Why Adult Learning Violinists are Better Practicers than Young Students

June 24, 2010, 3:02 PM ·

As far as taking on a new instrument goes, violin is no walk in the park. The complexity of its sound is equally matched by the complexity of learning to play it. Those of us who have dedicated hours and years of our life working to pull beauty from of a piece of wood, know that playing the violin can be synonymous with frustration, which, is a frequent topic for discussion as well as commiseration at Violin Lab.

The belief that adult beginning violinists have a harder time learning violin than kids, in my opinion, is untrue. The learning curve is steep for any age group. The majority of children (there are those amazing exceptions, of course) learn violin at a very slow pace. It takes many years for most kids to reach a level of competency and a good many years after that to become seasoned players. It has taken my oldest daughter 7 years to reach the end of Suzuki book 4, and if I could bottle up all the tears she shed and frustration she felt over those years I could have something potent to sell to the military.

For kids, frustration is the enemy. It is why my youngest daughter, refused to go to her piano lesson the other day, because the night before she kept stumbling at the same place in one of her piano pieces and couldn’t work through it in time for her lesson. A good friend’s daughter quit the violin after years of lessons because, and I quote, “it was too much of a struggle”.

Most kids (yes, most) eventually stop playing. Other extra-curricular activities and heavier homework demands in high school account for a hefty percentage of the attrition. But how many quit because “it isn’t fun”, or as my daughter has said many times, “it’s boring”? It’s my guess that the biggest difference between them and us, is that we embrace new and challenging. My gym instructor shouted with great enthusiasm this morning, “It’s fun to struggle” as she had us rolling a large ball back and forth with one leg while doing lunges with the other leg. It was true. It was fun, and in my ripe middle age I find the more I have to apply myself to something, the more thrilling it is to do. And the greater the challenge it is, the more gratifying the accomplishment. For me, boring is staying in my comfort zone, doing what I already know how to do. (e.g. I’ve never blogged before now)

Einstein’s definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over expecting different results. If that’s true then surely all kids are insane. I watch my own children and young students stumble at the same measures, backtracking to make another perfunctory pass, stumble again, never really fixing the problem with thought and patience. This of course breeds frustration, and once a kid reaches that point, they either go on to something else or stop practicing altogether. Kids are incredibly imaginative beings, but not at practicing. And that’s where we adults excel. We have at our disposal years of imaginative problem solving tools. We continually work out relationship issues with friends, family and colleagues. We have skills sets that can magically “make things happen”: we throw odds and ends together to make a dinner, a school project, or a Halloween costume. Kids have the advantage of rapidly developing synapses, but we know how to access the complex synaptic pathways that have been webbing over decades to create a resourceful and impressive toolbox.

After a lifetime of playing the violin, frustration has an entirely different meaning for me than it did in my youth. Now it is the motivational trigger to figure out why something is not working. When I have one of those days when everything sounds slightly out of tune and scratchy, even when the day before it felt “like butter”, I utter a few choice words, then, I turn my game on. At that point I have a mission and it is my job to figure out the missing piece of the mental puzzle. Although I would prefer to play perfectly, never missing a single note, I am honestly intrigued by the challenge of discovery. I continually have the thought that there is some buried mental construct I have yet to unearth. I love the charge I get when a new notion passes through my brain, a perfect analogy or mental picture that sheds light on the connection between mind and body. Now that never happened when I was a kid.

Frustration is evolutions way of keeping us from a life of complacency, to keep searching for better ways and solutions. If “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, then frustration is the nagging sister. Would we be vacationing in the Cayman Islands if Orville and Wilbur hadn’t felt “frustrated” at the limitations of their man operated gliders?

So although I’m not the least bit pleased with my presbyopia, stiff neck, or short term memory challenges, I am happy that the maturation process is making me more clever and inventive in the areas of my life that are meaningful.

And for those less meaningful times in life, well, frustration has a way of knocking me down. Really, how many more times in my life do I need to bang my toe into a chair leg, miss my exit off the highway because I was “lost in thought”, or burn yet another unattended pot on the stove? And why does the intense frustration I feel each time not motivate me to “search and discover” some new remedial system to make things better? I would love for someone to blog about that.

--Beth Blackerby
creator of www.ViolinLab.com


June 25, 2010 at 02:00 PM ·

"Really, how many more times in my life do I need to bang my toe into a chair leg..."

This for me epitomises why punishment is not a very effective training method. I, too, regularly bang my toes and if pain were an aid to learning surely by now I'd be more careful!

Maybe that's why adults can learn better - we have more discernment which means that when we do get it right we recognise it and get more pleasure and that reinforces the learning pathways?

June 25, 2010 at 03:41 PM ·

Beth --

For never having laid eyes on me, you certainly have found a swift and sure path STRAIGHT into my head!!  :)  Thanks for putting so many of my thoughts to words.  You're a very talented writer!

June 25, 2010 at 07:12 PM ·

 I was impressed--and chagrined--with how well you described "normal" kid practicing (including how I practiced when I was a kid).  

There are kids, and teacher/kid combinations, who can somehow transcend this, but it seems very difficult to find the key if the kid is not naturally gifted in that way.  (I don't mean naturally gifted at violin playing specifically, I mean naturally gifted at understanding how to practice, how to focus, deal with frustration, and persist).

June 25, 2010 at 11:16 PM ·

I wonder if the adult/child disparity exists for other instruments ?

I wonder what the adult/child disparity is ?

June 25, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

I absolutely love this blog, but still wish I had started when I was 3.

June 26, 2010 at 11:56 AM ·


Remedial Systems and Other Fairy Tales.

I am a derelict adult amateur still in constant awe of some student violin mentality.

This is that any violin problem can be solved by a different shoulder rest, different strings, different rosin, a new bow ( costing more than a student violin ) a humidity gage, etc. ad nauseum.   The real bottom line may indeed be a popular "fix" but there is no substitute for talent at ANY age.  I can only tell you that after 5 years of doodling with the violin, I have realized that almost all my problems are me. 

When I began with the violin, I was sure that the "music" would defeat me as in "Where are the notes?"  But I just refused to use fingerboard tapes.  I was totally surprised to find that I had little problem with that !  BUT, my motor skills were pathetic.  Poor coordination and reflexes.  

I figure the violin at 40% music and 60% "gymnastics" and I do not expect to ever match the physical ability of a child.  I continue to improve in this area but time has taken a toll.  I'm sure there are many older people who play with great facility but I suspect that they have been doing it for a longer time than I have.

I am hardly ever frustrated with practicing because I am careful to chose music that is challenging but still enjoyable.  There is a lot of great music I will never play but a there is also an enormous repertoire available to me at my level and ANY violin music played very well is a joy to hear.

Incidentally, my physical edge may be going down hill but I do not think that age has impacted my musical maturity and I question if I have lost a lot in this context compared to an earlier start (?)








June 26, 2010 at 11:22 PM ·

I did not even know how to practice when I was a child and studying piano.  I got very, very good because of a native bullheadedness that tends to knock a me-sized hole through anything I want to learn, a great love of handwork of any kind, and an equally native quickness at anything language- or math-related.

But that quickness has not diminished since I've grown up.  Granted I'm a little weird and I know few adults who can hear and acquire native accents the way I do.  What has improved VASTLY is that I now know what practicing means.  It does not mean "do it over and over and over and over and over and over and ... " come hell or high water.  It means "do it and pay attention to what you don't like.  Figure out what you don't like, why you don't like it, and how to make it different.  That didn't work?  Perform that mental analysis again.  Whoops, that didn't work?  Try this instead.  How about this?  Hey, that worked -- do THAT a million times for fun!  Now, what's the next problem to solve?"

It also means falling in love with the mechanical object itself, to the point where just frobbing the dials is enjoyable.  Let's face it, "making music" is only the end goal.  The process is also a lot of sweat and dial-frobbing, just figuring out what makes a viola tick.  Kids don't tend to like dial-frobbing for its own sake.  That's what practicing is -- dial-frobbing and problem-solving, both of which become a lot easier the more experience you bring to them.

June 27, 2010 at 03:36 AM ·

Wow! What a thoughtful blog! First blog, you would not know it.  Very insightful. I am an adult beginner and this blog is a great inspiration. My violin teacher emphasizes envisioning your movements prior to and while you perform and practice.  I like your point of view,  about benefits that we adults have. Thank you.  I can return to my lessons with renewed vigor!

June 28, 2010 at 12:39 AM ·

although violin students can be put into young vs old groups,  to do well vs not well with violin study is dependent more on individual cases which are less dependent on age and much more dependent on the complex of factors surrounding a particular student.  age may be an issue, but not a deciding factor on whether the person will quit or prevail.

a deciding factor is the interdependent relationships between the teacher, the student and the parent/s.  more often than not,  one of the most likely reasons that someone will quit is because it is the student and the teacher, or the student vs the teacher, without much of a role played by the parents, the facilitator, the cushion, the go between, the political figure person if you will that connects the student and the teacher.  in other words, the parents can be more helpful.   think of those violin field success stories and what roles the parents have played.  then look around at those students that quit and examine how the parents have participated in the journey.  striking difference that is very easy to see.

why the big deal about the parents?  because human beings are complicated with needs and wants and violin study is also complicated with needs and wants.  parents are in the right position to help sorting out the mess, to feed the psychologically hungry and needy, by that  i refer to both the student and the teacher:).    common goals but different approaches and level of understandings lead chaos in between the student and the teacher.  parents can be god sent in that regard.  no brainer.  parents are free to use and abuse.

so adult students also need to rely on their elderly parents?  of course not:)  they need mentors, fellow students, etc to help them smooth out the rough edges along the road.  those who can find playmates, groups to play with will prevail.  those struggling on their own, taking all the hits in the face with no one to share the misery with will quit.  duh.

complaints or excuses like "too much struggle", "no fun", "boring" can be taken at their face values or explored deeper if we care to.  often, in the interest of time,  we sweep them under the carpet and move on.  unfortunately, in life, with many activities to come, there will be many moments that we will find to be too much struggle, no fun and boring but we simply do not have the luxury to quit.

just recently i joked (she did not know i joked) with my kid about quitting violin because she is having less time for it due to other activities.  she said, rather seriously: no way. i am not going to quit because i have put in a lot of hard work for it.  

oh, okay, i said.  deep inside, i was surprised and impressed that my little girl has grown.  perhaps what makes it fun and not boring is the struggle itself.  teach not just music but how to embrace the struggle.


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