The sound of music…

When I was studying in school, one of my dreams was to learn a musical instrument. During those days (in the 1970s), the schools did not give much importance to extracurricular activities. The concept of developing the innate talents of the students had not gained much popularity. The primary objective was to study well and get good marks. If you were good in your studies, you were allowed to indulge in activities like learning musical instruments, painting, sculpture, etc.

My interests were in music. I wanted to learn violin. One reason was that I liked the instrument. Its shape, its color, the way people held it and most importantly the sound got me hooked. It was love at first sight. In our school, we only had a part-time music teacher. He was a jack-of-all-trades musician. He used to teach guitar, tabala, harmonium, flute and so on. But he didn’t teach violin. So my grand plans to learn violin didn’t materialize.

I was the topper in my class. So I was among the privileged few who could learn music. Since violin was not an option, I chose guitar. I attended the class for three weeks—two hours each on Saturdays and Sundays. After that I stopped. I stopped because I realized that I won’t be learning anything there. We were about 16 students from different classes. I was in the fifth standard. There were only two guitars for us to practice. Since I was the youngest one in the group, I got the guitar only after all the senior guys had their sessions. So in those two hours, I usually got somewhere between 5 to 10 minutes for practicing. In addition, our music master had to share his time between all the students learning the different instruments. The first day he came as asked us to strike each string 4 times. The second day he made it 8 times. I was ready to play music even before I started. So it was a very big disappointment for me. The next week came and we were asked to practice the same lessons—first day 4 times on each string and second day 8 times. By the third week I was fed up and I quit the music class.

I didn’t get an opportunity to fulfill my ambition for a long time. In the sixth standard it was preparation for the National Merit Scholarship (which I won), from seventh standard onwards it was preparation for the SSLC examination (I got 92% and was the school topper), then it was preparation for engineering entrance examination (which I passed and joined Trivandrum Engineering College). In the engineering college also, I never got time to pursue my musical ambitions due to a variety of reasons like ragging, politics, examinations, games, and so on. We even ran a restaurant (called ‘Manna’) during our pre-final year. More about ‘Manna’ and the engineering college hostel life in another post.

After completing B.Tech and M. Tech, I joined Pond’s as an Industrial Engineer. I was posted in Pondicherry. It is one of the most beautiful places (after Kerala) in India. In Pondicherry, there were several other distractions like good books, excellent booze and exceptional food. So I limited my musical interests to listening old Malayalam and Hindi film songs and Carnatic and Hindustani classical music on my music system.

After Pond’s I moved to Madras (Chennai) to join Tata Consultancy Services. There I had to undergo an initial training program (ITP). There was a violin teacher on the ground floor of TCS training center. When I saw the name board, I thought of learning violin once again. ITP was tough and we were spending almost 16 -18 hours in TCS and another 2 hours for violin classes was possible. So I approached the violin teacher, but he declined to teach me. He told me that he only taught children and I was too old to learn a musical instrument. So my second attempt also was a failure.

Once the ITP was over we were allotted to different projects. My friends and I were assigned to a project called SEGA. It was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. ITP was a walk in the park compared to SEGA. We practically lived 24×7 in the office. There was not enough time sleeping, let alone for music learning.

Then I had my accident. After the treatment and rehabilitation, I rejoined TCS. For the first time in several years, I had a lot of free time. Once again I thought of starting my violin lessons. I asked my brother to buy me a violin thinking that I could learn violin on my own. But after a few days tinkering with the violin, I realized that I needed a teacher. I was not able to produce not even a single sound from the violin using the bow. I searched the Internet and found that there was a substance called Rosin which has to be applied to the bow strings. Rosin is a light abrasive substance that should be applied to the strings before you can start using the bow. Only when there is friction between the violin strings and the bow strings, you can hear the sound when you play.

I searched the Yellow Pages and got the name of a violin teacher. In fact, he was the only violin teacher listed in the Yellow Pages of Madras, which I found very strange. Was there only one violin teacher in the entire metro? Were the other violin teachers without phones? I called the person and he agreed to come to my place the next day and asked me to give my address to his assistant. He told me that his fee was Rs. 250 a month and he will give me 2-hour sessions on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I thought it was a bargain.

The next day a blind person was at my door. I thought that he was there asking for help. But it turned out he was the music teacher. He was blind and partially deaf. I had to shout to get heard. Another problem was that his English was as bad as my Tamil. Since he couldn’t see me or my body language he was unable to understand my very crude Tamil. He was getting angry and I was getting frustrated. He wanted to start the lessons and I couldn’t see how. Finally I called our watchman and asked him to tell the violin master that I am on a wheelchair and I couldn’t sit on the floor as he wanted. He was furious. How could you study violin if you can’t sit on the floor? He shouted to the watchman’s amusement and to my frustration. I had told him the previous day that I was on a wheelchair. But then he didn’t listen properly and now was getting very agitated and angry. I told him that it was not going to work and asked him to go home. I agreed to pay him one month’s fee for his troubles. That was the end of my third attempt to learn violin.

One day I told the incident to my dentist who was also a close friend. He told me that one of his patients was a violinist and an assistant music director in the film industry and told me that he will ask that person whether he can teach me violin. The next week the film violinist came to my house and we started learning. He was a good teacher. Since he was playing violin in the orchestra for the film songs, he was used to the standing or sitting in a chair position (Western style) of playing violin, which suited me too. Our initial sessions were more talk and less training because I could not hold the violin for more than 2 – 3 minutes. I had severe shoulder pain (which was with me from the days when I started using my arms for lifting my body and doing the transfers as I have lift my entire body weight using my arms).

The violin is a very simple instrument. But playing the violin is a very complicated procedure. The violin is held horizontally with the base between the collarbone and the lower jaw. The left arm, half-bent, encloses the neck between the thumb and the index knuckle. The fingers of the left hand should press down on the string forming a slightly acute angle towards the front. The speed with which the finger presses down on and then releases the string determines the clarity of the sound.

The fingers move not only vertically but also laterally, so as to produce, whether they are held closely together or separated from the other fingers, the half-tones and the full tones of the scale. The bow is held in the right hand and is moved over the strings. The job of the right arm is to rub the bow on the string in the right place, in the right direction and at the right speed, and with the necessary pressure. If you make a mistake in the direction, angle or pressure you will get a jarring sound. The arm should also ensure that the bow remains as upright without any lateral deviation, so as to form and maintain a right angle with respect to the vibrating string.

Changing the finger positions rapidly and smoothly to produce music constitutes a major difficulty in violin technique, the mastering of which greatly depends on the strength of the chin and shoulder, for they allow a free hold of the instrument and the hand to slide easily along the finger board. The muscles should be supple to avoid any impediment in movement. Since my shoulder and arms were already in pain, I was only able to hold and play the violin for very periods.

The violin finger board does not have any chords as in the case of a guitar. This makes learning the violin more difficult. I could not have chosen a more difficult instrument to learn. I started learing violin—the Carnatic style—with sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni (similar to do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti) and the different permutations and combinations of the seven notes. I was getting proficient and my bowing technique was getting better, but still I could not hold the violin for longer periods.

I hoped to increase my stamina by practice. Then my teacher went on leave as he got an assignment to do music for a movie. My training got interrupted. I fell ill and was bedridden for almost two weeks. When I started again, it was the same story—I couldn’t hold the violin for more that 1 or two minutes. So my 6 months practice was wasted and I was back to square one.

My doctor advised me to give up the violin practice as I was complaining shoulder, scapula and back pain. He told me that I was already overstraining my shoulder and back muscles and practicing violin would add more strain. Also I would never become a very good violinist as my sitting balance was low as my level of paralysis was high—chest level. He told me to switch to the Piano as the strain on my arm and shoulder would be less. But I was not very interested in the piano, but I bought a keyboard and started practicing. By then I had published 6-7 books and my writing career was taking off. I became busy once again, as the publishers were asking me to write more books, the musical training became a lesser priority. As time passed, the keyboard practice sessions became fewer and fewer and finally I stopped practicing. That was the end of my journey to learn a musical instrument.

Even now, I envy the violinists when I see them playing while watching movies or concerts on the television. I like to watch violin performances. More than 40% of my music CDs are violin concerts—Indian and Western classical songs, film songs and albums. Now I enjoy the music created by others as I am unable to create music on my own. May be I was destined to be a listener and not a performer…


  1. silverine said,

    July 23, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    Too many of us have been through this. I never took piano lessons seriously. Today I envy girls whose fingers fly over the keyboards filling the room with the lovely symphonies that I like to hear.But I guess it is not too late. I am thinking of restarting. Nice post.

  2. Alexis Leon said,

    July 23, 2005 at 6:46 pm

    Hi silverine, I wish you all the best. It is better late than never.

  3. ibru said,

    July 24, 2005 at 10:57 am

    dear alex
    I had such an experience not with violin but with Tabla.Still it goes that as it is. Once I tried to learn.But it ended soon becuaz my Teacher was drunk all the time when he was teaching us.

  4. Joseph said,

    September 14, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    Hi Alexis,

    I was searching on the net for information about violin and came across your site. This is one instrument I always wanted to learn, but never had the opportunity to do.

    Can you please give me any good music teacher who teach violin in chennai.

  5. Debamitro Chakraborti said,

    October 18, 2005 at 12:16 pm

    Hello Alexis,

    I am a violinist. It was nice as well as inspiring to read your story about you love for the instrument and for music and your attempts to become a musician!

  6. Rama Sarma said,

    January 10, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    hi alexis,
    I have been learning carnatic violin for the past 5 months. There have been moments when I got frustrated but then I have been persisting with my efforts.Now I am reasonably comfortable with the instrument and i can play varnams etc. on it but I have yet learn a lot in respect of fluency, gamakas etc. I hope to achieve a modicum of proficiency in about another 6 months. By the way I am a retired electrical engineer.
    I would advise you to make some time and resume your keyboard training. I would like to be able to write like you. I have been training myself in creative wrting of late but as I am not fluent in touch typing, I find it an impediment. I have written quite a few rambling notes on a variety of subject but lack the drive to type them out. Any way thanks and all the best.

    Rama Sarma

  7. Quills said,

    March 14, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post. What amazes me is your persistence and patience and I truly respect that. Violin is a very beautiful instrument and I love hearing it too. I guess nowadays extracurricular activities are also gaining the same importance as studies. And as you said in response to Silverine’s comments, its never too late to learn any instrument or anything for that matter. And even if we may never be as good as someone who started young, the fact that we at least tried our best is what matters.