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Music Lessons

By Dr. Ming Ivory


Harrisonburg, VA – Judge Scott Simon ranked Dr. Ming Ivory's story fourth among the many entries in WMRA's Short, Short Story Contest.

- Music Lessons -

Between the ages of nine and thirteen, like many girls I was in the wrong key. I heard a brassy b-flat. But the string-starved orchestra teacher and my Dad conspired to put his Violin in my hand instead of valves. As I careened around the house, bows got caught in the doorjambs. They snapped in two, like dry kindling for Scout campfires, and hung ridiculously from their horsehairs. So did the ripped gathers of my dress all afternoon, after some boy had grabbed it in a game of dodge ball at recess.

How I'd chafed at my Dad's tracking the flats and sharps from the next room, instead of the fine arc of a fly ball or a foul shot, or demonstrating pizzicato and slurs instead of pitching, a steal or a slide. By Junior High the boys had turned surly and sexist, and the girls began to practice incompetence and timidity. Gender anger ignited, lit by communities who merely beat time, or who played with matches. The teams segregated, sending the girls into eclipse, and the boys into sunshine so bright it blinded them. We wore uniforms with bows and sashes, played on courts and fields without crowds, discovering we were slightly out of tune.

Yet, it was playing with the orchestra at assemblies that could sometimes compensate for those great disappointments of the schools, the playgrounds and the pulpits. Part of a circle of notes and music, sharing the code written in clefs and incidentals, I was sheltered. I was not yet so angry with the world that the battered instrument cases snapping shut, the dog-eared music books, ripped and scribbled on, could not make defeats fade into the clear blue skies of crisp fall schooldays. At the bus stop, they were the mark of secret society.

As I grew up so many other projects and excitements, learning curves and misunderstandings accumulated over the years, that music was jettisoned with girlhood. So much occupied my mind, that for a while, the physical exertion of pass plays and lay-ups were a good full-measure rest from thought itself, even if the laughter of friends echoed off the concrete. I tasted colors and shapes, feasted on words and syntax and swallowed whole the patterns of complex functions, topology and semiotics. I left home, improvised, and repeated myself. Soon I was demanding perfection in all things, and became a spectator. The Boston Symphony or the Philadelphia; it had to be Major League, and I fell short. The clock was running out before I could score.

Then at sixty-one --the very age when his sudden death had robbed my Dad of the overtime he was due-- when I had become baffled by the accumulation of inheritance, achievement, and anger, a strange tintinitis began. The thought wafted faintly nostalgic on the crisp fall air: I could free myself from the marathon I'd been running, and take up the Violin again! And so here I am in my own house. My finger is bandaged from cutting a tomato too close. My back is sore from collecting the dead branches so the mower doesn't pitch a dry twig and blind me. My glasses magnify that middle distance at which the notes dance on their ledger lines. I am taking delight again in the coded clefs. And when that triple play of tone, tempo, and technique combine in a sweet spot, my soul leaps to catch the fly, smack in the mitt, and my arm, relaxed and confident as it never was in my girlhood, beelines it home for the out, in perfect tune.

-- Dr. Ming Ivory is an Integrated Science and Technology professor at James Madison University.