“Melanie! Time to play violin! Let’s go!”
I can hear my dad yelling. Looking back to the very beginning, to when I first learned “Edelweiss” and my family was still whole, that is what I remember. He is downstairs in his basement studio, calling for me to start my lesson. I am upstairs on the floor of my bedroom, playing with my Barbie dolls. My dad has been teaching me the violin for a few months now, since I turned four years old, though he disguises my lessons as a game we play together in his studio every night after dinner.
I never used to be allowed in his studio, with its teetering stacks of music, jumble of stereo equipment, and string instruments and cases of every size, spilling out across the couch and floor. But now every night I enter the inner sanctum, just like the big kids who parade through our house every weeknight from six until ten P.M., bumping up and down the stairs and scratching the walls with their cases as the strains of Vivaldi and Mozart fill the air. I like playing the violin, but I love getting to spend time with my dad and having his attention all to myself.
“Eez time for windshield wiper game,” he says, positioning my right hand on the violin bow. “Pinky curved on top. Now sweep the bow back and forth een the air, like windshield wiper. Here we go, one, two, one, two, back and forth, back and forth.”
“My pinky hurts, Daddy!”
“Just a few more, back and forth, back and forth… Eet weel make your pinky stronger! Keep going! Keep going! Okay… There, you’re done. Good girl!”
The pain is worth it. I live for those last two words.
“Melanie!” Daddy is calling again, impatient for my lesson to begin. I can still hear him, all these years later, his words echoing from the basement while my Barbie dolls stare up at me from the pink carpet. He’s anxious because we are preparing for my first solo performance, when I will play “Edelweiss,” my favorite song, at the annual spring concert. He says it that way—“ first”— as if there will, of course, be many more. My mother has arranged the music herself, penciling the notes on manuscript paper and composing a piano part, too, so that she can accompany me on the stage. Sometimes my mom and I practice together, with me on my one-quarter-size violin that we nicknamed Violet, and she on her beloved big black grand piano that seems to swallow up the whole living room.
Carefully, I put my Barbie dolls in their place on my bookshelf and slide the little black violin case from under the bed. I flip open the latches, gently grasp Violet by the neck, and unhitch the bow from its felt-lined clasp. That’s when I hear the thud. And then crying. Feet come pounding up the stairs, and at first I think that Daddy is mad at me for not coming right away when he called me. His favorite expression is “When I say jump, on the way up ask how high!” But the feet stop at the end of the hallway, at my parents’ bedroom.
Now I can hear my mother sobbing and my father trying to calm her down. His voice sounds different than usual. My father never talks like other kids’ dads. He’s loud, has a thick Ukrainian accent, and gives orders that make me, my mom, and my little sister, Stephanie, snap to attention. But now, his voice sounds… shaky. I have never heard him like this before. I creep down the darkened hallway, my feet soundless on the thick brown carpeting, and stop outside their door. It is open a crack, and I peer inside.
At first I can’t understand what I’m seeing. Something is wrong, but I’m not brave enough to push open the door to find out what. As I stand on the worn brown carpet peeking through the crack in my parents’ bedroom door and hear my mother sobbing while Daddy tries in vain to comfort her, all I can see are my mother’s legs, one shoe still on and the other lying on the floor nearby. My mother will never walk on her own again.
As time passed and I progressed as a violinist, my dad kept lining up solo performances for me. But the older I got, the more I dreaded them. I wished I could conjure up the childish fearlessness I used to have, before I was old enough to understand stress and anxiety
Orchestral playing, on the other hand, has exactly the opposite effect. It’s exhilarating. I can plug into the energy surging around me and lose myself in the music. It offers an escape from the loneliness of my practice room and the solitary pursuit of solo playing. It’s a way to connect with my fellow musicians, to become part of something greater than me.
I’m fourteen years old the first time I realize it. At an All-State Orchestra rehearsal of Wagner’s triumphant Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, just before the climactic cymbal crash near the end, I glance down to see goose bumps rising on my arms. My scalp is tingling, as if my hair is sticking straight up. When the music stops, it takes a moment before I am earthbound again. I am surprised to find myself in a folding chair in a school rehearsal room in New Jersey. I just want to keep doing this, over and over again, for the rest of my life.
Published by Hachette and recently released in Chinese translation by Penguin