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A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Mr. Bucholz was far and away the best violinist I had ever heard. The concert stage in the early igoo’s did not lead musicians of even the third or fourth rank into our part of the state, and here was a man who, by our standards at least, was straight from the big time. He was not, to be sure, a soloist, as the word would be understood in Chicago or Boston or New York, but he was no backwoods fiddler either. He had played for years in the first violin section of the Minneapolis symphony, and now some freak of fate had brought him to earth in Thompsonville. (I have often wondered how a man like that got to our county in the first place, and how he stood it there—for a professional musician it must have been like the heart of the Sahara desert—but I never did find out.) He came to Benzonia to give a concert, and for the first time I heard what my chosen instrument could do when the right man was using it; and afterward he let it be known that he would come over from Thompsonville every Saturday to give violin lessons. My parents immediately signed me in as a student.
My first meeting with him was an experience. He had taken over one of the classrooms at the academy—it was a Saturday, so the building was not in use—and when I came in he was striding up and down, violin under his chin, performing what seemed to me the most dazzling pyrotechnics, just as you can see two dozen violinists do backstage in a symphony hall half an hour before concert time. He laid his violin down, shook hands, and invited me to produce my own violin. I did so, wondering how it was to be tuned because there was no piano; and I immediately learned that Mr. Bucholz needed no piano for this job. Once the instrument was in tune he ordered me to tuck it under my chin and play something.
I made no music that first day. It was given over to basic training: how to stand, how to hold the violin, how to get my left arm in position, how to grip the violin with my chin. Nothing that I did was right, and Mr. Bucholz obviously felt that I needed rebuilding from the ground up. He pointed out that you did not hold the violin with your left hand; you held it with your chin and shoulder, leaving the left hand free for more important tasks, and to prove it he put his own violin under his chin, dropped his hands to his sides, and ordered: “Now—take it away from me.” I hesitated because I understood that a violin was fragile, but he insisted and I grabbed the neck of the instrument and tugged. Nothing happened. He had it clamped in place, and I was much impressed. Then he spent a long time showing me how to apply that sort of grip to my own violin, and when I began to catch on, he tried to get my left hand into the proper position. It seemed to me that he was going to dislocate my wrist, but he kept at it, explaining why things had to be done his way; and while he was at it he took my hand away from the instrument, studied it carefully, flexed my fingers, and then for the first time looked at me with approval.
“You are very fortunate,” he said. “You have a monkey’s hand.”
The ordinary hand, Mr. Bucholz said, was not really designed for the violin, and before he could make music the violinist had to conquer his anatomy, forcing his hand and wrist into an unnatural position. The monkey’s hand was different—in its shape, in the way it was attached to the wrist, and in other ways which I do not remember—and it could be put into the proper stance without strain. The rare human being who had a hand like a monkey’s had a profound advantage when he undertook to play the violin. He could do easily what the ordinary mortal could do only by constant effort.
I was tempted to ask if that meant that monkeys could be better violinists than people can be, but I refrained. Mr. Bucholz was much in earnest, and besides I was somewhat impressed with myself. I had an asset other people did not have. Perhaps I really was meant to be a violinist. My opinion of myself rose, although it did seem too bad that I owed it all to a monkey.
I took music lessons from Mr. Bucholz for perhaps six months. I say “took music lessons” rather than “studied” because I did not really study very seriously. Mr. Bucholz grew disillusioned; the Lord had given me as fine a left hand as any violinist could want, and I did not rise to my responsibility. I wanted to be a violinist, but I did not want to do all of the hard work that was necessary. He caught on and became somewhat bitter. Apparently he had thought, just at first, that something could be done with me, but I was just another teen-age fiddler and I suppose he had seen more than enough of them. I will not forget our last meeting.
Mr. Bucholz was leaving, getting out of Benzie County and going somewhere out of state to resume his professional career. He told me this, and then ordered me to run through the exercises he had prescribed at our last lesson. Unfortunately I had not been practicing very much. This thing and that had come in the way; as Harry the odd-job man would have said, I had had so much to do and everything else. This became self-evident in a short time and Mr. Bucholz shook his head and told me to put my violin away. He looked at me sternly, and when he spoke his German accent was mildly intensified. “You haff a monkey’s hand,” he said. Then his look became a glare, and he added harshly, “But you also haff a monkey’s head!”