About a Violin

Part I

Wake up, wake up …

I wrote my final thank you card today and accepted the fact that I was going to cry very, very badly and uncontrollably in the violin shop. I buzzed the door, entered and greeted the lovely receptionists. Also there, by chance, was the lady who had made all of this happen. She was attending to another violinist – American, I think, judging from her accent – and took a tiny second to recognise me in my granny glasses and state of exhaustion.

Oh dear, I thought, this tragedy’s going to have an audience.


Attempting to summarise the last few days, I put the violin on the table and handed over the freshly written card. I warned them of the tears, and of course they eagerly gushed out. I was sobbing away, vision blurred by the salty water in my eyes, blinded further when I removed my glasses. God I am so blind I don’t even know if I was looking at them directly in the eyes! One girl came over, put an arm across my shoulders, then made me a tea, and handed me the tissue box.

Oh dear, oh dear.


I wrote it in John Lewis on Oxford Street in the Kitchenware department. 

For the past two weeks, I had been carrying around two violins, one case with Enrico Ceruti inside that was too small for anything other than the violin itself, the other holding everything else that refused to fit, my bow and own violin included. Concert days are armfuls of bags anyway, excluding instruments, and it was hard at times to heave it about. Yet leaving the shop empty-handed, lighter with just a tote bag on my shoulder, I was lonely, distraught and hollow, ripped away from something I had grown to love so much. I continued my crying spree down the escalators and on the Tube home, squished among pre-rush-hour folk, but with my head held high and the music from the night before singing in my ears.


The silver case was tiny and adorable, like a wee alien pod, and contained the most wonderful wooden gem in the world. Two weeks ago today we met for the first time. Under the first few bows, it bloomed proudly in my ears, and my friend, who kindly accompanied me as an extra pair of ears, literally cried out something like “PHWOAR” when I played a top F# on the E-string, because it was so bright and radiant. I wonder what that moment sounded like to the staff working beyond the practice room door…


I took a risk in borrowing it, absolutely certain that I needed something better for this music and these concerts, but very naïve about the practical challenges of adapting to it in such a short period of time. In the days leading up to rehearsal day 1, I mistakenly panic-practised in order to get to know it, on top of all these symphonic notes. Perhaps that stress was inevitable. Perhaps I could have done it better… The body and chin-rest gave it a height unusual and uncomfortable for my arms and neck. The sound was brash and soulless; I was clueless as to bow technique and control. How can anyone follow me and this bland tone? Why did I risk this? It was a big mistake, I said to myself, and it was equally too late to go back to my own mediocre instrument…

20160807_130538After two successful but relatively reserved gigs and two days of rest, my mind rewired and did some subconscious muscle-memorising, while my body defrosted itself from hardcore rehearsal mode. Fortunately, I had been given permission to swap chin rest. I remembered that I should neither force nor fight with Mr Ceruti, and that any struggle was a great waste of instrument and energy. Bow speed, contact point, vibrato and imagination are your best tools. The fantastic Martin Storey from BBCSSO told me to make a sound that I wanted and not what I expected people to want.

“Not only does contact point mean contact with the sound and music, but contact with the audience, because it draws them in.”


Hey, Ilan and Helen. (Chris Christodoulou/BBC)

And so the finale of the NYOS Symphony Orchestra Summer Tour was in some ways the easiest day of all, made breezier by the sunny atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall, the chirpy BBC stage and radio crew, all the musicians and staff, whose support the entire year has been invaluable and deeply touching, and my friends in the audience and those by their radios. The skinny microphone hovering above my head soothed my nerves, reminding me to focus on sending my sound into those airwaves across the world, a bit like X marks the stop on a treasure map.

Parting with the violin, I said farewell to the very last fragment of this precious episode of my life and woke up from the dream I was having. We played at the Proms. Everyone had grown and transformed. Everyone was now gone. The music was now gone. I was physically and emotionally drained. I think that’s why I cracked.

I’ll write more on this weekend later. I am heading to the airport in 4 hours and should probably head to bed. Bonne nuit.


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