The smell of wood and rosin hung in the air like sunlight and dust. The local luthier’s shop was small and cramped. Instrument cases lined the walls and packs of strings, tuners, and other supplies hung on a board behind the cashier’s desk. One wall was covered in a canvas painting of a man on a stool playing guitar. A cowboy hat was pulled low over his eyes, but his mouth was set in a permanent line of concentration. Light streamed in through the windows behind him, falling on his hands as he plucked the strings. No one was present in the painting to hear his music, but the guitarist still sat hunched over his instrument, as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered.
I walked over to the wall where the violins and violas were hanging and picked up one of the spare bows. Lewis, the shopkeeper, didn’t believe in an instrument going a single day without being played, so the violins were always kept in tune. I chose one that looked like mahogany with a shiny finish and black fine tuners. The A string sounded off, so I turned the tuning screw until it sounded familiar to my ears and then drew the bow across each individual string, listening to their tones.
“Cry Me A River” by Julie London was not a song written for an orchestra or a grand performance hall. It was written for pain and heartbreak and could fill a room. “Cry Me A River” forced a person to feel, even if they didn’t want to. It had taken a long time to teach my fingers the exact intonation for each note. I learned the miniscule distance between C natural and C sharp, how to hammer on notes, use vibrato, and keep my pegs from slipping. I got used to the smell of rosin on my clothes and the tips of the fingers on my left hand feeling slightly tougher than the ones on my right. When I pressed the bow against the strings and pulled it down until a note came singing out, the vibrations tickled against my hands, urging me to keep playing.
The shop was empty, except for me and Lewis, who was still in the back room completing my order. It was fine to play as loud as I wished, so I closed my eyes and let the melody embrace my fingers as I played each note. I didn’t notice Lewis had returned until I had finished the song and let the strings hum to silence on their own.
“That sounds nice, but I don’t think it’s going to get you in,” the gruff but cheerful voice said from somewhere behind me.
I turned around to see the shopkeeper with my violin case on the counter in front of him. He unbuckled the clasps and opened the case.
“Those grand orchestras are looking for the next Pinchas Zukerman so they can stuff them in a group with all of the other Pinchas Zukermans and have them blend together,” Lewis said.
“Thanks,” I said, putting the violin I had borrowed back on the wall. “And I know. That’s not one of my audition pieces.”
“It’s too bad, though. It is a beautiful song,” Lewis said with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “I restrung your bow and checked the pegs. It’s all in good shape and ready for your next outing.”
“Thanks,” I said, digging my wallet out of my pocket to hand him what I owed. I had to scrounge up whatever savings I had to pay Lewis, but I needed to keep my violin in perfect condition. Especially if it was going to be the basis of my career. As it was, I barely ate anything but chicken, rice, and vegetables that were marked with sale stickers. Working as a barista on the side was paying the rent, but once I got into the right orchestra, I could finally focus on my music and not my wallet.
“When is your next audition?” Lewis asked.
“This afternoon, actually.” I closed the case and buckled the latches. Of course, I had a second violin I could play if the work hadn’t been done in time, but this one was my favorite. It felt like bad luck to go into an audition without it. “I’ve been working on ‘Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major.’”
“That’s a good choice,” Lewis said with a grin. “I hope you do well, then!”
“Thanks,” I said with a smile as I headed out the door. Despite my nervousness, Lewis could always put me in a good mood.
I carefully buttoned up my black jacket, trying to avoid tearing off a button that was hanging by just a few threads. Someday I was going to have buy a sewing kit and learn how to fix my own clothes instead of buying new ones at thrift stores and piling old ones in the corner. When I was a kid, my mother used to fix them all, but now, at twenty-four years old, I never felt right about telling her I needed help with things that weren’t really that important. Especially when they lived hundreds of miles away in Ohio.
My family wasn’t poor, but my parents never threw away money either. Not when they could find ways to reuse what we had. My first violin had come from a neighborhood yard sale. It was a small instrument that had belonged to a young boy, never interested enough to give it attention. I found it lying on a table beside a pile of old VHS tapes, looking lonely and ignored. My young hands didn’t know where to put my fingers or how to create music with just a bow, but I picked up the violin and begged my father to buy it. Now that I was older, it looked like a toy, only the length of my forearm.
My lessons started within the month, as soon as my parents heard the kinds of noises a seven-year-old could make with a violin and no training. Not knowing how to press the bow onto the strings properly only led to high pitched screeching and some concern from the family tabby cat.
Outside Lewis’s shop, the air of Boston had a chill, as if the clouds would soon be heavy with snow, but for now just wanted everyone to pull their coats tightly around their bodies. I walked home, bracing myself against the wind, though the hand that held my violin case felt numb in my cheap dollar store gloves.
Henry Watts, a man I had seen several times playing music on the corner by my apartment, was there when I walked by. He had his guitar in hand and was singing John Denver songs. He seemed to be there every time I walked past the corner, swaying to his own music, smiling at strangers, asking if they had any requests. A small crowd was gathered around him, listening to a slightly bluesy version of “Rocky Mountain High,” but most people walked by without a second look. I had to wonder how many of those people heard him every day and how many were there for the first time. Though he didn’t perform with perfect skill, he played with emotion. Henry had the kind of gruff voice that was perfect for folk or classic rock, which was all I ever heard him play.
Despite so many people walking by and going about their days as if he wasn’t there, Henry always looked content. He grinned at his audience and went on singing and strumming his guitar as if they were all friends at a campfire and not strangers deciding whether a quarter was enough to leave in the guitar case by his feet. It was already littered with dollar bills, coins, and a few ticket stubs people had thrown instead of their spare change. I could imagine him playing his guitar on a stool in an empty saloon, perfectly content to lean into his own music.
The audition started at 4 p.m. in a room at the nearby community center. I was twenty minutes early and the waiting room was already filled with musicians. Two women were tuning their instruments together, while most had their violins in their cases and were staring at their hands or the walls, trying to pretend they were the only ones there. Sometimes it was easier to go into an audition when you didn’t think about the people you were up against. I had found that out after the first five or ten I had attended.
“Mr. Spencer, you’re next!”
A woman stood at the entrance to the room. Her dark hair was in a tight bun on the top of her head and she held a clipboard in her hands.
“Here.” I lifted an arm so she would see me through the swarm of musicians in button-downs.
“You’re next,” she repeated in a clipped tone.
She looked bored and I had to wonder how many people had been crossed off her clipboard already today.
The auditions were held in a large room. Music stands had been pushed against the wall, except for one that had been left out in the middle by itself.
A black grand piano took up most of the space, its lid partway open. Sometimes I felt like grand pianos were opening their mouths in a cheerful greeting, but today it felt more like it was ready to swallow me whole.
A table sat several feet in front of the music stand, with two men and a woman sitting behind it. The woman was resting her head against her closed hand, as if already exasperated by the day’s auditions.
“State your name,” said the man on the far left of the table. He had graying hair and an unfortunate soul patch that didn’t quite fit with his blue button-down shirt and black tie.
“Eoin Spencer,” I said, louder than I had mean to. Despite the many auditions I had been to over the past three years, I could never get rid of the feeling that there was a swarm of ants taking over my insides.
The woman with the clipboard jotted something down. I could hear the pen scraping against the paper. The sound seemed to echo.
“Whenever you’re ready,” said the man sitting in the middle of the table. He wore a wide grin and a tweed jacket with elbow patches.
I lifted my violin and started to play.
I played the first eleven bars of “Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major.”
The man in the tweed jacket raised his hand for me to stop and I lowered my violin.
“I’m sorry, but can you play something else?” he said, expectantly.
“What would you like me to play?” I asked, nervously. “I thought this was one of the songs listed on the website for auditions.”
“Yes, it was,” the man said. “But I’m getting tired of it already.”
“We really don’t have time for this, Mark,” the woman at the table said, lifting her head from her notes. “Just listen to what he’s prepared.”
“What would you like to hear,” I asked again, before the man could change his mind.
Mark was silent for a moment. “Do you know “Hotel California” by The Eagles?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” mumbled the man with the soul patch, while the woman pinched the bridge of her nose with two fingers and took a deep breath.
The woman with the clipboard watched with interest, crossing her arms over the paperwork.
“I’ve never played it before, but I think I could figure it out if I listen to the song,” I said, trying to sound more certain than I felt.
“Okay.” Mark pulled his phone out of his pocket and played the song loud enough that we could all hear it. “Just the first minute or so will be good.”
When the song ended, I raised my violin and began to play, humming the song to myself in my head as I went along. I had played about half of the song when Mark raised his hand again for me to stop.
“Can you play something Irish or Celtic now?” he asked.
I nodded and began to play a jig that I had learned a long time ago. It wasn’t near as complicated as “Bach’s Chaconne,” but it was something that I enjoyed playing. This time I was allowed to play the entire song.
Mark was grinning again when I played the last few notes of the song.
“That’s enough,” said soul patch man. “Thank you for indulging him. You will get a call on Monday whether or not we can use you.”
The woman with the clipboard led me back to the waiting room. Over her shoulder, I could read my name on her papers. Beside it, she had put a check mark and written the words “pronounced ‘Owen.’”
I walked out of the audition and made my way back towards my apartment, keeping my head down as I went. The streets were crowded as people were on their way home from work, pushing past each other and avoiding eye contact. I heard the rough voice of Henry Watts before I saw him. He was standing on his usual corner with his wide toothy grin greeting strangers between verses of song.
I paused across the street from where he stood and watched him sing “Let It Be.” Scattered applause greeted the final few chords of the song and a few people stepped forward to drop money into Henry’s guitar case.
“Thank you,” Henry said, nodding to his audience. “I appreciate it.”
He started into “Free Bird” as I continued down the street and towards my apartment.
I sat down at the card table I had set up in the kitchen to make the bare apartment seem like a place someone lived. Instead, it still looked like a post-zombie apocalypse hideout. The pictures of friends and family I had tacked to the walls and the hodgepodge of random city magnets clinging to the fridge didn’t do much for the atmosphere, especially when my clothes were lying in a duffel bag on one side of the room, along with the air mattress I had been sleeping on for the last three months. I had figured that once I had a position in the right orchestra, I could find a new place to live, maybe get a roommate and a painting to put on the wall. I didn’t think I was going to be in this apartment this long.
My next audition was three weeks later. This one was at the university, where I would have to play a piece written by the orchestra director by sight. There were seventeen people in the waiting room with instrument cases and mouths set in determination.
On the way home, I passed bassists playing beside the subway entrance, a trumpet player in front of the Macy’s, and then Henry Watts at his usual corner, grinning through his rendition of “Hallelujah.”
I was barely out of earshot when I paused in front of the bakery on the corner and set my violin case beside a lamppost that was covered in flyers for house cleaners, babysitters, and concerts that had happened months ago. The smells from the bakery drifted out through the doors and covered the busy city with hints of cinnamon rolls and fresh baked bread. It was the most welcoming door on the street, with its blackboard sign set out to entice people to buy a croissant. Cars drove by, honking their horns when the person in front of them didn’t immediately stomp on the gas as the light turned green and wind whistled through the tall buildings.
People in their winter coats with briefcases and fancy shoes walked by on their way to the subway station on the next street over.
I took a deep breath before I opened the latches on my violin case and picked up the instrument.
I played a scale first. Not a complicated one, just something to wake up my fingers and check the tuning. A couple of passersby looked in my direction curiously, but I kept my head down, trying to block out any noise that didn’t come from the violin in my hands.
It was different, not having someone to tell you what to play. Not having to go by a curriculum of some kind. So it took me a few moments to decide where to start. Maybe with a simple jig to warm up or something complicated and meant to impress.
There were several minuets I had learned over the years. They always sounded stately and important. I chose one by Luigi Boccherini and drew my bow across the first notes with my eyes shut, focusing on the melody.
Each kind of wood has its own unique sound. I had spent months searching for the violin that I thought suited me best and then a few more months saving up enough money to buy the one I now held under my chin. The night I had taken it home with me, I had stayed up the whole night playing every song I could find in my music books.
I heard a series of thuds over the sound of the minuet and opened my eyes. Through my bow I could see five shiny coins lying on the bottom of my violin case. A man in a black pea coat and dress pants was watching me play, his eyes intently watching the strokes of my bow. I finished the minuet and went on to the next song.
After the first few strokes of my bow, I closed my eyes again and leaned into the music. I started with “Bach’s Chaconne” and then moved on to “The Lark Ascending.” I didn’t think about the people passing by who would hear the melodies. I simply played, turning from classical to jazz to bluegrass. I followed the music, seeing where my fingers wanted to go and what the bow wanted to say. I had to play loud, over car horns that tried to drown me out and people shouting into their cell phones.
When I had finished “Cry Me A River,” I opened my eyes to see a small crowd had gathered. Several men and women were watching. When I lowered my violin a few of them clapped, while others dug through their pockets for change.
A few days later, I watched from behind the counter of the coffee shop as a woman with a red electric guitar and an amplifier was setting up across the street. She had shaggy hair with streaks of blue that made her stand out from the sea of black and brown coats passing her on the sidewalk.
I couldn’t hear her play, but I saw when she made her first strum and how she smiled softly as she did.
“Americano for Stephen!” I announced at the pickup counter and turned around to start on the next drink.
“So you see,” Amy said beside me at the sink. Her brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and she was frowning as she scrubbed the dishes clean. “That’s why I think the managers should allow us to start a trivia night. It would make Tuesdays so much better.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“Eoin.” Amy put her scrub brush down and looked at me. “You’re not even listening, are you?”
“What?” I asked while filling up a cup with black coffee. “Oh, sorry.”
“What’s on your mind, my fellow warrior of the cappuccinos?” Amy asked.
I nodded towards the guitar player out the window. “Do you think she is any good?”
Amy glanced out the window. “I don’t know. It doesn’t look like anyone is listening, so maybe not.”
“Do you think people have to listen for her to be good?” I asked, placing a lid and sleeve on the to-go cup I had just filled.
“She doesn’t look like she cares, so does it really matter?” Amy asked, going back to her work at the sink. “Besides, she could be loaded. I have a cousin that busks sometimes and she said she can make up to $20 an hour, if she gets the right street corner.”
“Black coffee for Lisa!” I set the cup on the bar.
It was past dark and Henry Watts was placing his guitar back in its case when I was walking home.
I nodded at him.
“Hey, I’ve seen you around,” Henry said, picking up his guitar case. “You’re usually carrying a violin, right?”
I nodded again. “Yeah, I’m a violinist.”
“Where do you play?” He asked with interest.
“Nowhere right now,” I said, rubbing a hand through my hair and shrugging. “I’m looking for an orchestra to join.”
“Ah,” Henry said. “I know what that’s like.”
“You do?” I asked in surprise. Though it may have crossed my mind once or twice, I had never put too much thought into where Henry had come from before he started busking.
Henry nodded, still smiling. “I was in a band before. We even got pretty big. Gigs, girls, and a different city every week. Different kind of music, but the struggle of finding out exactly how to be successful in our music is still the same.”
“What made you stop?” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all,” Henry said. He was taking gloves out of his pocket and pulling them onto his hands. I wondered how his fingers hadn’t frozen from the chill. “I lost my focus. Stopped caring about the music and only cared about what I got out of it. So I gave it all up and started playing on the street instead.”
“So you focused too much on what it could give you?” I said, considering.
Henry grinned. “You can’t play because you want something. You play because you’re in love. Otherwise, there isn’t any point.”
I tried different street corners between auditions. I moved from one spot to the next, using the time not only to practice my audition pieces, but play songs I had never played in public before. I spoke to other buskers and found out that I didn’t need a permit since I wasn’t selling anything or setting up equipment.
My eyes stayed closed as I played. It was still hard sometimes to watch the people who didn’t care for the music I had worked so hard to learn. I was on the final stroke of my bow when I looked up. The people were strolling by, as if they could go right through me.
The next week was the same. Trying to play on the corner over the sound of the wind and the voices and the cars, trying not to feel like my violin’s voice was being carried far away. People in winter coats and scarves were walking by, never quite hearing what went on around them, but dropping money as they passed. Some out of guilt or obligation, like I used to, and some because they did so every day. Only a few because they knew how to stop and listen to the notes.
Occasionally, Henry and I would play together, meshing his folksy style with whatever harmonies I could create. We would stand outside for hours playing, creating, and working together.
On a Thursday I played “Inisheer” with my eyes closed and a grin on my face. I didn’t care who stopped to listen or if they dropped something in my case. I let the melody swim through the sounds of the busy streets, saturating the city with its vibrato. I stood on the sidewalk with my violin in hand as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered.