Over fifty years ago I was that most wretched of creatures, a mediocre conservatory student. I had entered the conservatory against the advice of my parents and violin teacher, and once I got there, it went quickly downhill. I was not admitted to the orchestra the first semester and was encouraged to switch to music ed. But I did not want to be a public school music teacher and was enthralled by being in an intensive musical environment, even though it was painful to experience my lack of progress in spite of very hard work. So I persisted, and graduated as an orchestral major, which did not involve giving a senior recital. I even went back for graduate school, although no longer as a violin major.
After I earned my master’s degree I gradually stopped playing, picking up the instrument less and less each year. But I remained very interested and involved in music, and was lucky enough to have a job that put me in touch with a lot of musicians. I did not really miss playing at all, but it often occurred to me that I was living proof that you cannot necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire if you work hard enough. Nonetheless, I have never for one minute regretted that I went to the conservatory. Being able to immerse myself in music was a great privilege, and I have always been very grateful to my parents that they supported me in this even though it was not their first (or second) choice for me.
At some point, maybe in the late 1980s I saw that an auction house here in NYC was offering free evaluations of instruments, so I took my violin over. The fellow got very excited and wanted me to put my violin up for auction “since I was not playing any more.” Well that made me feel guilty and I got my violin fixed up (there was not much wrong with it, it is not a temperamental instrument) and joined a community orchestra, quit, joined another one, quit, and then re-joined. I started to practice a little more as could barely manage the parts.
Fast forward to my impending retirement, and I decided I would like a few violin lessons for a retirement gift. My initial goal was to improve my sound a little for orchestra. I had my teacher picked out already, a young soloist who had played a couple of concertos with our orchestra. After the first lesson I got completely hooked and am still at it over seven years later. I just had to try again, but it was very painful at first. It is one thing to return to something you were successful at in your youth but quite another to return to something you have failed at. I was not even sure why I was doing it but I just had to try again.
My teacher has been wonderfully patient with my angst and has supported me in all that I wanted to do. I played at her studio recital less than a year after I re-started (Bach: Gavotte en Rondeau, from E major Partita) and for the first time, found that I was actually able to convey something. Very excited, could not sleep all night. Have made some other goals along the way. For my 70th birthday, I gave my first ever solo recital to a small group of friends (Mozart/Kreisler: Rondo in G; Bach: Chaconne; Brahms: Sonata No. 1). About a year and a half ago, my orchestra was doing a concerto I was studying and with a “now or never” recklessness, I asked the conductor if I could read a movement with the orchestra at the first rehearsal. I did the slow movement (more able colleagues read the outer two movements, it was the Dvorak). It was a very thrilling experience, could not sleep all night.
This has all made for a fun retirement, but why was I not able to learn in the first place? I am convinced that is because I was self-taught until about age 11--not on the violin, but on the piano. Around age 8 I taught myself to read music and soon was plowing through all the piano music in our house--until it changed key or got too hard. This wreaked havoc on my musical brain for violin, because music had become something to daydream by. And it was totally undisciplined. So it was very hard for me to make the mind-body connection that is necessary to convey musical ideas. It is better now, and I am finally able to enjoy it more (at first I felt like that fellow in “Flowers for Algernon,” rushing to progress before my faculties start to fade). I hope that my story will serve as a cautionary tale against self-teaching (could say much more on that) and as encouragement for late starters and re-starters. I am happy and grateful that I tried again.
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