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?
creator of www.ViolinLab.com
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