February 2, 2017
Several months ago, Soovin Kim, the artistic director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, asked me to participate in the Beethoven Project, a series of concerts each featuring a late Beethoven string quartet and preceded by a talk about the work. Soovin had invited the Parker String Quartet to perform one of those five quartets, Opus 130, and asked if I would speak about the work beforehand. It seemed like such a good idea to celebrate these five monumental works of Beethoven with both words and music that I accepted.
I prepared my talk as best I could, met with the Parker Quartet on concert day, and then we gathered at the hall before the evening event. The Parkers warmed up backstage while I sat there mentally going over my words.
Something seemed decidedly wrong however.
Then it dawned on me. A concert was about to begin and I was not going to perform in it. Almost without exception, the literally thousands of times I’ve found myself backstage over the past years were solely for the purpose of making music. Especially with the sounds of bits and pieces of Opus 130 floating around me, I had the almost unbearable urge to participate; to pick up my violin—an impossibility since I had left it in my hotel room—run my fingers up and down the fingerboard with a few scales, and practice some of the work’s difficult passages as I had done countless times with the Guarneri String Quartet. But this evening I had to wait to go on stage without my violin. I felt positively naked.
I gave my talk, which was followed by an impressive performance by the Parker String Quartet, but the microphone I held in my hands served as a poor substitute as I stood before the audience. Where was my violin? Where was my friend—yes, at times my adversary but always my faithful companion?
Actually, not always my faithful companion. Even when not concert-bound, I usually travel with my violin. No surprise that we musicians are obliged to practice daily in order to stay in shape. But there are times when a practice instrument awaits me at the end of a trip, and sometimes (please don’t spread this around) I take a day or two off from practicing. Then, I travel without my violin.
Free at last, you might think, to be unencumbered by the extra weight of a case filled with violin, bows, music, strings, mute, rosin, and assorted paraphernalia. Physically lighter, yes, but with a regrettable downside. In the course of wending my way violin-less from point A to point B to point C, I often experience a series of mini-panic attacks. I like to use the German or Yiddish word, schreck, which means fright, to describe them. For example, if I’ve hailed a cab, once inside I’ll often have a sudden schreck. Where’s my violin? I’ve forgotten it somewhere. In the airport while checking my bag, I might have another schreck. Oh my God, I’ve left my violin in the taxi. Boarding the plane, I’ll possibly suffer yet another schreck. My violin! It’s gone! Did I put it down while ordering that stale bagel and weak coffee a few minutes ago?
The schrecks invariably last only a second or two before cold reason takes over. I haven’t forgotten or left my violin anywhere. Ii is safely at home. Everything is all right. But no matter how old I get and how many times I’ve traveled without my violin, the shrecks don’t seem to go away. Is the stubbornly ingrained habit of almost always having my instrument with me to blame? Or if I ever succumbed to the psychiatrist’s couch, would the learned doctor eventually diagnose me with separation anxiety?
“Mr. Steinhardt, you do understand that yours is a psychological condition in which you experience excessive anxiety regarding separation. It usually concerns home or people to whom you have a strong emotional attachment.”
“But doctor, my anxieties are not about a person but about a violin.”
“All the more interesting and unusual. Once I treat you for this bizarre affliction, Mr. Steinhardt, I shall write about it. I can see the article’s headline now: Shrink Shrinks Schrecks.”
In this imagined scene, I would have left the doctor’s office not only troubled by his ailing alliteration. He clearly had not understood that my violin, while admittedly not human, is far more than an object.
Made by Lorenzo Storioni in Cremona, Italy, more than 200 years ago, the violin I play has a rich, dark, multilayered sound that could melt an iceberg. It affords me musical possibilities that I might not have dreamt of with any other instrument. This violin has been my chosen and indispensable partner for almost 50 years, and to lose it or have it stolen would break my heart.
So I have shrecks. The question is what to do about them. I could travel with a lightweight children’s violin case as a comforting security blanket. And perhaps, if Soovin Kim or anyone else asks me in the future to speak in public, I’ll simply come on stage holding my violin. Old-time comedians such as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman did it as a prop for their particular brand of humor. I could tell a few jokes and fiddle a few tunes before launching into serious musical material.
If you happen to be free on one of those evenings, you’re welcome to attend.
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