Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Violin & Cello

Violin & Cello
Catherine Greer (author), Joanna Bartel (illustrator) and Alexander Lau (composer)
EK Books, $24.99

Every Wednesday, when I was in First Class, I had to leave school early so my Dad could drive me to piano lessons. I remember carrying the hard little case that held my sheet music and my theory book across the hot asphalt of the playground. It was a long, solitary walk (or so my memory would have it) and Dad would be waiting patiently.

I’m pretty sure I was the only child in my class who was learning an instrument outside of school. My fellow students had to content themselves with tooting on the dodgy plastic recorders our school doled out and which could barely hold a tune. I had a wooden recorder, which my mother believed was superior, but it didn’t help. Our renditions of “Fire’s Burning” were woeful. They cured me of ever wanting to play music in a group.

My partner is a skilled violinist who performs often and I’ve seen the joy he gets from playing in a wide variety of ensembles. He loves the buzz of making music with friends and, even when he’s not rehearsing for an upcoming concert, he’ll spend time with other musos playing quartets and quintets for fun in their homes.

It’s heartening to learn from the Teachers Notes for Violin & Cello that between 45 per cent of children (Australia) and 70 per cent of children (UK) currently play a musical instrument and even more (as many as 9 out of 10) want to learn. Today, more than half a million children are learning a musical instrument in Australia. What a different cultural landscape than when I was trudging across that Western Sydney playground on my own!

Violin & Cello is Catherine Greer’s charming new picture book for children aged 4 to 8 – and it was inspired by an Instagram post she saw during the 2020 pandemic.

“Two pianists, an older man and a young man, listened to each other play every afternoon in adjoining apartments,” she explains. “I thought it would be fun for two children to have the same experience in a large city, not knowing who was on the other side of the wall, and then discovering a way to make music together.”

Violin & Cello doesn’t paper over the fact that learning and practising an instrument can be a pretty lonely undertaking. However, its central message is that being a musician can lead to making friends – and that composing and performing music can be an enjoyable shared pursuit.

Award-winning Australian composer, Alexander Lau, composed an original duet for violin and cello, “The Mystery Friends” at Catherine Greer’s request. The scores for the allegro and adagio movements of “The Mystery Friends” are printed in the book.

Greer said she first collaborated with musician Alexander Lau on her children’s book Jacaranda Snow (2018) and to work with him again was “such a privilege as his compositions are incredible”.

Joanna Bartel’s illustrations are also beautiful and worthy of close attention.

Although the violinist’s and the cellist’s balconies are side by side, they’re very differently depicted – one lush with flourishing plants, the other neater and sparser.

The visual variation continues – and sometimes it’s in the minutia. For example, in the different rooms in which the two young musicians have their lessons on Saturdays there’s a proper expresso cup in one and a takeaway coffee cup in the other. Portraits of famous composers hang on the walls in one and musical notes paper the walls of the other.

When we finally see inside each child’s family kitchen, the food being made is from different cultures – but not overdone.

To reach out and propel the friendship, the young violinist acts first. He sends the cellist a sheet of music he’s composed (the allegro) over the dividing wall of the balcony in the form of a paper plane. The cellist responds by sending her composition (the adagio) to the violinist by the same means.

I loved how the illustrator cleverly introduced the idea of planes on the page before the first paper plane is launched. She did this by patterning the boy’s bedsheet with planes and placing a model plane on his chest of drawers.

For such a seemingly simple book, Violin & Cello covers a lot of territory, exploring cultural diversity, life in large cities, musical terms and musical education and friendship.

Greer said: “My son was a cellist at age five, but had the good fortune to play in many orchestras for his entire school years. I wrote Violin & Cello because musical friends are so important for young musicians.”

For me, the cherry on the top is that Lau’s composition is simple enough to be played by young cellists and violinists and children and their teachers can listen to a recording of the adagio on the EK Books website and listen to all the movements on Alexander Lau’s website.

What a great resource for young readers beginning to learn an instrument.

books@ssh.com.au

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