At nineteen I left my family, my home, my city and my state and travelled to Hobart to learn to play the violin from the only teacher I thought could help me. I put aside seven years of inconsistent learning and faulty technique to start building my playing again from the absolute beginning with Jan Sedivka—‘The Boss’, as his students called him—the charismatic and controversial director of the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music.
In 1976, Sedivka’s small school, really only a house in a street in Hobart, was the only place I knew of where my discomfort on the instrument—my technical defects, my area of I Cannot—would be noted without moral overtones. So I packed my suitcase for Hobart amid raging arguments at home, and when the screaming and yelling was at its worst, I threw myself like a petrol bomb into a love affair with a violinist I admired. (Not, I’m sorry to say, the violinist I eventually married.) This other young man was a hard-drinking wild-haired hippy Heathcliff and I chased him south despite knowing that Hobart and Melbourne were stuffed full of Isabellas ill-used by him already. It was a time of self-immolation when I could feel the concrete of my personality, my circumstances, my culture, my new adult body, all setting hard and fast around me, and I burned every boat that had carried me across my nineteen years.
I had talent, like a lot of people have talent, a definite but fairly common musical giftedness that, at first, came as a bit of a nuisance to the struggling people all around me. A daughter with a bit of talent for things that are of no use to anybody brought more problems into the family home: the instrument, the strings, the clothes, the shoes, the need to carpool with people many suburbs away whom my parents were too shy to see or speak to (‘who are these people?’). Behind my parents’ bewildered pride was an exasperation that despite what they did for their children—leaving their homeland, working their guts out—it seemed never to be enough compared to what was expected in the new world. I made my way to the front desks of the Melbourne Youth Orchestra, the only child from an Italian immigrant working-class culture that didn’t know Bach from a nightshift at the breweries. By effort and application I overcame the deficiencies of education, class and background to realise what I knew in my fingers to be true: the violin was my life.
Number One, View Street, Sandy Bay. A house with cracked walls and bad wiring, stuffed with grand pianos, stackable chairs and filing cabinets, student notices, the sound of typewriting, the smell of the Boss’s coffee, the lights in the windows glowing into the evening. A place where hands moved through time and space. A hundred hands opening and closing violin, viola, cello and double-bass cases, hands wiping bows across resin. Hands illegally photocopying Gavinies at the creaky copy-machine in the long corridor, hands freezing despite being rubbed hard inside hand-spun greasy-wool gloves bought at the Salamanca markets, hands curled ready as students sat on the benches waiting for their lessons. Sedivka, with his dislike of fixed positions in everything from bar-lines to bureaucracy, had few if any formal entry requirements. In my time there was a doctor who had given up medicine for the violin; an indifferently taught girl from rural Tasmania who nevertheless had a strange, gleaming talent; a young, jaded professional from the Sydney Symphony and a violinist from Sweden doing postgraduate work.
By autumn semester, my hands half-crippled with the unaccustomed Tasmanian cold, I had learned to arrive early, retreat to the toilets and quickly run hot water over my hands in an effort to make them capable of movement. Then the battle with the Gavinies, how the hands climbed and crossed the neck of the fiddle, losing all sense of up and down as the fingers were forced to leap precipitously across the Boss’s mind-bending fingerings that propelled you into a kind of violinistic outer space, freefalling outside gravity.
In Hobart, in the mid-winter of 1976, my dream of the violin was fragmenting. I was failing in love. I was failing in harmony and counterpoint and music history. But more important than D-plus essays, I was failing—or so I believed—to withstand the disorientation of the massive changes of technique and perception that the Tasmanian school brought to my musical mind. It was like the G-force that locks astronauts rigid with pain as earth and sky fight for possession of the body. I was disorganised, distracted, lonely. I was ambitious without a sense of entitlement. I felt alienated, depressed. Things were falling apart.
Sedivka never talks of himself as having been a Wunderkind, perhaps because he doesn’t like categories when he hits their outer edges, their containment, their finality; he qualifies nearly everything and instinctively wriggles out of definitions like he slides around bar-lines. It’s only in his sympathy, even fascination, with the problem-afflicted student—the clumsy, the stiff, the badly taught—that you get a hint of a psychological rite of passage, the knowledge of a fall from grace and the search to find it again. As one of his particularly obtuse students, I could see how, bizarrely enough, we had a lot in common with child prodigies. We had the fall from grace, the obsessive search to find the centre. The panicky need for equilibrium, the grief of clumsiness. After a masterclass in the View Street library once, I asked Sedivka how he had learned to map out this pain that so many of us were going through.
‘Everyone around me was convinced that effort could do it. I tried to share that belief. But as a result I became less sure. Less convinced. I found the playing less enjoyable.’
Effort, he sighs. ‘It was based on effort as opposed to “just like that”.’
‘Just like that’: it’s one of his code phrases, one of the Sedivka koans, a clue he would give a student when they came to him saying, look, how best to approach the difficulty of these string crossings in the Khachaturian concerto? Should I practise them double-stopped? Open stringed, mixed rhythms, experimenting with altering the levels of my arm? Which étude would he recommend: Ševčik, Kreutzer? What drills, what exercises, what mind-pictures? How best to think about this problem? And Sedivka might pause after the student’s litany of excellent ideas and say: just like that.
Just like what? I think to myself. I’m feeling desperate. What kind of advice is ‘just like that’?
It was in the exhausted relief of reaching London after the war, sick with tuberculosis and struggling to establish his playing again after years as a refugee, that Sedivka found it again, the grace of ‘just like that’, in a story about Mischa Elman. Some violinists were haggling over a vexatious problem of bowing, a difficult spiccato perhaps: it comes from the upper arm and elbow with the wrist completely loose…oh for God’s sake, it’s in the wrist and it must be practised as if letting go and taking up again…personally, I find the Kreutzer No. 2 for twenty minutes a day to be very good for developing the saltando and spiccato in my students…
Finally they turned to Elman.
So what do you think, the arm, the wrist, the Kreutzer No. 2, the Ševčik No. 1, slow practice getting faster, fast practice getting slower? How should it be done?
Elman played a spit of notes like spray from a ship’s bow, and said, ‘Do it just like that.’
I smile. It’s a great story, told among violinists affectionately, as one would recount the sweet saying of a child, to show Elman’s simplicity, his practicality, his lack of intellectual insight. But for Sedivka that wasn’t the point. He saw in it the brutal truth, and that Elman knew it.
Playing is playing. It isn’t overcoming problems. It isn’t practising to overcome problems. It isn’t perfecting technique. It isn’t learning to play or trying to learn to play. Playing is playing. Just like that.
A few months after I left Hobart, and was living in New Zealand, I was invited to audition for the Canterbury Symphony Orchestra. I played a short excerpt from the Mendelssohn Concerto. I was out of form, not having touched the violin for months, but I was astonished at how much better some passages were sitting. I was playing like a pig but it was a different kind of crudity: a roughness that was centred, closer to the notes. This new centring in my body aligned my hands and bow arm in circles, bringing possibilities, extensions. Perhaps even a gleam of freedom.