Mountain Solo

A post by tammypierce reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read Jeanette Ingold’s Mountain Solo for ages, and so I finally did.

What a lovely book.

It’s all about creating art–specifically, about two musicians, present day Tess, a violin prodigy who leaves her mother and her elite private school in New York and runs home to her father in Montana when she flubs a competition; and early 20th century Frederick, who sets aside the possibility of serious musical training to become a homesteader in Montana instead.

But mostly it’s about Tess. And about how the small decisions we make early on can shape our entire lives, even though other decisions might not really have been any better or worse. About how there’s more than one way to be happy, and yet once we find a way to be happy, we have to follow and honor that.

And about what it really takes to create music–or anything else–and about why creation can’t only be about the artist, and about why artists need more than creation to build a life. Wonderful stuff–from the opening chapter, when Tess blows her competition performance:

I pulled my bow in a quick downstroke and heard a discordant note tear out raw and wrong.

That’s what I keep remembering. How once I’d played that note so badly, there was no way to get it back. And how that one mistake led to another and another–a missed accent, a hurried rest beat, an odd angle to my bow arm. One off note after another, after another, after another.

Somehow my hands, on their own, played to the concerto’s end: played decently through the easy parts when I should have been preparing for the trouble spots and wasn’t; faltered through the hard sections with only what my fingers remembered and nothing of what I needed to add from my head and my heart.

To the ending, when Tess tries to explain to her new stepsister, Amy, why she’s going back to New York and to her music:

She [Amy] sniffs. “Is your Mom making you go [back]?”


“Then why?” she demands. “If you can stay here, why don’t you?”

“Because right now I belong where I can learn to be the best musician I can be.”

She considers than and then asks, “But what if you mess up again?”

“I don’t know,” I answer. “I might. But you wouldn’t want me not to try, would you? To have less courage than you showed tonight?”

And yet, though Tess decides to go back, she goes back differently–in small ways that will affect head and heart and that connection to the wide world that is so important to creating, and so easy to lose sight of.

Along the way we get a dose of wildlife rehabilitation and forest service archeology and homesteading history. Like I said, wonderful stuff.

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