Violin: Orange Blossom Challenge

PAGANINI: Demon possessed? Who knows. Musician Ego possessed?

In college my suite-mate asked if I would play Orange Blossom Special for the big, annual sororities versus fraternities talent show. It was a huge deal, and being that Leah was a piano player and led workouts three nights a week, she was chosen to come up with our choreography and music. It was a pretty cute idea, and she asked me, a fellow “sister,” if I thought I could play Orange Blossom Special.

I barely covered my scoff. I could play anything.

(Pride cometh before a fall.)

I was pretty sure I had heard it, at least in passing, but more importantly, I knew there was not a thing in the world I couldn’t play.

As a violinist I had passed the Paganini test; which meant–

— I could play anything.

I could play anything. Paganini was proof. He was the violinists’ Bar Exam.

And some random bluegrass song? Simple. I asked her to please look for the music and, most importantly, to find a recording of it I could hear. I would be fine. I understood that there was altering – each version was different – but the sheet music would give me a start and then hopefully, in a day or two, I’d have the thing down and could move onto more pressing issues. Like school. And my boyfriend.

Here’s an example – a good one – of Orange Blossom. Compare to the incomparable Paganini at the end and, musician or not, you’ll understand the differences and therefore the difficulty facing the girl who was weaned on Symphony Fare.

I was famous for my “playing by ear.” Even scolded from time to time on my over-reliance on it.

But even when I was being told that I was relying too much on my ear, to the point that it was detrimental to the “fundamentals” of sheet music and the vaunted “sight reading” my teachers loved so much, I still almost always had the backup of the sheet music there.

But a few things happened:

  • At least back then, and seemingly now, no sheet music exists for Orange Blossom Special.Seriously. NONE.
  • Leah, our fearless leader, was also the conveyor of some messages. It turned out that the College Music department faculties she had spoken to while searching for any remnant of sheet music for Orange Blossom – and there were lots – asked her to eagerly convey to me a simple and what still came across as a somewhat desperate sounding message, even second-hand:

“If [I] could play Orange Blossom Special, there were a whole bunch of full music scholarships” out there waiting for me.

  • (I wasn’t impressed by this. I had passed that up already. I loved the violin but didn’t want to spend most of my college days in the practice room or touring. I’d spent a lifetime being tied to the violin in that way, and in college I wanted a little freedom.)

“What about the tape? Did you find that?” I was beginning to feel a tinge of impatience and even a slight dismissiveness, like a virtuoso violinist is want to become. A first chair violinist in excellent adult orchestras before most kids even knew what a violin was, I had some of those snobbish tendencies that “stars” and “geniuses” — (or those who start to believe their own press) — can fall prey to. Tendencies that this incident would start to temper before long.

“Good. The tape will be fine. Sorry you went to all that trouble, Leah.”

That afternoon I found an old fashioned tape recorder sitting on my bed with a cassette tape of a version of the quickly-becoming-a-pain-in-my-ass Orange Blossom Special, one the music department heads had suggested she get, and Leah herself, sitting nervously at my desk and staring at the tape recorder like it might attack her if she approached it. I did the honors, beginning to feel just a tickle of uneasiness in my belly, an unwelcome and strange sensation.  We listened to it; first together. I have a really good poker face and so I’m pretty sure Leah didn’t see that

I was fucking floored.

I was always a very “by ear” violinist. Truth be told, if you’re a violinist, a real one, by definition, you have an amazing ear and you learn mostly by ear. (The sheet music, again, was meant for backup. A backup that in this case I had severely underestimated.)

This shit wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard or played before. It was harder to play – or hear – by ear because there were an inordinate number of chords, interspersed with a weird pizzicato that could only have been played with the fingering hand, making it almost impossible to figure out what exactly was going on there.


This wasn’t Paganini and his muse, Satan.

This was just plain old Satan.

No intercessor. No interpreter.

And suddenly all my pride slipped out of me. I was completely terrified and unsure of myself… and on a clock, with a big audience in the offing. A big audience of my friends. My boyfriend had already started buying me everything he saw with a violin on it. He was pre-bragging on me. It taught me how to be nervous. And at least a little humble.


Now, with my new electric, Orange Blossom Special has been haunting me again.

God help us all, I have an idea.

And for a moment, here, I will emphasize, to myself as no one else is listening, why a long damn bow and useful instrument fucking MATTER.

(The only thing I can say in favor of Orange Blossom is that the bowing is a world away easier than Paganini and his awesomely satanic bowings.)

⇒ In Paganini’s time he was so good that it was rumored he sold his soul to the devil to achieve his mastery.

I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. In fact, the first time I heard him, the same thought went through my mind. Unprompted.

I’ll say this, if Paganini did sell his soul,

the devil got a damn good deal.

A funny, dorky, Italian representation of that idea in “The Devil’s Violinist.” (Paganini would never be this ridiculous, but it’s funny and a good rep of the 24th of  24 Caprices, Op.1: No. 24 in A Minor

If Paganini didn’t sell his soul, then he’s also a damn good marketer and Satan is definitely kicking himself for not thinking of it first.

Here’s his/(Paganini’s) “24 Caprices, Op. 1: No. 24 in A Minor” (Sometimes referred to as “Dance of the Demons” or “Dance of the Goblins.”)

Itzhak Perlman; bringing Paganini and all his devils, goblins, demons, and ghosts to their damn knees. (For a non-violinist it might not be obvious, I suppose, but this actually is miles and miles more difficult in a thousand ways than the old Orange Blossom Special. (It’s not at all the best Paganini. Just tough.) Nonetheless, Orange Blossom was a challenge, did serve to show me how much I had been missing, and is unquestionably not only extraordinarily difficult, but, better yet, extraordinarily impressive.

Brass tacks:

Orange Blossom isn’t demon possessed like Paganini, but it’s pretty cool anyway.

Also, Paganini takes a helluva lot better bow than I currently own, in every incarnation. All of it. Orange Blossom does not.


  • Orange Blossom: Doable. √


A little Paganini fun:


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