The Well Aging Fiddler – First Lesson

July 19, 2017, 5:30 AM · I took a seat on the city bus with my new violin in its case. I’m 68 years old and I’m on my way to my first violin lesson. I’m excited. I’ve been down a lot of roads in my life, and this is a first. That’s important. At my age, anytime something comes up that is a first – it’s a big deal.

music stand

A young guy was sitting next to me. He looked up from his cellphone and saw my violin case.

“What orchestra are you with?”

“Um…. excuse me?”

“That’s a violin, right?”

“Yes.”

“So what orchestra do you play in? Oregon Symphony?”

“Well, actually I’m on my way to my first lesson.”

“What?”

“I’m a beginner. I’m going to my first lesson.”

“Seriously? At your age? Ha! Well… good luck, dude.” He turned away from me and looked at his cellphone.

I would have said something witty and devastating in return, but I’m the type of person who often needs five minutes to think of a snappy retort. I’m sure I would have come up with something that would have left him in tears and the other passengers would have applauded my impressive rhetorical skills, but the bus stopped and the guy got off. I let it go and looked out the window.

So, I’m going to my first violin lesson. The big question in my mind was a simple one – what should I expect to happen over the next hour? What was this entire experience going to be like?

We’ve all been in situations like this one. We’ve all stepped into experiences where we have little more than a vague notion of what is going to happen. How do we get through it?

In his book, The Empty Space, British theater and film director, Peter Brook discusses what happens on the first day of the rehearsal of a play. “The purpose of anything you do on the first day is to get you through to the second one.”

Wise advice. Taking that example a step further, it’s important to realize what happens on the first day of any activity is almost secondary to the situation because everything is new. Beginnings are often filled with so much mental noise it is difficult to focus on the actual task at hand. Too many questions fill everyone’s mind. What is does the room look like? Do I stand? Sit? What should I wear? Who is this person I’m working with? Will we get along? Will I understand what I’m being asked to do? Can I ask questions? Will my questions sound stupid? The list goes on and on. Indeed, there is often so much going on in everyone’s head it is amazing we get through the hour in one piece.

This is true of the first day of a class in a school, the first meeting of a group, the first day of a new job, the first day of basketball practice, and definitely with the first lesson with a private violin teacher. The first day can be constructive, hopefully encouraging, somewhat awkward, and frequently unfocused.

As a former teacher I’ll let you in on a little secret. Often, the most nervous person in the room is the teacher. More often than not, they are asking themselves the same questions you are. How am I coming across? Am I dressed appropriately? Who is this person? Will we get along? Did I bring everything I need? Do I have enough material to go a full hour? Will I know the answers to questions? This list goes on and on.

So how do you handle all of that? There are two general ways to approach the hour.

The first way is to treat the lesson as the most important thing in your life. Create a make or break situation in your mind and get all stressed and panicked about it. Become a basket case. Your adrenaline will be pumping, your focus will be shattered, and in the end, because you don’t know how to play a violin, you’ll most likely be disappointed. So, that’s probably not a good way to deal with the situation.

The second way is to remember this little mantra – Here I am, I’m going to do the best I can, and we’ll simply see how it goes. Simply get through it. Let it unfold naturally because it is an unusual and unique experience all by itself. Don’t overload that first day with too many expectations.

That’s it. Take the pressure off yourself, and enjoy the hour. You are on a new adventure. Dive in, have some fun, and be yourself. Stay focused, but stay light. After all, you’re not expected to know anything, so why worry? This is one of those situations were you can ask any question you like, and nobody will judge whether it’s a bad question. So ask questions, ask for clarifications, try to do what the teacher asks you to do, forgive yourself if you forget something, jump in there and try to do your best. Use the rest room before class, be polite, don’t interrupt the teacher and you’ll be fine.

That’s pretty much it.

How did my first lesson go? It was great. I absorbed all I could remember, and I knew I’d probably forget some of what I was being taught. I did some things as well as I could, and a few other things need a lot of work. I asked some good questions, I asked some dumb questions. I repeated some things over and over and I got one or two things right away. I made some really loopy sounds with my violin, and a few good ones. In other words, I got the whole thing started. I had a good feeling about my teacher, she was patient and detailed, and she even laughed at my jokes! (I think I’m funny and my grandchildren agree, but the rest of the family rolls their eyes.)

Oh, I even made one big mistake. I brought along a digital recording device. I wanted to record the whole lesson, but I forgot to press “record” rather than “pause” and didn’t get one word on tape, but so what? On the way home I sat on the bus and wrote down everything I could remember.

Anyway, I was assigned a couple of things to practice over the coming week. I will now close my door, shut the windows, and get to work. Wish me luck.

Replies

July 19, 2017 at 07:09 PM · Great article!

July 19, 2017 at 07:54 PM · keep those blog posts coming Michael!

July 19, 2017 at 07:57 PM · I have had many students who were well over 60 at their first lesson. In fact, almost all of my students are adults, but I must admit that the older they start, the happier they are with the progress they make! The angst of youth makes it hard to enjoy the beauty of little steps. They tend to be a bit less patient with themselves.

July 19, 2017 at 08:18 PM · Consider videotaping your lessons instead of just audio. Especially in the beginning when you are working on your posture, violin hold, bow hold, and when your teacher is demonstrating with their violin, the visuals are everything.

July 19, 2017 at 09:00 PM · I remember my first lesson. I was borrowing a violin and getting information on where to get the "Family Fiddle" found in the attic, that launched me to start of this adventure. Once I was introduced to the instrument Fr. Germain, OSB (my teacher) looked at me and simply asked: what do you want to do after you learn how to play? That launched a discussion of what options were available to an adult beginner. Suddenly I found myself in a whole new universe filled with all kinds of information and options. In the end my path was to lead to a community orchestra that my teacher and other teachers filled with their students as well as playing the melody line of Hymns at church. There was one thing he mentioned that, at the time, I totally dismissed, that someday I would teach somebody else how to play the instrument.

40 years later all of my goals and the prediction of teaching have been realized.

July 19, 2017 at 09:55 PM · as your sister I heard you, you are coming along.

July 20, 2017 at 02:03 AM · Good luck! But you won't need it, sounds like it was a positive experience and one you will to continue to build upon.

July 20, 2017 at 08:40 AM · Good luck! I started playing the violin when I was 60... and it's still a long hard road after nearly 4 years. But fun... and certainly worth the striving. After all, what could be more creative and worthwhile than this sort of striving?!?

July 20, 2017 at 10:17 AM · Fantastic article, Michael! As someone MUCH younger than you (I'm only 59 :) ) I still count myself as a beginner. I started learning more than 10 years ago now, but it's been a very interrupted, intermittent road. However, the desire to start again, and this time stick to it, has bitten hard. Articles like yours help immensely, especially in realizing that I'm not the only one out there. Please keep them coming.

Neil

July 20, 2017 at 12:15 PM · Enjoy the journey, and keep us updated on your progress!

July 20, 2017 at 02:38 PM · In a way, I envy you a bit... professionally, I teach Shakespeare at college level, now mostly to students who have never read any of his plays. I tell them how fortunate they are to meet his works when they are old enough to appreciate them (rather than being dragged unwillingly in middle- or high school ).

I've played vln/vla since childhood--& love doing so--but b/c it's so much a part of me, I take it for granted...like walking...& so I miss the wonder somewhat.

July 20, 2017 at 02:47 PM · Great article, Michael. Very funny bus experience. You should have told the kid that you are the 1st Violin at the Oregon Symphony, and "did HE want to take violin lessons?"

Your story makes one want to learn an instrument at age 76??

Have Fun.

Georg

July 20, 2017 at 05:08 PM · I started violin,lessons at 63, im 65 now.slow going but if I put in the work the violin responds. I'll be taking lessons the rest of my lifr

July 21, 2017 at 09:40 AM · Michael the only key ingredient is determination. Stick with it.

I started 4+ years ago st age 61 and enjoy it always notwithstanding the frustrations.

I notice that you write a lot - that's fine but don't overthink the playing. There's an expression in financial trading "paralysis by analysis". Don't get bogged down - let it flow.

Terry

July 21, 2017 at 12:18 PM · Thank you for an article inspiring to all "beginners". I want to send this article to my daughter who will be starting her first elementary teaching position and to my son who will soon be cooking in a new restaurant just opening.

I still remember the awkwardness of learning to hold the bow at age 10. I remember restarting the viola at age 30, after my son was born. I barely had a successful admission to my community's symphony. I found my teacher and I have done some teaching. Now, 30 years later, I am grateful and still playing.

July 21, 2017 at 05:32 PM · Thank you for the kind words and good advice. It is heartening to know I'm not alone. I'll be adding blogs to this post from time to time and I appreciate your encouragement.

July 22, 2017 at 01:44 PM · Michael, I started the violin as an adult myself so I'm curious about your endeavor and I hope you don't mind if I ask you a couple of questions. I'm wondering if you're taking up violin as your first musical instrument or if you have some musical background. Do you have any "ear" for pitch and intonation or is this a foreign language to you as it was to me many years ago when I started. I've found that it is certainly possible to develop one's ear for pitch over the years but it's a long process. Can you read any of the clefts? I had experience with the G-cleft in junior high school band and this was very helpful to me. But at one point I tried a bass cleft instrument and could never get the hang of the notes. What were your motivations for starting the violin and did you consider other instruments? I've done a lot of reflecting on such things over the many years since I started and I'm anxious to hear from others who are on a similar path.

July 22, 2017 at 02:28 PM · Nice article Michael. I'm also 68 and am in my third year and I consider these last 3 years as one of my most significant decisions I've ever made.

July 22, 2017 at 02:40 PM · You are inspirational! I just started recently at 30. its awkward at first but it will get better. My uncle plays the violin for most of his life. he told me that, "the violin will be your partner while practicing music. It needs to be asked nicely and understood."

I also have to take the bus coming home from my lessons. Once a lady across from me looked at my violin case and asked me if I was carrying Firearms I don't think she was joking either with the way she frowned and the way she repeatedly asked me what was in the box.

Good luck and best wishes! :)

July 22, 2017 at 03:25 PM · Great post. At age 50, 16 years ago, I took up learning the violin. Lasted five plus years, but the impact has sustained. Just this last January I resurected a cheap mandolin from my violin exploration and that's stuck (much easier to pick than bow, and frets!). Maybe in a few years I'll add back the fiddle to my skill bank, but there are few things as rewarding as learning a string instrument in progressive 'middle age! Enjoy the totality.

July 22, 2017 at 03:35 PM · I really enjoyed your article, Michael. Music is such a joy - frustrating at times, when we're stretching that bit further and can't quite make it. But with time and practice, we improve. My next challenge is to play double stops in tune up and down the fingerboard. Yes, in tune. That's the hardest part! Good luck.

Jim Younger.

July 22, 2017 at 06:50 PM · I am sixty-five and have been playing for four years. I loved your article! Sometimes, each lesson feels like the first, but your advice is so good! I think that so much self consciousness factors into the experience when you begin violin at an advanced age. Kids make mistakes and take risks, but older folk are more afraid of looking foolish and sounding terrible. After all, we have lived so long, we should be perfect by now, right? Well, I am learning to relax about it, expect to be less than perfect, and just enjoy the ride. My violin is precious to me....and my family thinks I am heroic for taking on the challenge. That's good enough for me! Thanks so much for your article!

July 22, 2017 at 07:49 PM · Michael...I am 77 and in my 70th year of learning violin...Determination as one of the previous well-wishers suggested is fine...but to be more definitive: If you can't spare a daily 20-30 minutes, it'll be not much fun and progress will be minimal...and making-up for lost-time, that is Playing an hour every other day is NOT the right road...For beginners, bowing is the main problem...use a mirror and do all the prescribed long bows, short bows, starting on/off the string, tracking your contact point and try to keep the left-hand fingers arched....kinesthetics are so important. Suzuki's success was so dependent on correct playing position being established first. Best wishes.

July 23, 2017 at 01:16 AM · Well I am 66 and I am a violin student. I re-started lessons 2 years ago after a 45 year break to have 5 children, become a lawyer, etc. Now in retirement I am back at it. So, I wish you well and I wish you great enjoyment. One thing I love doing is playing duets with my teacher and this is one of the pleasures of learning an instrument. Age is only a number. Those of us students in our 60's have a good 20 or 30 years left - plenty of time.....best wishes, Jane

July 23, 2017 at 04:27 AM · Hurray on your exciting beginning!

I also teach senior age students (and youngins as well).

One of my students is turning 70 this year and started a few years ago. Loves the violin. She is overseas on vacation but has brought her violin with her. Keep at it, and please keep us up to date on how you are doing.

July 23, 2017 at 11:42 AM · At 74 years of age I still play the violin/fiddle. I have been playing since I was 30 years old. I studied under a Professional Classical Musician for 3 years learned so much it was just wonderful. I learn something new everyday. The point I am trying to make is, "Age has very little to do with the ability to if you have the constant desire to learn." Music is wonderful it keeps your mind crisp. Not just my opinion, but a proven fact. I think it is because it is relaxing due to the fact that is something we enjoy doing, or we would not be playing music. Long live all Musicians.

July 25, 2017 at 02:19 PM · You're the well aging fiddler, Michael, but are you also the well tempered fiddler - or are you the somewhat cantankerous fiddler?

No need to feel discouraged about your humour - Children's jokes are always the best! http://www.open.edu/openlearn/society/politics-policy-people/sociology/joke-booth-snot-funny (The punchline to the last one is "After all you said!!!".

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