At the beginning of my violin studies, my father, whom Grandpa taught, frequently practiced with me. Practices had the gravity of carrying on a Bolton family tradition — even as a child, I knew that. Dad would begin by tucking my quarter-size violin under his chin, a one-man orchestra tuning up. In a final flourish he’d perfectly capture the violin’s harmony when he played the strings together.
In the six years that I attempted to play, he asked the same question to a succession of my teachers: “Does she have any talent?” He was witness to my overall musical illiteracy. Many years after he quietly brought my full-size violin back to the music store to sell, I understood that for him, playing the violin was not about achieving perfection; he played because of the love and desire that music stirred in him.
Once, I spied my father in the family den shakily conducting Gilbert and Sullivan from his recliner, scratched-up records playing loudly on the old turntable. By then the Parkinson’s had robbed him of most of his voice and his walking — but he was determined and fierce, a wizard with a wand, as he pretended there was an entire orchestra before him to conduct.
Janet Farrar was my last violin teacher. I was a young teenager and her goal was to wean me off the Suzuki method and teach me to read music. She came to the house Saturday mornings in a dark blue Volkswagen that matched the corduroy pants she always wore. Every time I bowed in the wrong direction, she gently squeezed my shoulder. If the piece I was playing was wildly out of tune, she moved my fingers up and down the strings.
“Let’s try something different,” said Miss Farrar during one of our final lessons. “Music without playing an instrument.” She introduced me to John Cage’s silent symphony, 4′ 33″, so named for the 4 minutes and 33 seconds that a performer sits in total quiet. Instruments perched on our laps, we sat in a quiet studded with the creaky sounds of the house, my father’s footfalls up and down the stairs, and the cars traveling up and down Asylum Avenue.
In the end, I lacked Grandpa’s skill and Dad’s passion to make music. I couldn’t continue to imitate something I didn’t feel.
After so much time, it’s funny what the body remembers. I am 55; I haven’t touched a violin since I was 15. Tucking Dad’s violin under my chin, I thought of him tuning my tiny violin, and of Miss Farrar, and I automatically fingered Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor on the graceful ebony neck. I didn’t make any sound; it was just the fingers of my left hand connecting with the strings. The bow in my right hand hung by my side. I trembled in the musical silence that Miss Farrar once created for me.
A few years before he composed 4′ 33″, Cage visited an anechoic chamber — a space completely devoid of noise — to encounter silence in its purest form. Even there he managed to hear distinct highs and lows. It turned out that the high sound was his nervous system at work. The low sound was his blood circulating. The body continuously plays its own music in harmony.
Like Cage, I’ve heard similar symphonies within my body, complete with the high and low sounds of the soul and the heart. I’ve heard them in the flaming red of passion and light green of memory. I heard them when I fell in love with my husband. I heard them when my children were born.
The silent symphony was the rhythm of my baby moving inside me. It was the inadvertent beat of my father’s shaking Parkinsonian hand on my pregnant belly. It was the silence before and after the shovelfuls of dirt that made a thwacking noise against the lid of his coffin. It was the silence between regret and forgiveness.
Adapted from Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets, by Judy Bolton-Fasman, to be published August 24 by Mandel Vilar Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.