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Parallels

Dottie Case

Written by
Published: January 6, 2014 at 5:33 AM [UTC]

After my last post, I had several people message me privately, asking for more info about my ‘story’, many with questions of how I had gotten from where I was to where I am. While there are certainly other people who also could (and do) write on this topic, it’s one that I continue to ‘live’. Not only was I an adult beginner, but I have many students who are adult or late beginners. However, as I thought about how to share some part of my story and thoughts about beginning in adulthood, I realized that the defining characteristic of an adult learner is that we do it all while still living our grown up lives, in bits and pieces where we can find the moments. (I can remember standing at my kitchen counter with a music stand in front of me, grabbing a few moments of practice time while waiting for the spaghetti water to boil.) It seems to me, at this time, a bit artificial to write out a 'history', though I believe that I started at one time (parts 1 and 2 are somewhere back in my blog history). What remains true for all of us is that the ‘story’ is still about fitting the passion into our real lives.
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So, tonight I carefully placed my Ipod Nano into the $3 armband, slid it up my forearm then dragged myself down to the basement where my dinosaur used treadmill resides, and slogged through the C25K Week 1 Day 1 trek. For the uninitiated, C25K is short for "Couch to 5 K", a program which is supposed to prepare any average couch potato to run a 5K after some weeks (6? 9?) of gradual training. In my case, the plan (dare I say goal?) is to be able to shuffle (as opposed to jog or run) MOST of a 5K by say, late July.

Now I know what you're thinking....those are heady goals I've set for myself. Still, as I was gasping and praying for the 60-second 'running' intervals to hurry and end, I was struck by how completely this C@%K (oops...think I'll leave that uncorrected ;) journey mirrors what it is for an adult to decide to begin learning the violin.

While shuffling along, I was listening to a Podcast on my Ipod, where I would be given directions about when to speed up, and for how long. The man's voice kept encouraging me to 'stay loose, keeping my arms low'. As I would begin the ever-so-slight increase in speed between my 90 second 'brisk' walk (ahem) and the 'run' (ha!) I would focus on 'staying loose' and trying to keep my arms low. Only, I realize I don't really know what that means. So, while trying to not fall off the treadmill, I would try to first visualize what 'loose' might look like, and compare it to how I felt. Then, I'd think about keeping my arms low (well, except for when I was clutching the arm supports), experimenting with dangling elbows, unclenching fists, etc. I'm sure that at times I resembled nothing more than a Neanderthal shuffling home after an unsuccessful hunt, only wearing some really cute and colorful shoes.

When I began taking lessons with my first serious teacher, I'd been playing for a year and a half, and had learned both hands completely wrong. This new teacher, who has some serious cred in terms of HIS teachers (Galamian, Gingold, and Fenyves) worked to re-do my entire set-up. I can remember struggling with the bow hold, while he would describe this and that 'thing' that I was to do. I finally asked him exactly which muscles were supposed to be involved. I don't think he understood my question...in fact I vividly remember him moving my hand into what should have been the correct position, and him exclaiming in some confusion, "I don't understand...why is this so hard? This shouldn't be this hard!" I almost had myself convinced that my hand was deformed or something. Still, I angled and moved and tried, but there were 2 things that finally made it go 'click' for me. One was that I watched him carefully, and then would watch myself in the mirror at home. I still remember drawing the bow and seeing my hand make the same shape as his. Secondly, I realized that he was showing me how the hand would support the bow, but I was attempting it with the bow out in front of me, What I finally realized was that once the fingers were all placed, then I needed to sort of 'pivot' the wrist downward, so that the wrist was below the level of the bow, not above it.

It felt so frustrating and stressful when I didn't understand what he was asking me to do, but once it went 'click', it was there and it was solid and really never needed another correction. 6 months later, his administrative duties caused him to hand off his students to a hand-picked teacher that he hired to replace himself, and by that time, my new teacher (with a similar pedigree) was very complimentary about what a great set-up I had.

I wish that I had someone here watching me on the treadmill, who could help me to figure out what 'loose' legs and 'low' arms look and feel like. There are physical things that, once learned, make the task immeasurably easier. Adult students bring very different sorts of analytical tools to the tasks we are learning---we evaluate and experiment and think things through. This can make for some early confusion (especially when one is trying not to fall off the treadmill while evaluating) but once a thing is learned, it is there, because it is 'understood', not just learned.

As I was torturing myself for 30 minutes (with very little pay-off visible in the near future), I realize that, particularly in the earliest stages of playing, that experience is the same in many ways as my treadmill time. Even when one 'LOVES' the violin, virtually no one 'loves' the early lessons when it seems that every time you correct one physical things, 3 others go wrong. The sounds we are making are not always lovely, and the ability to really make the instrument sing (ahem, my 5K) seems to be so distant in time as to be almost unbelievable.

Still, I am told by my betters, that it will get better. In fact, one of my cheerleaders today reminded me that, though my 'run' was slow and ugly, I at least "lapped the people on the couch". I liked that thought...because, the truth is this....July is going to come whether I am ready to participate in a 5K or not. But, if I persevere, I'll be able to enjoy the fruits of my labors. Next year is going to come, whether I improve as a player or not. So, I may as well take steps, even if slow ones, to progress as I can, because I can't get this time back. I can tell myself that I'm 55 and 40 lbs. overweight, thus maybe not 'runner' material... but if I give up now, the only thing that will be true is that next year I'll be 56 and 45 lbs. overweight.

Now, If I could just find someone to help me analyze what 'loose' and 'low' are supposed to be...



From Krista Moyer
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 2:07 PM
Gosh, I remember those early C25K sessions so clearly. How dreary and awful they were! I decided to run my first 5K for my 40th birthday and have since gone on to run several half marathons.

Loose and low arms are meant to keep your shoulders from tensing up. Keep your arms bent at around 90 degrees at approximately waist level, make sure your hands are not clenched in fists, and don't allow your hands to cross the mid-point of your body. If you feel your shoulders getting tense, turn your palms up towards the sky (ceiling) for a second or two. It really works.

Keep it up. You're going to do great! Seven months is plenty of time to prepare for a race. Maybe one day you'll be running and think to yourself that 5K is cake. As I always say to my running buddies during a half marathon "10 mile warm-up, 5K race".

Hopefully one day I will get past the terrible beginner stage in violin. Is there such thing as the terrible twos with playing? Does it really get better?

From Dottie Case
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 3:01 PM
Krista, it absolutely does get better, but it gets better the same way that the running will get better for me.... by really focusing on correct technique, which keeps you from 'fighting' the instrument (tension and violin playing are mortal enemies), and just by many 'doings' of it, one step at a time. There is no shortcut for just spending time with the instrument in your hands. In fact, during these last several years when I haven't really been 'studying' (as in, working on ever increasing rep. with structured practicing, etc.) I still have continued to improve, and in some ways SIGNIFICANTLY improve, just by the playing I've done with my students, and my own orchestra work. I spend a lot of time with a violin in my hands, playing anything from "Twinkle" to Bach with my students.

Try to celebrate the small victories, and do regularly pull out your 'old' music and see what more you have to bring to it than you had. This may allow you to see your progress, and celebrate that. But I'll also say that I think that for me, and many of my adult students, the 2nd to 3rd year is huge in building the sort of foundation that will allow you to fly. As I am trying to remind myself about the running, if I do it correctly and regularly, it HAS to benefit me, even though I maybe don't immediately feel it.

Thanks for the tips. I'll try to visualize them when next torturing myself.

From Karen Collins
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 4:58 PM
Another C25K graduate here. I started as an adult and eventually became a fairly competitive runner (for a non-pro). I found that I love running, but in the beginning it was *quite* a slog, and nothing fun about it, just pointless-seeming work...hey, wait...I sense a parallel here... :-)

Anyway, congratulations on the C25K stuff and please do keep posting. And I would be happy to talk to you about loose arms and legs, and running form in general.

From 114.76.255.208
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 1:32 AM
I find studying and practising becomes difficult when there are competing interests over my time and also during times where it feels as though no improvement is being made.

But when I take a step back and remember all the reasons why I took up the violin - the beauty of its sound, the way it makes me feel, the great violinists who came before, a stronger appreciation for music as a part of life, and all the other aesthetic qualities borne from the instrument - I remember that every day is a part of the journey which I decided to take when I decided to become a student of the violin.

Seeing similarities between different learning experiences of different activities reminds of how I absorb and learn from the experiences around me - all of which define who I am.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your blog as it gave me a chance to reflect on my learning experiences, a rare opportunity that is greatly appreciated.

From David Nguyen
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 1:34 AM
I find studying and practising becomes difficult when there are competing interests over my time and also during times where it feels as though no improvement is being made.

But when I take a step back and remember all the reasons why I took up the violin - the beauty of its sound, the way it makes me feel, the great violinists who came before, a stronger appreciation for music as a part of life, and all the other aesthetic qualities borne from the instrument - I remember that every day is a part of the journey which I decided to take when I decided to become a student of the violin.

Seeing similarities between different learning experiences of different activities reminds of how I absorb and learn from the experiences around me - all of which define who I am.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your blog as it gave me a chance to reflect on my learning experiences, a rare opportunity that is greatly appreciated.

From Henry Butcher.
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 10:05 PM
"I don't understand...why is this so hard? This shouldn't be this hard!"

A comment like that would have most certainly put me off, fortunately I decided to teach myself. And over the past 40 years it has been in 'bits and pieces' between working as gardener and renovating my house, which I am still doing. But this 'end of year' break I will focus on polishing my repertoire and I will leave the renovating to be done in 'bits and pieces'. It has been a long journey, but I told myself in the beginning that I have the rest of my life to travel it.

From 128.186.54.78
Posted on January 8, 2014 at 4:23 PM
Congratulations on starting the program! Running can be really hard at first, but you will improve and shock yourself with what you're able to do. Three years ago, I could barely run a mile and a half, and I've now completed two half marathons, a full marathon, a 20K, and numerous shorter races. If you haven't already, check out Runner's World online--they have a lot of resources for beginners, and even youtube has running form tutorials.
From Elinor Estepa
Posted on January 12, 2014 at 8:16 PM
You'll get there. When i started training for the marathon, I started walking first. The usual walking phase, no power walk for 2 weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed that time. After that 2 wks, I start keeping my phase up a bit, power walk was the goal for the next 2 weeks. I kept going until I started the 'running/walking' stage, this time, my legs are pretty much ready for some little speed. I run 5 days/week. Sometimes a follow the given miles, but most I don't., I just want to keep doing it, for I know once I stop for even 2 consecutive days, I'll be back from walking again. Starting over is always hard. It pays off, I run 2 5 full marathon, 2 half, and so many 5K, 10K I can participate. My time were not olympic record, but it gave me so much joy that I finished the whole course. Wish I could do it again, but we'll see. That was so many years ago. Violin playing is about the same. In my mind, I want to play/practice, but my physical self is not into it. Right now, theres bunch of orchestra music plus the baroque piece for the baroque study, and I am NOT doing it right now, when those should be at least sight read ready by tomorrow. I guess, whether we like it or not, we have to do it, whether its going to be a good day or not, we just have keep it going. One day we'll all get it or get there somehow. Enjoy the journey, like in life, we have to pick up ourselves, even we don't feel like it. Sun is still shining whether we appreciate it or not. So, don't look at the treadmill as the ugly thing, for they are your friend, don't over analized the music nor yourself, for they are your source of joy and sanity in days of craziness. take deep breath and just keep on going. It'll gets better.

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