I closed my eyes.
I loved these pieces most of all, ones that seemed to send the music swirling around me in a sparkling cyclone of sound…
I begged my mother for violin lessons.
“I’ll think about it, Anna,” she said. “No promises.”
A month later, clutching a rented violin, I faced a Mr. Walter, my instructor.
He was tall but stoop-shouldered, with a rather shabby appearance. His pure white hair looked as though it had been styled by electrocution.
“Your parents’re making you take lessons, huh?” He spoke with an air of irritated resignation.
He brightened considerably and sat down. “No? Well, let’s begin.”
He showed me how to hold the violin and bow, plus other basic things. I found them all easy and natural. He sent me home with a lesson book, telling me to study it.
Inside the back cover I found a list of musical terms. I couldn’t pronounce the Italian words, but the meanings were printed next to each, in English.
Forte, loud; dolce, sweetly. con fuoco, with fire--
With fire! That one grabbed me. I thought of the music I loved, beautifully strong, intense, filling my spirit with a sort of… yes, fire. The word was perfect. I wanted to play like that!
At my next lesson, Mr. Walter asked me if I’d studied.
“Yeah! Tons, really! But please, may I learn something by Paganini? I want to play with fire.” That sounded ridiculous, but I saw a sudden glimmer in his eyes and he stared for a moment at nothing. Then he cleared his throat and said, rather gruffly, “First things first.”
I progressed very rapidly over the next year. Mr. Walter grew enthusiastic. He said I had talent. I learned he could be a funny, caring person, and we became good friends. I’d often go to his home just to listen to music or to read to him from Strad magazine; his vision didn’t agree with small print.
Occasionally, he talked of his boyhood hero, the violinist Charles Hilberson.
“The house was packed to the rafters when he’d do a show. Every ticket sold weeks in advance. When he was in Milwaukee, I’d always sit in the front row, and sometimes he’d wave at me. Made me real proud.”
At my first recital, a string broke during my performance and I made a mess of the music. Backstage, Mr. Walter said it happened at least once in a career, and that was one down. Then he handed me his handkerchief because I was crying.
Another time, I was having an uncharacteristically hard time learning a difficult passage. Mr. Walter said if I mastered it, he had a surprise for me. Curiosity soon won over the problem, and he drove me to the symphony hall. I thrilled at the acoustics and imagined my debut in front of a sold out crowd.
Even though I was always playing, year after year, sometimes I would realize that, thanks to Mr. Walter, the music coming from the instrument I held had started sounding a lot like the stuff I’d listened to. It blew me away.
At sixteen, I auditioned as a soloist in the symphony’s summer program, and won. I strode on stage to thunderous applause and wondered briefly if I was dreaming. Mr. Walter sat up front with my mother, his wild, white hair glowing like a halo.
Mr. Walter passed away at ninety-five. He left me his violin. A week after the funeral, I went to collect it. A woman opened the door.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m here to pick up Mr. Walter’s violin.”
“Uh, this is Mr. Hilberson’s house…”
Mr. Hilberson? The name rang a bell… Of course! Mr. Walter’s hero!
Another voice came from somewhere in the house.
“It’s all right, Sylvia. Most people called him Walter.”
Sylvia stepped aside. I nodded my thanks and went straight to the music room.
I opened the case and removed the violin. Memories flooded my eyes and overflowed. There was a little loose rosin dust and I began opening the interior pockets, searching for a cloth. What was this? A small note, brown with age and much handled, too. It was embossed, ‘C. Hilberson’
Your talent is something that makes me very
proud and I believe it will take you far.
I wish I could be home more often to see you!
Perhaps we will someday perform together.
You play brilliantly, con fuoco!
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