This Valentine’s Day, my first Valentine’s Day with a significant other, I was given two books. Books before chocolates, before flowers.
I pulled these gifts from a decorative bag while sitting in the passenger seat as D drove to Pennsylvania. With sandwiches and snacks packed to last us through the day, and a double bass hugged between our seats, we were off to see D’s luthier.
It is a wonder that his tiny white Honda Fit can hold as much as it does—like Mary Poppins’ bag, but with a humble exterior. When playing gigs, D often has to squeeze into this car a double bass, electric bass, stand, amplifier, other sound equipment and sometimes a cello. Audience members and guests frequently mistake the double bass for a cello, sometimes even for a violin or an oboe.
Most upright basses intended for adults rise above my five feet and ten inches, whereas an oboe packed in its case resembles a tin lunchbox.
The double bass is also called the upright bass, contrabass, contrabass viol, and bull fiddle. This instrument has the shape of a pear, but the pear is wearing an overzealous girdle. The lower and most voluptuous portion of its body slides between the musician’s knees, weight leaning on the left. The bassist’s right hand waits ready to bow or pluck the strings, as the left hand holds the neck and wraps gently over the fingerboard.
D had visited his luthier on February 12th and come to the conclusion that he would like to sell his two basses in order to purchase another, one that was dark and charming, with an intriguing flare. When D told me of this plan, however, his voice was littered with hesitation. I keep thinking I should go back, even if it’s silly now. I need to be certain I’m making the right decision.
And so I urged him to return on Valentine’s Day; we could go together and call it a date.
When my dad asked that week what D had been up to, I told him about our day trip and tried to explain what a luthier does. I was surprised by the effort it took to paste together a sufficient picture.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines luthier as “one who makes stringed musical instruments (such as violins or guitars).”
Such as basses.
An ordinary explanation, greatly lacking, for this ancient trade.
Luthier. The maker and repairer of stringed instruments; essential middle-man for those buying and selling instruments, and for those striving to connect with likeminded musicians; living trove of knowledge from physics to meteorology.
This profession goes back many centuries, at one point being as essential in court as a silversmith or a scribe.
When stringed instruments were prized in churches and kingdoms, so, too, were the brass instruments used in hunting and other rituals of the court. The sackbut, predecessor of the trombone, is one such instrument.
I played the trombone with devotion for 14 years, never growing tired of this grandfather name. I adored it so much, in fact, that I molded my instant messenger username after it. “Ilovemysackbut” enjoyed a deluge of attention from 13-year old boys.
It was while studying trombone that I met D. We were both in school for music, a school that I had transferred to so I could be closer to home and efficient healthcare, following the onset of chronic illness. After trying to bargain with illness, and two years after transferring, I began what I call my open-ended hiatus from playing trombone.
Chronic pain and other symptoms rendering me unable to meet the physical requirements the trombone calls for, I turn myself now to the work of writing—work that has always been an integral part of my life but was previously overshadowed by music.
Upon arrival to the luthier’s workshop, I left the books in the car and waited as D snuggled the double bass out of his morsel of a vehicle.
We walked up a steep flight of stairs into what appeared to be a generously sized two-story garage. Neither neglected nor adorned, this small building sat about 100 feet from the home of the luthier and his wife. The workshop itself lacked some basic provisions that a home calls for—no bathroom, no running water— but offered everything required for the comfort and security of wood—heating and cooling, carefully placed windows.
Upon opening the door, there was a harsh whiff of—what was it? Oil, sawdust, rust? I embraced this scent, potent and invigorating, that swelled around a mysterious pony-tailed craftsman and his shop.
The top floor boasted an array of carved wood pieces, all in different shapes, sizes, and finishes. Some were suave and upright, demonstrating velvet curves. Others were rugged, splayed boldly across tables. My eyes, more familiar with brass, could identify a few of the isolated parts— bridges, for example, with their sunrise shape and mild curlicue cutouts—but I was left to wonder over the identity of many others.
Below the workshop was a listening space, lush with thick red rug and walls lined with basses. The luthier and his wife, who handles the financial side of the business, left D and myself to join the fat flies in this temperate rainforest of a room.
I sat down with my back to D, and listened as he took turns between playing his own bass and the bass on sale. My job now was to blindly absorb the vibrations and impart my observations.
It’s become infrequent for me to work closely with fellow musicians, to lend my ear in critical situations, and so I relished participation in this process. Coexisting with this joy, however, was a dumb hot battle in my brain telling me I don’t have the knowledge or experience to spit up something of value.
Anything you can tell me here is helpful. You have good things to share, D assured and gestured for me to turn back around and trust him, to listen and speak with conviction.
Taking words to illustrate something one hears and sees in her head, making it so that another person understands clearly, is terrifying. It requires one to step out on a limb and forge both new and proverbial ground, requires confidence.
One of my several journals is dedicated to defining words with which I want to become more intimate, of which I want to grow in my understanding. This is motivated in part by a love of English and etymology, but also by a fear of misrepresenting myself as an educated woman, of being dumb and useless.
While at work a few weeks ago, when things were slow, I made myself vocabulary flash cards. The one word from that pile that I remember? Diffidence.
I pushed myself to speak without thinking too hard, and D didn’t laugh, didn’t scoff.
The two books he gave me that day are for writers. One encourages the writer to move loose hands and tongues in an absence of judgment, while the other provides advice for achieving and holding a writing career. Gifts that say I believe in you and what you are doing.
I pushed myself to speak.
After a few hours, D, his luthier, his luthier’s wife, and I determined together that with a few adjustments, D’s own bass would give him what he was looking for.
The luthier explained his logic: Right now this bass is vanilla—rich, smooth, and universally pleasing—while the bass you are interested in is pistachio—of darker terrain and wistful charm, but ultimately limited in its offerings. There is always the possibility to add flavor to vanilla.
He spouted wisdom, and we gladly lapped it up—all but his suggestion that we tie up our Valentine’s Day with a trip to McDonald’s. (His wife suggested Burger King.)
Once D and I had snuggled back into the Fit, we feasted (gladly) on our exotic packed lunch—simple grocery store items that we don’t normally permit ourselves to buy. We left the luthier’s with D confident in his decision to keep his bass, and the two of us excited to head back to Baltimore and enjoy a movie out.
After the movie that evening, the two of us ate a dinner of takeout and a dessert of both vanilla and pistachio ice creams. We got our traditional date night, only after supporting one another in our professional and artistic pursuits.
I had originally told D that I didn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day.
Giving me two books went against my wishes. And a few days later, he surprised me with flowers and chocolates after realizing that he does like giving these sorts of things, even if they’re cliché (and after I realized that I can stand to receive flowers and chocolates).
I have enjoyed what I’ve been given, and yet I don’t quite feel worthy of such thoughtful gifts.
I still wonder about the value of the feedback I provided at the luthier’s.
But D knows this—my lack of confidence and self-approval were part of his motivation for giving me what he did. And my desires for him to be confident and comfortable in his work were motivation to spend the holiday in a quaint Pennsylvania workshop.