The day in 4th grade begins as usual: the pledge of allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, a round of spelling. Melodious music wafts into the room. Then a tall, willowy man enters, bright red hair tumbling over his forehead, a violin tucked under his chin. He dips and sways, his enchanting sounds making us stop what we are doing.
His violin sings melodies from heaven. We leave our seats to gather around him and drink in the enchantment. He plays and dances and charms us like a leprechaun. He kneels, grinning, his blue eyes shining. He rips through a toe-tapping “Turkey in the Straw,” then an unfamiliar melody that makes me think of clouds and God. My chest hurts. I want more than anything to draw such sweet sounds into the world.
“Hey, folks. This is called a violin. It is one of the stringed instruments in the orchestra. How many of you want to play an instrument?” I am hypnotized by his violin. It speaks in high notes and low sultry tones, silky and intimate. His violin laughs and tells jokes. Magically, his bow flies into the air and comes back down in just the right place.
“My name is Mr. Brauninger. I’m the orchestra teacher. Do you want to join our orchestra? You could play the violin or any other of our stringed instruments. You just have to take a slip home to your parents to be signed.”
I am drawn to him by his bright blue eyes and his golden-toned violin. He asks my name.
“What a pretty name you have, Linda Joy,” he says, looking directly into my eyes as if I’m a real person. He talks to me as if what I say matters to him. I’ve never met anyone like him before. He gives me a permission slip and tells me that I have to get my parents to sign it if I want to come to the orchestra next week.
“I don’t have parents. I live with my grandmother.” He doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with me because of this, though I know I’m the only kid in the class whose parents are divorced, and I’m sure none of their families fight the way my mother and grandmother do. Mr. Brauninger’s smile makes all that go away.
Mrs. Rockwell tells us to sit down in our seats and fold our hands like polite children. Next Mr. Brauninger plays something soft and sweet, his face tender with the music, his lips quivering. His left hand vibrates back and forth. I want to cry. I could sit at his feet all day. I have to be included in his orchestra or I’ll die. I begin to plan what I need to say to convince my grandmother.
When I go home that afternoon, my determination to play the violin sits in solid clarity in my chest. I will make any promise, I will do whatever it takes to be with the man with the red hair, the man whose love flows from him in waves.
I tell Gram about the man who came to class with his wonderful violin. I promise her that I’ll practice; she won’t have to remind me. “Please, please, please let me play the violin.” She nods and takes a drag on her cigarette. The room is filled with smoke. I see from her coldly calculating eyes that I need to let her think about it.
I know that Gram wants me to be a famous musician, so my foot is in the door. Later that evening, I try to convince her that the violin is what I am meant to play, but I promise not to neglect my hour of piano practice each day and to finish all my music theory assignments.
I hear her talking to Mr. Brauninger on the phone after I go to bed. She tells him about Vera and about my divorced parents. The next morning I find out that they’ve decided I should play the cello instead of the violin. Gram tells me, “You’ll be more popular with the cello.”
I am disappointed, but she says there is a cello waiting for me. I’ll play anything just to be near Mr. Brauninger.
The first day of orchestra is on Thursday. My shoes squeak on the polished, walnut-colored cork floors. I run down the stairs to the basement music room. The room smells of oil, wood, and the musty dust that is caked in the thick window curtains. Mr. Brauninger greets me with a sunny smile and shakes my hand.
A group of kids has gathered in the room. I am surprised by who is here—a few of the popular boys, the “guy” kind of boys—Roger, Michael, and Dennis. They talk and laugh among themselves, but then listen when Mr. Brauninger starts to explain about the stringed instruments. “This is a violin. Next to it is a viola, a little bigger.” He plays a few notes to demonstrate the deeper range of the viola. Then he picks up a cello.
“Linda Joy, I talked to your grandmother, and we thought maybe the cello would be best for you. It’s a special instrument for a special girl like you. I picked out one just your size.” He holds up a burnished brown cello, half-sized to fit me.
We gather around him as he shows us how the stringed instruments are constructed: the curves of the ribs, the maple coming together in the back to make a beautiful wavy pattern with a perfect seam, the intricately carved bridge, the nut at the top of the fingerboard, ebony tuning pegs, the graceful scroll, and the strings made of steel and catgut. Curlicue F-holes carved in the top allow the sound to emerge from the belly. The sound post connects the top with the back, creating vibrations along the whole instrument. The bow is made of Pernambuco wood from Brazil. Hair from real horses is strung from an ivory tip all the way to the ebony part, where we hold the bow, called the frog.
“Ribbet, ribbet,” he says, grinning, his blue eyes shining. We look at him with wonder. He makes us feel important, not like the other teachers who treat us like silly children. I am surprised that the boys take Mr. Brauninger so seriously. I thought all they wanted to do was joke around.
In this very first lesson, he shows us how to drape our hands over the frog. We take turns holding the bow, learning to place it on the strings and pull it smoothly. I notice how the string widens as it vibrates. When I press down on the ebony fingerboard, I can feel the hard tension of the string under each finger pad. It hurts my tender fingertips, but I don’t care. I am making music. I am playing the cello.