HANDS PLURAL: BEING A ONE-HANDED FIDDLE PLAYER
I've never done anything in stereo–not hearing, nor seeing, nor walking, nor thinking. I was born with spastic hemiplegia caused by a brain hemorrhage. I am, for all practical purposes, a one-handed person; my right hand is the one that drives. The word "hand" was always singular, even when it wasn't–for ten years, from the age of twelve to twenty-two, I played the fiddle.
The disability I was born with did not stop me; accumulated permanent injuries to my right hand did. I sat in doctors' offices trying to distinguish between fizzing and burning as I filled out pain questionnaires and they tried to suss out the problem:
"What did you do to yourself?"
"A lot," I said, "Everything, I don't know. I did play the violin on top of everything else, I don't know if that contributed."
Silence. Blink. "…. So anyway…"
As I attempted to recover a bit of grip if nothing else, I blurted to a hand therapist, "I miss my violin." To her credit, she nodded–and then, setting out the next weight, she said, "Exercise for your arm, for sure."
Exercise, I thought, as if I never listened enviously to anything with a scrap of violin in it like a talisman and tried to reproduce it ten times slower, or, failing that, imagined my fingers on the grace notes and swayed against the melody. As if I'd never crawled up and down the stairs at school when I was younger, the violin case bumping behind me. As if I'd never struck my own limbs in frustration, a holdover from childhood when they thought CP was surmountable weakness rather than brain damage, paralysis and electrical miscommunication. As if hitting a clean string crossing never thrilled me as the bow hair bit into the string. The expectation that sports and the arts must be therapeutic activities to improve or mitigate a disability is a subtle, yet surprisingly effective, way to steal not only the joy of the thing, but also the joy from the disabled person. By reducing activity and creativity to quasi-medical treatments, such comments strip disabled people of some basic three-dimensional attributes–desire, curiosity, talent, and perhaps above all, the capacity to tell one's own story.
I had not decided to play the violin as a form of therapy. I had barely planned to play at all; I had to look up "violin" in an encyclopedia to understand how it was played. (How I saw how it was played and still went looking for an instrument, I don't know. I blamed the brain damage.) I wanted something to do. I wanted music; I liked music. Violins sounded beautiful to me. And my friend's father happened to have a broken violin in their garage.
Without telling my mother (stupidity, not brain damage), I had scheduled and found a ride to my first lesson–with a teacher who proceeded to re-string the violin the other way around and ask me if I could pry open my left fist enough to get the bow in it, and could I reach the strings when my arm stopped jerking? I could.
"Maybe you could learn a couple songs" became years of practicing and cursing and modifying and throwing myself into the slow songs with undisguised relief (I had developed a fine vibrato) until I switched to Irish music, which allowed me to manipulate tempo and technique as much as I pleased. I was more concerned with melody than meaning, or even with proving anybody wrong–though an orchestra teacher once compared my wanting to play with a man getting pregnant and banging his head against a wall. (Both at the same time, I think, which sounded like it hurt.) I would never be Martin Hayes, whose hands must move like water. I had roughly ten-minute bursts of coherent movement before my body locked the music up for a while, and those ten minutes were not squandered–it was all focus and motion and honing my right hand tricks, hearing the music take gradually smoother and richer shape under my blunted right ear. Irish music is no stranger to hops and fits and starts; I nearly disappeared in it. And yet disability was all over it.
A violin itself relies on a kind of spasticity, held together by tension. Without it, there would be no sound. But at the same time, it doesn't forgive any spasticity but its own. Any tremor or hesitation you bring to it, it will translate and transmit. I do not have much body language; I can't properly sign ASL. But when I took a pipe cleaner and fastened the bow to my fist, the voice of the fiddle was also the voice of my hands and spine and shoulders. Even if someone was curious enough to try my instrument, they could not replicate it.
There was an initial fit of coughs and hiccups as the bow bounced inarticulately, then the moment of almost trance when I stilled enough to draw the first downbow and the rest of my body moved in concert to balance what my contracted arm couldn't do. This voice was always loud; I couldn't let go of the bow to play softly. And so it was hoarse like my own from the tension and the slightly slanted pull of the bow, drawn ever so slowly to conserve the bowstroke like a breath. The high strings whistled faintly as I twisted away to reach them, and I dipped toward the low strings and their darker, slightly gruff edge eagerly; the lows were always easier to reach. My hypermobile right fingers could slur and roll, cut and slide, breaking my restricted bow motion into greater syllables. That was the only time I ever used both arms simultaneously. This was what my brain and body sounded like; this was the electricity of spasticity controlled and taught to sing.
Eventually, the subtly progressing damage to my right hand was too great to continue playing, but I couldn't let it go entirely; the fiddle is still under my bed. The top is chipped where the bow had flailed and struck it; my fingers have worn shine marks along the fingerboard. Even though I don't play, I don't feel right letting it languish, so every few years I take it and make sure nothing has warped. On one of these occasions–blame the brain damage–I traded the ubiquitous synthetic core strings for a set of bright good steel.
"These sound sweeter," the luthier's wife said, holding up the synthetics.
"I don't want sweet," I said.
Once home, I realized that the fiddle had not warped, but I had; I could no longer reach the strings if I held the fiddle to my shoulder. I braced it against my forearm and breastbone, tipping it sideways and down, and drew a whispery bow-breath before the steadiness came and made the new strings ring out, much louder and clearer now under my blunted right ear. Two minutes of mere scales would earn me right-fingered numbness and the inability to lift a coffee cup the next day without wincing, but my mind in that moment had moved into my competing muscles, to my singing hands–plural, made symmetrical by disability. Perhaps they had always been.