The first time around, I played the violin for three years – the fourth through sixth grades, though there’s some chance I played in seventh grade. Strangely, I don’t remember it much at all. As I hold the violin and move the bow now, over 25 years later, it comes naturally enough – clearly I have done this before. But I have almost no concrete memories of it except some beginner melodies, the purple, velvety interior of my case, and the rosin I bowed at mercilessly.
My music teacher in elementary school was, I think, Ms. Embers. She was a wonderful, charismatic woman who recommended me for boys and all city choirs and the like. I know my mother really liked her. But I remember very little about her classes. We played percussion with “drumsticks,” colorful, ridged sticks that we used to beat out rhythmic patterns on a variety of things. We played the triangle and the recorder – there’s a chance we even had to buy a recorder. I do remember a big tub full of disinfectant wherein we cleaned the communal plastic wind instruments. We played xylophones of various types, and we strummed the autoharp. There may have been a piano unit during which the powers that be set up a temporary “piano lab” of electronic keyboards that we took turns at. Or maybe I’m crossing that with my sister’s early Yamaha Piano years.
As I write, I’m taken with just how little I remember about that time in my life. Any part of the paragraph above could be pure fiction, re-imaginings of a time I didn’t have much of an experience tree – educators call it schema – to hang memories on. The more we know the more we can remember. At their most fundamental, memory and learning are associative, meaning we attach fragments to other fragments that combine to form networks of frames of reference. The more fragments we have the greater the ability new fragments of information have to find purchase in the branches of our neural networks.
Mostly, I wonder how it is that I have only one fleeting memory of being in the school gym for orchestra practice in the three years I played. I think the orchestra teacher was a rover who taught at several schools, unlike Ms. Embers, who taught general music to all students at my elementary school. Kids selecting into orchestra were pulled out for orchestra classes a couple of times a week. As I re-learn some of the fundamentals with a private instructor, it’s interesting for me to consider that I made any progress at all as a child. I have no memory of that orchestra teacher, the pedagogy, or my practicing. I think I might have had a male teacher, but I’m not sure. I have no memory of the performances we must have given.
I’m going to keep striving to recall my elusive violin past. As I re-encounter some of these beginner melodies, I have some hopes that I’ll shake that old experience tree and some of those deeply lodged memory fragments will start to fall off. It’s the right season for it.
Thanks for reading.
Memory is fascinating, isn’t it? The way that different kinds of memories are stored differently, sense memories vs. body memories vs. narrative memories…
Fascinating and still very little understood, really.