Changing Strings

Changing Strings

Photo by Dan Gold / Unsplash

Two weeks ago I changed my violin’s E string for the first time since Dad died.

I’ve started practicing again for thirty minutes each day in an effort to make a comeback of sorts: I met a retired cellist who was looking for someone to play duets with, and I wanted to brush up before our first meeting.

I noticed dark spots where the E string was thinning near the top of the fingerboard, meaning I should either change it or let it break. But the last memory I have of a string breaking – I must’ve been in my early teens – was it snapping and hitting me in the cheek, stinging me like a wasp.

Hoping to avoid re-injury, I rifled through the accessory compartment in my violin case, whose contents have been nearly static for the eight years since Dad died. It was filled with string envelopes; I still had more than one spare each of G, D, A and E, and in multiple brands. This amused me as Dad was notoriously cheap, but maybe there had been a sale on bulk purchases in the catalogue he used to order from.

I suddenly realized that I had never changed a string before. I’ve had to recalibrate from the lowest octaves when the tuning pegs lost their grip, but I’ve never completely unwound an old string and replaced it with a new one.

I watched two YouTube videos, the first of which said that the whole process of changing a string should take less than two minutes. It took me at least fifteen minutes of winding and unwinding, removing and re-inserting the threadlike metal just to properly furl the new E string around the peg and edge it against the pegbox like the guy instructed. Tuning and re-adjusting the bridge took another ten minutes.

Dad had ordered two types of Es: the one with the ball and the one with the loop. The old string I was replacing had a ball, but both YouTubers said that I should use the one with the loop based on the type of fine tuner on my violin. Did Dad know this and decide to ignore the common wisdom anyway?

All those years, I’d always thought I was the one putting in all the effort. Dad pushed me to take my violin studies seriously, although I only halfheartedly accepted his quest to turn me into a child prodigy. I focused mostly on technique and ignored the extra tidbits of knowledge, including how to properly take care of my violin. The maintenance, notetaking and administrative nuisances surrounding my practice were delegated to Dad. I overlooked how much he held together for me.

I have a mental image of my violin resting backwards against his torso, like a child propped on Santa’s lap. He would hold the scroll in place with his chin and use what looked to me like a tremendous amount of muscle to turn the pegs towards himself. I always thought he might snap the neck in half, but miraculously he never did.

When I embarked on this comeback I thought I knew everything there was to know about playing the violin; all I needed was to shake off some rust. But perhaps this is my chance to fill in those other missing parts, all those bits that Dad was holding together, in order to become – at long last – a more complete, even if less impressive, violinist.