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Man Does What???

Mr Rooks tries holding a violin bow ... properly ...

Why the unusual title for this column? ‘Man Walks into a Bar’ is a type of American joke (E-flat walks into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we don’t serve minors.’); and a barre is the railing which ballet dancers hold on to. So what happens when a complete newbie (like most of us) tries to play a musical instrument or even dance a few ballet steps? It’s not nearly as easy as the masters make it look. In this issue, we’ve arranged a violin lesson for a proper English gentleman.

By Fred Rooks
Once upon a time, sometime deep into the last century, I had the opportunity to learn how to play the fiddle. I had two lessons, during which I managed to make the most excruciating sounds, then ended up in hospital after getting run over by a Baptist dressed like Mr Bean, but driving a Riley One-Point-Five. By the time I came out, I was too far behind the others to be able to continue.

So when I was offered the chance to experience my first violin lesson after almost a century had passed, I didn’t hesitate.

Ms Pelič demonstrates correct form

My teacher was no one other than Beljana Pelic, commonly known as Bibi. It is often said in this part of Central Europe that when people are no good at anything, they become teachers. This doesn’t seem to apply in Beljana’s case, as she is not only a popular violin teacher (at least with her pupils), but also an accomplished violinist who has earned international fame.

And not only that. This rather exceptional young lady has developed her own concert shows where she combines her knowledge, humour, and communication skills to popularise the classical music she loves so much. And, as I found out for myself, all this comes together to make a rather exceptional teacher-cum-professional-cum-human being.

So why do people need a teacher to learn how to scrape a fiddle?

The answer is simple. It is easy to scrape a fiddle, but difficult to make sounds that are reminiscent of any form of music. Before you can even start to play anything at all, you have to learn how to hold it (and the bow) properly. And that is not as simple as you might think, as violins have never been a factor influencing evolution of the human anatomy.

“It takes time, and you have to be patient,” says Bibi, listening to the scrunching sounds emanating from my spine and right elbow. “First you have to master the basics of how to stand, how to hold the instrument, and the movements required to get a coherent sound from it. Bad habits are very difficult to eliminate later on, and that is why it is important to attend lessons regularly and do as the teacher tells you to do. At the beginning, a person needs at least two lessons every week.”

Mr Rooks has his doubts

As Bibi says, the violin is like a living being. It is sensitive and reflects your every mood. When the one that Bibi lent me for my lesson first saw me, it frowned and groaned something about ageing English expatriates (and ex-patriots) that have holes in their socks and eat Marmite for breakfast.

Bibi explained everything about the violin’s character, its components and how to care for it. Indeed, it would seem that violinists love and care for their violins just as much as dog-lovers do their dogs, and maybe even more, probably because they cost more (but eat less) than the average dog does.

So the lesson came to an early end, or so I thought. I was amazed to discover that it had lasted 30 minutes longer than I had counted on. It seems that Bibi had managed to lure me into her well-spun web of fascination and respect for her sensitive and truth-telling instrument. And to free oneself from that is not such an easy matter at all! And, believe it or not, I even managed to play an open string once without scraping all the others. (Watch Fred try, in the video below.)


Oh my, what an achievement! And who knows! I might even buy myself a fiddle. oo

Photo Credits: All photos and video: Miroslav Setnička

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