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The Wall

Krista Moyer

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Published: March 25, 2015 at 10:18 PM [UTC]

I read a blog earlier today posted by an individual who began taking violin lessons as an adult and succeeded to the point of being able to become a violin teacher. As I continue to struggle through the end of Suzuki book four I can’t help but wonder how that person did it. In the beginning, learning the violin was really easy for me. I learned my way through the first three books in an average of about six months per book. However, I have been stuck in book four for roughly 16 months. Have I hit the wall? Is this as far as I can get?

I ask these questions because it seems as if every tiny improvement has taken weeks to accomplish rather than hours. Going from learning two new pieces each week to spending 9 months and counting on a single piece has been more than a little bit bruising to the ego. Lately, I feel as if I spend more time perpetuating old bad habits than establishing new good ones. Granted, not much progress can be expected at this level on only 10 hours of practice time a week, but something should improve, right? How is it, with all the great practice techniques my teacher has given me, that it seems like I am going backwards?

Someone suggested that to feel better about my progress, I should go back to some earlier pieces so I could compare how far I have come since the beginning. Because my oldest son took up viola last month, I decided to play through Suzuki book 1 for him. What shocked me was not how easy the pieces seemed, but that every bad habit that I worked so hard to get rid of reemerged when playing them. Even though I have seemingly conquered things like raising my left shoulder, gripping the neck with my thumb, stiff bowing wrist, and twisted posture, every single one of those errors came right back when I played through the book.

You’d think that subsequently fixing those issues would stick around when revisiting old works. The fact that it did not makes me feel as if I will be unable to ever achieve my goals. It’s frustrating. It has been said by various individuals that hitting the wall means that a breakthrough is imminent. I’d like to believe that, but I’m losing the faith. My brain knows that I have to become more efficient at practice and skill building to get where I want to be; but my heart is tired and dejected. And frankly, there are so many things going wrong at once that I don’t know where to start fixing them.

The thing is that I still love what I am doing. The problem is that I can’t share it with anyone because I am too embarrassed at my lack of skill. It’s hard enough to be terrible at this without being compared to children with talent, skill, and gobs of time to practice. Sure, tiny Susie can play the Bruch from memory with virtuosity; but can she run a household, raise a family, do community service, and perform advanced financial calculations during a conference call while texting with a third party to get a better rate for a client? I think not. However, our shared audience doesn’t take the added adult-related stress into consideration when judging whether or not we are good violinists. Tiny Susie is a good violinist. I am, and feel as if I always will be, a terrible one.

Is it possible to be unable to make music? The prevailing thing I hear is that everyone is capable of it. I would like to believe that. Perhaps that’s what keeps me going - not skill, not talent, but hope.

Posted on March 25, 2015 at 11:59 PM
That sounds somewhat familiar. I'm an adult learner, too, and also prone to slipping into bad habits. Lead with your thumb when you shift and maintain your hand position? Seems I can only remember on those at a time. You get the idea.

I have a great teacher and, despite the technical failing and flailings, I'm making slow progress. I only manage to get in eight to 10 hours of practice a week and, after a couple of years, I've reached the point where I can pull out my sheet music and -- when all goes well -- do a decent job of playing some moderately difficult klezmer, Greek or East European tunes (which is the music I want to play). Technical failings by damned: It sounds good.

I don't beat myself up too much about where I'm at. I'm in my early 60s and figure I've probably got 10 years left me in before age starts to affect my playing. I'm going to keep learning, improving and enjoying it while I can.

Yeah, I'd love to play like some of the young ones I hear. I wish I'd had the benefit of music lessons when I was young. But, for me, in the end none of that matters: Inhear enough progress and I get over enough humps that making music with my violin is fun and fulfilling. Even when I forget to lead with my thumb, or my shoulders start creeping up.

From Ramón G Castañeda
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 12:49 AM
There is absolutely no substitute for a competent, even gifted teacher. Especially for an adult learner.

That is of course a platitude, something that really doesn't need to be said, but I hope it encourages you to find that teacher and stick to the teacher's instruction and guidance.

I found myself desperately wanting to have a violin teacher when I was barely four years old, some 68 years ago, but that never materialized. My mother was the most unmusical individual—and I mean pathologically unmusical—I have ever encountered on three continents, and my father, a very well educated gentleman and proficient amateur pianist and violinist, passed away when I was very young.

At age 21, I began taking private violin lessons from a teacher at the Mannheim Musikhochscule in Germany. I was pleased with my modest progress after four years, but then the harsh realities of life intervened and I had to devote myself to other obligations. My violin was stolen during a transatlantic move, and I didn't come back to the violin for several years, and I went back to square one.

Now I find myself taking up the violin in my seventies as a rehabilitation project. Suffering from brain and neurological damage that has me having to re-learn basic things like how to walk, etc. I'm starting to make some progress with the violin, and found a highly qualified teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area that has given me hope.

I wish you the same luck, finding that teacher will make all the difference in the world for you.

From Millie Runion
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 1:10 AM
I understand where you're coming from, and I hope I help- or someone else can.

Maybe etudes could help? Don't worry so much about the books- I mean they're useful, but so many musicians I have talked to say that scales, arpeggios, and exercises are what truly helped. So look up some etudes (my teacher has given me kreutzer etudes, which you can find on, and spend more time and energy on warming up.

Also, practice in front of a mirror, and get used to watching yourself. When you do something wrong, you'll see it immediately and fix it. Things like straight bow, your first finger popping up, how you hold your wrists, and your right hand pinky not being too straight. A mirror can fix a lot.

Recording yourself will help too, if you aren't doing it already, because you can hear what you really sound like. I always get more motivation hearing my recording because I know exactly what sounds bad. And I focus on those sections- instead of wasting time on entire songs. Most of the time, it's the quality of your practice- not the amount of time. Quality- not quantity.

I hope this helps!

From Ramón G Castañeda
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 1:18 AM
Milli makes some great points, of course.

Recording myself with a real videocamera with good audio recording quality makes a huge difference, I found.

Playing in front of a mirror is a poor substitute for this. You don't really know when to look at the mirror and when to look at the violin. I can even share the videos with my teacher.

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 1:43 AM
This is completely anecdotal, but I've known many people who hit a wall with Suzuki book 4! I don't know what it is about that book, but lots of people sort of stop there.

Have you talked to your teacher about this? Maybe a change up in method or teacher would help you. Finding a group to play with is always fun.

It's also entirely possible that you haven't hit a wall, but that you are becoming more aware of what's going on when you play. That's a GOOD thing!

Good luck!

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 1:56 AM
I am 58 years old and started back taking private violin lessons 2 years ago. I played as a child from age 9 to age 15. I started in book 2 because I could already read the notes and knew where to place my fingers, although it sounded pretty rough. I cruised through the first 2 book, but my tone still wasn't sounding good. I am now at the point where I am learning things I didn't learn as a child. I often wonder if I'm too old, too stiff, or not able to progress any farther. I am now practicing for a recital on Sunday. Yes, I am going to play in the recital with a bunch of little kids. I don't mind, it gives me an opportunity to play in public and try to calm my fears. I do record myself to go back later and listen. I love playing and will continue to do so even though I am hard on myself at times. I know I am progressing, but I am impatient. I am playing Pachelbel's Canon in D Major for the recital. My teacher is playing with me.
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 9:48 AM
I played the piano as a child. I always wanted to play the violin also. Started with a teacher when I hit 60. Did ok, but it never seemed to be as easy for me as it was for some MUCH younger students. The teacher shared with me that I was expecting too much too soon. Had to stop lessons after 1 year to take care of some elderly family members. Hope to get back to it soon. I know that I will have to start back at square one. God bless all of the violinist out there that bring us such wonderful sounds!
From Seraphim Protos
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 1:59 PM
One possibility:

You may have breezed through the first three books TOO FAST?

I'm an adult beginner myself, about to finish my third year of lessons, and just about to finish book 2. I'm 47, and have two young kids, so I may not have the same available practice time as you may have, which may account for the disparity in time to get through the material.

Just something to consider.

Do you (or did you) go back and practice all of the pieces you had previously worked on to polish them as well as possible, even whiole working on new materials? Or was it always "onwards and upwards!" once you were done with a piece, you were done with it and simply worked on the next one?

From JulieAnn Heaton
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 2:04 PM
I started playing viola after a 20-year break from violin. My instructor had me start in Suzuki Book 2 and we progressed most of the way through book 4. It occurred to me at some point that my entire focus had become 'when do we get to the next piece, the next book?'. I wanted my focus to be on the piece I was working on, not the one we hadn't started yet! When I mentioned this mental block to my instructor, she mixed it up a bit with other pieces. This has helped me a lot. Mentally it just helps me to only see the one thing I'm working on so that I'm not overwhelmed by the whole.
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 3:34 PM
Krista, I'm glad you said you love what you're doing, because remember the title of Dr. Suzuki's book: "Nurtured by Love." But, the thing is, the love is (likely) not coming from your Suzuki Mom or Suzuki Dad, so it's got to come from inside you. Sorry if that gives you a Whitney Houston ear worm, but it's really true.

You know what, most kids slow down at Book 4 too. With the Seitz concerto movements there are a few double stops and the pieces are more technically demanding for both LH and RH, and the Vivaldi Concerto and Bach Double Second Violin part are much harder than Humoresque.

As adult learners we're busy, and we're distracted, and we see the tapestry of our lives as having been partially or even mostly woven, and all of that makes us impatient.

Just about the ONLY thing we can do in the face of those constraints is to be MUCH more disciplined about how we practice. We need every minute of practice to count for something. We also need to allow ourselves some time to just play the violin for enjoyment, but without fooling ourselves that the latter counts as part of the former.

For me the "wall" (most significant barrier) is tension, and I bet you that this is the main thing for most adult learners. Our bodies are also not as adaptable as those of young children, and when you combine that with impatience, that is a recipe for stress. We have to identify the causes of tension and to keep them at bay. I'm not always successful, and I often do experience tension. Often it is because I am pressing myself too hard toward a specific desired outcome, or it can be as simple as playing the whole of a difficult etude when half would have been better. Videotaping is very good in general but especially if used to look for evidence and causes of tension.

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 3:41 PM
Seraphim, I started at the same age you did. My children were ages six and nine at the time. I work full time with a long commute, and have a rather time-heavy position in a volunteer organization besides.

In the earlier books, I moved quickly simply because it was easy for me to do so. I tend to go back and review the earlier books on the regular - one earlier book a week. But I rarely visit book 1 because it is not my favorite. I also used to have two hour blocks of time to practice after the kids went to bed. That time is shorter now that their bedtimes are later, I take them to their own lessons and other activities; and because I now have to supervise their practice times on the cello and viola so I can't sneak in 20 minutes or so while dinner is cooking. Now my practice is largely concentrated on the weekends.

Another part of the slow down for me has been the addition of supplemental materials, for which I am grateful. Trust me, if I hadn't had etudes, or Barbara Barber's Solos, or ensemble music to offset those dreadful Seitz pieces, I would have gone batty. However, the majority of the issue for me is the inexplicable inability to solve ongoing technical difficulties through practical application of remedial effort. In other words - I keep doing the same stuff wrong and have been unsuccessful in my attempts to correct it. It's not my teacher's fault. It's simply a failure to practice correctly and have those corrections stick. If you practice something wrong enough times, it takes twice as much effort to retrain yourself to do it right. Bad practice makes for bad playing.

From Christina C.
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 3:59 PM
Ah, those bad habits. Is it fair to say that even though you've done the work to figure some of them out and fix them, the corrections are still relatively recent and at this point you've probably spent more time doing certain things wrong than right? It's one thing to have figured out the correct way of doing something, but the process of making that correct way your default rather than the bad habit, that's something that takes *a lot* of time.
Meanwhile, thinking about our progress in terms of where we *think* we should be by now or by where someone else has gotten to is a sure-fire path to discouragement.
In your own words, you're enjoying it. From previous entries & your blog I know that you have been playing with others. Please forget the whole being embarrassed by your lack of skill 'thing'. I'd be surprised if you've had any indications from others that they have a problem with your level of skill. Don't let your insecurities and assumptions keep you from doing what you enjoy.

>end bossy pep-talk<

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 5:50 PM
it is nice to hear that others 'hit the wall' with book 4
and the dreadful Seitz's. good idea, play Barber's solos
and work on Josephine Trott's double stops. these are
not easy, but they are varied and can be played without too much frustration and effort, and at the same time, I think
they lead to better skills - for me, it's possible to go
back to bk 4 and try again, but I've got too many other
wonderful things to play - like duets with my teacher and several other friends, and jam sessions with guitars, mandolins etc. concentrate on what you can do, don't worry about what you cant.
must add, it took me four years to reach these conclusions.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 6:30 PM
Maybe you could think of it as a "plateau" and not a "wall." Sometimes all you need to do is just be where you are for a while. Suzuki Book 4 level is actually a great place to be! There are so many things you can now play, and so you should. I would advise you to go sideways for a while and just learn a lot of pieces that are at that level. There are all kinds of lists of graded repertoire, like RCM, ASTA, etc. that will allow you to pick lots of different pieces at a certain level. Suzuki Book 4 is maybe RCM Level 5-6? Others will know this better than I do (since the RCM grades are European). Ask your teacher, but no matter what your level, learning something NEW is progress, whether it is at a "higher level" or not. So make progress by solidifying where you are and broadening your base. I think this can be very rewarding. Also, perhaps start a "review" time in your practice, where you review a set of "old" pieces. My students who do their daily review are the ones who wind up being the most fluent in the instrument.

Where are you in Book 4?

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 6:59 PM
By the way, the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) is Canadian.
From Krista Moyer
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 7:32 PM

It's a good idea to play sideways for a bit. That's what I've been doing with the ensemble work. I replied a bit further up, but forgot to sign in. At any rate, I'm working on the Bach Double right now, but am still working on memorizing and polishing the first and third movements of the Vivaldi A minor which I've been working on now since June. I think working for so long on one concerto has really driven this feeling of being stuck.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 7:50 PM
I agree, Laurie, "plateau" is a much better word than "wall". It implies that it's a brief pause, after which you'll start to progress again. I've had many plateaus over the years, in many things - not just violin playing. The trick is to realize that it is just a pause, not an impassible barrier, and that you will soon move on.

In the meantime, try not to agonize too much over it. Find other things to do - a fiddle tune, perhaps - that will take your mind off the immediate problem. You'll probably do well enough there to restore your confidence, so when you return to your original problem it'll not be the barrier you thought it was.

I wonder what would happen if I dug out my Suzuki book 4 and had another run at it. Would my old problems re-emerge? Or have I learned enough to overcome them? I just heard a cello arrangement of Bach's Gavotte en Rondeau on the radio and it got me to thinking...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 8:46 PM
Both the Vivaldi and the Bach Double are major milestones. Mastering those pieces really brings you to a new place, and it's okay to be at that place for a while.

Also in regards to the old pieces, you'll play them the way you practiced them, when you practiced them. It's not surprising that all the old muscle memory comes back! So don't be discouraged. With a little patience, you can play "Chorus" like a Book 4 student, etc. Practice it anew, with vibrato, a smoother bow arm, better intonation, new ears. This kind of re-working is a good investment in your playing.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 8:53 PM
My bad, RCM is Canadian, and ABRSM is European. The American String Teachers also has a relatively new exam system called ASTACAP.
From Lars Peter Schultz
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 12:36 AM
I am a Suzuki teacher and I can say that book 4 is a big jump from book 3. Normally if you want to get to the top of a mountain you would build a stairway and take one step at a time. But when you reach book 4 the steps are suddenly too big. You have to jump instead of taking things step by step. So you need to build those steps.

If you go back to the earlier books as suggested then do the following:

In book 1, the first 9 tunes, the ones in A-major: Besides playing them as they are in A-major, play them one string deeper, that is D-major. Also play them one further string down, G-major, except Long, Long Ago, since you will be missing the deepest note in that one.

Also the D-major tunes, number 10, "Allegretto", and 11, "Andantino", can be played on the "wrong" strings; number 10 one string higher, A-major; number 11 one string lower, G-major.

Also the Bach Minuets can be played a string lower. Also The Happy Farmer

Well, There are more tunes that can be played one string lower in the next books. Play with that idea.

Another idea is to play some tunes just one note lower. To see what I mean, compare "Long, Long Ago" in book 1 with "Long, Long Ago" in book 2. Try that idea out on other tunes as well.

Furthermore try out playing parts of some of the tunes in another position but first position. In book 2 "Long, Long Ago" fits very well in third position.

Even furthermore: Play "Perpetual Motion" and "Etude" (book 1) with different types of bow strokes like slurs and staccato. They are excellent for that.

All these ideas gives flexibility on the violin.

Apart from that I also highly recommend, as others have done, to play other tunes than just the ones in the Suzuki books.

Posted on March 27, 2015 at 2:26 AM
Lots of good comments above. I (at 63) am also playing from Suzuki Bk 4. I have found progress is just that: progressive without big jumps or walls. I use Bk 4 but not exclusively which is why I agree especially with Laurie's comment.

Get some other pieces at level or slightly above - I am doing this and it is both valuable and improves your technique. I don't know RAC but ABRSM (UK) or AMEB (Aust.) have lots of good graded pieces.

I disagree with a couple of your comments Krista and I think it is important for you to consider these:

10 hours of focused/deliberate practice is enough to make progress. Just make sure it is split up into daily sessions with practice times of less than 30 mins before a rest and a second session. Try some of the techniques described on "Bulletproof Musician" - I especially like breaking up the practice into a mixture of short practice on several pieces.

Don't spend anything like 9 months on one piece - leave it and do other repertoire before coming back to it a month or two later. Suzuki method/system is not a straightjacket.

Don't compare (with tiny Susie or Sarah Chang or ... )you are an individual and learning for your own reasons.

Don't make excuses: you knew your lifestyle when you started learning. As above on practice time, a focused hour (25 + 25 mins) should enable you to make progress. Review your learning strategy.

I hope all this helps - it's meant to be positive.

From Dottie Case
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 3:12 AM
I find the Bach Double to be a piece that you come back to, in many passes over time, each time bringing more skills to bear. I have adult students who circle back to it every couple of years, and I have done this myself. It is a major work, much more challenging IMO than almost everything in Book 5 and much of Book 6. I have often told my students that I don't understand why it is in book 4. So if you are stuck there, you aren't at a're at a rest stop that you'll revisit again and again.

I am also seconding the advice to work sideways for a time. And I know that there are many teachers who, when the student is through Book 4, discontinue using the Suzuki books as the primary instructional methods. Play other fun things for a while, and don't worry about finishing the Bach Double. It's never finished... :)

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 3:55 AM
It will happen again in book 6, you've been warned. :)

Laurie is right to suggest review, periodically if not continually. The nice thing is when you pull out something from an earlier book and it seems so easy, or you're playing it more cleanly, in tune, with better tone, more colors, etc. That's progress!

Posted on March 27, 2015 at 5:14 AM
Are you getting enough sleep after you are practicing? Good and adequate sleep after learning
is a key to receiving your learning.
From Krista Moyer
Posted on March 28, 2015 at 1:21 AM
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments. I am feeling better about where I am right now and will take much of what has been mentioned here under advisement.
Posted on March 29, 2015 at 3:48 PM
I also learned the violin when I was young and stopped at book 4, and yes, the vivaldi. After a space of twenty years, I started learning again two years ago. And I couldn't agree more: keeping at the same piece again and again which you are unsuccessful on, will deaden any interest you have on anything. When i started 2 years ago I fully intended to stand up where I fell. My new teacher never let me do anything of those, however. He just hear my vivaldi once and then start on other easier, short pieces, and lots of etudes. We adults can appreciate the progress in playing well in relatively less 'showy' etudes. I can gain fluency on many etudes within a week, and it always seem magical when I see myself playing previously crazy looking etudes as i approach end of the week. And yes, I also play 10-15 hrs a week only. After half a year, I tried back on the vivaldi, and i can play it with better tone and fluency than i ever had been able. Yet it is still far from perfect. I then took my grade 6 exam and play in ensembles. All these are enjoyable and that's more important. If you check the abrsm syllabus, the vivaldi is grade 7. So if you have not reached this level in the past 18 months (which would be amazing advances if you did) then don't beat yourself on the head about it. I recently watched a YouTube clip with a girl of eight playing wieniawsky's 2nd concerto and i can't help but to wonder whether i will ever be able to play it at all in this life, much less be able to play with such skill and maturity. Nevertheless, I still feel enjoyable to play what is within my skill, and that's most important. So don't compare as the thing you should be proud of is that you love music and worked hard to your heart's desire, rather than that you play better than someone.
Posted on March 29, 2015 at 6:23 PM
Nice write up and opinions

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