How I Came to the Violin (and Music)
I came to the violin - in fact to the whole music business- rather late in life. I was in my mid-teens, no less- way over the hill in music education
terms - and, to make matters worse, the violin was not my first instrument. I actually started music on the tuba, an old beat-up Boosey and Hawkes double B flat that belonged to my local high school.
I continued to play the tuba all through high school, while also beginning the violin. It was on the tuba that I got my first orchestral gig, and it was also on the tuba that I played my first solo (fortunately it was one of my own pieces, so the missed notes were known only to myself!)
It was sometime during my mid teens that I discovered the violin playing of Fritz Kreisler. This came about as a result of rummaging around in a pile of old vinyl records at the public library in London, Ontario, where I lived at the time. I was utterly enchanted with his playing of the Beethoven Concerto (recorded in 1926 and now available on a Naxos CD Number 8.110909).
I think it was Kreisler who inspired me to begin my violin studies. This I did on an old “cigar box” that I purchased in the local music store from a huge collection that they (Chapman and Hewitt, that is) kept in the basement. My first violin lesson was rather inauspicious. In fact the teacher did not want to take me on at all, explaining that I was ‘much too old” to begin the violin. However, I twisted his arm, metaphorically speaking of course, and so we began. As a student I was unambiguously awful: I never practiced, I skipped lessons, etc. etc. I feel bad about it now, and can only acknowledge that any abuse I get from my own students now is certainly well earned!
It was also during the period of my late teens when I got serious about composition. As with most beginning composers, I wrote first for instruments that I knew how to play, or instruments played by friends or family members. Here again luck was with me, as I had two sisters that played piano, and lots of friends from the school band, who of course played wind instruments. So I had no trouble getting small groups together.
After high school I decided to travel and live abroad for a while, rather than going straight to university, and so I spent the next five years more or less, bouncing around between England, Montreal and British Columbia. During this period, I spent more time doing composition than playing the violin, which is actually a very suitable activity for an itinerant musician (remember, this was before personal computers, so composers worked with manuscript paper and pencils, with no electronic gadgets to fuss over- the way I still work in fact.) At one point I was so itinerant that I left my violin in my apartment in Montreal, and carried only a chromatic harmonica as my instrument. It was around this time that I wrote my first harmonica suites. And, just in case anybody was wondering how I stayed alive during this period, I started teaching violin privately in Montreal in 1972, and during those periods when I was living in Vancouver, I taught at the music school in the Downtown Eastside Cultural Centre.
After a few years of knocking about I felt that it was time to get serious about my life (kids reach this point much too early nowadays, or so I feel), and begin a proper study of music. As I knew I wanted to go to the Royal Conservatory of Music (the RCM), I packed up my trunks one windy day in May of 1976 and moved to Toronto.
I had never lived in Toronto before, and had a hard time forming an initial impression of the city. From the very beginning I lived in the Italian part of town, “Corso Italia” as it is now known, and where I still keep a small apartment. As I spoke no Italian beyond “molto ritardando”, I was obliged to reply in French when the Sicilian shopkeepers spoke to me. We got along fine. And, in fact my first four years in Toronto passed quickly enough. I received excellent instruction at the Royal Conservatory in violin, harmony, ensemble, counterpoint and composition. (Oh yeah, I almost forgot: rudiments, too.) I could mention so many good people, but let me just mention Miss Joyce Gundy, who was my violin teacher. To this day I use the “Gundy approach” to teaching violin, an approach that consists of gentle encouragement, and not too many specific instructions.
Following my four years at the RCM, I went and did my degree at the University of Toronto. I encountered a fair number of characters, at least among the teaching staff if not among the students, who mostly impressed me as overly timid and conformist. Even though the period was academically successful, bringing me the graduating scholarship in my college, the period was not generally a happy one for me personally. I remain convinced to this day that neither music nor any other fine art should be taught academically. The proper place to study music remains a conservatory, which should be thought of as a trade school. I believe that Stravinsky was right when he classified musicians as manual workers.
It had always been my intention, once university was over, to return to live in Montreal. Somehow, however, this never came about. I had, by this time, acquired a family, and we were in the habit of splitting our time between Toronto and the “Bas St-Laurent” area of Quebec, where we owned a house, and where my wife’s family mostly comes from. For a few years we kept up this travelling with our young toddlers, although it finally became too much. We then decided to look for somewhere outside of Toronto to settle (the city itself was much too expensive). After a number of day trips, we selected Cobourg, and we have been here ever since. At this time, I continue to teach violin, both privately and with the Tantramar music school, which is the upstairs of George’s guitars. I also play viola in the Northumberland orchestra…..it seems that I forgot to mention taking up viola, along the way. This took place during my third year at the Conservatory, when I saw how hard it was to find a violist for string quartet. And what became of my initial impression of Toronto? Well, I never was able to get a handle on the city. Many people from Montreal complain about Toronto’s “lack of soul”, and in many ways, it is a rather frosty place. Perhaps I should
acknowledge – and this is deeply in the tradition of Toronto’s preoccupation with its neighbourhoods
- that I really am quite familiar only with the Corso Italia area of town. About the rest of the place, I have no comment!