I was eager to impress my violin instructor with my improvements on this week’s song, Da Slocket Light. But it sort of came out like all the notes had been swept off the page, thrown into a blender and then poured back onto the page. It was a total cacophony of sound. A bit grinding on the ears.
Da Slockit Light was composed by Tom Anderson, a Scottish fiddler. He shared in an interview once that the depopulation of the town of his birth inspired him to write this tune. “I was coming out of Eshaness in late January, 1969, the time was after 11 pm and as I looked back at the top of the hill leading out of the district, I saw so few lights compared to what I remembered when I was young. As I watched, the lights started going out one by one. That, coupled with the recent death of my wife, made me think of the old word ‘Slockit’ meaning, a light that has gone out, and I think that is what inspired the tune.”
When played well, this popular tune does really seem like a walk through the hill country, at night, in the quiet, gazing at the hillside where lights are going out one by one as the inhabitants settle into their sleep. It’s a story filled with layers of meaning, nostalgia and emotion.
On YouTube you can find a hundred different versions of the song each with its own spin and spirit. It’s a fiddle tune, so it’s meant to be played around with a little.
However, my instructor was not quite so impressed with my playing that day.
“Christy. Slow it way down and drop all the fancy fingering.” These were the words of my Violin Master. My Yoda. They were not the words this apprentice wanted that day. I wanted the fancy fingering to be applauded. Wanted to make my fingers jump around the fingerboard and play the song as I wished it to sound. The way the legendary fiddlers play it.
But let’s be real. I’m still very new at this thing. Still can’t make it speak the way I want it to. Still prone to squeaks, and sharps and flats and entirely misplaced fingers. Any illusions of grandeur are immediately put to rest when I start to actually play.
He instructs me to start over and play it very slow. “Unnaturally slow.” Unnaturally slow so as to hear every little thing rolling off my strings. Every sweet and terrible thing.
And so I do. For a week I slowed it down and stepped back to the basics. Eliminated all the slides and frills and trills. I set aside the creative liberties, in order to first get acquainted with the foundational notes of the song, and I aimed to spin those notes off the strings with conviction and perfection.
The thing is, it’s hard to play unnaturally slow. It’s… well… unnatural, to state the obvious.
I found it more difficult than running forward quickly through the song. Quickly in a way that the mistakes blur with what I get right, and where its more difficult to distinguish specifically where I’m on from where I’m off, thereby making it easier to ignore the errors and therefore more difficult to correct the errors.
Yes, it’s easier to fly through the song haphazardly. However, it’s far less pleasant to listen to, it turns out. And I’m reminded that making music that’s pleasant to listen to is the goal afterall.
So I did it. I slowed it down. Way dawn. Waaaay waaaaay down. So way down, it hurt my brain.
I slowed it down to slower than being stuck behind Grandma’s Oldsmobile, driving down a two-lane road. Slower than that. And it was hard. It required patience. I was desperate to pass, because life feels too short to be stuck going so slow and I want to find a short cut to mastering this instrument. I want to be amazing. Today.
It’s hard to take it slow when you live in a world that is constantly trying to sell you shortcuts and quick fixes and your best life now for everything.
Mastering the violin is a long slow road in a no passing zone. And it turns out, there are no short cuts. And it requires being present right where you are in every moment.
So I spent the week doing as I was instructed to do. Maybe a bit begrudgingly inside. Perhaps with a slight gash to my pride. But I did it. I stuck with it.
I simplified the sound. Cut out the clutter. Found the song again and made it beautiful.
The thing is, when I tapped the brakes on my bowing, in addition to actually beginning to play the right notes, I heard every note too. Clearly. Warmly. Intentionally. I was able to adjust the flat notes and pay attention to every finger placement. I began to see how each note has a purpose in telling the story Tom Anderson set out to tell.
And then came the really amazing part. My whole violin began to vibrate, to reverberate warm waves of sound through its spine. Long humming strokes of the bow coaxed out something wonderful. Something you kind of have to experience to understand. Like a compassionate physical touch, those sound waves travelled from the spine of the violin right straight down into the spine of me.
My instructor explained this fascinating phenomenon that happens between the strings of the violin when you hit certain notes just exactly perfect. It’s called, “sympathetic vibrations.” It occurs when the fingers placed on one string play the same note as the neighboring open string, an octave higher. The neighboring unbowed and untouched string jumps, quivers and sings prompted by the string beside it playing its note.
To me this seemed like an incredible dance with physical space between partners who ache to be close but maintain the space between, opting for a deeper more sacred connectedness that transcends the physical. I know there’s an actual complex scientific explanation behind it. But I prefer the dance.
A perfect understanding, an authentic knowing between the strings was happening (two inanimate objects!) and I was so much in awe, my brain still can’t fully wrap itself around it.
Call it a dance. Or a duet. A yearning. Or a celebration of being known. The two strings stretch, reach and bend, throwing their arms out for each other, and swaying together in such a way that the sound is so unbelievably rich you can feel the vibrations roll out as waves into the air.
As the violin reverberates in this special moment between the strings, and its warm rhythmic waves swell right through my skin and crescendo deep into me, it’s as if I and the violin are one. And that is how you know you’ve done it. Because you feel it.
And let me tell you, sympathetic vibrations feel amazing.
I feel them inside my bones. Inside where the marrow lives. Not metaphorically. I literally feel the vibrations in my bones. My chest hums with heat and sound waves. The music weaves itself in waves all the way through me down to my heels and into the floor beneath my feet. And I wonder if the person standing next to me can feel it too.
Letting go of the clutter of the song that I am not yet qualified to carry and focusing on the simple core, reaps an actual physical reward. And this is nothing short of incredible.
In slowing down, I reached a new level in this relationship with my violin. I feel absolutely connected to it—physical, emotional, spiritual connectedness. Rich, honest, deep and raw. It’s a part of me now.
It literally lives inside my bones.
This is a simple sacred groundedness, without all the clutter of fancy slides and frills. Just the slow liquid pulsing reverberations of the basic melody. In letting go of the clutter I had piled on the song, I see the actual song. Not the song as I wish it to be or the song from the perspective of various artists, or the song through my striving too hard beyond what my current capabilities are, but the song as it actually is on its own terms. And it is beautiful. And it is strong. And it is holy.
I have entered the story and am paying attention. I’m right there walking through the Scottish countryside at night with Tom Anderson, watching the lights of the dwindling village go out one by one, until the only light left comes from the stars that are twinkling overhead.
These strings are becoming rooted in me and I in them. In our slower pace together, we experienced a perfect understanding—the strings and I.
May it be so in every part of my life.
May I let go of the clutter that distracts and pulls me away from the core. May I never forget the simple sacred center. May I rest in that place amidst the swirling chaos life leads me into. May I live into simple goodness when all the voices pile on and beckon and pressure me. May I slow my pace and keep my eyes open.
Friends, as we approach the bustling holiday season, I invite you to pause. Slow down. Breathe. Go deeper. Celebrate the simple. May you open your eyes to what is right in front of you and be fully present with it– without constantly looking for the fast lanes or the shortcuts to bigger, better and more. Because the simple thing right in front of you might be a thing more beautiful than you had ever realized.