The old violinist

The old man was one seat away from me in the Williams Lake, British Columbia, airport. At his side was a battered violin case.

“Do you play violin or fiddle” I asked.

“Both,” he said. “I entertained the troops with it back in World War II.”

We had time, and he had a story. He was a young Canadian soldier, stationed in Brighton. He walked into the pawn shop on a lark. “How much for the violin?” he asked.

The shop owner wanted 25 pounds. He didn’t have it.

Playing the Violin, by

Playing the Violin, by

A soldier’s pay was $1.25 a day. In those days the pound was worth five Canadian dollars. He couldn’t save enough to buy the violin, not in the time he’d be in Brighton.

“It took me three weeks to talk her down.”

He finally figured out the magic words: “I want the violin to entertain the troops.”

Her husband was a soldier. Maybe the young Canadian would lift his spirits one day. “Fifteen pounds,” she said, and the soldier walked out with the violin.

He was shipped off to battle. He’d tuck the violin in the storage compartment at the bottom of the tank, where it stayed safe through battles. Unless they were under fire, he would pull it out at every stop. He played for the troops. He played for civilians. He played for the life back home and for the peace he wished for the war-torn lands.

Fifty years later the memories were still fresh. “Do you want to hear a tune?” he asked.

I nodded, and he took out his violin. It still bore the tassel from which it had hung on the pawn shop wall.

There in the crowded, airport waiting room he played “Lily Marlene” and “White Cliffs of Dover”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”. He played his memories of blood and horror, of ragged dreams and eventual homecoming.

After half a dozen songs, he lowered the violin. There was a smattering of polite applause. The man was no great talent, but his music was true and clear and took him back to battlefields, frightened civilians, and fallen comrades.

As he returned the scratched violin to its battered case, I asked if he felt the violin had brought him luck.

“Yes,” he said softly, as he gently placed the instrument back in its case. “It brought me through.”

In war-torn Europe he played music for the ear and for the soul. It was a small gesture of normalcy, of pleasure in a time of war.

The violinist was a small man, perhaps five feet tall, thin, grey-haired, dressed in black. But his heart was large, and he shared a piece of it as we all waited for our flights to be called.

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15 comments for “The old violinist

  1. July 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Wow, Cathryn, what a beautiful story. I would have loved to hear his music. You don’t have to be a great talent to play with passion and courage. His story inspired me not to give up if there’s something I really want. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. July 25, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    That’s one of the reasons this man stays in my mind. How many times have I hesitated because I “wasn’t good enough”? This old man knew his music was a gift, and he gave it freely.

  3. Michelle Jarman
    July 25, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Sometimes the best things in life are free…..after the 15 pounds of course!

  4. Virginia
    July 25, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    What I enjoyed most about this story was the fact that someone took the risk of asking for a song and the old man took the risk of playing it. Too often in our chaotic lives, we fail to take the simple risk of connecting to the stranger around us, and when we do, more often than not, the result lifts us from the humdrum of daily life into something fuller, more luminous and more connected. Thanks for sharing!!

  5. July 25, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    I wish I could say I’ve always taken that risk since meeting this beautiful old man, but I’d be lying. Writing the story reminds me that each encounter holds such potential for human connection.

  6. July 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    He paid for the violin, then spent the next fifty years giving away his music. What a special human being.

  7. Kath Comber
    July 27, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I think what struck me the most about this story was the fact that it would have gone untold had you not been brave enough to start up a conversation – lives are richer because you did! Thanks for that courage – you warmed my heart!

  8. July 27, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    How kind you are, Kath. You’ve made my day.

  9. sterling haynes
    July 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Great story Catherine – many stories come out of Williams Lake: a city with many ‘characters.’

  10. November 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    I’m a violinist and have known many violinists over the years who played it for a variety of reasons. Your story reminds me of a man who played at our local Farmers Market every Saturday; he played a lot of fiddle tunes by ear and had a good sound. I threw him a dollar every time and wished I could talk to him but also knew he had to keep playing to earn his pay. That’s the way things are in a boomtown!

    I also got to know, very superficially, other orchestral violinists. They didn’t enjoy their music and would always play for those who paid them the most, even if it meant skipping orchestra rehearsals to do “jobs.” They were always jockeying for position, worrying about marking bowings, expressing admiration for another’s Mercedes Benz. Ironically, none of them made a living wage from music, but they were more obsessive about getting ahead than the people in my corporate world, who were more likely to talk about their families, avocations and social concerns. I didn’t enjoy them or the music they played, and did it all mainly to please my husband!

    Then one day I got to play in a volunteer reading orchestra that played a different great classic of the repertoire every week. I was surprised to discover that burnout is entirely reversible. For the first time in many years, I realized what a treasure it was to be able to make music with other people who were there to learn and enjoy. Alas, the word got around that the conductor was promising and some aggressive career-seekers eventually showed up, but not before I realized what I’d been missing all those years.

    And it’s a funny thing: those professional violinists really didn’t sound any better than the guy at the Farmer’s Market. Yes, they’re impressive, play all kinds of notes, know exactly when to come in and are whizzes at bowing-marking. But maybe when you pick the pieces you like to play and take it at your speed, you have the time to sound pretty. You have the time to noodle around and figure out what vibrato works best on which kind of passage. You have the chance to figure out what kind of violin personality you’ve got, in a nutshell.

    What’s my favorite kind of violinist? The one who likes to share, and preferably can play by ear!

  11. November 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    What a story! You make me think of one of my favourite TED talks: I think Benjamin Zander could open anyone’s heart to classical music. You are speaking of people who love the music, who glory at every turn of phrase, every lyrical passage. Tears of joy were running down my cheeks by the end of his talk. You bring that same sort of verve to the violin.

  12. November 8, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    I saw that video, and I have to admit I didn’t know he was a musician, let alone a big shot, in the classical musical world, until part way through! What made his talk work is that he explained that the Chopin piece was telling a story just as *Hamlet” was. The succession of moods in a story are just as important as its individual plot developments.

    It was nice to hear a musician talk about the emotional message of music. So often, it’s taught as a dry technical task. Sometimes a conductor (or teacher) has to explain how to create a certain sound: vibrato has to be a particular speed, and some passages sound terrible unless they’re played very softly. But if the conductor doesn’t explain why you need to make it sound that way, you’ll have a tough time playing it right. It won’t be real music to you; you won’t know where you are in the story or even what it’s about.

    This certainly has been an education for me!

  13. November 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Watching Benjamin Zander took me back to my first experiences with classical music. As I listened, whole stories unrolled in my mind’s eye. I think I just assumed music was just another way of telling a story.

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