Music Lesson


Along the two-lane Macadam road that runs south from Budapest towards Yugoslavia stood the old house where I was born. Other streets of the town were soaked after each summer shower, and horses and oxen had to drag heavily loaded carts through the deep mud. The farmers didn’t like the rain -- for it delayed the harvest – and neither did my mother seeing me covered with muck. My friends and I loved to play in muddy pools.

My father paid no attention to such trivial matters. He was usually busy serving customers. The back door of my father’s shop led to a small room, where my mother usually served lunch for him on the small table, and while he ate she minded the shop. She worked hard to look after her family. She cooked our meals, cleaned our home, washed our clothing by hand, and in the evening she mended our torn clothing by the light of coal oil lamps. My brother and I had to help her, feed the chickens, and wash the tiled floor of our veranda, where we ate during the warm summer months.

Mother rose at 4 A.M. every Friday and took the two heavy bowls of dough that she prepared the previous evening, from under a warm fluffy feather-wadded quilt. After she finished kneading, she made two huge loaves of bread and the Sunday pastry. Then she woke us up, “George, Joe, get the bread-trays and take them to the baker.” After school, my brother and I had to bring the baked products home. I still recall the pleasant aroma of the freshly baked crispy bread, and the irresistible temptation to tear a piece off the crunchy crust and eat it.

In the mornings I had to chop firewood, get scrap paper from the collection bin, remove the ashes from the kitchen stove and fireplaces, and start up the fires. I filled the lamps with coal oil, wiped off the lampblack from the glasses, and cut off the top of the charred wicks.

But my Mother had greater dreams for her sons than making them take part in the drudgery of daily existence. “Dez,” she said to my father, “we have to provide music lesson for our children. George is old enough, I want you to buy him a violin.” My father was a quiet agreeable man and got in touch with the sole musically educated person in our town, Mr. Batasics, the band leader. My tutor got me a small-size instrument and thus began my weekly instructions.

I must admit, I resented studying boring sheet music from the beginning, especially when my friends were playing ‘Csendor Rablo’ (Gendarmes and Robbers) in the sunny streets. It was hard to hold the violin in the proper position. “How many times do I have to tell you? Hold the instrument with your chin, horizontal and centered,” my teacher scolded me and slapped my left hand, whenever my arm became tired. It was hard to learn bowing, read sheet music, and do endless dissonant fingering exercises. But I must admit that the harsh tutoring improved my technique and I slowly began to play acceptable tunes.

My unforgiving instructions continued, so did my frustration. I became resentful and hated the idea of learning to play hard tiresome exercises. My resentment grew into defiance, and after my teacher left I closed the annoying music book and decided to show my mother that I need no more tutoring. I knew while my mom was working in the kitchen, she kept an ear on my musical progress, and I began to play by ear. In those days without electricity, radio, or TV, the only music I ever heard was melodious Gypsy songs and fast-paced crisp csardas. But my attempt to please her became more difficult than I’d imagined.

I began playing slow songs, but without sheet music notes I was not as successful as I envisioned I would be. I tried and tried repeatedly different melodies, but the results got worse as my frustration grew. I was afraid that my mother will insist on continuing the music lessons with my dreaded teacher. I began to perspire and attempted to play a fast-paced fiery csardas, hoping for better results. My attempt turned to bitterness that grew into a revolt. I defiantly continued more and more forcefully, and finally I hit the instrument with the bow so hard that I broke its horse-hair and the strings. Suddenly, after the loud bang, there was no more music.

My mother came into the room and saw me as I stood there scared, with my broken violin hanging in my left hand and the bow in my right. The sight made her speechless. She just stood at the door looking toward me absorbing the pitiful scene, and tears began rolling down her cheeks. She did not scold me she just turned around and left the room. Neither of my parents spoke anything about my destruction of the instrument, but the violin teacher did not come to my home anymore.

I am an old man now and have never forgotten the memory of my awful feeling of betraying my mother. I have carried the burden of guilt throughout seventy years for ending my violin lesson so rebelliously. Over the years, gradually an impossible desire had grown within me to fulfill my mother’s dream; ‘My son is a musician.’

This year, my decision to buy a violin became more than just the painful memory of not fulfilling her dream; I felt compelled to do it. The feeling of guilt, lacking discipline to learn the violin, taught me a lesson for life. Since then, every task I was expected to perform, I studied and practiced diligently no matter how hard the undertaking was.

I was surprised to find how quickly I could recall the memory of musical notes, and it didn’t take too long before I could read sheet music. But to play the violin with my old fingers was harder than when I was a young boy. First, this magnificent instrument sounded awful in my hands. It takes lots of practice and flexible joints to master the violin and produce a pleasing tone. But I didn’t give up and have been practicing daily.

I know that I need a tutor, but I am embarrassed to engage a teacher in my old age. I sit near the stage at concerts and watch the violinists of the orchestra and study their bowing and fingering techniques. I try to play the same way, but my rheumatic fingers disobey me. Nevertheless, I can now perform slow sweet songs reading the notes of my music book. I only wish my mother could hear me playing my new violin.