All the violins are playing for you Aunty Eileen
Simon Navagaththegama once related a story about a radio. It was the
first radio his village, Navagaththegama, had seen. It had amazed
everyone. It had stopped working. Since it was the first such machine
the repair industry had yet to be established. After much amateurish
fiddling and a lot of ear-shattering crackling, it had come to life.
Everyone had been thrilled and relieved, so much so that no one wanted
to touch it again out of fear that the slightest move might kill it
altogether. The station, therefore, was fixed for all time. It played
Western classical music.
Simon had used this anecdote to explain that art appreciation
requires some minimum level of acquaintance and exposure. He loved
Western classical music, he said.
I suppose exposure and acquaintance are necessary but not sufficient.
I was not lacking in either, thanks to a musically gifted mother and
talented siblings. She tried hard, my mother did. She sent me for piano
lessons for a couple of years, but we moved far away from the teacher’s
residence and that movement ended that ‘exposure’. Somewhere down the
line, she later told me, I had said I liked the violin. Thinking back I
am pretty sure I might have meant that I liked the sound of the word
‘violin’ for I had not seen the instrument until she bought me a
Prins, a gifted violinist
That’s how I encountered Aunty Eileen. That’s Eileen Prins, violinist
and teacher, feared then on account of the ‘talent-abysmality’ and
adored later for the utterly non-threatening person who existed outside
the class. It took me over 30 years to discover ‘adorable’, but as they
say ‘better late than never’.
I never became a connoisseur of Western classical music but if I do,
someday, I’ll have to thank both my mother and Aunty Eileen. Of course
there was also Mrs. Niles, who tried to teach me how to play the piano
once Aunty Eileen recognized my limitations and gently sent me up School
Lane (i.e. before Duplication Road broke it into two parts), but it was
from Aunty Eileen that I got some sense of the basics.
I remember my mother writing down a quote from ‘Merchant of Venice’
in the note book I had to take to class: ‘The man who hath no music in
his heart is fit for treason, strategems and spoils’. Yes, literature
interested me more than music. On the other hand, I still remember Aunty
Eileen helping me remember the sharp key signatures using a mnemonic
device, ‘Father Charles Goes Down and Ends Battle’, showing the number
of sharps between one and seven for order of keys, F C G D A E B. I
remember the reverse for the flat keys too: ‘Battle Ends And Down Goes
Charles’ Father’ (B E A D G C F). The technical details, i.e. ‘theory’,
When my mother passed away almost two years ago, Aunty Eileen’s son,
Stephen, who had been my mother’s student at Royal College, came to pay
his last respects. I hadn’t seen Stephen since the last time I had seen
his mother, i.e. at the year-end concert held at a church on Jawatte
Road. I was required to play ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’ and Stephen
accompanied me on the piano. I was so bad that I was the only one who
had not memorized the selected piece. Stephen said, kindly, after the
performance, ‘it was a bit flat, but you were ok’. I remember being
ready to run far away, because among the students was Lakshman Joseph De
Saram, then barely 10 years old. I did run away and stayed away for 30
A few weeks after I met Stephen, later I went to see Aunty Eileen.
She was already past 90 then. Like a doll. Beautiful. She was frail but
lucid. We talked for a few minutes. I didn’t want to tire her.
Aunty Eileen is no more. She passed away a couple of days ago. She
was blessed with an exceptional gift and one she shared with many, many
people. She was a teacher, so her music lives on and will continue to
lift and enrich lives. This is the way of teachers and teaching.
We forget to remember too often. She’s now unforgettable though.
Perhaps because I am older now or because of a particular sequence of
events and incidents I had no control over.
Aunty Eileen gifted love and music. I am sure she’s being received
right now with truly divine music. As for me, I think I will listen to
some music. I am sure I’ll recognize the heart of Eileen Prins, even
when the violins are silent.