At the age of fifteen years old, my father brought home a violin from a spackle job. Somebody had given it to him, and in turn he gave it to me and my brothers. I promptly picked it up, and drew out of its wooden frame the most glorious, divine strains of mellifluous melody known to mortal man, the things of which angels whisper to eachother with joyous rapture and effulgent gaiety. Not really. It actually sounded like somebody put a cat in a blender. But I loved it, I absolutely loved it.
One year later, I was taking classical violin lessons, and practicing several hours a day, much to the chagrin of my family. I played that same, stupid tune “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” so many times that I nearly lapse into seizures whenever I hear it now. But I was elated to have callouses at the tips of my fingers. I had a very accomplished classical teacher, who had played for a prominent philharmonic orchestra. My teacher was pleased with how quickly I absorbed new material in these lessons. My progress was owing to the fact that I practiced several hours a day, and was determined to catch up to the other students that had been forced, by their parents, to take violin lessons since they were in the womb. Classical music came naturally to me, I was fascinated with the sequential structure of learning that could produce such crisp, clean sound. I wholly submitted to the rigors of classical training, from the arpeggios that climbed the fingerboard, to listening to Itzhak Perlman on my discman as I went on the bus to school.
About two years into my classical training in the violin, my grandmother came over the house. As I played “La Cinquantaine”, she approached me with a polite smile. It sounded beautiful, but I could see she had a criticism. She said “It’s time you learned how to play the fiddle. Be ready tomorrow at two, I’ll pick you up.”
Nanny (as my grandmother is called) picked me up at two sharp, and dropped me off at the home of a well known Irish fiddler, Pete Kelly. I came armed with Bach, Dvorak, Mozart, Kreutzer, and a heaping dose of cockiness that came from earning an advanced chair in a local orchestra. Pete smiled at the door and said “Helloooo, hellooooo, beautiful day, isn’t it?” I instantly liked him, he had such a soft and gentle manner. We sat down in a quaint little room, and he said “Well, play something for me.” Huh? Play what? I’d been practicing a Dvorak piece for several months now, I could knock his socks off with that. Here goes.
I finished the piece with a brilliant double stop, and left the body of the violin separated from my body so as to allow the wooden frame to resonate. He stared at me without smiling. His eyelids were heavy with an underwhelming, nauseous disdain. “Now, do you have any tunes that you like?” The air was still. His dog came up and layed down at my feet. Pete Kelly opened up his violin case, applied some rosin to his bow, and plucked his strings to see if they were in tune. And then, the hair of the bow drew breathily across the D string, and a deep, brooding, sonorous Irish air filled the room, a slow dirge like tune that sounded like it had emanated from the lips of thousands of men and woman over thousands of years. I felt like curling up into fetal position on the floor, as I realized what a sniveling student I had been. I was humiliated.
He placed some Irish music in front of me, and said “play that.” I asked him “How?” Problem was, there were only notes on the page, no bowing. How would I know when to use an up bow, when to use the down bow? When did I combine notes into one bow? Where was the forte, where was the pianissimo? He just smiled. I played it. To describe how I played the tune, I can only give the visual metaphor of a German rocket scientist performing a Brazilian tango. He winced. Then Pete picked up his fiddle and said “Like this. It’s felt.” As he played the tune, his eyebrows raised and furrowed, his shoulder leaned in, now out. He moved forward in his seat in the high point of the tune, he subsided when the resolution came. “Kevin, you’re lucky to have had good classical training. Now you can learn to play this music with great clarity. That’s a real advantage in Irish music, many Irish musicians are sloppy. Bach will help you. But you have to…” and he shook his head slowly, his eyes closed with a slight bit of despair. Words failed him, and I understood.
“It’s felt.” For me, Pete’s words became the most important words in my art career. Having begun to play so late in my teens, I very soon realized that I was not exactly Carnegie Hall material, nor would I ever be. But the freedom I soon discovered was in coming to love the violin, rather than conquer the violin. Pete Kelly taught me how to love music by feeling music. I would never go back to detached, dry technique again.
Years later, in a deconsecrated medieval cathedral in Florence, I again underwent intense classical training at the Charles Cecil Studios, only this time it was in classical painting. But I was prepared- I had learned my lesson from Pete, and I knew that I should never shut my soul off as I poured myself into hundreds of hours of acquiring technique in acquiring drawing and painting skills. “Brainspun” is the adjective Leo Tolstoy created to describe many classical works of art. While guarded against this brainspun element, I also acknowledged that I had so much to learn from the classical world of painting. Every day as I walked to class across the city of Florence, I reminded myself that I was to delight in what I was painting, not conquer it.
This painting is practically my self portrait. On the right is “Thais” by Massanet, a beautiful piece, especially in the hands of Itzhak Perlman. The piece on the left is “An Spailpin Fanach”, which translates from Gaelic to “The Wandering Laborer.” The piece on the left is actually a sheet of music that Pete Kelly penned by hand for me during one of our lessons. I love each of these pieces equally. These are the two sides of my existence, I suppose. The construction worker and the artist, the Fiddler and the Violinist, the Fiddle and the Violin.