the trombone in mid and high school, but never went anywhere with it. Like you I lost my place in the music all the time, and tended to jump too far ahead in the stanzas trying not to fall behind. As an adult I took up flamenco guitar. I’m not very talented musically, and I don’t hear particularly well, but with lots and lots of work and many hours of practice for many years I got pretty good, to a professional level, actually. Determination and hard work can go a long way in the face of little talent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great to hear your musical stories. If I had a wish, it would be to have been born musically gifted. At least I can listen and appreciate. Actually, I’d have liked to have been better at sport. Or dancing. Or science … or … or … perhaps we appreciate not soon enough where our talents lie?

      Liked by 1 person

      • But we need talent like you have: listening, learning, observing and giving it back in wonderful stories. If we were all great at music, sports, dancing, science, etc. there would be no audiences, only performers; and there would be no consumers for what the scientists make available for the inventors and innovators to make the technology that allow us to enjoy the music and dance, and sports and art that makes our lives so enjoyable.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m trying to imagine a world where we’re all performers – singing, dancing, painting, inventing, discovering – it’s not a great vision 🙂 You’re right, Timothy, we need to be part of an audience too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed it is not about getting past life’s challenges but understanding how we need them to grow…embracing our struggles may be the most difficult lesson any of us face. About ten years ago I began giving thanks every time I came up against something difficult, learning to embrace the lessons I was calling down for myself. It isn’t always easy but I want to move beyond my fear of failure and loss. It really is about living in each moment as it comes and perhaps that is the hardest thing for any of us to do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I read something in Isaiah just yesterday about corn being bruised to make the best bread – a metaphor for suffering that leads to a deeper knowledge of God and more empathy and compassion in our relationships with each other and the world. And I think you are so right about living in each moment – we often find that so hard and yet it’s where I know I’ve found some of my greatest joy in life. I think your wonderful photos demonstrate your ability to be in the moment and see the wonders each second contains.


  3. A really lovely post Julia. I was wondering why we hadn’t heard from you for a while – and I’m sorry to hear it’s because you’ve been unwell. What you say about leaving pauses and time for reflection is so true, however. I find time and again that when I have a problem in my writing, if I let it sink to the back of my mind, often a solution will present itself when I’m doing or thinking about something completely different. I find gardening is particularly good for this! For me, this is the essence of what prayer is – not importuning God for this or that – but giving yourself enough quiet time and space to let His wisdom enter your mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What you say is so true; often I too find ‘answers’ in stepping back. Some of the hardest work we do can be in those reflective times. And as for praying, your comment put me in mind of something I read recently in Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’, which I’m reading with great joy for the first time: “We both prayed hard, Rose much the longest – she was still on her knees when I had settled down ready to sleep.
      ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’



    • I have listened to some of your work. It takes years of dedication and practice that never stops to reach such standards. Music brings so much wealth into life; a gift and a blessing whether you’re a musician or a listener.


  4. This was a great post, I enjoyed reading it. I hope you are feeling better now. You’ve def hit on the a massively important musical point – listening…not playing within yourself. I was never great at sight reading, I’ve forgotten so much now. We had exams at college where we had to sight read on stage, hella tough. All exposed like your viola-section only rooms. Btw I think the scottish school curriculum (at least) is changing to be less exam-oriented and more about learning (as opposed to being taught), so that’s good? Great post, very lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks , Stephen. If I were still playing now, I think I’d be much more intuitive and less afraid of making mistakes. Perhaps that’s what comes with years of learning that not all mistakes mean you’ve got things wrong … As a muscician of some talent you are far more qualified than I am to understand just how rich collaborating and creating with other musicians can be. And as for education, my understanding is that the curriculum is rooted in creativity and skills rather than rote content. The English curriculum was due to go down the skills-based route but one of the first things this government did when they came to office in 2010 was pull the plug on that. What a surprise …


  5. W. K. Tucker

    So sorry to hear you’ve been so sick–I wondered why you weren’t around, but figured you were busy with a writing project.
    I once tried to learn to play guitar, a few years later, the piano. I didn’t have the patience (or talent) for either. I was a musical dropout. Twice. lol At least you had the perseverance to keep trying.
    And I understand what you mean by learning from the silence. Some of my best plot lines have come to me in the shower where I’m all alone, free from any and all distractions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kathy. The older I get the more I cling to the fable of the tortoise and the hare; my progress may be slow but I will finish the race 🙂 Who knows, I may even win one of these days …
      New novel hopefully ready by the end of May.

      Liked by 1 person

      • W. K. Tucker

        You’ll get there. I put my collection of short stories, “A Raccoon Problem And Other Stories” on Amazon two days ago, but haven’t gotten around to announcing it yet–on any online forum. But I will…soon. Lol


  6. Julia, as sad as I am to know you’ve been ill, this post may be my fav here, Julia. Of course I love it – I’m a musician (and my boy and I just worked on some drum solos). Aside from the fact that I played violin in the jr high orchestra, I just love how you tuned in =) to the unsung moments of song and musicianship. The counterpoint of silence and timing and attention to the busyness and activity. (And on a most basic level, I am impressed to watch my son able to count and handle all that space of silence in some measures without my help.)

    And oh yes…
    “creativity is more about commitment and perseverance than dreaming.”
    We all have a shot. =)

    Hope each day sees you stronger, my friend.


    Liked by 1 person

    • It must give you so much joy to see your son developing his musical gift. For me, I can only imagine what it must be like to be blessed with such a soul-touching talent – music can express what we want to say when we come to the end of our words. Thank you for your encouragement and good wishes. Very much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

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