The Well-Aging Fiddler: May Your Fiddle Be You.

October 3, 2018, 11:34 AM · I love it when this sort of thing happens. Every now and then someone will say something that is both incredibly obvious, but at the same time completely stops me in my tracks.

In about two weeks I’ll play a couple of songs in a student recital, so I’ve been focusing on my songs. During my violin lesson last week, I was playing one of the songs for my teacher. As usual, and as much as I don’t want to be, I was nervous. I knew she was watching, and that’s all I could think about. Were my thumbs bent? Was my right pinky ok? Were my elbows moving as they should? Was the bow hitting the strings correctly? My head kept swimming. I sounded halting and stiff.

Then she said, “Michael, you need to be the subject, not the object.”

I just stood there. Subject? Object? What? I’m a former English teacher. Are we discussing sentence structure here? Prepositions? Verbs? Nouns?

No. She was referring to point of view and attitude. To put it another way, I was standing outside of myself far too much. I needed to let it come from inside of myself. I needed to stop worrying about all the technical aspects of playing in as much as letting the music come from inside myself.

I needed to allow myself to dive into the music of the song. I needed to trust myself with my own music, rather than surrender to external dynamics. Now, technique is important and necessary, and I don't mean to take away from it. We all need to do as well as we can and keep those elements in our work. However, it is also important to let the music be in the foreground, and not forget why we are doing all of this technical work, lessons, practice, and so forth. We need to take that leap into the music within us.

As for myself, I was thinking too much. I was thinking to such an extent that I wasn't allowing myself to enjoy what I was playing.

May Fiddle Be With You

Sometimes we get a little too comfortable and forget to take risks, forget to relax, and forget to let go and see what happens. I’m as guilty as anyone of tripping and getting distracted from my goals. I think it’s natural to seek safe harbor in our lives. Routines give us a sense of comfort. Accomplishing little things gives us a sense of purpose. There is nothing wrong with any of that. However, there is also a sense of joy in tossing things out there and seeing where they will land. Pushing the envelope, risking falling down, and facing criticism for something can be liberating. The challenge is to overcome the fear of all that release.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

Barbara Smaller had a cartoon in The New Yorker that I’ve always loved. In the cartoon, a woman is holding some books and talking with a man who is leaning against a desk. The caption reads, “"I want to write what I know, but all I know is writing workshops."

Sound familiar?

I knew a woman who couldn’t trust herself make up her own mind about anything because she was afraid of making wrong choices. So, she went to a therapist, attended group therapy sessions, saw her psychic on a regular basis, had her palm read once a month, and her Tarot cards were read whenever she had a pressing issue. Then, if her palm reader said to do one thing, but her therapist said to do the opposite, if her Tarot cards predicted a third option, and her psychic presented a fourth idea, she’d select the choice she liked the best, and ignore what everyone else said. If something went wrong – and for some reason it always did – she’d start the process all over again and again. (She also kept running out of money. All that stuff ain’t cheap.)

It’s important to make wise and thoughtful decisions, but in the world of creativity, there are times when we can all be a little too careful. We can be a bit too precious. There are times when we need to –shall we say – trust The Force.

Now, I don’t want to get all New Age with all of this. What I’m saying is as a creative person there comes a point when you just have to let your instincts take over and see what comes out.

Play as well as you can, and with the skills you’ve acquired up to this point, but remember to enjoy yourself. Stop thinking and just play the music.

I say all of this from the point of view of a detail nerd who dives way too far into technical stuff.

Last month I wrote about a project where I transcribed my notes from all of my taped violin lessons, bound them into a book. I highlighted sections, to study. I saw areas of progress, areas that need constant attention, and issues I’d simply forgotten or ignored. It was very helpful.

But it was little more than a tool, and not a goal. Therefore, I’m going to take that book and let it gather dust on a bookshelf.

Look - I’m going on 70, and from where I’m sitting, there ain’t no time like the present. So, I’m gonna have some fun playing my violin, and I’m gonna to have that fun today. If I wait around for the perfect this or that, I’m going to end up one angry ghost. Who needs that, right?

I think there is a mindset that places pleasure as something of a final goal to any quest. It’s all business and tunnel vision. The Knight will be happy after he’s killed the dragon, defeated the giant, crossed the desert, climbed the tower, and won the hand of the fair maiden. Until then, don’t bother to smile.


Ever read The Odyssey, by Homer? I mean the whole thing, and not that highly edited abridged version you had in school? It’s quite an eye opener. It took Odysseus many, many years to get home from the Trojan War. Yes, he had some problems. Poseidon was throwing all sorts of roadblocks in his way - monsters, storms, Sirens, some loopy lotus-eaters, a Cyclops, and so on. That’s some pretty bad stuff. But from what I read, it seems he sure took his time getting home, and there are a couple of episodes with Calypso and Circe, where he wasn’t really suffering all that much. (Plus, I checked it out on Google Maps. He could have walked the whole thing from Turkey to Ithaca in about three weeks, but that’s another story.)

How about Huckleberry Finn? Huck Finn and Jim, who are riding a raft down the Mississippi. Jim is escaping from slavery, Huck is fighting with the madness of the civilized world, the river is freedom, and they meet some crazy people. They may have some real problems, but on the other hand, they’re having a hilarious time solving those issues.

So, keep working at it. Keep striving to get better and better, but remember to enjoy it. When my teacher says, “be the subject and not the object,” I need to stop wondering how she is seeing what I’m doing, and just do it, letting whatever comes out simply come out. Yes, it can be better, but I’m gong to trust that it will be better as things go along.

So I’ve got to remember that as I practice for the upcoming recital. It’ll happen right at my 18-month mark for taking lessons. I know some of those little kids are going to sound great. I know there are a couple of teenagers who will blow me away with their music. However, I’m going to do my best, and have fun doing it. I hope you do as well.

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October 4, 2018 at 05:07 AM · Best advice I ever got about over-thinking the music...

When performing, forget about technique - simply trust that your practice will pay off.

Focus instead on vividly imagining the sound you want to produce - singing it to yourself in your head. Imagine a clean, ringing, expressive sound, and your body will follow your mind and produce it.

This really works - at least for me...

October 4, 2018 at 04:29 PM · I am an overachiever, an over thinker, I analyze and study and overdo!! A therapist once asked me if I studied the most that I could do and took test and did not get 100% did I do my best? Without missing a beat I said “no”! ?? That’s me. But you are absolutely right. One of the reasons I decided to play violin when I retired is that I love strings and I love to play! Now if I could just get out of the way of myself, I just might start enjoying it more!

October 5, 2018 at 08:20 PM · Michael,

Excellent insights. Reading this made me realize why, during all the years of playing my preferred venue is either in my home studio or deep in the second section of a community orchestra.

I have done some solo performances but I really don't like it. While I enjoy playing Doflien duets with my students I don't want to perform them for others. I really get a kick out of just playing for myself (and perhaps the cats and my wife who is never in the studio when I'm playing).

Unfortunately for me the only orchestras that rehearse in the daytime are the professional and I'm definitely not one of them.

October 6, 2018 at 12:18 AM · Michael, very true, not just for the artistic side of violin playing, but life in general. There are some things that do not come from equations and the rigors of analysis, but from your gut feeling and emotions. When I practice some songs that do not resonate with me, I play them mechanically and they usually do not sound that well. Others, I understand what the music is trying to say, I can then put the right emotion into the music and it sounds better to me.

October 6, 2018 at 03:18 PM · I always enjoy your articles and this one for sure. I too am pushing hard on 70 and am in my 5th year of lessons. Just yesterday my teacher said "technically, your playing is right on but it sounds stiff and like an exercise, not a song". The thing is, I'm always so nervous when I play a song from memory for her...will I ever get over that? I don't know, I do love being in the back row of the 2nd violins in orchestra and never ever want to play a solo anything, but I sure wish I could relax enough to make even an exercise sound like a song!

October 6, 2018 at 07:48 PM · Sometimes you've got to toss caution to the wind and go with the situation. Here's a story.........

This happened to me when I was in college. During my sophomore year I got cast in a student directed one act play. It was going to be one performance and that was it. I'd never been in a play. I was nervous. The directors entire grade was based on the outcome of this show. His final words of encouragement to me just before I stepped on stage were, "Kennedy, if you screw this up, I'll kill you." Delightful, eh?

Well, we got into it and the show was going well. About five minutes into the show, I heard a woman in the front row whisper to her date, "His zipper is down!"

I looked down, and she was right. I glanced off to stage right. There stood the director watching the show, and here I was standing in front of around 200 people with my fly down. They started to murmur and some giggled.

So what did I do? Frankly, I think I had no options. I unbuckled my belt, unbuttoned my pants, pulled them down to my ankles, tucked in my shirt, then pulled my pants up, buckled them, zipped up, and hooked my belt. I didn't miss a line. The audience became stone silent. They simply didn't know whether it was real or staged.

We went on and finished the one act play, and the audience loved it. My friend got an "A", and I didn't get killed.

The funny thing about mistakes is this - 95% of the time, nobody will know it was a mistake unless you let them know. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

Rehearse your music, do the best you can, then toss it out there and hope it will land on its feet.

October 7, 2018 at 03:13 AM · Yes, don't wait to make it all right and perfect. I was to start my 4th year as a violin student this past September. I was also 80 in September. But I have developed rather severe arthritis on my hands. So now everything waits to see if medication will enable more classes.

Fortunately m teacher is one of those wonders who doesn't make perfectionist type demands of me

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