The Well Aging Fiddler –First Concert

July 28, 2017, 4:05 PM · Last month I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to Portland. I had a window seat. So, as I placed my violin in the overhead compartment, the man sitting next to the aisle rose to let me get to my seat.

“Is that a violin?” He asked.

“It is,” I replied.

“Are you in an orchestra? A touring soloist?”

Oh dear, here we go again.

“No,” I said. “I’ve just started to take lessons.”

He looked startled. “Really? At your advanced age? That’s amazing!”

“Well, I’m 68 years old.” I said.

“68! Exactly! And learning the violin! Wow!”

I just smiled. “Yep. 68. Just starting. It’s a miracle.”

“Absolutely! Way to go!”

"Thanks."

I really needed a better response. I’d been getting a lot of this kind of thing.

In any case, the following Saturday afternoon, after just three lessons, I found myself playing my new violin in front of an audience. I barely knew a G scale, D scale, and an A scale. I had one song down. But I got up on a stage and played my tune.

How on earth did I find myself in that situation?

As soon as a person starts taking lessons, one event looms on the horizon – playing the instrument in front of a group of people who are giving you their full attention.

That can be scary stuff. Three questions come into the players mind. First – When will I be skilled enough to actually play anything? Second – will I be able to get through the experience without messing up? And third – Will they like what I do?

I can’t really speak from the perspective of a child faced with this situation. Remember, as I said in an earlier blog post, I was in one concert at the age of 9. I sat in the back row, and was instructed not to let my bow touch the strings of my oversized violin. I didn’t mind at all. I didn’t want to be there in the first place.

So, I simply ducked behind the music stand, got through the whole experience, and then never touched a violin for the next 59 years. So, from what I’ve seen, kids either leap into the experience in complete oblivion of what is happening, or they look absolutely miserable and just wish it would end.

For adults, however, these can be haunting issues, and they can plateau or even stop a student from ever performing. In a lot of ways just the trepidation of performance can cause a lot of people to sabotage their own efforts to learn. In their mind they are never good enough to perform. They will either practice and practice without any performance follow through, or they will give up, and that is too bad.

So how do you get through it?

Give yourself a break. Do not turn it all into a life or death situation. Remember – you probably started this whole violin thing because it looked like fun, and you love the sound, so don’t forget that fascination with beauty and music.

I used to direct plays, and part of that job was to audition actors for parts in the shows. I did it for several years, and I saw just about everything a person could see in one of those situations. I saw stage mothers, people visibly shaking in front of me, I saw far too many Marlon Brando imitations, loud performers, quiet performers, and so forth. I also saw people with the right professional attitude.

Want to know how to do it? There are two ways to approach the situation.

The first way is to convince yourself that if you do poorly, you’ll quit the violin and never place yourself in that situation again. They have to love you unconditionally, you have to sound better than Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn, and if there isn’t a standing ovation, you’ll jump out the window.

Well, good luck with that, because it ain’t gonna happen.

Here is the professional way to go into it. Simply say, “Here I am. This is what I can do on this day at this time. It will either fly or it won’t, but in any case, lets see what happens and then we’ll all go on from there.”

It’s all about attitude. During auditions, many actors came in with defeat written all over their faces and posture. With rare exceptions, it didn't go well.

I had other actors come in, politely introduce themselves, and show through their confidence, good humor and attitude, they were there to work. They knew their chances of being cast were thin, but they also knew I’d remember them for future productions. And I did.

So how does this translate to a recital? A concert? Playing for your family? With the right attitude, it’s actually a lot of fun. You rehearse your piece, allow yourself to get excited and a bit nervous, get up there, and go for it.

Make music as well as you can. That’s it.

What happens if you make a mistake? I’ll let you in on a little performance secret – nine times out of ten, nobody will know. Simply play it, and do your best.

What will you gain from putting yourself in such a potentially stressful situation? Actually, you’ll get a lot from it. You’ll get qualities like admiration from the others, confidence in your own skills, and a sense of presence.

So, after three lessons, I got up and played, “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” in a student concert. My teacher, Mirabai Peart, played and harmonized next to me. I had a great time. I focused, and then zipped through the song, and the audience even clapped along with us. It was an epic 40-50 seconds. I took a deep bow and made a graceful exit.

first concert

With the exception of a couple of parents who accompanied other students, and a couple of teenagers who played guitars, I was something of a novelty. I was the tallest student by several inches, and the oldest by several decades. My fellow violin students – all of them – were far more polished and rehearsed than me. They were great.

After the concert I talked to as many of them as I could, telling them how impressed I was with their work. I wasn’t patronizing. I was genuinely impressed that they put their bows to the strings and got some great sounds.

So, if you have performance opportunities, go for it. It’s a lot of fun.

After my concert, I sat on a bus for the ride home. A young man sat down next to me as I held my violin case between my knees.

He ignored me for a long time while having an intense texting conversation on his cell phone. When he finished he looked up, set down his cell phone, and pointed at the case.

“Is that a violin?” He asked.

“It is.” I replied.

“Do you play with an orchestra?”

Oh boy, here we go again.

I paused and looked at him. “Yes,” I said. “I play with the Well Aging String Quartet.”

He sat up. “Really?”

“Indeed. Have you heard us?”

“I’m not sure. Do you have any recordings?”

“Well, we are hoping to produce a CD soon, “ I leaned into him and lowered my voice. “However, we’re having some personnel issues.”

“What kind of issues?”

“We’re looking for three special people. We need one to play a cello, another to play a viola, and one more to play a second violin. Once they’re on board, we’ll start recording.”

He had a confused look on his face, but before he could say anything the bus stopped. I rose, smiled, picked up my violin case, walked off the bus then onto the street.

I was smiling. After all, it’s all about knowing when to put on a show, and knowing when to exit the stage.

Replies

July 29, 2017 at 01:38 AM · Wow! This is impressive. I've never gotten nervous performing for anyone. I have to admit that I've messed up on every single performance I've given, but I've nonetheless been praised like crazy.

July 29, 2017 at 09:04 AM · You are funny...And your posture looks pretty good for a complete beginner :-)

July 29, 2017 at 11:06 AM · Another wonderful post Michael. Keep at it mate. Oh and I think you'll find that those who you feel may be patronizing you when they act surprised that you're only just starting the violin at 68 are actually praising you. They may even be a little envious. Who knows, you may even be lighting a slow-burning spark within them to start learning an instrument themselves.

Neil

July 29, 2017 at 01:39 PM · Oh how we miss you at Monday WW. Bravo!

Roxie

July 29, 2017 at 04:42 PM · Great take on this thanks. I'm 63 and nearly five years in but still have performance anxiety problems. I'll try and remember this blog next time.

July 29, 2017 at 06:52 PM · I started to learn the violin recently as well and as soon as I have to play in front of only one person I get nervous and play much worse than at home. It happens in front of my teacher and even in front of my boyfriend. It is ridiculous but so far I haven't found a way to get rid of my nervousness.

July 29, 2017 at 08:11 PM · "The conversation ended there."

Why does it have to end? Often the person initiating the conversation has an interest in the subject, so you could turn it around from yourself and inquire about that -- their experience and interests in music. And whatever they've had, you could threaten them with more.

July 29, 2017 at 09:04 PM · Well done! So happy to see that you're following your dreams and having a good time.

July 29, 2017 at 11:48 PM · GREAT STORY, THANK YOU

July 30, 2017 at 05:03 AM · Very much useful,I have the same fear when performing and missed some opportunities as well, not anymore. This one really gave me a push. Thank you.

July 30, 2017 at 04:06 PM · Yes Michael, I've also had 3 lessons and just 27 months of playing alone, and I definitely need someone to play with, another adult learner.

August 1, 2017 at 07:06 PM · Thank you for your comments and encouragement. At this point I've completed 10 lessons, and the whole ride has been fascinating. I've also flown across the country with my violin - a subject for a future post, I upgraded to a better violin - another subject for a future post, and I've become quite obsessed with daily practice and how to make it as effective as possible -again, another subject to ponder. I hope your playing is going well, that you can maintain some perspective on the whole thing, and you take the theme from Galaxy Quest to heart - "Never give up! Never surrender!"

August 2, 2017 at 09:19 PM · Well done and well said, Michael. I've a friend who makes her living as a professional singer. She's done this for several decades and does not have worries about playing for audiences. As she keeps a busy touring schedule there are times when she has issues of health, fatigue, distraction,making all the admin pieces fit, and so forth.

You may like to know that she thinks the same way you do when these sorts of things are getting in the way, as in 'This is what I can do on this day, and it's going to go well. We'll all have a good time.' I've seen her take this approach under very difficult circumstances, and as you know, it works. It's a fine lesson to have learned so early in your performing -- here's to many more enjoyable gigs.

August 3, 2017 at 12:21 AM · Love this article...I don't think i could ever play alone or even with 2 or 3 people in front of others but i play in the volunteer orchestra and love it. I commend your bravery.

August 4, 2017 at 08:28 PM · Michael,

I'm glad that you decided to perform with your teacher. As a fellow adult-learner I had more than a few of those occasions with my teacher and fellow students back in the beginning. I do have one question: was your teacher playing the same notes as you or was she playing harmony?

I also loved your somewhat sarcastic conversation about the Quartet. Based on my reading I've discovered that the only appropriate name for a beginner quartet is: The Ill Tempered String Quartet (ITSQ) as it sums up the realities.

Keep up the lessons and practice as well as the sense of humor.

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