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My life with the Violin

Editor’s Note: This blog coincides with National Violin Day, December 13

I started taking violin in the seventh grade at St. Joseph Academy in my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. My first teacher was Sister Miriam Cecile, who made sure I practiced by having me do it during the noon hour. When I moved on to Corpus Christi High School, Sister Mary Huberta joined the faculty there. She was a violinist herself, and in this tiny high school (150 students), she had an orchestra as well as several vocal groups.

Sister Carol Nolan shows a third-grade student how to hold a violin.

She had me give a solo recital in my senior year of 1950. After I entered the Sisters of Providence Community, I taught some violin for a year at St. Andrew School in Indianapolis, but in my second and third years there, I taught second grade instead of music.

Life-Changing Experiences

During the next several years, I taught at St. Francis Borgia School in Chicago. Then, in 1963, we opened Mother Theodore Guerin High School, just down the road a piece in River Grove.

I walked down there twice a week and started the freshmen Glee Club. The following year, I began teaching there, full time, with two Glee Clubs. In 1964, Sister Mary Catherine Keene joined me, and very soon we were invited to begin violin lessons with George Perlman, a well-known teacher and editor, in downtown Chicago. This, of course, was life-changing for both of us.

That summer, I gave a recital at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods with the sisters’ summer orchestra; I gave three more recitals at Guerin during the time I was with Mr. Perlman. He also advised me on getting a new violin, and more importantly, a good bow. He said, “If you have to choose between a good violin and a good bow, get a good bow.”

A New Method of Teaching

The year 1966 marked the graduation of the first class of Mother Theodore Guerin High School. At that time, I was moved to Maternity BVM School in Chicago. I was very disappointed to leave Guerin, but during my two years at Maternity, I became acquainted with the Suzuki Method of violin instruction. This focuses on teaching small children how to play, concentrating on listening instead of reading.

In 1968, I pursued full-time work on the Master of Music degree at Illinois State University, and in the school year of 1969-70, I became an instructor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Besides teaching classes in theory, history and music for non-majors, I taught a small number of private students and also taught String Techniques and expanded the College-Community Orchestra. I played in the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra for approximately 15 years.

Sister Carol Nolan with her violin.

A Major Move

I left the College in 1998, and after spending three years in Taiwan and one year studying Spanish, I moved to the southern California desert, the Coachella East Valley, to begin teaching English as a Second Language to the Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants who worked in the fields there picking our food.

I had not thought I would ever teach music again, but when the people learned that I knew music, they were thrilled! “Oh, we want music for our children!”

So, I began teaching violin and guitar at Saul Martinez School in Mecca. What a sweet irony for me to be finishing my teaching career the way I started, teaching music to children!

The Most Fun Time

Truly, it is not an easy task. I used to say that the hardest thing I did all week was to teach fourth-graders how to play the violin! I also taught third-grade classroom music in Oasis School in Thermal. This was the most fun thing I have ever done in my life. On some occasions, I was able to show the students how to hold the violin.

One of the most important things to recognize is how little the right hand does. The wrist certainly, and the elbow are important, and we had exercises to keep the bow straight. But we used to practice having the right arm “dead weight.” The arm – not the hand – is the most controlling element regarding the weight of the bow on the string. The bow is mostly held by the thumb and the little finger.

I took guitar lessons and taught guitar. I am very impressed by the amount of hand strength it takes to get the fingers on the strings. We had some terrific little guitarists at Saul Martinez School! But between the guitar and the violin, there is no contest.

All About Tone and Pitch

Absolutely everything is up to the violinist; the weight and placement (close to the bridge or to the fingerboard) of the bow on the string – which differs according to the string and the tone desired – which part of the bow! And, of course, placement on the strings for pitch.

For health reasons, I had to stop teaching children after about eight years. My own violin playing deteriorated also. I still have my instrument; the bow needs rehairing, and Sister Jackie Hoffman (RIP) and I had made plans to take it to Indianapolis, but the plans never materialized.

Since returning to the Woods, I have broken my left shoulder and my right elbow, and this has hindered my return to the instrument. You can’t just pick up a violin and play it after you have neglected it. You have to stroke it back into making it your own again, warm up the wood, etc.

I saw a little card once that read, “Happiness is something to be practiced like a violin.” And I think that only a violinist recognizes the full impact of that!

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Sister Carol Nolan

Sister Carol Nolan

Sister Carol Nolan recently retired from ministering at Providence in the Desert in Coachella, California, a ministry she founded in 2002. She currently lives and volunteers at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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  1. Avatar Connie SP on December 13, 2021 at 8:52 am

    Loved all the detail in this blog Carol! Thanks for educating me about the violin.

  2. Avatar Joni Luna on December 13, 2021 at 10:44 am

    Great blog Carol! Thank you for sharing your gift with others.
    Love ya

  3. Avatar Berny Newland Heitzman '76 on December 14, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    I loved reading this, Sr. Carol – funny how we never took the time to find out your history when you were teaching us, but we certainly knew how much you loved the violin!!! I was so sorry to red about your broken bones – was that in the same accident, or 2 different ones??? Hard to picture left shoulder and right elbow at the same time :(. Hope you are enjoying your time at the Woods and hope to be able to see you some time soon!

  4. Avatar Susan Paweski on December 16, 2021 at 8:47 am

    Sister Carol was teaching at St Francis Borgia when I was a student. I “followed” her to Mother Guerin High School where she conducted the Glee Club. I still think of the choir when I hear “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music!” What great memories. Thank you, Sister Carol.

  5. Avatar Miriam (Loewenstein) Zimmerman on September 4, 2022 at 9:40 pm

    Dear Sister Carol,
    I wish you had been in California when my oldest, Rebecca, took Suzuki lessons. Unfortunately, the teacher was not very warm or supportive, very impatient in my opinion. Rebecca needed more, and quit after only a year.
    It is so good to learn more about you, especially your musical loves. No wonder my dad was in your recorder group.
    Sending much love for a speedy recovery from your broken bones.

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