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

June 14, 2010, 1:49 PM ·

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

Replies

June 14, 2010 at 09:53 PM ·

Hi, great blog! Nice story.

I found this comment very interesting about the limitless"passion" of an adult beginner vs the passion that came from "mom" who introduced you to the violin ; ) 

There is also something that, as a late starter myself, I can see.  The (perhaps very crazy!) notion to work so hard on something that does not necessarly brings you pride and fast results...  I imagine that a kid going in as much frustration as the "average" adult starter would have quit since a long time... because kids like to give efforts in something where they are really successful to have attention, congratulations and people who tell them that they are good.   I have never seen a kid do a hobby in which he or she is not a "winner" (this is nature and normal). Thus, an adult starter who persists really has to love it!   

Thanks for this blog,

Anne-Marie

 

June 15, 2010 at 06:55 AM ·

You answered your own question.

Can we do it? Of course we can!

June 15, 2010 at 07:21 AM ·

As an adult leaner, I only started to learn how to play the violin at 35 years old when I brought my 3 year old daughter to learn the violin at a local Suzuki violin school.

Adult learners like me would like to play something we like on the violin after learning how to read fiddle tablature and how to find the notes on the violin's finger board. I do not want to spend years trying to become a classical violinist. I do not want to perform at classical recitals. But I do wish I could jam with a rock band with the fiddle.

What I do want is to learn play some blues, some boogie woogie, some tango music, and perhaps some rock and old west cowboy fiddle tunes on the violin. And I believe I am not the only adult learner who wished to do so.

Unfortunately, most violin schools only use Classical music material in the teaching. I think the real reason is that there are no copyright issues with the classical tunes, as almost all of the classical music composers have been long dead and gone.

So, if you can cater to the needs of adult learners by teaching them what they wish to play, you'd gain a very crucial advantage in your business.

Just my two cents worth of thoughts. haha

Happy fiddling!

Shawn

Here's a video clip of me, an adult learner with two years of playing experience, fiddling some boogie woogie on my baritone electric violin. haha

 

June 15, 2010 at 11:12 AM ·

I have to come back in after reading what Shawn says. 

I want to learn the craft, the classical techniques, the whole of the fiddle - well as much as I can.

When I was younger I was very much goal driven - if I could get a finished result then I didn't care too much about the method or technique. In any area of my life. Now that's all changed. There's a quiet satisfaction from starting from first principles and trying to understand at a fundamental level what you are doing and why.

June 15, 2010 at 08:03 PM ·

Shawn, try googling for a local fiddle group in your area.  When I first started up on the violin at age 39 I searched and found a group within a 10 minute drive away that meets weekly and "jams" fiddle tunes.   Most were beginner adult learners...some older folks who walked away after HS and then came back in middle age....and some youngsters who could fiddle circles round the rest of us.  Through a group like that you can learn of other groups that may focus more on bluegrass, Irish or whatever style you're looking for.    Here's a tune I've been learning by ear and trying to get a handle on....though these days I lean more towards classical.   Any style I love it all !

www.youtube.com/watch

June 15, 2010 at 08:15 PM ·

It's a small world. My experience was exactly the opposite. I started violin when I was nine, after being forced to wait for two years, partly because no one thought I'd stick with it. When I did start, it was truly an act of will, of passion, of choice, and I was willing to do whatever it took. It is an amazing feeling, and one that I have never forgotten. It made me feel special. The specialness has since worn off.  But the rest hasn't. 

You have raised another important issue, though. Could this be why younger students can seem so uncommitted, so "I'm only doing this because my mom won't let me quit", so oblivious to mistakes?

You've definitely given me a couple of new angles to think about.  Thank you!

June 15, 2010 at 08:33 PM ·

I think that drive is the key issue.  I don't think drive is age-related.  I never thought about it before, but if the majority of people learn the violin when young, then the proportion of those with the drive to keep at it is smaller than the proportion of adult learners with drive.  Because to be an adult learner, you have to KNOW you want to learn!  Adults don't pick up a violin by accident.  Additionally, adults have hopefully learned to patience and persistence, and not go for immediate gratification.

June 16, 2010 at 12:03 AM ·

Franscesca, so right.... I think adults don't take it for granted for many reasons and also because they pay for it too!  Which is normal, violin teachers must live, I'm not arguing on this ; )   (But a kid doesn't always know the value of things and sacrifices his parents make to get him there.)

Perhaps when you don't take it for granted, you really love it!  (not saying that kids don't like it or appreciate it.  It's just perhaps different)

Anne-Marie

June 16, 2010 at 12:12 AM ·

Well, I do wish that I had the opportunity to learn how to play the violin when I was a kid. That's why I started my daughter on violin when she was 3 years old. The Suzuki method that her violin school uses requires that parents sit in and learn together with the children. That's how I got to learn how to play the violin too. haha. Simply because I have to learn how to play the same pieces with my daughter at home.

Through my experience (as a parent of a toddler violin learner), I have observed that the parent MUST play together with the child during daily practice at home. The daily "jam" sessions must be fun, and there must be rewards for the child after each song (maybe a star sticker or a little snack). Otherwise, the child will definitely get bored and quit. Young children have very short attention spans. They cannot really grasp the concept of "commitment". haha

Simply yelling at the child to "practice the songs that your teacher taught you last week" just won't work for the child.

I firmly believe that it is far better to start a child very young on violin, preferably 3 or 4 years old, so that it becomes a part of them as they grow up. It's like learning to speak a language. Children absorb like a sponge before 6 years old. 

 

 

June 16, 2010 at 02:52 AM ·

I picked up my first violin at a very old age and had a great time learning to play.  I have accomplished most of what I wanted to do and the violin is a daily source of recreation for me.

I did not realize that I was supposed to be geriatrically challenged.  Ignorance is bliss.

Now I have to wonder what goes wrong with senior citizens ?

 

June 16, 2010 at 04:06 AM ·

There's an adult beginner that I teach through my school and he is completely blind.  Initially teaching him was an assignment for my string pedagogy class.  The professor of the class suggested that I start with a sighted student because he thought it would be too hard for me to deal with a blind person but I was determined to help him.  I was very touched when he told me that he wanted to learn since he was a small child but was denied the opportunity due to his blindness and now at the age of 42 he decided to try again.  I've taught him completely by touch and by ear for 2 years now.  He plays Melodie by Gluck, and Schon Rosmarin by Kreisler among others.  He has a great vibrato, a great tone and his intonation is almost 100%.  Considering he can't see at all it hasn't been easy for me to teach him but he's doing fine and I hope his playing will be an inspiration for other adult beginners.  I don't mean to brag but I'm very proud of my student.  His accomplishment is fantastic.

June 16, 2010 at 04:34 AM · Beth - I absolutely LOVE this blog. And your writing style. I only wish I lived in Austin.

June 16, 2010 at 04:42 PM ·

Beth, I think you hit it right on! I have a lot of similarities to your student, Leslie. I played the violin as a youth because my parents made me. 27 years after stopping, I decided to pick it up again as an adult. Adults have different reasons for learning than children, among them are precisely the things you mention in your post. I understand too where Shawn is coming from but I view the classical music as necessary for me to learn the techniques and gain proficiency to be able to enjoy the types of activities Shawn aspires to. Great post!

June 16, 2010 at 05:55 PM ·

I agree with what others have posted.  I began learning the violin at age 30.  I had always wanted to as a child but never had the opportunity.  (My parents insisted on piano lessons instead).  There is a difference in the drive that I have as an adult and the drive that I had as a child that has nothing to do with age...I'm driven as an adult to try to master the instrument by an inner fire that has burned in me since my youth.  I was driven as a child by...well, Mom and Dad.  :-)  Will I ever learn to play at the level that I desire?  Probably not...if only because I know myself and no matter how well I do, I will always want to play better.  Is it too late to try?  Definitely not.

June 17, 2010 at 09:54 AM ·

love this blog!,

IMO, it is just a matter for what you are playing for, no matter what age you are,

for me, i plays for my enjoyment at the foremost.

 


 

June 18, 2010 at 12:52 PM ·

Michael- I find myself thinking about your experience teaching a blind student.  From a pedagogical standpoint I find this fascinating. I question whether I could effectively teach someone who is visually impaired and how I would modify my approach.  It certainly bears reflection.  I'm sure you have discovered and uncovered many wonderful teaching "tricks" as a result.  It would be great to hear more.

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