I grew up close to my maternal grandparents — their house was just down the driveway from ours. They helped raise my brother and me. My granddad was retired, but when I was 7 years old, he was still doing some consulting, so he and my grandma traveled a lot. I remember my excitement when they'd return home from their trips, full of exotic stories and descriptions of new friends. Their suitcases inevitably held a gift for my brother and me. Once, after a trip to Hong Kong, they returned with a tiny, one-eighth-size red violin, perfect for a small pair of arms like mine.
They knew I wanted one. A series of musicians had just visited my elementary school to demonstrate different instruments. One stunningly beautiful, elfin-looking woman played the violin. I had fallen instantly in love with it; when I got home I had announced that I wanted to play, too.
So I started taking lessons, organized and paid for by my grandparents. My granddad would pick me up from school, drive me to my weekly lesson and read the newspaper in the car until I'd finished. I'd practice before school in my grandma's sewing room. She'd bring tea with milk and say things like, "You're sounding great!" and "You're really getting that piece now!"
I dreaded the recitals that were an inevitable part of the lesson cycle. Somehow all the music that was so easy to play in my grandma's sewing room became nearly impossible on stage. My heart pounded, and my hands trembled, giving every note a scratchy, unintended, unprofessional vibrato. It never ceased to amaze me as a kid, riding home from what I thought had been an unmitigated disaster, when my family told me with glowing faces, "You were wonderful!"
I played for several years, then crossed a threshold of adolescence through which the violin could not pass. I was so afraid to disappoint my family, especially my grandparents, by quitting. They'd never been pushy about the instrument, but they had made it clear that if they were going to pay for my lessons, I was going to have to practice. To my great relief, everyone understood the changes I was going through, and they were unsurprised when, a year or two later, I quietly picked up the guitar and began writing songs.
So much about those violin years informed and inspired my life as a songwriter today. There was the ear training and sense of melody that becomes second nature to very young players. There was the practicing — the daily dedication to a craft — which I still find difficult, but it's still true that cups of tea and encouraging words make it easier. There was the knowledge that I could get up on stage even if my hands trembled and that, no matter what, my family loved it.
I travel a lot nowadays, too; It was my grandparents who showed me that we can be at home in the world even when we're far from home and that the world is a friendly, wonderful place, full of people who will take us in.
AnaÏs Mitchell is a musician, singer and songwriter.
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