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  • Sam Darling

Grandmother’s ukulele violin

As a child I knew there were some mysterious boxes stored behind this Chinese screen in my grandmother’s summer home.

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When I was twelve years old I asked my mother about one case that looked like an instrument. She told me it was my grandmother’s ukulele. My grandmother had died a few years prior and I had a hard time picturing her playing a ukulele. Behold, a serious child in church:

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I opened the case expecting this:

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And instead I got an instrument that predated the invention of the ukulele:

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And that is why I started taking violin lessons in Southampton, New York from the most perfectly named violin teacher, Norman Pickering, a fascinating character.

Mr. Pickering is currently 99 years old.

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But how does it happen that in a short time a violin becomes mistaken for a ukulele and forgotten in a pile of boxes? This instrument has a history yet none of us know where it comes from or when it was purchased.

In my twenties, I took it to a violin expert in New York City to have it examined. He was certain the front and back were of two different makers. According to him, the back was a 17th Century German-made instrument and in the front was added in the 19th Century by someone in France. They can apparently tell these things from the varnish / finish on the instrument. As it was a mash up of two instruments it was not considered valuable and he dismissed me with a Gallic shrug.

But I’ve taken the instrument to a number of people over the years to ensure it’s in good nick and every expert has a wildly different opinion. The only thing that is certain is that it is over 130 years old.

Now, the problem with this violin is that it is an instrument worthy of a professional concert violinist. It has a gorgeous sound that modern violins cannot duplicate unless you pay top dollar. My grandmother and I were never concert violinists. I’ve signed my eldest up for lessons but it seems unlikely to be her future either. But we have this amazing instrument. An instrument that’s used for children to learn how to play?

I’ve read a ton of research over the years that emphasizes that learning an instrument is terrific for brain development. I didn’t play a violin professionally but I do sing opera and perhaps one lead to the other. This, by the way, was my favorite piece to play on my violin. I cried every time I played it and eventually learned to sing the Santuzza role. #diva

Not thrilled with the prospect of sending my kid to elementary school with this antique I rented her a child-sized violin instead.

Is a 3-D printed violin the future of string instruments? If it means bringing a costly instrument to a wider array of children then I am delighted by it.

Meanwhile, though, I have this family instrument that I take care of and wonder which of my descendants will play it in a public forum. I love my family but we come with literal baggage.

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