I’m 68 years old and I am learning how to play a violin. I’ve got a good fiddle; I have the patience, the time, and the discipline. I’m ready to learn.
I decided to teach myself rather than spend money on lessons. Why not? I’d done this sort of thing before. I taught myself how to play a mandolin using, YouTube videos and books like Mandolin for Dummies. It was fun. By learning the mandolin in this way, within a few weeks, I had some chords, a few fiddle tunes, and after a couple of months, I was able to attend basic old time music and bluegrass jams and hold my own. So, why not repeat on the violin, what I did with the mandolin? It made sense to me.
Looking online I found a plethora of information about violins. I found articles, videos, websites, lessons, exercises, and music. I could download just about everything I’d need to get started.
I honestly think most of these Internet resources are great. I think the more something is explored in a sincere, positive, and creative way, the better it is for everyone involved. It encourages a sense of community, belonging, and it is a welcoming place for beginners and players of all levels. Indeed, this blog is being written for one of those sites!
So I looked at YouTube and found some very good instructional videos. They had great details, information, and exercises. The videos went through the basics of holding the violin, holding the bow, attaching the shoulder rest, using rosin, and so forth. With one series of videos I started on open string exercises, moved on to the first finger exercises, and even second and third finger exercises.
As far as I could tell, I was doing great. I learned how to avoid squeaks, how to drop and lift my fingers on the fingerboard, I watched and read about good methods for practicing violin. I downloaded finger exercises; I listened to and watched videos of the progress of other players as encouragement. I’ve even made a couple of YouTube videos charting my own progress. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urrq33DdqAw I did all of that within the first week of playing a violin.
By the end of that week I was pleased. To my ears, I was playing fairly well with open string exercises. I was fair with first finger exercises, and even getting into second finger exercises. I was just playing quarter notes and half note exercises. I wasn’t pushing it too fast – at least I didn’t think so. I had yet to play any actual songs.
When Saturday came, I was home alone. My wife was going to be gone all day so my plan was simple. I’d take a tune, practice it, learn it, and play it for her when she got home. I thought it would be a real treat. This was going to be a walk in the park.
I decided to throw together, “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar. It sounded lovely, and as far as I could tell it was basic enough for my self-perceived skill level. I decided I was already way beyond “Twinkle, Twinkle”. I’d been watching videos and playing for a week, so it was time to step up my game and tackle a real song.
The weather was great. I threw the windows open. Birds were singing, a gentle breeze came into my house, and life was good. I felt confident and in control of the situation. Oh, happy day!
Obviously, it was the perfect beginning to a horror movie.
So, lets not go into too much detail about this Saturday morning train wreck. Let’s just say if you want to get a sonic idea of what happened, simply play the final orchestral flourish and the entire final chord from The Beatles song “A Day in the Life” at the end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. You’ll have a modest sense of what happened.
I couldn’t do it. I flat out couldn’t play that thing to save my soul, and I had no idea why things weren’t coming together. The open strings, sounded good. First finger playing was fair. Beyond that it was awful. From where I was sitting, I was holding the bow correctly, holding the violin correctly, and landing my fingers where I thought they needed to land. But time and again, it kept falling apart. I sounded like a war.
I took a break and sat on the front steps to clear my head. As if on cue, a police car came to a stop in front of my house.
The window rolled down and the officer said, “Sir, would you step up to the vehicle, please?”
I rose and looked in the passenger window. “Yes officer?”
“Sir, someone phoned in that they heard some distressing sounds this morning in this neighborhood. Have you heard anything?”
“Um, no sir. I’m just sitting here sipping coffee. Haven’t heard a thing. Well, there are some crows over there - they’re kind of irritating - but beyond that, nope, nothing at all.”
He gave me a rather skeptical look, nodded, rolled up his window. The police car slowly moved on around the corner then out of sight. Immediately, I went upstairs and closed my windows.
Oh dear. This wasn’t good. I locked the front door and took a walk. Something was missing. I’d done everything as well as I could from my point of view and yet I couldn’t get a good sound out of my violin. What was missing? What didn’t I see? If only I could watch myself and see what was going wrong! The videos were great. The articles were informative. All of that was and is very helpful and fun, but the nitty-gritty of all of it boiled down to one very important element.
There was no way I’d be able to do this alone. The violin was beyond anything I’d met in the world of music. Like it or not, I would have to find and pay someone to teach me how to play a violin.
I needed a good teacher. I needed someone with skill and knowledge to watch me and show me the way. At this point, nobody was watching me. Nobody was offering advice, ideas, and correcting my fingers, elbows, arms, and so forth. Nobody was there to evaluate and correct all of those errors of movement and sound I’d been making. From where I stood I was doing everything I saw on the videos, but that wasn’t enough. The Internet lessons were able to provide information and to demonstrate how things should go, but I couldn’t get immediate and genuine feedback on how I was playing, and without that, it was all totally subjective.
I went back to the house and put the violin away before giving myself too many bad habits. I had to find someone who knows what they are doing to teach me how to play it.
Next week – Finding a Good Teacher.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.