My Father's Violin

01 Aug

            We grew up with music in our house. My sisters and I may not have known what to make of it when we were young, but whenever my mother sat down at the piano, and my father got out his saxophone, we became what he called, “a captive audience.” I’m not sure we had a choice.

            Although the saxophone was my father’s favorite instrument at the time, he also had an old violin that he kept in the front hall closet. It had been given to him by my grandparents when he was 8 years old, and was made by Matthias Heinicke. A hand-written receipt from the music shop was tucked in the case, indicating that they had paid $200 for it over a 12-month period. Since my grandmother worked in an orphanage, and my grandfather was a plumber’s helper, an expense like that must have seemed extravagant, and yet they may have seen it as an investment in my father’s future. It would prove to be much more than that.

            As the years went by, my parents gradually stopped playing together. We had gotten our first television in the early 50’s, and the nightly shows and weekend specials took the place of entertaining each other. Most of our family time was spent gathered around the TV, and it would be many more years before we heard the music again. By the time I graduated high school, the saxophone was gone, the piano had been replaced by a Hammond organ, and the violin hadn’t been played for over a decade. The song books were hidden in the organ bench, and being busy teenagers, my sisters and I were rarely home to hear my parents play, if they played at all.

            Just before my father retired from The Port Authority, he went to night school and earned a degree in education. He became a wood shop teacher, and spent the next 15 years working in a junior high school. I always admired him for that. He was not ready to quit, and moved easily from one career to the next, and when he retired from teaching, he was ready to take on another challenge; he picked up the violin and taught himself to play, and after a few months of practice, joined a senior citizen’s dance band, and became a member of The Ocean County String Band. Music became his life again, and although my mother had to endure those painful moments of listening to him practice in the beginning, I could tell she was proud of him too.

            When he passed away, he left behind a total of nine violins, including the one my grandparents had given to him. My sisters and I divided them between ourselves, not knowing what else to do. Some of them may have been valuable, some may have been inexpensive student violins, but until recently, they were simply kept in our attics. We talked about selling them, but had no idea of their value, and decided instead to make an effort to get them into the hands of people who would play them. I knew that one of the violins in particular was my father’s favorite. It had no label, but judging from the deep dark finish and the wear and tear on the fingerboard, it was an instrument that had probably been played for hundreds of years by previous owners. Only the best instruments get worn to that point, and although I never learned to play myself, when I ran a bow across the strings, it produced a sound that was so vibrant that it seemed to resonate with something deep inside of me. I was determined to find someone who would enjoy playing it as much as my father did.

             I have a friend who teaches violin. He is the most accomplished musician I know, a master of the violin, viola, and cello, and has played with major artists in pop culture across the country. He lives in the mid-west, where he works full-time with students and adults in a large rural music center. He began with two students, and built a string program that now boasts over 60, with two orchestras that he conducts himself, as well as string quartets and trios, all of which perform in concerts for the local community. I told him about the violins, and sent him my father’s favorite. I could not think of anyone else with such a wide circle of personal contacts, and I was confident he would know what to do with it.

            After he received the violin, he called to tell me how he had given it to one of his best students, a young farm girl in need of a better instrument than the one her parents could afford. I went out to visit him last year, and while I was there, he arranged to have me meet her at the studio. Her father is a singer-songwriter, and while he played guitar and sang, she accompanied him on my father’s violin. As soon as she began to play, I knew what it was about that violin that had touched me earlier; I had heard it many times while visiting my parents, and can still picture my father, sheet music laid out on the kitchen counter, practicing the songs he would be playing with the string band. Hearing it again, played so beautifully, brought tears to my eyes.

            After I got back from my trip, I told my sisters about the experience. Moved by the idea of sharing my father's violins, my older sister gave the Heinicke to her granddaughter, who at 12, was already a serious student of music. After a quick search online, I discovered that violins with the Heinicke label are now worth as much as $6000. That would have come in handy, but passing it down through the family to someone who shares my father’s love of music, was something we felt was even more valuable. There is no way to put a price on that.

            I’m sure my father would agree.

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