16 days to go…

May 13th & 14th

Maggie, in reference to a little riff I’m offering on the mandolin break on “When The Sun Goes Down in the Sky,” suggested that as I repeat the little waterfall of notes, I think about “what each one is saying.” A useful comment.

We were quiet on Mother’s Day, working individually, but today met up at Maggie and Luke’s house. Plan is to move through as many songs as we can in the hours we give ourselves, and just do that every time we get together, in between strengthening our individual practice. Which seems like a good recipe for anything.

My violin playing seems to have gotten steadily worse the last few months—might be the violin teacher I worked with in Lancaster; all we did, lesson after lesson, is work on my bow hold. Luke summed it up when he asked in disgust, “You didn’t learn a single song?” It’s been striking me that the violin seems a bit sticky, even tacky, and I wondered if that’s why the bow’s been jumping/skipping, wavering across the strings so much—this strange thing that’s so affecting my playing, and my enjoyment of my playing. So I Googled, cleaning a violin

Pause here to tell a favorite joke, seen in the New Yorker decades ago. It’s one of those by George Booth, with the mangy cats and bare lightbulbs. We’re in a kitchen. Piles of dirty plates and bowls and cups and glasses teeter this way and that on every available surface. Two women sit at a built-in next to a window that is similarly covered with dirty dishes. They are smoking. And one woman is saying to the other, “I keep meaning to try cooking more often, but every recipe begins, ‘Take a clean bowl…’ and I have to stop right there.”

Reading the posts attached to cleaning a violin I see that almost every one begins, “wipe down your instrument after playing.”


Others wrote, don’t use cleaners; others wrote “spit and polish,” a notion supported by those who wrote, “saliva and a cotton rag”; most said, in capital letters, Take It To Your Luthier. Maggie’s husband Luke is my luthier—also a dear friend and a most generous musical companion. Over the years he’s handed me fancy capos, new strings, musical ideas, tips for improvement, and many a supportive instrumental break and harmony. I “purchased” my violin from him by renting it with bottles of good scotch until he said to stop, that I‘d more than paid for it, and threw in a case and a very decent bow. He gave me a break on the mandolin I own, and on the guitar I keep back east, which I purchased so that the Martin didn’t have to suffer riding in the cold belly of a plane six times a year, as well as the jostle and push of car and cab and train.

But I didn’t want to wait to get the fiddle to Luke, and realizing that there were two years of rosin all over the strings, I fetched a cotton rag and settled in to using spit and polish. It helped a bit, as did Maggie’s encouragement, of which I got more today. Maybe, Maybe, I’ll actually play in public.

After rehearsal I took Luke up on his offer to look at my instruments. We started with the Martin. Luke quickly took off the strings—it looked so naked lying there on his worktable. He noted grooves in the frets, and other grooves in the ivory where the strings emerge from the guitar and cross the sound hole. He sanded all these down with the finest of grit paper and even finer steelwool. He tightened screw on tuners. He loaded on a new set of strings. With his deft knowledgeable loving fingers—one of the most wonderful things about many wonderful things about being in Luke’s shop is noting how much he loves his work—in about 20 minutes my guitar had a whole new sound. He kept the mandolin to work on, and loaned me what looks like a miniature Dobro—a mandolin made by Dobro, tin sounding board and all. I worked with it, trying to get my little riff to say something new each time.

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