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Beth Blackerby

Why Adult Learning Violinists are Better Practicers than Young Students

June 24, 2010 15:02

As far as taking on a new instrument goes, violin is no walk in the park. The complexity of its sound is equally matched by the complexity of learning to play it. Those of us who have dedicated hours and years of our life working to pull beauty from of a piece of wood, know that playing the violin can be synonymous with frustration, which, is a frequent topic for discussion as well as commiseration at Violin Lab.

The belief that adult beginning violinists have a harder time learning violin than kids, in my opinion, is untrue. The learning curve is steep for any age group. The majority of children (there are those amazing exceptions, of course) learn violin at a very slow pace. It takes many years for most kids to reach a level of competency and a good many years after that to become seasoned players. It has taken my oldest daughter 7 years to reach the end of Suzuki book 4, and if I could bottle up all the tears she shed and frustration she felt over those years I could have something potent to sell to the military.

For kids, frustration is the enemy. It is why my youngest daughter, refused to go to her piano lesson the other day, because the night before she kept stumbling at the same place in one of her piano pieces and couldn’t work through it in time for her lesson. A good friend’s daughter quit the violin after years of lessons because, and I quote, “it was too much of a struggle”.

Most kids (yes, most) eventually stop playing. Other extra-curricular activities and heavier homework demands in high school account for a hefty percentage of the attrition. But how many quit because “it isn’t fun”, or as my daughter has said many times, “it’s boring”? It’s my guess that the biggest difference between them and us, is that we embrace new and challenging. My gym instructor shouted with great enthusiasm this morning, “It’s fun to struggle” as she had us rolling a large ball back and forth with one leg while doing lunges with the other leg. It was true. It was fun, and in my ripe middle age I find the more I have to apply myself to something, the more thrilling it is to do. And the greater the challenge it is, the more gratifying the accomplishment. For me, boring is staying in my comfort zone, doing what I already know how to do. (e.g. I’ve never blogged before now)

Einstein’s definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over expecting different results. If that’s true then surely all kids are insane. I watch my own children and young students stumble at the same measures, backtracking to make another perfunctory pass, stumble again, never really fixing the problem with thought and patience. This of course breeds frustration, and once a kid reaches that point, they either go on to something else or stop practicing altogether. Kids are incredibly imaginative beings, but not at practicing. And that’s where we adults excel. We have at our disposal years of imaginative problem solving tools. We continually work out relationship issues with friends, family and colleagues. We have skills sets that can magically “make things happen”: we throw odds and ends together to make a dinner, a school project, or a Halloween costume. Kids have the advantage of rapidly developing synapses, but we know how to access the complex synaptic pathways that have been webbing over decades to create a resourceful and impressive toolbox.

After a lifetime of playing the violin, frustration has an entirely different meaning for me than it did in my youth. Now it is the motivational trigger to figure out why something is not working. When I have one of those days when everything sounds slightly out of tune and scratchy, even when the day before it felt “like butter”, I utter a few choice words, then, I turn my game on. At that point I have a mission and it is my job to figure out the missing piece of the mental puzzle. Although I would prefer to play perfectly, never missing a single note, I am honestly intrigued by the challenge of discovery. I continually have the thought that there is some buried mental construct I have yet to unearth. I love the charge I get when a new notion passes through my brain, a perfect analogy or mental picture that sheds light on the connection between mind and body. Now that never happened when I was a kid.

Frustration is evolutions way of keeping us from a life of complacency, to keep searching for better ways and solutions. If “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, then frustration is the nagging sister. Would we be vacationing in the Cayman Islands if Orville and Wilbur hadn’t felt “frustrated” at the limitations of their man operated gliders?

So although I’m not the least bit pleased with my presbyopia, stiff neck, or short term memory challenges, I am happy that the maturation process is making me more clever and inventive in the areas of my life that are meaningful.

And for those less meaningful times in life, well, frustration has a way of knocking me down. Really, how many more times in my life do I need to bang my toe into a chair leg, miss my exit off the highway because I was “lost in thought”, or burn yet another unattended pot on the stove? And why does the intense frustration I feel each time not motivate me to “search and discover” some new remedial system to make things better? I would love for someone to blog about that.

--Beth Blackerby
creator of www.ViolinLab.com

9 replies

Is it Too Late for Adults to Learn to Play the Violin?

June 14, 2010 13:49

As I have created an entire website designed to teach adult beginning to intermediate violinists, you can guess that my response to the title question of this blog is a resounding “NEVER”. It is certainly in my business interests to be a strong advocate for adults learning to play the violin.

But that's the chicken. Here is the egg. Approximately 17 years ago, before there was ever a Violin Lab, I started an adult chamber music class at Austin Community College. I already had a booming private studio of young talented kids, and one beginning adult student, a thirty-something year old, who had played some brass instrument in junior high band, but passionately wanted to learn the violin. Leslie was her name and she was my first adult student.

She came to lessons knowing how to read music, but that was about it. She experienced a lot of anxiety in lessons, her nerves manifesting obvious tremors in each bow stroke. After our first couple of lessons, I thought for sure she wouldn't last. I saw the long, arduous battle in front of her, and many times, I must admit, I thought of suggesting that she choose another instrument, something easier, like piano or guitar. What I absolutely couldn't see then was the depth of her resolve, nor could I have anticipated what she would accomplish over the next several years, reaching a level of proficiency rivaling that of a much younger student. Although she was still subject to nervous anxiety, (it frustrated her to no end) she never let it stop her. She eventually tackled the Mozart G major Concerto, Kreutzer Etudes, and a few Handel and Corelli sonatas. As I watched Leslie develop into a competent violinist, my own ideas and feelings changed about teaching adult students. Perhaps I had bought into what our goal-oriented society tells us: that unless we can “master” or “monetize” something, then why bother doing it? And certainly, given the extreme difficulty of learning the violin, if you missed the boat when you were young, then you were better off doing something easier. We are rarely encouraged to dedicate ourselves to a goal simply to develop our artistic selves, nurture our souls, or expand our ways of thinking, detached from any outcome.

Teaching Leslie opened my mind to the idea that learning to play the violin was about self-discovery through process and opened my heart to feelings of outright jealousy.

Throughout my then 25 years of playing the violin, I had enjoyed many technical milestones and accomplishments. I had experienced the utter poetry of pulling deep resonating tones from ancient wood with a stick that felt like a feather beneath my fingertips. I had performed pieces where in pure sweet moments of transcendence I had merged so deeply with the melody that I lost my sense of self. But because I started as a child I had never experienced what my adult student had: the burning desire to learn the violin; the self-propelling passion that comes from choice, the will to continue because it was what I wanted more than anything. Those things I had never owned. For me learning to play was the byproduct of a childhood activity chosen and nurtured for me by my mother, like an arranged marriage, and later the byproduct of a vocational decision to the dilemma faced by every young adult: “What am I going to be when I grow up?”

After a few years of lessons, Leslie’s skills were sharpening and I thought it would be nice for her to play with other people, so I initiated an adult chamber music class at Austin Community College. Again, the outcome of that experience I couldn’t have imagined either. Besides being a ton of fun for me, Leslie met three other women in the class who decided after the term was over to get together once a week to play string quartets. Four women, ages spanning four decades, meeting together religiously for the next decade and a half to mine the works of great composers… talk about your outcomes. I recently bumped into Lola (the oldest member of the group who is now in her 70's) and she said the group still meets regularly, braving in weekly installments the vast repertoire of string quartets.

So back to the original question, if I may wax rhetorical. Is it too late to embark on a journey that will stretch you emotionally, mentally, and physically? Is it too late to engage in an art form, an ineffable vehicle for personal expression that does not rely on emails or facebook status updates? Is it too late to learn you have perseverance and determination you never knew you had? I guess the question really is: Why wouldn’t you learn to play the violin as an adult?

--Beth Blackerby

creator of www.ViolinLab.com

16 replies

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Beth Blackerby is from Austin, Texas. Biography

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2010: Jun.