It all started innocently enough, a hunger to get more tactile feedback on intonation while practicing my violin at home. Sure, there was the tuning fork getting me to A440 and then I used my ear to tuning the other open strings to fifths. But what about the B that I’d sharp one minutes and flat the next? And that incorrigible C? I was a lost soul. And then I saw the ad in the back of a magazine. Instant gratification at your fingertips, it promised. Comes by mail, wrapped in anonymous brown wrapping paper. How could I resist such a lure?
I got it, a few days later. It only took one time, on the open strings, and I was hooked. The accuracy! The validation of seeing that needle pointing straight up! This, then, must be what it feels like to play the piano, those smooth tongues of white, so steady and reassuring, offering the same reassuring pitch over and over. It was incredible.
At first it was only once or twice a practice session. After confirming my open strings, I’d turn it off and only use it for a quick nip to check the B and C notes that always dogged me. Then a little more. And a little more. I didn’t tell my teacher how much I was using it, of course. I hadn’t intended to mention it at all, but then, when she commented on my improvement on the A string, I let it slip. My teacher’s eyes widened, as if I’d just admitted to keeping a loaded firearm in my violin case. “You don’t want to use that,” she said. “Haven’t we talked about equal temperament and just intonation?” I nodded, hanging my head meekly. Yes, I know. The violin is not the piano. On the violin, intonation will change according to a number of circumstances, including the key in which the violinist is playing. Point well taken.
After my lesson I went home and pulled out the chromatic tuner. I studied it, the compact shape of it – its angular lines and smooth cold feel. I turned it on and hummed to it. The needle sprang to attention. My breath caught. I knew I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
I didn’t tell anyone—I just kept doing it. Never with people around, of course. On weekends, I’d wait for the sound of the screen door shutting, signaling my husband’s departure to go cut the lawn. I’d scurry upstairs, pull out the violin and turn on the chromatic tuner. I craved the validation, you see. The sight of that erect needle, no sharp/flat red dot to visually slap my hand. But I knew I could stop any time.
Then one Friday I was having a stressed out day. The husband was away on business, the kid was fussing, the cat was meowing for no reason, there was laundry to do, bills to pay, and so much uncertainty in the air. I needed control. Concrete validation. So I kept the chromatic tuner on after checking my open strings. Two octaves of a G major scale, my eye riveted to the tuner. It was incredible.
The sight of that needle shooting straight up, bang on the money, every time, made something in me let loose. I threw all caution to the wind and I began to play an entire piece, matching each note to the chromatic tuner. It was mind-blowing. I kept playing and playing and then I couldn’t stop and oh, sweet Jesus, it felt so good, I never wanted it to end, and there I was, rocking and swaying, reveling in the preciseness and I’m a believer, yes, I am, and I’m there in heaven right now.
I had to sit down finally. My legs and arms were too trembly and I was having difficulty catching my breath. Thank God no one saw me. Even the cat had run out of the room.
Now, under the harsh, sober light of another day, I give myself a good soul-searching. Maybe I overdid it. Maybe I need to lay off it for a while. But at the thought, a rush of fear overtakes me. Not yet. Not today. One more practice and then I’ll be fine.
Tomorrow, then. Because I’m sure I can stop anytime.