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The Book That Gave Me Itchy Fingers

Once I determined that audiobooks were not the answer for my new longer commute, I decided to at least put a CD or two of mine in the car. I do not have a child in the car with me in this new commute configuration, so I can pick the music I want without having to argue with someone in the backseat.

On a whim, I grabbed the first CD put out by Lunasa, which is one of my favorite CDs of traditional Irish music. I am not Irish, not even in the way so many Americans say they’re Irish, but I love Irish music. I played fiddle in various Irish sessions for about seven years. I stopped when my first child was born and I found I had to prioritize sleep over most other things. Even though that child is six years old and has long since ceased to regularly disrupt my sleep, I haven’t found my way back to a session. I had a second child and found other creative outlets. It is only recently that the idea of going out to a bar on a weeknight hasn’t sounded like utter insanity.

As I drove along listening to that Lunasa CD, though, I felt a familiar tingling in my fingers, a phenomenon I term “itchy fingers.” My fingers wanted to grab my fiddle and play along. Of course, this was impossible, since my fiddle was at home and my fingers needed to grip the steering wheel and drive the car, but it got me thinking about fiddling and wondering if I can find a way to fit a session into my life again.

Before I played fiddle, I played the viola. I started in the 4th grade, when my parents vetoed the cello I wanted to play as too big and unwieldy for my daily walk to and from school. I chose the viola as the next best thing, but grew to love its mellow voice. It wasn’t long before my parents agreed to add private lessons to the instruction I received at school, and I soon got good enough to really enjoy playing. I even occasionally had the discipline to truly practice, and not just play. I continued to play the viola in my school’s orchestra through college. In graduate school, I found a local community college orchestra that was open to community members, and I joined it and played until I graduated, even after the chance purchase of Altan’s Island Angel CD got me interested in learning to play the fiddle.

It has been many, many years since I last played classical music. I still listen to classical music, but it rarely makes my fingers itch in the way that listening to the Lunasa CD does. I did, however, get a serious case of itchy fingers when I read Beethoven’s Shadow. Pianist Jonathan Biss does an extraordinarily good job of describing the sense of joy and discovery that can come from working through and mastering a classical piece. I never approached his level of mastery, but even so, his words resonated with me- and made me miss the intellectual and emotional satisfaction of playing a classical piece well.

The descriptions of what it feels like to play music are secondary to the Biss’ interests in exploring the role of music in our lives, explaining the depth of classical music, and probing the peculiarities of recording music rather than playing it live. But as interesting as I found Biss’ broader topics, it was the descriptions of how it feels to play music that made my fingers itch, and in doing so, made me love the book.

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