I’ve joked that in learning the violin the path to greatness is probably more simple than I want to admit: that the path I should take, the way should become really great at this instrument is by quitting my day job and busking away those found hours in the park. I’m not serious… mostly. But such notions of that kind of a bohemian approach to music are not merely strings plucked inside my imagination so much as they have been inspired: inspired by my infrequent encounters with one man and his red fiddle.
Perhaps you have seen Guy playing on the city’s streets. He can be occasionally spotted in a downtown pedway or posted at one end of the exit to a transit station, playing as the indifferent commuters rush by. His repertoire is impressively diverse. One day I’ll sit and listen in the square where he etches elegant minuet into the brisk spring air. Another time I will pass him in one of the underground tunnels and he will be bowing a spatter of notes fit for a country hoedown.
He is overlooked by most who pass him, which is a shame, because it seems that he could easily sit among the most talented musicians in the city.
Guy spotted me first, pulled me from the commuting crowd as I carted my beginner’s violin in its case towards the transit station and towards my lesson on one Thursday afternoon. I always carry my violin on Thursdays. I carry it downtown but never extract it from its shell. It remains tucked away, quiet, and hidden. Nevertheless, it is clearly a violin case that I carry, shaped as such and dressed in a rich burgundy, and Guy has not been the only person to notice it slung over my shoulder. He beckoned me. That is the most apt description, of course: beckoned. He stopped the song he was playing mid-bar and with the sudden halting the music I was caught by his eyes reaching across the gap between us with an intense stare.
“You play?” He asked.
I shrugged and told him that I was just learning. In fact at the time of our first formal meeting I had been little more than ‘just learning’ the violin for a short two months. I could barely hold the instrument properly let alone make a sound near as pleasant (or tolerable for that matter) as was delicately flowing from Guy’s red violin.
He nodded in approval, a knowing salute from master musician to bumbling student, and I paused for a few minutes and stood a handful of steps away to watch him play, my instrument slung heavy over my shoulder as his restarted singing to fill the tiled tunnel of the narrow pedway.
I’m a terrible audience for most every busker. I almost never throw money into the hat propped on the ground or contribute to the case flung open in front of the performer. What compelled me to toss a ten dollar bill into Guy’s case that Thursday afternoon I can’t say. I stood watching him for at least fifteen minutes, and not another word was exchanged while he played through a selection of technical pieces from memory for his lone audience, concluding with what I am fairly certain was a flawless performance of Paganini’s caprice number 5 on his red violin. I tossed the ten dollar bill in his open case and he nodded again, his neck bowing to release his instrument from where it was tucked under his chin, and dropping it to his side dangling indelicately from his left hand.
“Now you.” He said.
I laughed. I laughed and grinned awkwardly, laughed in that cautious, uncomfortable way that one laughs when one is trying to avoid saying no, when no would be an admission of fear or inadequacy or some other emotion that one has no right to feel when challenged to reach for something even if that something is much too far out of reach.
“Some other day then.” Guy suggested. Part of me understood, even as I waved and walked onward to catch my train, that it wasn’t a question.