“Mommy! For my 64th birthday can I please have a violin repair school in tropical South India and work real hard and sweat a lot? Oh please oh please! I know the doctor said I should start slowing down, but I’ve wanted it so bad for 25 years! I’ll be good–I promise! Oh please, oh please…”
As my dear wife Peggy will attest, I’ve never been very good at acknowledging that it’s my birthday. Growing up in Riverside, California, my birthday often fell on election day, and our house was always a polling place, so little Jimmy was sent to the back with a chicken pot pie and the TV. Later on, it just so happens that I spent at least 16 years abroad and often was alone in some budget flop house with the cockroaches and the mice to celebrate with me. So, you might understand, not necessarily anything too special. My friends in India are hell bent on changing all that…
Yesterday morning at breakfast, feeling flogged after an intense, taxing first day of violin repair instruction (I’ll get to that in a moment), the concierge brought the phone to the table. Makes me feel like one of the corporate executives so ubiquitous in this fine establishment. It’s bound to be my dear wife, Peggy, so in a flogged sounding voice I sing “happy birthday to me…” “Good morning, this is Krishna,” is the reply. Ooops! We share a great laugh for a moment and now he has found out that it’s my birthday. Which I hadn’t any intention of revealing. Oh, well, carry on…
The day previous had been the actual first day of our landmark course and it started out beautifully. We all gathered in the entry foyer of Krishna’s home to launch the program with a ceremony of blessings, with Krishna’s mother lighting the ghee candle, which was then placed before the portrait of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman to infuse us all with his blessing and bring his spirit closer to our humble endeavor. Krishna’s sister, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, sang a prayer, “Guruleka” in raga Gourimanohari, the text (sahityam) of which is a plea from the composer Tyagaraja to bring the blessings of the guru to the poor, confused student begging for knowledge to be bestowed. The spirit of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman is truly smiling upon us.
Then we proceeded upstairs to the workshop. After a couple of statements of intent and philosophy regarding what we hope to accomplish, we set about unpacking the plethora of tools, wood and other equipment which Alex and I had so assiduously schlepped all the way from America. This unleashed a certain pandemonium reminiscent of the traffic on the main road. Unfamiliar with the ways of teaching in India, I felt my sovereign position as teacher slipping through my fingers, the fan couldn’t provide enough air to keep me from sweating profusely and feeling faint in the close quarters, and the students, eager with myriad questions all firing off simultaneously, descended on me like hungry tigers with only one small lamb to split up between them. I tried desperately to keep my calm, realizing that my inexperience in teaching such a large group was now quickly coming home to roost. By the end of the day, I felt like I had just finished my first marathon and was just happy to have made it to the finish line with any semblance of sanity left. Then Krishna called me in to explain to me all the aspects of the day which had not at all been agreeable to him. He is a brilliant mind, world class violinist, deep philosopher and very stern teacher, so I sat very humbly and focused intently on his every word. Very sobering. After this little self criticism session, we quickly returned to our usual jovial mood, had a few good laughs about it and agreed upon some ways of making it better the next day. My birthday…
I needed a strategy to calm things down and establish order and I needed it quickly, so on day two I pulled out my secret weapon, the most intimidating task that faces the beginning apprentice violin maker–the sound post. A simple 6 mm piece of spruce dowel rod that fits inside the violin, standing upright behind the bridge foot and connecting the top to the back of the instrument. It is fit perfectly, is not glued in, and can be moved around subtly to alter and adjust the tone of the violin. It can make or break the tone of the violin. It is the favorite toy of the amateur hobbyist violin expert, who carelessly attacks it savagely through the sound hole with any implement of destruction that comes to mind, leaving a trail of rat chewed “f” hole edges and crater-like holes under the top in their wake, a mind numbing repair bill at the proper traditional violin shop as the result. It is intensely difficult for the novice violin maker to learn, cut with the sharpest knife to fit and carefully inserted through the “f” hole with tools and skills that might grace any dental surgeon’s office, while peering into the dark interior of the violin. Multiple cuts and spurting blood from the right thumb are the badge of courage of the professional violin maker who carries out this difficult task, far from the eyes of the tender musician, often without notable recognition. Massive tomes have been penned over the centuries regarding the sound post’s significance and subtleties. In the native language of the country of it’s birth, Italy, it is called “anima,” the soul of the violin; in Sanskrit, I pointed out to the students, it is called “Atman.” It was one of the most terrifying tasks of my early apprenticeship in Germany, and I figured this, if nothing else, would bring order to the class. Happy birthday to me– It worked like a charm!
Sangeetha, our elegant and charming sole female student, was the first to draw blood, a beautiful puncture wound to the fingertip. I beamed with pride at the band aid on her finger. Next, the chatty music shop owner who loves to challenge me with his own experience fell silent, intent on the task at hand. A meditative tranquillity ruled the room for the rest of the day and Alex and I returned home in the evening, exhausted and thrilled with our success at turning the mood of the class around so quickly.
By now I had of course forgotten that it was my birthday. We approached the reception desk to inquire about the laundry service or some such thing, and the charming young men behind the counter out of the blue in unison wished me a very happy birthday! How did they know that? “Sir, we have your passport information on file.” The FBI pales in comparison to them, that’s for sure. Soon after, Alex and I are marvelling at the beautiful cake they send to the room, when a call comes in for her–she comes rushing back. looking positively terrified, “Something really wrong is happening in my room, hurry PLEASE!’ I run, rushing to her aid, the room is darkened, my senses on high alert for invader or fire. “Surprise!
Happy Birthday to you” rings out from the ambushers, Krishna, Ananda and Sriram and a beautiful cake ready for the occasion! I’ve never been caught by a surprise birthday party before. Krishna admits that he’s never given a birthday party before–“Setting up the candles on the cake is sort of like
So, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, with all due respect to your high positions, I can say that yes, they will still need me and feed me…when I’m 64.setting up the sound post in the violin.” We do share some great laughs together over here in India.