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The Touch of the Student’s Hand

Lee Ann Setzer is a writer and a mom of teenagers. She is currently learning to ice skate.  She blogs sporadically at lookunderthings.blogspot.com.

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought it hardly worth his while

To waste his time with the old violin, but he held it up with a smile…

In this familiar old rhyme* the old violin is about to be auctioned off for $3. But then an old man walks up from the back of the room, dusts off the shabby instrument, tightens the strings, and plays a beautiful melody. After the last note fades, the same violin sells for $3000.

 “What changed its worth? Swift came the reply: The touch of the master’s hand.”

The poem likens the battered violin to battered, weary people who need only “the touch of the Master’s hand.” The Church-produced video depiction of this poem begins with an old man lovingly hand-crafting the violin in his workshop. Later, it’s the same old man—the violin’s creator—who plays it in the auction, revealing its intrinsic worth.

This rhyme keeps running around in my head because I recently acquired my great-grandmother’s 125-year-old violin. The case also contained some 1983 correspondence between my grandmother and a violin appraiser. The appraiser took great rhetorical pains to assure my grandmother that the market was “infested” with “mass-produced reproductions” such as hers, “abortions” of workmanship. He contemptuously pronounced our violin a “student instrument,” worth as much as $200, but perhaps as little as $25, depending on the infestation level of Grandma’s local violin market.

That’s a useful letter: I don’t need to bother insuring our family violin for thousands, or storing it away in a climate-controlled vault. But even if it’s not a valuable treasure, I couldn’t quite dismiss our violin as a piece of junk—especially not with that old poem running around in my head. I decided to look into fixing it up.

As “battered and scarred” goes, our violin was worse off when we got it than the one in the rhyme. After sitting in closets for decades, it had plenty of dust, but no strings to tighten, and nowhere to attach the strings at one end. Speaking of infestations, horsehair-eating bugs had long since devoured the bowhair. The case was speckled with their tiny brown 973920_608638069161257_1917277856_ncorpses, among a few remaining shreds of horsehair.

My grandma was excited when she heard my plans, but nervous when I told her that my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to learn to play her great-great grandmother’s instrument. I think Grandma had envisioned the violin in a place of honor on my living room wall—not in daily, ordinary use.

But the man at the music store was optimistic. He quoted me prices for new parts and declared the violin sound and playable. “Old pieces like this,” he said, “often have better resonance than newer ones.”

On the way home, my daughter cut to the heart of the ambiguity. “Why,” she asked, “did that appraiser guy think it’s a piece of junk, but the music store guy thinks it’s a good violin?”

“They’re answering different questions,” I said. “The appraiser wants to know if it’s a rare instrument that’s worth a lot of money. The man in the music store wants to know whether you could learn to play a tune on it.”

It fixed up nicely, and there’s something liberating about knowing that this instrument is worth practically nothing. We don’t have to wonder if a fingerprint will make its value plummet. I was not obliged to have a coronary when my daughter, eager to start, used marked finger intervals on the neck with Scotch tape. We just have to take reasonable care of a family treasure that still apparently has a lot of use in it.

I have to admit to a little unholy glee that Mr. Grouchy Appraiser Guy has probably retired or died by now, and the violin he snubbed is still going strong. But its market value probably hasn’t increased much in thirty years. I invested a little money to make it back into what it always was: a student instrument. Even if a master musician happens to play a tune on it, no discerning buyer is paying three grand for this violin.

As a student instrument, it might get played in a recital or two—especially with that added resonance that comes from age—but that’s as high as it can reasonably aspire. And the touch of the student’s hand can be brutal. From experience with beginning string players around here, I’m braced for a couple weeks of raucous squawking. And if my daughter practices hard and achieves proficiency, her violin teacher will eventually recommend a “better” instrument.

Our old violin will have done its job: changing the student. And that’s worth a fair bit.

*“The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” by Myra Brooks Welch

9 thoughts on “The Touch of the Student’s Hand”

  1. I love this. Such a sweet sense if history and practicality. I love the idea that this instrument changes the student. It helps me think differently about my old piano.

  2. Needless to say, I am delighted with this essay about my grandmother's old violin. History doesn't end with the present and I dare say the history of this instrument will go on for generations yet to be. Thank you, dear daughter, for having the foresight to perceive this and DO something about it.

  3. We raised four children, playing string instruments my mother in law purchased at an auction. They were inexpensive then, but they served their musical purpose beyond measure. I wrote a poem about all of beauty they had brought to each one, beginning with, "They were battered and scared. . ." The last verse reads:
    "And whether we play them forever more,
    Or hum many a favorite song,
    Or lovingly dust them off now and then . . .
    We're convinced you didn't happen along –
    That day at the auction.
    It's as if you were led.
    You must have loved music, too.
    Thank you for following your heart that day Grandma,
    We're forever indebted to you."

  4. Great, Lee Ann! I think I'd rather have some practical value than be a showpiece as well. As a mother of a budding violinist, I loved the idea of an old violin's resonance. I'm sure it's true, and hope your daughter has fun playing it.

  5. Your post made me laugh and cry. I began playing the violin at age 6. I was enamored from the start, and practiced diligently. I would play games with my violin and pretend I was invited to perform for the queen of England. My dad was a fairly good banjo player and he would teach me tunes by ear and we would play together. My mom accompanied me for every recital until I left home for college. I now hold two degrees in music and play professionally, but the memories I have from my "starter" instrument are precious. You see, it was my older sister's violin. She, too, had been a budding violinist, when at 14 she was hit by a drunk driver walking home from school and killed instantly. Our instrument isn't worth more than $250, but it means everything to our family.

  6. Thanks, Heather, Rebecca, and Luisa, and you're welcome, mom 🙂
    Coffinberry, we don't live nearly close enough to each other.
    Jody, I loved your poem–what a difference your mother-in-law made in your lives! Rachel, thank you for sharing your story, and your sister's.

  7. We have a lousy piano that we picked up from somebody who was throwing it away. I had a piano tuner look at it, and he said it's perfectly sound, and could last another 50 years. It's nothing special, it is, as you say, a student instrument, but I know exactly how you feel about being liberated. Children can bang on my piano, toddlers can gum it, things can spill on it, and I don't get bothered. And yet my kids are still learning to love music on it, and it gets played every single day. Not bad for a piano headed for the junk heap.


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