In second grade I yearned to play the viola.

The reason I yearned to play the viola was that Matt played the viola and to my 8-year-old eyes, Matt was a Hero.

I’m not sure why. He wasn’t that much older than me. He had a little sister he beat up constantly. He wasn’t particularly charming or funny or nice. We went to the same church so I encountered him weekly, and that must have been just enough.

He played the viola, and for whatever reason, I fell under its spell.

Imagine, then, my distress when it was discovered I was too small to play the viola. Curse my short arms! Curse the day I was born!

I raged to the heavens, blocked periodically by the concerned faces of my parents, who looked down at me and offered, Perhaps, the violin?


The viola contained within it a sonorous mystery. The violin seemed its screeching, bargain-hunting third cousin.

But I was desperate to play, to join Matt in the strings, so I acquiesced, grudgingly.

My elementary school offered violin playing within its music program. There were only three of us, so an orchestra was out of the question. But we three, armed with rosin and a burning desire to play Hot Cross Buns, would march into the music room every Tuesday and, for a half hour, aurally distress the poor man hired to educate us.

What I remember most clearly was that if we moved steadily through the pages of the Violin for Beginners instruction book, we were rewarded with paper gift certificates for small treats at McDonalds. Dazzled by hot apple pies, that book became our Normandy. Forces allied, we coughed through clouds of over-zealous rosin application, sawing away doggedly.

I want to make something very clear: I was not great. I took lessons and practiced and four years later I managed to work my way up to a decent chair in the middle school orchestra. I loved playing in the orchestra because for a little while, everyone around me was focused on trying to make the music.

My first year, Matt was in the middle school orchestra too, before he sailed on to high school.

And from the first violin section I gazed down while he, oblivious to the quickening of my pulse, drew his bow across the strings of his viola.