Saturday, December 09, 2006


This morning I called Betty McDonald again. Betty McDonald is a wild jazz violinist who lives down the road from me and is well known in the Hudson Valley. She performs a lot with different bands here and there. I heard her once and I could tell that she could just go wherever the music feels like taking her.

Last year I was flipping through the bins of sheet music at the annual library book giveaway when everything is for free. There was a short grey-haired woman next to me also going through the music. We said a few things to each other, found out that we both played violin. Then the woman said she lived locally and did some teaching and if I ever wanted to come round to call her. When I asked she said her name was Betty McDonald.

My first reaction was not to believe that she was offering me a lesson. She was just being nice, I thought, as I thanked her and moved away. A few minutes later though I realized that Betty McDonald had just offered me a violin lesson and I went back and really thanked her and said I would call.

My favorite part of our lesson was when she played a tape of music over her stereo system and asked me just to play along with whatever came to mind. And when I left she said, "Go outside sometimes, into the garden or the woods, and just start playing anything, any notes at all."

I never did. I stayed with the regular violin teacher I had then, a nice big quiet guy who never gave me a hard time, was always patient and willing to work with whatever I came with. I always left my lessons with Ryan excited to play more and to practice and I could see that I was making progress even if it was glacial.

Though I did complain about Ryan sometimes. Ryan is so laid back that sometimes I think he's going to fall over. He broke his violin about six months ago and hasn't repaired it yet. No problem, he plays his viola instead. He rarely thinks ahead to have new music ready for me. I find myself hunting for more things to play. I left him three messages a couple weeks ago about scheduling before he got around to calling me back. He talks a lot during our sessions. Maybe that's the thing I'm really tired of

My friend Henny is also friends with Betty. "God, Betty was so happy to meet you!" Henny told me last year. "She was so excited. She thought you were so brave to be taking up the violin. She really liked you." "Why don't you call Betty," says Fred. "Remember how she liked you?" I hadn't paid much attention to Henny's enthusiastic report. It's hard for me to think of anything about me and the violin except that I am still very much in the beginner phase and surely I should be doing better, and surely any music teacher must dread spending an hour with someone who plays as badly as me.

I called Betty and made an appointment to see her. On the morning of the day I was supposed to go see her -- this was last week -- I cancelled. I'd been feeling sick off and on for a few days and that morning I woke up convinced I was too sick to go. I called her right away, at 8:30 in the morning -- before I'd even had my tea -- and cancelled. As the day wore on I didn't feel so bad. Maybe I could have done that lesson, I kept thinking.

Every time over the next few days that I thought about calling Betty I backed off. Did I really want to have a lesson with her? Maybe I should quit violin. It's too hard. Maybe I should start guitar.

When I called her this morning I felt strong. I want something that can lead me out of my pasture, out into land I do not know, and I think Betty can do that. It's scary. But in my strong moments it feels important and I am glad I chose violin as my instrument because if it were something else I wouldn't be able to go to Betty McDonald who I think is a musician the way we are writers.

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