In the course of life, small adjustments are often needed to establish or maintain close relationships with others. Whether this refers to the playing of a musical instrument, the interactions between two people, or one’s outlook on life, sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest differences.
One time, long ago, there was a guy who only had one wish for his future: to be a fiddle player. The teacher he chose didn’t know much about proper technique so the older the guy got, the more his teacher’s shortcomings held him back. That guy was me. The teacher, also, was me.
Decades later I took a trip to Billings to retrieve my recently re-haired bow from a violin shop. I opened the door of a tiny building and was overwhelmed by the piles that were strewn around the work bench, the walls and the floor. In the center of it all was a middle-aged woman with her hands wrapped around a freshly glued violin.
“Whoever you are, I can’t move right now. I’m busy being a human clamp.” She sounded mildly gruff, like she had spent her entire life working alone on fiddles in a closet-sized shop.
“I’m Dave, the guy who sent you the bow to rehair.”
She dug around her piles for a minute or two and then produced what we were both looking for.
“Here you go.” She eyed me for more than a few seconds, asking and answering herself a few questions in the meantime. “Rosin it up and give it a try.”
I took out my fiddle and dragged the bow around a little.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked from her bench with her back turned to me.
“The bow seems fine. What I really need is for somebody to set up my fiddle.”
“Set up?” She turned her head and arched her eyebrow.
“Yeah. I’ve been playing for over 40 years and I never took the time to have anybody show me how to properly hold it.”
“Put it up,” she ordered, her eyes full of fire.
I obeyed and lifted my fiddle up under the side of my chin the way I had done countless thousands of times before. As soon as I tried to start playing, her brash voice cut me off.
“Take it down! Take it down!” she screamed, her arms making the sweeping motion of an umpire signaling a safe landing into third base. “You don’t know how much that hurts me to see you doing that.”
“Trust me,” I replied with some emphasis, “it doesn’t feel too good on this side either.”
She gave me a stern look, took my fiddle and marched off to the only clear spot on her bench. Muttering to herself, she began to screw, bang and whittle while I nervously stood behind her.
“Here, try it on now.”
She placed it up under my chin and I began to play. As I worked my bow across the strings she walked around me. She was not happy.
“Give it here.” Once again, a demand. “Are you married?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied as I began to fidget.
“Do you know what intimate means?” Now, I was getting nervous. “That fiddle and your neck should have an intimacy that feels as close as nothing at all, like you are part of the same body.”
She returned to the fiddle-shaped clearing on her bench. More twisting, more carving, more muttering. And then,
I put it under my chin and played. It felt like I was flying.
“Amazing!” I exclaimed. “I never dreamed that I could get my hands to free up like this!”
The first glimmers of a smile crossed her face — a face that was now elated to hear that she had made such a profound difference in somebody’s life. I paid her, thanked her and negotiated my way back out through the pile of broken music.
Two weeks passed and, surprisingly, she called me on the phone. “I thought I’d check in on you. How is that fiddle treating you?”
“Oh, hi! “It’s unbelievable – like I’m able to go where I want to go by finally getting out of my own way.”
“That’s good,” she said with the stern tone coming back to her voice. “I’ve got to tell you; you were the hardest case I’ve run up against in over 40 years of doing this for a living.”
I silently thought that I could easily make the same statement from my side of the phone. I skipped that part and answered her.
“Well I can’t thank you enough. In some ways I think you changed my life.”
I felt her smile and hoped that she was silently making the same statement on her side of the phone.
Dave Munsick is a local musician and storyteller in Sheridan County.