Woodshedding

Y’all just better be just turnin’ back if you want this boy to win
‘Cos practice is the only cure for the predicament he’s in

“Now devil it would be a sin for you to get my bow
You go on back to hell and to the woodshed I will go”

Johnny are you practicing or will your hands grow cold?
The devil walks the land and plays a fiddle made of gold

–The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia”

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Thursdays were lesson days. More often than not, my stomach spent most of the day clenched with dread, knowing that I hadn’t practiced enough. I meant to practice, I truly did. I loved playing and I loved the music. But time after school seemed to fill up with so many other things, like comic books. Or cartoons. Or, ugh, homework.

I would heave a sigh, then heave my instrument case over my shoulder as I began the walk of shame up to a modest suburban NJ ranch. Shoes came off at the door and my toes curled into dense cream carpet. Clenching my toes while playing was one of a multitude of small bad habits that Mrs. E would gently correct each lesson.

Too often, I would be lucky enough to make it through the lessons on raw talent.  Sight reading came fairly easily and I had perfect relative pitch. But this was not one of those squeak-though-Kreutzer days–in fact, I hadn’t had one of those days in several months.  After a rather frustrating 20 minutes, it was painfully obvious this was the first time I had looked at the material since she assigned it the previous week.

Mrs. E never asked, “Did you practice?” Somehow, this always made me feel more guilty.

She set down her violin. She folded her hands and took a breath. My toes grabbed the carpet and I could feel my eyes filling. Here it comes, I thought, she’s going to drop me as a student. Just like the last teacher.

“You know, my husband played the violin before The War. But he was a dentist and he knew how to suture, so they made him a medic. He didn’t play for the entire time he was overseas.

“Like so many young GIs, Les was at loose ends when he returned from Europe.  One day walking through Newark, he heard music. String music. As he got closer, he realized it was a quartet playing Bach.

“He climbed the steps and knocked on the door of the apartment. The music stopped, and a man with a fiddle in his hands opened the door. Les told them how much he enjoyed the music, how he used to play before The War. The man swept him inside and before he knew it the violin was back in his hands. He hasn’t stop playing since.”

She smiled with great certainty. “You will never lose this. The violin is a part of you, now. You may set it aside for a time but if you want it, it will always be there for you.

“Practice isn’t about learning how to play the violin for you anymore. You know how to play the violin. Practice is about making something beautiful.”

Woodshedding. Among musicians, it means “practice.” The musician’s Devil isn’t some supernatural demon. The Devil is your own talent. Itzhak Perlman famously said that a gifted student is lucky if she can survive her own talent.  If you want to beat the Devil, you gotta head out to the woodshed and get crackin’. You beat him every time you play something beautiful.

Mrs. E died this past August at the age of 88. According to her obituary, she was teaching right up until the end.