Last Saturday, we attended a concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Vancouver, Washington. Anne Akiko Meyers, the international concert violinist, was the guest. During intermission I had a brief conversation with her. "I'm 68 years old. I started playing violin last May. "
She looked surprised. "Really? That's amazing!"
Indeed it is, because at some point this week, with my lessons and practice sessions, I will hit that enigmatic number - 10,000!
10,000! The Beatles hit 10,000! Bill Gates hit 10,000! Now I've hit 10,000! It's a magic number!
Of course, I'm talking about 10,000 minutes of playing the violin, and not 10,000 hours. As far as hours go, I have 9866 left to get to where Gates and The Beatles were, but let’s not split hairs. Life is all about the small victories.
So, it’s report card time. What have I learned? How am I doing on the violin? What have I learned in four and a half months?
I can safely say I've progressed from being squeaky and terrible, to being somewhat iffy, and occasionally pleasing.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Have fun.
Don’t make practice a chore. After all, even though nobody else is in the room, it is still playing the violin. Look forward to it. It won’t be perfect, but so what? Make a plan, set a goal or two, and go for it. I’ve missed four days since I started last May, but all four were due to days traveling either on an airplane or a train. I’ve had days when I didn’t feel like practicing, but the way to get past that is to get started. Just do it. It’s like getting into a swimming pool. Don’t think about it too much. Just pick it up, tune it up, tighten the bow, and go for it.
2. Look forward to the next practice session.
Here’s a little hint – Years ago, through a series of curious events, I found myself in a comedy show with two writers from Saturday Night Live. I asked them how they write on a daily basis. “One thing we do when we come to the end of a session is we leave a sketch unfinished. We just walk away. That way, when we come back the next day, we start up in the middle of something. It keeps the ideas flowing.”
Try that when you practice. Don’t expect it to be perfect. Save some of it for the next day.
3. It’s not about the length of your practice it’s about the quality of practice.
Violin is not my first instrument. I also play Bluegrass guitar, and a mandolin. I can honestly say I learned how to develop some really bad practice habits with those two instruments. I can play them, however it took a lot longer to learn how to play them than necessary. I didn’t really practice and dig into the music. I just played it over and over again. I assumed practice was all about playing through songs from beginning to end and to simply hope the hard parts would work themselves out. It took quite a while to realize the hard parts don’t do that. Focus on basics, scales, arpeggios, exercises, and physical technique. Isolate the difficult passages, admit you need to work on certain aspects of your playing, and don’t gloss over the parts you find challenging. Just dig in, and work hard.
The only way to get good at something is to get good at it.
4. Take it slowly.
This makes it all a lot easier. It clarifies, it cleans out the cobwebs, and it boosts your confidence. Nobody is going to see you go at that slow speed. Get it all down before turning on the gas. There is a reason most of us practice alone. We have the luxury of making mistakes. I do a lot of photography. I’ve had photos in exhibits, coffee shops, and so forth. Some people think I’m a good photographer. That’s great. What they don’t see are the thousands of awful photos I took to get those twelve good ones. So take your time, it’s not a race.
5. It’s a steep learning curve.
It ain’t easy. You knew that going in. When you get frustrated, take a deep breath. Calm down. Do something else and then come back to whatever it was that frustrates you.
6. Don’t think too much.
I took a short story writing seminar with a wonderful writer and teacher, Cecil Dawkins. Her mantra was wonderful and very useful.
“Don’t think. Write.”
Learn to let it all go. It will take time to pull everything together, but let it happen as it goes along. Don’t stress about it. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Yes, I’ve had 10,000 minutes, but I’ve got a long way to go with all of this.
I get tense in my left hand, my right thumb wants to get straight, my left elbow seems directionally challenged, and my pitch still needs some fine tuning to say the least. When I play, especially in front of my teacher, Mirabai Peart, I don’t think about the right things. I don’t think about the music. I think about what she is evaluating, what she is going to say, how she is going to respond to what I’m doing. I think about that right thumb. I think about springing my fingers off the fingerboard. I think about that left thumb being too rigid.
Man, I need to let all that go. It’s getting in the way of the music.
Want a good book to help with all of this? Read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. It’s the best book I’ve ever read about overcoming all that background noise in our minds. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read about the arts. Check it out.
7. Playing a violin is an excellent excuse for getting regular massages.
Why not? You’re standing there for a long time, your arms are moving all over the place, and your holding something up to your face for at least a hour or two. Give yourself a break. Go get a 90-minute massage! Why not? Nobody said you have to suffer for your art all the time.
8. Maintain your health.
Exercise and eat well. Do yoga, Pilates, lift weights, ride a bicycle, take walks, keep your body moving. Let’s be honest here. If you’re like me – over 65 – you know health is very important. Playing a violin – or any musical instrument – is going to be amazing for your mental health, but don’t’ let your physical health slide.
9. Don’t compare yourself with others.
Let’s face it. The odds of becoming a concert violinist at this age are a bit thin. However, they were always thin even if you started at 3 years old. So let that go. Just get into it for the joy of playing. Let’s face it. People are simply impressed you picked up a fiddle in the first place! You’ve started out a winner right from the get go. So don’t look around and compare how you’re doing with everyone else. Some are better, indeed at this point a lot of people are better, and some aren’t where you are, but so what?
10. Say “Thank You” when people are encouraging
I think Julia Child once said – and I’m paraphrasing – “When you serve a meal, and people complement it, don’t tell them what went wrong back in the kitchen. Don’t tell them you dropped the turkey on the floor, or put too much salt in something, or anything else. Just say, ‘thank you’ and smile.” She’s right. If you play something and you know you missed a note here or there, just chalk it up as experience. Be grateful they wanted to listen to what you played, and thank them for listening.
11. Don’t take yourself too seriously and maintain a sense of humor.
Play as well as you can, don’t cheat on practice time, and smile at all of it. After all, it is really pretty nifty that you are playing! Who cares how old you are? 68? 38? 28? 58? You’re doing it, and that’s great. Remember, it’s called playing a violin – not working one. Lighten up.
12. Keep an open mind and listen to all types of music.
My daughter took piano lessons from the age of 4 until she was around 13. She was, and is quite good. One afternoon she took in the sheet music to “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Her teacher was furious and refused to go over the music with her, saying it was beneath both of them. So my daughter quit. “I want to do this for fun, not for status.” I agreed with her. It’s about the music, not about THE music.
Don’t lock yourself in. Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” Wise words.
I’m not a big fan of Rap, but now and then I’ll hear something and I’ll like it. Contemporary Country ain’t my thing, but sometimes I’ll hear something and enjoy it. I wish I knew more about jazz. Classical music is amazing. I don’t know much about pop music these days – I’m from the 60’s with Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Zappa, and The Kingsmen. Sinatra is wonderful. Middle Eastern music is delightful, Japanese music is hypnotizing, and on and on. Just listen to all of it. Then play whatever you like.
So that’s my report card. In any case, when I hit 10,000 minutes later this week, I'm tossing caution to the winds. I'm going to open the windows!
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