For the next couple of years my health was deteriorating so rapidly that it was all I could do to just about keep going with my degree. By summer 1989 I had far more serious problems than not being able to play my violin: my parents had had to drive me back from France at the end of my year abroad lying on the back seat of their car as I was unable to sit up for any length of time; I was too unwell to look after myself; and I was clearly not going back to Oxford to do my final year that autumn.
For most of the next 7 years I was too weak even to hold my violin up, never mind play it.
I tried bargaining with God: ‘OK God, I realise that the violin thing had got out of all proportion and become the most important thing in my life. I miss it but now I just want to be well enough to make my own tea and maybe even go back to Oxford and finish my degree. I can cope with never playing again if you make me well enough to have some kind of life and do some other things.’
When I went on a Christian healing conference in the autumn of 1995 a friend gave me a card. It was a picture of a violin and a Bible verse: Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised. (Psalm 48 v.1)
‘You will play again,’ I felt God was saying, ‘but this time you will play for me.’ It is now framed on my wall. A reminder of God’s promise.
My health slowly started to improve. After a second healing conference a few months later my Dad asked: ‘What are you going to do now?’ ‘Drive your car and play my violin.’ I replied. It was eight years since I had driven, nine since I had played my violin. He handed over the car keys without even blinking. Four weeks later, after very minimal practice, he and I played Dvořák at a church concert he was organising. Most of the audience knew me and were so overwhelmed with emotion at seeing/hearing me play again that they didn’t notice how out of practice I was. ‘You haven’t lost your touch.’ someone said. I had lost quite a lot of my touch but it didn’t matter. Being able to play at all felt like a miracle.
I began to play for 10 minutes now and then at home. And to join in music at church occasionally where I could keep rehearsals and playing as short as possible and opt out when I needed to.
Once I was back in Oxford the following year trying to finish my degree (from my bed, attending practically nothing, rarely actually producing any work) I had little strength left over for playing.
At some point during the next three years an elderly gentleman from my parent’s church insisted on giving me a violin that had been in his attic for years. I felt quite embarrassed given that I was playing so little and already had a perfectly good violin, but he was determined that I should have it. Despite my lack of practice, once restored, this ‘new’ violin sang in a way my old one never had. It felt like confirmation from God that playing would be part of my future. A new violin for a new kind of playing.
Christmas 1998 and the church I had recently moved to in Oxford wanted musicians for an orchestra for the carol service. I reckoned maybe I could do it if they let me do one rather than two rehearsals, and sit out some of the verses. The conductor handed me a first violin part full of descents with dizzyingly-high ledger lines. ‘Can you play this?’ she asked. My heart leapt with excitement. I gulped, said ‘yes’, and went home to work out what the notes were and revise fifth, sixth and seventh positions which I hadn’t been near for eleven years.
They asked me to join the worship team. I had to explain how little I could actually play. They didn’t mind – I could play however much or little I was up to. I learned to play from guitar chords, to improvise, to transpose at sight and wrote violin descents for my favourite songs. At my best I was playing one evening service (modern worship songs, guitars, drums, keyboard etc) and one morning service (a classical chamber group formed by Anne Atkins) a month.
I wasn’t doing much else other than just about managing to survive living in a shared house in Oxford. My hopes of working part-time from home had come to nothing. I was just too unwell and not long after finally graduating another bad virus had set me back again.
I would clear my diary for days of rest before playing, and days of recovery afterwards; pray for the strength to play, and for God to use my playing to bring people closer to him; pace my playing, missing out some songs, only playing parts of others; and lie down in the vestry during the sermon, praying for the strength to get up and play a couple more songs. I rarely practised; I didn’t have the strength. Every note I played was the result of prayer and every note felt like a gift and a miracle after all those years when I thought I would never play again.
Later, in another ‘better’ phase, I joined the church orchestra for an evening of readings and excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, lying across chairs on the front row during the readings; organised a quartet for a church event (where I got to dictate the playing schedule and rest regularly); and played, with my Dad, for the weddings of a couple of friends and my youngest sister.
I am fortunate that my church in Manchester is even more flexible than the one in Oxford. Since 2012 I have been too unwell to commit to regular playing, but successive music directors have allowed me to join in as and when I am able to, decide on the day itself, play just one or two songs, lie down when I’m not actually playing, skip rehearsals, ‘wing it’ on the night.
Now when I play I can hardly stop smiling, inside and out: at the pure joy of being able to do it, even for a moment, when I thought I had lost it forever, and of being able to play with others and contribute to leading worship through music. And it feels as if God is smiling too and giving me the strength and inspiration I need. For months on end I am unable to play, even at home, and I am woefully out of practice, but it is still the thing that makes me feel most alive, most fully ‘me’, even as I battle with the pain and exhaustion it brings.
In 2018 I played once in January and once in September. Each time a red letter day; each time followed by days of pain and exhaustion when I wondered if it was worth it. Usually I decide that it is. Just occasionally.
I played again two weeks ago. Six and a half months since the last time. Ten minutes practice during the week and then a Sunday evening service. Any more practice and I wouldn’t manage the service. When a friend arrived to take me, with wheelchair and violin, to church, I felt like an excited child before Christmas. It is a collaborative effort now, me playing at all: God, my friends, and me. Lots of prayer and a military operation of practical arrangements to enable me to do it and then to manage the after effects on the following days. All for a few miraculous moments of playing.