Do any of you watch the TwoSet Violin channel on YouTube? It is a classical comedy duo that takes an irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny look at the inside world of classical music.
It was founded in 2014 by two Australian violinists, Brett Yang and Eddy Chen, and soon went viral with “funny and sometimes painfully accurate videos depicting life as a classical musician.”
They have been featured on international media such as China Times, ABC News, The Violin Channel, Classic FM, SONY Classical Australia, WQXR, Yahoo, and The Strad. Their work has led to collaborations with other high profile artists such as Lang Lang, Hilary Hahn, Ray Chen, Janine Jansen, James Ehnes, Maxim Vengerov, and Anne Akiko Meyers.
Their slogan on their website is “Making classical music relevant to the modern generation through fun, humour and simplicity.” They now have two million followers and 300 million views across social media from all over the world.
While a lot of their videos are poking fun at various aspects of music-making and of listening to music, most of them have the underlying theme of nudging you, the viewer (through humour, of course), to PRACTICE. They wear T-shirts that say “PRACTICE. Just do it.”
They often refer to an off-screen fictional character Ling Ling, who is this “perfect violinist” who practices “40 hours a day.”
A recent video upload was titled “This will inspire you to practice”, and it brought a tear to my eye, when I not only realized how fortunate I am, but I also saw what human determination, grit, courage and perseverance can accomplish in the face of adversity.
The first part of the ten-minute video shows a Japanese woman named Manami Ito playing the violin. This is no ordinary woman; she doesn’t have a right arm. She was a nursing student aged twenty when she lost her whole right arm in a car accident, in a collision with a large truck.
She began learning the violin at age seven, and loved the instrument. You can imagine how devastating such a loss would have been. “I lost all hope”, she confesses in a video clip. “I left [nursing] school and didn’t leave the house for a year.”
Those of you who are amateur or professional musicians, who have suffered some form of even temporary disability will relate very much to what she went through. I certainly do.
In January 1983, I was in a Kala Academy minibus along with many others, when it hurtled out of control down the Banastarim slope and tumbled to a crashing halt. I emerged relatively unscathed compared to others, but the side of my left index finger was cut to the bone. I’m left-handed as well, which added insult to injury. For several agonizing months, I had no sensation in the finger, and could barely move it, so I couldn’t even write, let alone play the violin. I despaired of ever playing gain, and it really depressed me. It took a year to get back in shape. And more recently, a freak swimming pool accident injured that same finger, but I recovered more quickly.
I don’t dare compare my injury to Ito’s; I merely make the point that I appreciate even more her despair and her indomitable will to rise out of her misfortune.
Most people would indeed have given up. However, at the centre where Ito went to get an artificial arm fitted at a centre, people with similar disabilities were playing basketball! It inspired her to set her own goals and work towards them.
Since then, she has completed her nursing course, and is Japan’s first nurse with a prosthetic arm; is a Paralympian swimmer; and using a customized prosthetic bow, is playing the violin again with remarkable precision.
Any player of a bowed stringed instrument knows how much emphasis there is on the bow-hold. Although we say we play the violin/viola/cello, in actual fact we are “playing the bow.”
“You don’t realize how lucky you are to have an arm, until you don’t have one,” says Brett in the video. He then gently scolds those of us who have “functional arms” but don’t practice. We put it off “because we can practice any time we want.”
“Manami doesn’t need to play the violin, she doesn’t have to play the violin. But out of just sheer determination, she figured out how to get this mechanical arm that’s engineered for her, just to play the violin.”
It’s not easy. She needs the assistance of a guiding post to “steer” her bow so that it plays perpendicular to the strings. She doesn’t have the benefit of “arm weight” to give heft and gravitas to her sound, and it therefore sounds weak and thready. But from the smile on her face, she’s just so happy to be back with her beloved instrument.
“The next time you don’t feel like practicing,” Brett tells us, “remember, Manami is practicing. If she can, so should you.”
The next story is even more awe-inspiring. Thai Chinese-Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan was born without a right hand, but that didn’t deter him from picking the violin aged nine. In 1999 and 2000, Anantawan earned positions with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, becoming one its youngest members both years.
In 2006, after enjoying a full merit scholarship, Anantawan graduated from the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He has studied with Ida Kavafian, Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.
In the TwoSet video, Anatawan is shown playing Eugène Ysaÿe’s third Sonata (“Ballade”) from his set of six Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, an extremely daunting work in the whole violin repertoire. The caliber of the performance is nothing short of phenomenal by any standard.
Watching Anantawan play one notices several things: He needs a device strapped to his shortened forearm which is in turn attached to his bow.
One also realizes how important the right wrist and hand are to violin-playing, when watching someone play without their benefit. Anantawan is unable to use the whole bow length, but merely the central 2/3 or so. Furthermore, the bow crosses the strings in an arc as he lacks the wrist-fingers mechanism other players have to keep the bow straight at all times. Yet, he, like Ito, has had to reinvent a whole new bow technique to overcome these hurdles. He has the advantage of arm weight, that Ito doesn’t, and it does wonders for tone production. If you close your eyes, you wouldn’t believe it was the playing of someone missing a right wrist and hand. He plays double- and triple-stops with incredibly consummate ease.
Here’s Adrian at a TEDx talk:
Ito and Anantawan are an inspiration for us all. To all of you who play an instrument (and this is a note to self as well!), to paraphrase what Brett said. The next time you don’t feel like practicing, remember: Ito and Anantawan are practicing. If they can, so should you.
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 March 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)