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Rebecca Raney - The Reckless Violinist

Back in Black, Just in Time for 'Gig-Mas'

Published 6 months ago • 5 min read

Three years ago, still in the throes of the lockdown, I had my first contact with the music world in many years. I was picking up my violin from the shop, where it had undergone a complete resurrection, and a woman in a Subaru started honking and yelling at me in the parking lot.

Oh my God. It was a violinist.

“You can’t go in there!” she screamed. “You have to have an appointment. You HAVE to HAVE an appointment!”

I yelled right back. “I DO have an appointment, for God’s sake! Jesus Christ.” My teen son looked at me in horror; he had never seen me speak to anyone like that.

“It’s OK,” I told him. “Violinists are mean. She would expect nothing less of me.”

It’s a good thing that I stopped short of recommending a novel use for her horn, because three years later, I was sitting in an orchestra with her. What’s more, I was placed in a position of leadership in that orchestra as assistant principal first violin – a position I didn’t feel I was ready for, and that I didn’t really want.

Even though people play better when they’re placed up front, in the constant tradeoff between leading and following in an orchestra, I would have preferred to have done a little more following. Not to mention, sometimes situations like this can bring out the worst in people.

Why are violinists so cranky? It’s because we’re like ballerinas, except it's our fingers that dance, to the millimeter, on the fingerboard. To dance this dance, you have to get a little mean about it. And by God, does that create a ruthless pecking order.

In the last couple of years, I’ve produced whole videos about the culture of intimidation among violinists. It all seemed a little over the top at the time, but now that I’m playing in orchestras again, I believe that, if anything, I understated the matter.

Don’t get me wrong; I thought nothing this fall of the player with the $40,000 violin who insulted my bow. I’ve been outplaying people like that for decades.

No. It was the professional gig that got me.

That time, I was seated between two pros – real pros – people who practice their scales every day and only play when they get paid.

The principal violinist was one of those aloof players who carries the cloister of the practice room around like a force field. I made the mistake of apologizing in advance.

Why apologize? Because my teachers had taught me to.

“Be sure to tell them you’re a non-major,” the star-maker told me. “Otherwise, they’ll think you’re a no-talent.”

At the rehearsal, I told the pro that I had played as a scholarship-supported non-music major in college, and that I had quit for 25 years and taught myself to play again.

“Are you studying with anyone?” she asked. “I teach, and I have a few openings.”

Oh, the horror.

She could not have said anything worse. I nearly packed up and went home.

Here was the effect: While trapped in the vicinity of that big violin-teacher energy, I second-guessed every shift, dynamic and bowing. I wanted the gig to be over so badly, I blasted through the final rest during the performance.

Then I flashed back to a time in an elite student orchestra with a famous conductor, when I blasted through a rest in some interminable Beethoven finale.

“That was MY solo,” he yelled. I can still feel the heat of that glare.

Classical music: The world where failure is inconceivable.

--

During the last decade, having left the violin behind, I took a crack at failure.

It’s safe to say that I had never tried anything before that was likely to fail.

When you grow up in an environment of poverty and uncertainty, the constant seeking of security drives every decision: What you can pursue, and what you can’t.

As a result, when I was starting out, I only ever made safe bets.

The violin was a risk as a career, because you had to compete against people with $40,000 violins and $10,000 bows and families that paid for them to live in Europe for a few years to play the festival circuit.

However, as strange as it may sound, pursuing a newspaper career seemed like a safe bet at the time. I had a path – in-state tuition, scholarships, loans, low-wage jobs, work-study and Pell Grants at a journalism school that placed people in jobs – and there were a whole lot more jobs to be had in those days. I had a knack for the work. I had won awards.

--

After the newspaper industry collapsed, for the first time in my life, I took a risk. I confronted failure on a grand scale.

Because of substantial personal obligations, I ended up with a lot of time on my hands, but I didn’t have a lot of work.

So I wrote a novel. Then I wrote another novel. Then I planned another one.

Six years ago, I started pitching my work. No one told me that the odds of emerging from the slush pile and getting a contract with a literary agency were something like 0.03 percent (someone actually quantified it). I pitched for six years, sending hundreds of emails, and failing, failing, failing, every day, with a complete lack of grace.

It's no accident that I quit querying for a while to focus on learning to play the violin again; in the face of failure, I needed to cloak myself in the mantle of success. I’ve always embraced my identity as a good violinist from a bad neighborhood. It wasn’t really a matter of saying, “Hey! Look at this! Someone like me, mastering one of your highest arts!” No. It was that playing the violin taught me that I could do things that were hard, no matter where I came from.

This fall, I took my second manuscript out for a final round.

I had been afraid to try again, but a little dose of courage cropped up after I was placed in a leadership position in an orchestra. No, I wasn’t completely ready for that position.

But you know what? I was one of the best players they had, and I knew how to play the role. I rose to the occasion, and I learned to trust that I was right about the entrances even when everyone else was behind.

Send those emails, I told myself. Your manuscript? It’s unsold inventory. You’re simply making absolutely certain that no one wants your work. Five pitches a day.

Three weeks after starting, the first offer came in. Then the second offer. Soon some of the most well-regarded agents in the business asked to take a look.

I have received excellent feedback during the last couple of years, and the notes were encouraging enough to give me the courage to try this last time. On a different manuscript, a timely tragedy set in the high-control world of the Missouri backcountry, the notes were what querying writers call “rave rejections.” Agents praised the execution of the premise, the setting, the storytelling, the relationships and the writing. A couple of them, however, suggested that the characters were too mean.

In the end, I signed a contract with Isabelle Bleecker at the Nordlyset Literary Agency, who believes there’s a place in this world for working-class fiction and doesn’t think my characters are too mean.

Signing the contract felt a lot like being placed at the front of the orchestra, except in this instance, I’m ready.

I was ready to quit writing -- just as I quit playing the violin, and for the same reasons: It took too much time. It didn’t make any money. It wasn’t the sort of risk that people like me are allowed to take.

This year, for the first time in decades, I made more money as a violinist than as a writer. It probably won’t happen again.

Yes, music made me who I am – in adolescence and in middle age. To the star-maker’s eternal despair, however, I would never have been happy spending years playing scales and maneuvering my way onto the gilded stages of Europe.

I did, however, gladly spend years pitching my words. It was a solitary, drama-free endeavor. In the end, I guess I’m just not mean enough for music.

Rebecca Raney - The Reckless Violinist

Respectable journalist. Terrible waitress. Reckless Violinist. Noir novelist. Longtime contributor at The New York Times. Sign up to follow my cross-platform project about money, merit and music in the turmoil of America.

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