September 9, 2011
What’s a violin case for? Well, a violin for one. And bows to go along with it, of course. What else? Extra strings, rosin, and a mute. Also, a tuning fork and chin rest fastener. Oh, I almost forgot—music stored in the case cover pouch. That’s about it, right? Wrong. At least, forgive the pun, in my case.
Over the years, things having little or nothing to do with the case’s original protective function gradually have slipped in. Something insignificant—a minor headache before a rehearsal perhaps—might have started it. Why cram a bottle of aspirins in my pants pocket when it could be stashed in my violin case so easily, I thought. There was, after all, plenty of room amidst all that violin paraphernalia. Once a beachhead had been established with the aspirins, however, a new world of possibilities opened up. What about my vitamin pills? They fit cozily in the aspirin bottle. And what about my cough drops, after-dinner mints and later, cholesterol pills? I managed to squeeze them all into that humble little bottle. In time, the pharmacy department in my case expanded to include toothbrush and toothpaste, extra comb, nail-clippers, file, safety pins, band-aids, facial tissues, reading and sunglasses, sewing kit, cuff links, and razor—all without appreciatively increasing its weight and relieving me of carrying around an extra bag.
These were practical and therefore, one could argue, justifiable additions that filled the pockets in the lower half of my violin case. But as time went on, the case’s upper half traditionally reserved for bows began to acquire things of less obvious use—photos and postcards to be exact. It began when my friend and mentor, the violinist Alexander Schneider, sent me a postcard portrait of Niccolo Paganini. Sascha, as Schneider was called, scrawled on the back of the card for my entertainment: “If you want to be the next Paganini, why are you reading this? Go practice!!” Without exactly knowing why, I placed this atmospheric portrait by Eugéne Delacroix amongst the bows of my case. Perhaps, a role model awaiting me every time I opened the case plus Sascha’s exhortation to “Go practice!!” would do some good. Soon, a publicity shot of Jascha Heifetz I picked up somewhere in my travels joined Mr. Paganini. Not longer after, came photos of violinists Eugene YsaÃ¿e and Fritz Kreisler, and then in the last remaining space I propped up a snapshot of the cellist Pablo Casals conducting the Casals Festival Orchestra with Alexander Schneider as concertmaster and a bearded skinny young man (me) standing next to him. Being greeted by this panoply of great artists every morning as I prepared to practice did as much for my morale as aspirins did for my headaches.
There was more, however. A Chinese violin student one day gave me a lovely little Buddha carved from grayish stone. She told me that rubbing the Buddha’s belly would bring me good luck. In it went next to the aspirin bottle. Then came a present of a beautiful hand fashioned out of silver. Many Jews believe this so-called hamsa hand brings its owner happiness, luck, health, and good fortune. It slipped in nicely under my cake of rosin. Soon after came an interesting looking piece of clear quartz from my wife, Dorothea. She showed me an article stating that clear quartz harmonizes and balances, enhances energy and thought, and purifies the spiritual, mental, and physical. I wedged it in nicely between the mute and strings. Then, at an outdoor market in Mexico, I found a lovely little pair of hands delicately fashioned out of silver. Someone once told me that keeping such an item would protect me from injury, not a bad thing considering my profession. I placed the hands next to the tuning fork.
Photo: Dorothea von Haeften
When I go places with my violin case, I have the confidence of knowing that I’m prepared for just about anything. No problem if I pop an E string while flailing away at Beethoven’s Grosse Fuga. I’ve got two or three extras on hand. Lose a button on my concert shirt and the sewing kit comes to the rescue. Then there’s that gallery of musical heroes looking down at me from between the violin bows. It is not that hard to conjure up their playing in my inner ear. Jascha Heifetz’s improbable combination of technical perfection and searing heat makes my heart race and my hands sweat. Fritz Kreisler’s loving sound renders the world benign and open-armed. Eugene YsaÃ¿e exudes style and flair while Niccolo Paganini with the aid of Sascha Schneider whispering impishly in his ear urges more practice. Lastly, there is Pablo Casals whose noble vision of music has the authority and inevitably of something sculpted in stone for the ages. When I open my case, they are all there coaxing me to stretch the limits of my fingers, my brain, and my heart.
These items ranging from the mundane to the more serious have been permanent fixtures in my violin case for years. I would be loath to let them go. But then I think about the Buddha, the quartz, the hamsa, and the silver hands. Do I really need them? Some of my friends tease me about these objects. They say I’m superstitious, something I strongly deny. I bravely walk under ladders. I let black cats cross my path without getting upset. Still, under my smug cloak of modern-day skepticism may lurk buried feelings I know little about. Perhaps that Buddha and those other comforting objects will come in handy some day. I’ll keep them for a while longer. Just in case.
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