Learning to play the violin isn’t easy as an adult when your 11-year-old kid is your teacher

I’m aiming one day to be able to play a duet with my son Lucca. He’s OK with that — “if you don’t completely mess it up. Also, learn to play so your music doesn’t sound like a cow with a sore throat.”

In the final book of “The Lord of the Rings,” the hobbit Frodo finds himself trudging across the sunless wasteland of Mordor, all but certain he’ll fail in his quest to hurl “the one ring to rule them all” into the fires of Mount Doom.

My 11-year-old son Lucca and I are immersed in the battle to save Middle-earth from the evil Sauron and his legions of orcs — so I’ve got Tolkien on the brain. I’m on another journey with Lucca — less perilous but, to my mind, no less difficult.

Lucca plays the violin. If you’ve read my occasional column on fatherhood, you’ll know he takes lessons from the marvelous Vannia Phillips at the Music Institute of Chicago. Sometimes, when I have to beg Lucca to practice, I remind him how lucky he is — and how I wish my parents had given me violin lessons.

About four months ago now, I got it into my head that I wanted to learn to play the violin. I’d fallen in love with a Brahms waltz and thought one day I’d like to play a duet with my kid. So I started teaching myself.

Lucca has been surprisingly enthusiastic about this.

“Dad, you need to practice every night,” he’ll say. “And I don’t want you to move on until you can play that piece perfectly — because right now it sounds terrible.”

He’s enjoying his revenge. And he’s right, my version of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s “Perpetual Motion” sounds more like “Unending Torture.”

Part of the problem is surely my violin. My wife bought it online for 100 bucks. Peer into the instrument’s “f” hole opening, and it reads: “Made in China. Model: VLP13-44.”

Mostly, Lucca leaves me alone as I practice nightly in the kitchen after dark, when everyone else has gone to bed. Sometimes, Parsnip, our black and white cat, howls and reaches up to sink her claws into my thigh. She’s probably just hungry, or maybe she wants to be let out.

I am tormented by self-doubt, like Frodo cowering from Sauron’s Black Riders as they wing their way across the sky, intent on snuffing out the hobbit and his quest.

But I’m also stubborn. I’ve written 2 1/2 unpublished middle-grade novels. I work with an acting talent agency, and, even though I’ve auditioned perhaps a couple of hundred times, I’ve never landed a single gig.

I recently got a jolt of inspiration from the folks at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Sean Colledge, a fiddle teacher at the Lincoln Square school, likens the early, monotonous days of learning to play an instrument to Daniel in “The Karate Kid” having to “wax on, wax off” for Mr. Miyagi before he’s allowed to apply his skills in the dojo.

“He’s getting angry,” Colledge says. “He’s not getting answers. Then, in one fell swoop, Mr. Miyagi tells him you did all this for a reason. It all becomes clear.”

Colledge says I have a good shot at success because I have a specific goal — to play with my kid.

“Tell your son he’s your teacher, and just follow him,” he says. “He’s getting all the information. You’re getting it secondhand, but you can still go pretty far with that.”

The other night, as I’m scratching and scraping my way through “Perpetual Motion,” Lucca sneaks up behind me, as he likes to do.

“Your bow strokes are too short,” he says.

That was good, helpful.

He takes hold of my bow, places it on the “A” string and says it was drifting too far out of its “lane.”

Ah, I can see that.

“You’re doing pretty well,” he says.

Progress at last!

“Do you think,” I ask, “that, at some point in the future — I mean, not any time soon, of course — that you might be interested in playing with Dad?”

A long pause.

“Um, I will play a duet with you if you don’t completely mess it up,” he says. “Also, learn to play so your music doesn’t sound like a cow with a sore throat.”

Lucca Esposito, 11, shows his dad, Sun-Times reporter Stefano Esposito, how it’s done “so your music doesn’t sound like a cow with a sore throat.”

Lucca Esposito, 11, shows his dad, Sun-Times reporter Stefano Esposito, how it’s done “so your music doesn’t sound like a cow with a sore throat.”

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times



This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two sons.

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