Brendan Slocumb’s book on Audible
Surprised by delight
Once in a while, I stumble on a book by sheer accident. No reviews to guide me or a word-of-mouth recommendation from another reader. The Violin Conspiracy was listed as an Editor’s Choice or Hidden Gem on Audible one day while I was scrolling through choosing my next “listen.” The blurb intrigued me:
“A riveting story about a black classical musician’s desperate quest to recover his lost violin on the eve of the most prestigious musical competition in the world.” A man. His music. A violin. Sounded interesting.
The appeal of listening versus reading The Violin Conspiracy
I’m not going to debate the values of listening to a story versus reading a story. Each method has its own rewards. I do know, however, that listening to books while I drive, cook, clean, garden, and exercise has allowed me to easily triple my “reading” time and consume more great books. The joy of listening to The Violin Conspiracy is that at different intervals of the book, I was treated to short segments of violin music, making me feel that the main character of the novel, Rayquan MacMillian was standing right there, performing just for me.
Ray MacMillian is a black kid growing up in a large, extended family in North Carolina. Ever since he was a kid, he heard his grandmother talk about his “Pop-Pop’s” fiddle. When Ray begins to play the violin at school, it’s obvious that he has talent and an affinity for music. It is part of him. He feels it.
However, Ray is a black kid with a beat-up, cheap school rental. Teachers won’t give him attention because he’s black, and they don’t believe that he can possibly master classical music. (Yes. It’s painful to believe that even in today’s world, we have these crazy beliefs about ability based on color.) The story follows Ray in his quest to become a classical musician, but he has to fight everyone in the process. Bigoted people who won’t let him play at their fancy homes; teachers who won’t give him the time of day. His own mother constantly berates Ray for his aspirations and reminds him over and over that he needs to get a “real job” at Popeye’s chicken.
It only takes one believer to change a life
The one person who believes him is his grandmother, Nora. She listens to Ray, encourages him, and eventually gives him the very old, very battered violin that his grandfather had owned. Covered with white rosin and worn with age, the violin is a better instrument than the school rental and Ray owns it, so he can continue to practice over the summer. Ray is delighted. As Ray’s talent becomes more obvious, he is able to start playing a few gigs with some other kids, and he auditions for a regional orchestra where Janice, a music teacher at a college, discovers Ray and offers him a scholarship. Despite the insults and degradation of his family, Ray pursues his musical career, fighting to achieve his dream of being a professional violinist. In the process of making repairs to his violin, he discovers that Pop-Pop’s old, beat-up instrument is actually a Stradivarius. Reading this book, (or hearing it), will remind you of these four things:
Prejudice still runs rampant
I knew nothing about the world of classical musicians, so The Violin Conspiracy opened my eyes to the struggles and hardships of the profession. Worse, the novel emphasizes that prejudice still runs rampant. Over and over, Ray faces situations based on bigotry and ignorance. Crazy ideas like “black musicians can’t play classical music.” “Black musicians can only play jazz.” Or — not quite a prejudice, but an ignorance — the idea that being a musician is not a “real job.”
People are basically greedy
Remember that family who discouraged and denigrated Ray’s career choice? That very same family comes out of the woodwork to get a share of Ray’s success, and then fights him for ownership of Pop-Pop’s fiddle once they discover its true value. The violin that only Grandma Nora and Ray valued, that his family had not cared about, turns out to be a Stradivarius. The backstory of Pop-Pop’s ownership of the fiddle inserts another layer of prejudice into the plot. How could a man like Pop-Pop come into possession of a precious violin unless he had stolen it? The mystery of Pop-Pop’s fiddle sets up a great illustration of provenance as well as an example of the malicious greed that erupts in people whenever they smell money.
Success takes passion, persistence, and pure hard work
One truth of human existence is that success takes passion, persistence, and pure hard work. Ray spends hours and hours practicing. He takes lessons. He studies music. He puts his head down and works, not expecting any favors from anybody. Sometimes I feel like everyone wants instant success and quick admiration. Reading The Violin Conspiracy I was reminded of the pure hard work required to get anywhere in life. Not only does it take hard work, it takes persistence and the ability to keep going when something bad happens. Following your passion is not easy.
Talent comes not just from training; it's passed down by ancestry and gentic heritage
We are born with aptitudes and talents, possibly passed on in some strange, ancestral genealogy, as implied by The Violin Conspiracy. I’ve always wondered why some families seem to have excessive musical talent for generations. Or why some families generate dozens of doctors and scientists. You might argue that talent is really based more on training and environment than some inherent virtue. Still. I wonder.
Ray MacMillian took to the fiddle like a fish takes to water. Was his musical ability simply because he was told stories of Pop-Pop’s fiddle-playing? A fluke of nature? I think not. Surely some aptitudes have a genetic link and Pop-Pop’s talent was passed on to Ray to be carried forth into the future.
The belief in talent passed down genetically is a nice idea and one often debated in science.
The Author, Brendan Slocumb
The story rings true because the author is a black, classical violinist who has faced the obstacles that Ray MacMillian did. Brendan Slocumb went to school in North Carolina and graduated with a degree in music education with a concentration in violin and viola. He has performed and conducted with orchestras all across the nation and is a music teacher who teaches his students not just music, but the work ethic, dedication,
and kindness that Rayquan MacMillian shows throughout The Violin Conspiracy.
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