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Working or playing the violin?

March 14, 2011 at 9:10 AM

It is monday morning. I am in the Theater in Basel. Normally I would have no chance on getting a practice room at this time on the 12th floor, but today I am lucky. It is "Fasnacht" in Basel and there is nobody practicing today. The Basler call Fasnacht the 3 most beautiful days of the year. Thousands of people belong to a clique, and like a traditional carnival, they are all in costumes. However, there is one really unique tradition: the Morgenstraich. At 4 am (no, I did not mess up pm and am) all the lights in the inner-city are turned off and thousands of people walk with huge lanterns, as well as little lanterns on their head. But even more impressing: they all play either the piccolo or the drum. Imagine thousands of little flutes, walking through the streets, accompanied by this rhythmical drumming. It is quite something spectacular. And although intonation or rhythm do not always have the highest priority, people have loads of fun "playing their instruments".

I am sure, that these people do not spend hours practicing with metronomes or tuners. They spend their time making music, enjoying playing together and being excited about the upcoming Fasnacht. It does make me wonder what happened to a lot of musicians and how it applies to myself. If we look at a youth orchestra, we see these youngsters sitting at the tip of their chair, hanging on to the conductor as if their life depended on it. I remember a concert where the string orchestra I was playing in, performed a wonderful Verklärte Nacht, and many of us played with tears in our eyes. However, looking to professional orchestra's, we often don't see people play their instruments, but "work their instruments". 


What happened? Where did we loose the joy of playing, like the joy that the people here at the Fasnacht, or like children are having? Somewhere along the line tuners and metronomes become more important. Maybe we had a teacher who would yell at us for playing the wrong note, a conductor who would tell us the entire section sounds like flushing a toilet (I am not joking, this has happened), our stand-partner next to us ran off with our life-partners (have heard more than one story about this), we have bills to pay, pensions to be build up, children to raise, etc. etc. Basically: life catches us, and we loose the ability to play. 


The sweet barista at Starbucks handed me a book last week, about creating motivating workplaces. One of the first things they talked about is about creating a playful environment. And I realized why we musicians have the best job in the world. It is our daily work to play. Play the violin, play the cello, the bassoon, whatever. We play with Beethoven, Mahler, Bach, Wagner. And then we rehearse to play together. But how many of us think that playing together means not being too late or too early, in tune with the others. But when we play, really play, don't a lot of those problems get solved automatically? If we play with our children and throw a ball, we don't think about catching the ball at the right moment, with the right hand. We just catch and when the ball drops, we smile and try again. We don't yell, we don't curse, we don't turn off. We run after the ball and go on with playing.


I have to go practice. And when it is out of tune, I will smile and try again. And I will keep smiling, even if it doesn't go as fast as I want. Because I do not "work the violin", no I PLAY the violin!!!



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 14, 2011 at 1:26 PM

Wow what a nice blog!  May I just add though that the pressure on pro musician is a little higher (when they perform) than when they play ball with their kids ; )  

I agree though that many pros tell that one shouldn't think too much while performing and just enjoy the moment.  But I don't think they mean "beeing lazy as when laying on the beach on vacation"  or "beeing crazy as if it was New Year's day party."  I still think they mean play as in an intellectual playful game (like playing chess... you still have to think ; )  But perform a little challenge when you are happy to do it is playing too no?

Nice blog!  I agree that whether we are musicians or not, that thing of getting caught up in life's burdens happens to so many people!  At least, lucky those who can be caught up with what they love in life...  Not eveyone can be in that situation even with much work! 

Perhaps it also goes with "when we do much something" we lose the value of it or take it for granted.  

Bravo for having that attitude!

From marjory lange
Posted on March 15, 2011 at 1:39 PM

 NICE blog--and what a lovely custom.

In English, we 'play' the violin; in Spanish 'tocamus el violin"--we *touch* the violin.  I made that mistake, saying 'juego el violin' ('jugar' is the word for to play a sport or game) and everyone laughed at me.

I like the idea of 'touching' my violin...and that little linguistic shift changed my attitude a lot like thinking of playing rather than working has enriched yours.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on March 16, 2011 at 1:36 PM

YES! And I wish I could write like that.

From David Milligan
Posted on March 16, 2011 at 11:24 PM

Your description of "playing- vs-working" struck a chord with me (pun intended).

As  youngster I thought I would pursue music as a career.  I remember those years of sitting on the edge of my chair, anxious to present to our parents the results of our hard work.  For several years, through about the 1st year in college I studied with a marvelous teacher.  After that 1st year in college, well...I Iike to say "life happened," and I went a different direction.  I realized that the amount of very hard work that would be required to succeed in a musical career would not set very comfortably with other plans I had begun to make for myself. 

That was almost 30 years ago.  I now refer to myself as an "aspiring-returning-student."  I am proud of having studied with the teacher I had. She is now very sought after.  Since it was so long ago, I am reluctant to tell people her name, simply because the response is usually one of great expectations.  Taking 30 years off naturally has taken a toll, leaving me a tad self-conscious.  But, the fact that I can still remember and apply her overall approach is a credit to how effective a teacher she really was. 

Though I still struggle to find the extra time to practice, I am find some time each day.  I find my adult brain understands now many of the things my teacher once tried to teach me.  Before, I would go through the mechanics of the exercises to please my teacher.  Today, I enjoy realizing the skills and techniques that all those exercises and scales try to teach.  I actually enjoy the process.  I find it miraculous that I am able to play at all.  Will I ever make up for lost time.  Of course not.  However, I have progressed to be able to perform at church and other small gatherings and family functions.  I receive all sorts of praise and compliments.  I never really know if they are merely being polite, but that is no longer the point.  I literally "play because it is fun."

I have fun playing my violin.  It is therapeutic.  Of my 5 children, my youngest is now about to graduate high school.  I also have 3 grand children and 2 step-grand children, all of whom now love to hear me play.  What motivation!  I still have some remote connections to the local community orchestra and hope to give them a try soon. 

Thank you again.  We all need to remember the fun of playing.  If it is work, you're missing the point.

From Vincent Simanjuntak
Posted on March 17, 2011 at 3:06 PM

Nice blog!,-

and i commend your writing,!

for me the joy of free time is the joy of playing the Violin;)

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