Accident Challenges Violinist to Re-Learn ‘Backwards’

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By Vickie Yanics

In 1982, my father-in-law had last-minute open heart surgery and my husband flew to Florida to be with him.
Our yard was badly overgrown because of last-minute travels, so I went out to cut it. The mower kept becoming clogged with grass and shutting off. Lawnmowers at that time didn’t have an automatic shut off when you released the mower’s handle. In an effort to keep the mower’s engine running, I attempted to remove some of the clogged grass that was right at the opening of the exit chute, but my fingers got caught by the blade.

Fortunately, a neighbor heard the commotion and ran over to help me. He drove me to Andrews Air Force Base Hospital, which was close, and the only hand specialist in the Air Force happened to be on call that day. The doctor determined that I needed to go to the famous Curtis Hand Center in Baltimore, about 40 miles away. I was sent by medevac and soon after arrival, was taken into surgery where every attempt was made to save my fingers. The damage to my fingers was extensive and I lost about half of my first and second fingers, a reattachment was not possible. The bone in my third finger was fractured and only about half of the bone remained, although the finger was intact. The joint in my third finger was fused and remained very fragile for quite a long time. A specialized split was devised to protect that finger from further injury. My fourth finger was fine, as was my thumb.

Life-Changing Experience
While waiting for surgery, it sunk in that my life as I had known it was over. It occurred to me that I had one good hand and one partial hand. I determined that the good hand could be used to finger the violin and the partial hand could somehow be trained to hold a bow. I had seen a few violinists at various points in my life with damaged bow hands, though it was their right hands. I was in shock, but from that point on, I resolved that it was going to be my mission to be learn the violin using the opposite hands. I did not know if anyone in the world had ever accomplished this, but I was determined to do it.

While in the hospital, I requested that a close friend, who was a violin maker, switch an old violin of mine around so that I could start to learn the violin backwards: finger my violin with my right hand and bow with my injured left hand. In my hospital room, I started to visualize how that would feel, and spent most of the day imagining myself playing all of the violin concertos I knew with the opposite hands. When I returned home from the hospital, my reversed violin was waiting for me. I first practiced picking it up and putting it under my chin (one of the first and difficult lessons of a new violin student). I worked my fingers on the fingerboard to strengthen them. I did this repeatedly. My left hand was still in pain and bandaged, so the bowing aspect of violin playing was going to have to wait.

Monumental Challenge
I was faced with learning my instrument all over again. It was, in many ways, a much tougher assignment the second time around, as I already knew what had to be done to execute various techniques, but my muscles would not respond. I could hear the violin sound I desired so clearly in my head, but what used to come so easily to me before was now a monumental challenge to achieve.

During this time of uncertainty and frustration, many people came forward to help and support me. The “President’s Own” US Marine Band, my employer, fully supported me. They listened to my proposal to relearn the violin backwards and gave me two years to accomplish this. In the meantime, I spent time working in the the band library to earn my salary. President Reagan wrote me a personal letter.

My husband (violinist Kim Miller) wrote to famous violinists and musicians to ask if they knew of anyone else who had switched sides on the violin. I received wonderful letters from them and discovered that only one violinist, Rudolph Kolisch, famous for his quartet in the 1930s, had an accident and relearned the violin.

‘Truly Arrived’
When two years were up, I returned to the orchestra and played my first job. It was a patriotic opener, which consisted of mostly marches. It was a little disconcerting to be back playing with the group, and I did spear my stand partner a few times with my bow (my bow was going in the opposite direction of everyone else’s). I remember that the conductor was beaming the whole time and I felt that I had truly arrived at my destination.

Since the accident, I led string quartets at the White House, played with the Annapolis Symphony, recorded and performed with many pop artists, and performed my regular duties with the Marine Chamber Orchestra until I retired after 28 years.

A couple of years ago, I stopped playing altogether, but I am the founder and chairman of the board of the Lions of Virginia James Bland Music Scholarship Foundation, which provides opportunities and scholarships to high school aged musicians. The foundation keeps me busy, and the Baltimore Orioles also take up way too much time than I should allow!

Vickie Yanics (retired), was a violinist in the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band

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