The Well-Aging Fiddler: Progress Report - What’s Next?

April 18, 2018, 7:49 AM · May first will be the anniversary of the afternoon I decided to learn how to play a violin. On May 15 I’ll hit the one-year anniversary for taking violin lessons. Then on May 20 I’ll showoff what I’ve learned, playing around 20 short pieces in a pub here in Portland, Oregon.

I’ll do my recital at the Muddy Rudder Public House. I’m inviting family, friends, and whoever else happens to be in the pub at 2 p.m. that Sunday afternoon to sit back, listen to the music and to eat and drink before, during, and after my performance.

Frankly, if I came to a first year recital by a guy who is almost 69 years old, I might want a drink as well. The 20 minutes will either go well, or it won’t, but in any case, it will happen. They have great pizza and a full bar.

So that will be that. The question for May 21 will be – what’s next?

lesson sheets

I know I’m going to do another year of lessons, and perhaps a year or two after that. Why not? Indeed, I’d love to do ten years of lessons, but let’s be realistic - I’m under a bit of a time crunch. I’m almost 69 years old. Life expectancy for males in the USA is 77 – 78 years old on average. My dad and grandfather lived until they were 84. I fully intend to get to 90, but let’s face some facts. While I’m in great health, I eat well, and get daily exercise the odds are not in my favor.

That’s show biz.

So, if I’m going to do anything with a violin beyond playing it in a bedroom, I’ve got to set some realistic goals, and here they are.

Let’s take stock. I enjoy playing fiddle tunes, Celtic and Irish music, and classical pieces.

Playing fiddle tunes will be easy to accomplish. Old Time and Bluegrass jams are plentiful here in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, we have a couple of great weekly jams here in Portland at the O’Neill Pub on Sunday afternoons, and at the White Eagle Saloon on Thursday’s. Also, from spring into the autumn there are festivals all over the place with a couple of great ones in the winter months.

Irish jams seem a bit more difficult to find which strikes me as odd since there are so many Irish themed pubs around here. In any case, I’m not ready to step into a jam at this point. Give me a year and then I’ll be ready.

When it comes to classical music, I’d love to get my feet wet with some sort of community group. The most visible one is Classical Revolution PDX. The Classical Revolution jams are all over the country, and I think they are a great idea. They take classical music out of the recital halls and play in places like restaurants and pubs. In other words they take it to the people, and have open jams for pro, amateur, teachers, and students. That might eventually fit the bill.

At the moment my teacher, Mirabai Peart, is touring Europe playing with Alela Diane. I’m working on my songs every day, and sending her YouTube videos so she can comment on where I am with all of this.

So we’ll see what happens. All I can say is that a year ago I never thought I’d be doing what I am, but I’m having a great time.

By the way, you’re invited to the recital.


April 18, 2018 at 07:30 PM · Thanks for the update Michael. Wow!! You have really progressed in a year! I’ve been playing for four years now and not sure I’m as advanced as you, but I keep trying. I tapped on classical revolution pdx and was hoping yo find something in colorado. Good luck with your future endeavors and I hope we continue to hear about your journey.

April 19, 2018 at 08:58 AM · This is monumental Michael! Way to go.

As a 60 year old who has been very off and on with viola (originally violin for a few months), I find your dedication inspiring. Your approach is helping me to drop my ridiculous stop-start-stop....wait a year....start-stop...repeat approach that has led to me effectively remaining stalled at about ABEM Grade 2 level. Time to make progress!


April 19, 2018 at 10:49 AM · Great going Mike !! Keep that fire burning bright !!!

April 19, 2018 at 05:52 PM · Suzanne, thank you for the kind words, but please don't think I'm all that advanced. I'm just jumping in and seeing what floats. Pitch continues to haunt me each time I drop a finger onto the fingerboard. In an attempt to find a shortcut to mastering pitch, I decided I needed to ask someone for whom this doesn't seem to be an issue. One afternoon I attended a concert by the Oregon Symphony and Elina Vahala was the soloist. She was amazing. During intermission she was in the lobby signing CD's. So I thought, "Here is my chance!" I grabbed a CD, stood in line and waited to talk with her. After a few minutes, it was my turn. As she took the CD and started to sign I asked, "Any suggestions on how to solve problems with pitch?" She looked up, thought for only a moment, and then replied, "Pitch? Well, that's a lifelong struggle." She smiled, handed the signed CD back to me, looked at the next person, and I got out of line. My wife stood there shaking her head. "So, you spent twenty dollars to say a few words to a pretty woman?" Then she started laughing. Alas, pitch continues to challenge me. I'm simply getting used to all of it.

Neil - Keep at it! Like Odysseus, it's all about the journey.

April 20, 2018 at 12:07 AM · I love your confidence. As a late starter myself (not THAT late), it took me almost 15 years of playing before I felt ready to step out and play a solo in front of an audience for the first time. It was a sort of skewed perspective, because I was working on difficult Romantic concerto/sonata repertoire and still feeling like I wasn't good enough.

I love Classical Revolution... what's the format like in Portland? Here, it's typically a prepared performance by local freelance musicians for the first half, often including new music, and then an open stage for the second half.

Oh, about pitch: have you seen Nathan Cole's video on shifting on YouTube? In it, he talks about the "dirty little secret" of professional string players: EVERYONE struggles with pitch. The difference between experienced string players and beginners is that experienced string players learn to correct errors in finger placement quickly, and often conceal the correction in their vibrato.

April 20, 2018 at 02:53 PM · Thank, Andrew. I appreciate the encouragement. My confidence comes and goes. I woke up last night around 3 and lay there for an hour wondering if I should actually go through with all of this. Fortunately, I've been down this road before with other performance situations. I always hit a wall of doubt at some point, then I just push through and toss caution to the wind.

Classical Revolution is a great idea. I attended one evening here in Portland and I liked the innovation and variety of the performers. However, I wonder about the "open mic" label. I think "showcase" might be a clearer definition of what is expected at these gatherings. After I attended a show, I wrote to them and said I waned to get up on stage and play something. Then I got an email from someone in the organization strongly implying that these evenings are really intended for advanced amateurs and professionals. I was cautioned that because of my presumed skill level - or lack of a skill level - I might find the experience unsatisfying. While this was probably intended as a friendly caution, and while I'm sure I could have gotten on stage and played anyway, the vibe from that email was rather discouraging, and completely contrary to the spirt of an "open mic" evening. After all, for most of us, just wanting to get up and try is a major hurdle, and it should be encouraged rather than qualified. Still, it was very exciting to see imaginative combinations of instruments and musicians perform. There were even a couple of elementary kids playing and they were great. Perhaps I'll go back in a year or two or five - perhaps.

I'll take a look at the Nathan Cole video once I'm done writing this. It sounds like a great idea. Thanks!

April 20, 2018 at 07:21 PM · The D'Addario Micro Violin tuner is your best friend when it comes to improving pitch. Install it on the upper bout on the left side of the neck (as you're looking at the instrument). This will give you a good view while playing. If one doesn't have "perfect pitch" to begin with, using an electronic tuner is essential.

April 20, 2018 at 09:53 PM · Congrats on your first year. I'm also a late learner. I started on June 28th last year, three months before my 50th birthday. I hadn't played an instrument since I was in high school and I wouldn't really say I loved that at the time. I hated the clarinet, loved playing guitar but went through a revolving door of teachers so gave up playing. Over the years I met several violin teachers but either the time wasn't right or I didn't have the money or they didn't have availability or want to work with adults. Last year a chance post on Nextdoor of someone wanting a violin teacher for their child and having someone post that they knew a gal that had just moved back to the United States and was looking for students. Plus, she took adults AND lived three blocks from my house. Two weeks later I was on my way to learning.

It's been a real learning experience but a good one for me. I've taught ballroom dance for over 25 years and continually have people tell me that I make it all look so easy. They never seem to believe me when I tell them it's years of practice, training, blood, sweat and tears. Learning the violin has given me the chance to remember what it was like when I was first learning to dance and to remember if I keep plugging along maybe some day I'll actually get the hang of it all. I'm slowly working on finishing the last two songs in the Suzuki book 1. Looking forward to graduating to the next book. Some days go well, some days not so well.

I'm really enjoying your blog though because it makes me realize the struggles are not just my own and that there are others out there like me and similar ages that are taking this on for the first time. I do wish that I could find more adult learners here in the area that I could work with and learn with. My teacher at this point has all kids and then me. Although, I was the rock star at our first recital in January. All the kids were still in the Twinkle or Lightly Row pieces and I'd already moved up to Perpetual Motion and a couple of pieces from the other books. So while I know I have a really long way to go and many many more hours of practice, it was fun to have the kids looking up to me and saying they wanted to be able to play like me some day!

April 20, 2018 at 10:03 PM · If there is an answer it is possibly vibrato , that’s how most violinists disguise the fact that it is almost impossible the put one’s fingers onto the fingerboard with the micro precision needed , oh and a trained ear and quick reactions so that you can quickly adjust position when you realise you are slightly off. I am 67 and have been learning for 4 years now , couldn’t do a recital in a pub but my playing is just getting to sound not like an almighty row

April 20, 2018 at 10:52 PM · Regarding pitch they do say that many virtuoso violinists have fingers that can move like lightning , they seldom hit the same spot more than once

April 21, 2018 at 01:01 AM · I, too, picked up the violin at 68 years. Been playing for two now: mostly classical. I have a sore left elbow from trying to get my hand on the D and G strings in 5th - 7th positions but I'm not sure if that is old age or something many must endure. I belong to 'Sinfonia Orchestra' in Albany, Western Australia and take lessons from Mike Hyder - a fabulous performer and teacher. While I wished I picked up the violin earlier in life, I so enjoyed these past two years with my violin that I encourage anyone, whatever age, who toys with the idea of playing the violin to give it a go!

April 21, 2018 at 12:13 PM · I too am beginning to learn the biolin after many uears pf attending folk & rock festivals snd becoming totally besotted by the huge range of sounds from violins.

Almost 67 but had a whole 5 lessons 12 months ago then tiddled my thumbs badically until mow.

Really inspiring to tead aothers in same age group are brginners too

April 21, 2018 at 02:34 PM · Thanks for all the suggestions about how to deal with my elusive pitch. As I said above, my teacher is currently on tour in Europe, playing nightly concerts and spending her days in a van between cities. I wrote to her and asked for any suggestions. After all, the mantra she repeats in my lessons is "too sharp. Too sharp. Too sharp."

Here is her response, "The answer is ‘go slow’. Play slowly and really listen. Practice scales with a meditative and meditative pace and relax into it. Spend a little time when you practice tunes playing them 4x slow. For now, give at least 2/3 of your practice time to slow practice."

Now, I have a Bluegrass jam background playing a guitar and a mandolin in jams. (I have yet to take a violin/fiddle to a jam.) As I'm sure you know, one key aspect of these jams is to knock out a song with speed and accuracy. It's all energy. Fast is king. Indeed, that's part of the excitement of these events. All you have to do is drop the finger in the right place, pluck the strings and away you go.

However, while a violin and a mandolin have identical tuning, the lack of frets on a violin throws accuracy out the window. My Bluegrass fingers want to run a 100 yard dash, but my fretless violin treats my fast fingers like they are landing on slippery ice. It aint good.

So, yesterday, swallowing my pride, listening to her advice, and ignoring my instincts, I went through everything I know as slowly as I could. Well, son of a gun. it sounded so much better.

That was and is the key. Slow down. As much as I want to be up to speed, I have to pay attention to a whole lot of other dynamics while I build my technique.

It ain't easy, but it sure is fun.

April 22, 2018 at 08:39 PM · Bluegrass players, even the pros, can often be seen, even in performance, with an electronic tuner attached to their instruments.

April 23, 2018 at 12:22 AM · Michael, I started about the same time as you but I was in my 82 year and I am slow so I use a soundcorest tuner & metro from google and with Tahnaya my teacher it is (the correct pitch) coming it the onetime I am grateful I don't have perfect pitch ,that is when I am playing Michael don't ever give up we us older players need your attitude as much as good pitch thank you best regards john A

April 23, 2018 at 12:36 PM · Hey Michael,

1 year only and you are already well advanced. I've read some people saying they've been 'playing' much longer and can't yet get the hang of Twinkle...

Well done you! And I wish you great success and much joy on the day. I'd wager that you get a standing ovation and calls for "More."

By the way, at 69 you're just a boy yet. See John 17:3 and if you believe you can play for eternity - which is just a tad longer than sixt-nine and addresses your issue of "time crunch."



April 23, 2018 at 03:13 PM · You know, one idea I've been kicking around in my head is to form a group of string players, doing whatever we like. At some point down the road -in a couple of years - I'd like to create the Well-Aging String Quartet. I'd take the word, "quartet" and give it a loose definition. Three people, five people, whatever we'd like. Keep it imaginative and fun. Whoever shows up is in the group. I did this in Minneapolis with a jug band called, King Kennedy and the Cruisers. Membership was loose. If you're present, you're in, and that's that. We played in the Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands and had a great time. At some point I'm going to do something like that with strings. You guys should join me.

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