Out of the office: A fall break tune up

Author: Lucy Negash '15

I was ready for a distraction. At home over fall break I had been sitting at a desk all day, typing the monotonous words of a transcript for a research project I was working on.

It was evening, when all my siblings were home from school, scattered around the house in their usual after-school routine: dirtying the kitchen making a snack, doing their homework, flipping through their phones looking for their own distractions. There was the usual buzz of activity, but not enough to justify an exit from the task at hand.

Then, from upstairs, I heard my 9-year-old brother click open the case and clunk around our violin — a full-size instrument that I used when I had played, and was now being passed on to him. It was in great condition, but it was obvious that it was far too big for him. Still, since he started playing only a couple of weeks ago he had managed to get by — stretching his fingers as far around the neck as they could go, wielding a sword bow that he couldn’t fully extend on the strings.

I knew it as soon as he started plucking “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that something was wrong. The notes were off — too flat or sharp to make sense, warping a melody so familiar. I knew this to be my distraction.

I plodded upstairs and found him sitting in our lit hallway on the carpet, adjusting his fingers across the red, white and blue tape where his fingers should go. I had listened to him play all week, and I often joined in, either to play a little on my own or help him. I wasn’t quite in the mood to break out any minuets from the back of the book, but I wanted to make sure he could use his instrument properly. His face was twisted in a confused frown, as he slid his fingers around trying to find the right notes.

“Here, give it to me. It’s not you, it’s just out of tune,” I said, flopping down next to him on the cream carpet, sitting criss-cross-applesauce. I pushed up my sleeves and I picked up the bow he hadn’t used, tightened the hairs and began to warm it up against a block of rosin.

The familiar routine of preparing to play was comforting, and brought me back to sitting in uncomfortable chairs in class, worrying that I wouldn’t hit every note or not recognize the sheet music instruction. I tightened the shoulder rest and slid it onto the back of the violin, and then it was ready to play.

I fixed the chin rest below my jaw, closed my eyes and quieted my mind. I tried to conjure up a D note, humming it to myself as I drew the bow across the string. It was off, but was it too high or low? I tried listening to the same note on other octaves to get a sense of where I should be, stretching out my pinky finger to hit those notes, still humming, eyes closed.

The noise rippled in the hallway but did not interrupt my mother and brother’s conversation — all of us accustomed to an instrument playing in our house, white noise as a family backdrop.

The pads of my fingers grew red and healed calluses resurfaced as I tightened and loosened the fine tuner near my chin. I occasionally had to massage the pain away as I continued to work.

Finally, I heard it. The right D, singing, as I played it over and over. My brother asked how in the world it could have been so out of tune. Mrs. Wisinski had just tuned it that day in class, he said. “Sometimes the weather can affect it,” I said smartly, proud of myself for remembering that cold temperatures could warp strings.

I turned back to the violin — time for the A string. Again, I focused and hummed, thinking back to an old tuner I used, the messy cacophony of tuning before a concert, my old teacher coming around and twisting each instrument to perfection.

I listened back to recall those sounds, and kept playing, bow up, bow down.

Finally I realized the A was far too flat, and twisted the fine tuner until the A string was right. I was in shock that I could reach back that far, and that my ear was sharp enough to recognize notes I hadn’t played in seven years. Hoping my luck continued, I moved to higher and lower strings. I resorted to plucking when my arm got tired (a result of not playing for seven years), and I sat crouched over the F holes by the bridge, twisting my dirty hair back and out of my face, waiting until the right note appeared.

I worked for a solid 15 minutes as my back continued to stiffen, alternating between all four strings, until I had a solid quartet of clear notes, all playing in harmony, just like I remembered.

Lucy Negash is a senior from Vienna, Virginia, and this magazine’s fall intern.