Choose Your Instrument Wisely

Written by Janelle White
We are – every one of us – a force of nature, though sometimes it is necessary to relearn
consciously what we have never forgotten; the truant art, the nomad heart.
(J. Griffiths, 2006)

I’m re-reading one of my all-time favourite books: Wild – An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to listen to Jay being interviewed at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. Her passion for life in all its forms was pulpable, and I’ve never forgotten how she described her yearning to find the will of the wild – ‘to live life at the edge of the imperative’.
Her 7-year journey focused on immersing herself in the essential wildness of places and experiences, describing the human spirit as ‘one of the most striking realizations of wildness … as eccentrically beautiful as an ice crystal, as liquidly life-generous as water, as inspired as air’. In recognition of this wildness she advises to ‘choose your instrument, asking only: can you play it
while walking?’ For me this question then naturally becomes ‘can I play it while riding?’

When I was a child, I learnt the piano. My mother was my first teacher then I progressed to a gentleman living down the end of our street, whose garden was magically filled with koi fish and orchids. I loved the piano, but secretly regretted its size and shape. Watching specialist piano carriers delivering our upright to our house, straps over shoulders, heaving up a flight of 16 stairs, I thought surely something more portable would better fit a (burgeoning) life of travel.

Several decades later, when I got my motorbike licence in the Kimberley, I decided to learn the violin. I ordered a beginner’s instrument from a Halls Creek payphone and a violin arrived on the Greyhound the following week. I chose a robust (red) case, promptly strapped it across my shoulder, and rode out of town to practice in the scrub. This first stage of learning I referred to as ‘killing the cat’, as the sound wasn’t pretty, but the bike allowed me to access out-of-the-way
places, so as to remain friends with my neighbours. I learned to play alongside corellas, honey bee-eaters, and blue-winged kookaburras, setting my sheet music on sheltered wattle tree branches.

Since those early days, I’ve thankfully progressed somewhat in terms of sound quality, and I’ve also taken to playing the fiddle (a little Irish folk music). I still enjoy carrying my instrument across country, on long-distance solo rides in particular. (Apart from anything else, having it strapped across my back gives me a good abs workout as I fight head and crosswinds, and it also helps prevent me from speeding!)

At roadhouses and campsites people often approach for a yarn when they see the case beside the bike, curiosity getting the better of them. Best question to date:
‘So, what’s that then – are you riding with a machine gun?’ …
I’m genuinely surprised at the number of violin stories people set about telling me, often mixing them with tall tales of their own previous 2-wheeled adventures:
‘Ahh, but those were the days, when I was a young fella!’ ‘Before I sold the bike, and …’ ‘Wish I still had her, she was a beauty – …’
Ah yes, as Jay Griffiths proclaims: ‘here’s to the rebel soul in everyone!’
May we continue to choose our instruments wisely!
Have violin, will travel! (Oodnadatta Track)

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