The Well Aging Fiddler: Time, Timing, Humility and Patience

January 9, 2019, 1:32 PM · I’d say a key subtext in learning the violin is humbly accepting the virtue of patience.

One January, when I lived in Minneapolis, I had to go to airport and give a friend a ride home after their flight landed. While I waited in the baggage claim area, a flight came in from Jamaica. People emerged from the escalator in shorts, flip-flips, t-shirts, sleeveless tops goofy hats, sunglasses, and so forth. Clearly, they were trying to hold onto the last shred of warm weather and a relaxed Caribbean vacation. I don’t blame them. If I were in their shoes I would do that as well. Unfortunately, they were walking into one big problem – Minnesota in the winter. That night, in Minneapolis, the air temperature was around -4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind-chill factor was between -15 and -20 degrees. Oh, dear.

travelers

Now, I didn’t stick around to see what happened to these nearly naked travelers. I wasn’t around to her them moan, sigh, and resign themselves to the fact that they were way out of their element. I didn’t watch them shiver. I didn’t want to see their shocked faces as they waited for a taxi. . I assumed – hoped - the travelers accepted reality and put on a sweater – or two. I found my friend, zipped up my coat, put my gloves on my hands, and slogged through the frozen slush out to the parking lot.

Ah reality… not to stretch the metaphor too far…but it’s a cold slap in the face, a bucket of freezing water on a hot day, a whiteout snowstorm, bare feet on ice, running out of gas on an empty road in the middle of the night, your cellphone isn’t getting a signal, and clearly I’ve had too much coffee this morning.

We’ve all made some sort of error in being underprepared for a situation we’d made some assumptions about, but ignored only to find we should have stepped back and given everything a little more thought.

Here is what happened to me –

Now, as you may know, I’m going to turn 70 this coming May. Also, as you know, people make a big deal out of any birthday that has a zero in the number.

“I’m turning 30! I’d better start to settle down!”
“I’m turning 40! Kids! Bills! Mortgage! Middle age! What happened?”
“I’m turning 50! 60! 70!”
With any luck and good health, this sort of thing goes on and on.

It gets pretty loopy. Of course any birthday with a nine in it is really a year of anticipation. Try it. Tell someone your 29 or 39 or 69. Do you know what they are thinking? They are not thinking you are 29 or 39 or 69. Nope. They’re thinking, “Wow! You’re almost 30 or 40 or 70! You’re changing!” To me, a year with a nine is an existential year of almost being something else.

Some people want to throw parties and make speeches. Others seek therapists. For my part, I thought it would be a great excuse to go somewhere. A great excuse to blow a couple thousand dollars just for myself, and turning 70 seemed like a handy excuse to do it. The great thing about these birthdays is people tend to let the birthday boy or girl do whatever they like. It’s a rare throw-money-on-the-American Express card without too much guilt moment.

My plan was this – For my 70th birthday, I’ll reward myself with a week at the Fiddle Tunes Workshop in Port Townsend, Washington next summer. I’ve heard wonderful praise for this exceptional week of music. The focus is on a wonderful plethora of musical styles – American folk, Bluegrass, Cajun, Irish, Scandinavian, and other styles are taught in workshops. Amazing guest artists lead these workshops. There are delightful performances every evening, and it is a well-organized, spirited celebration of music. The whole experience is less than four hours from my house, and it sounded like a great way to celebrate my birthday.

There was only one hitch. I’ve only been playing a violin for a little over a year and a half. While I’m steadily improving, I have to ask myself if I’m really ready for the challenge of such a week? Have I got the chops? Am I pushing things a little too fast?

To learn the answer to these questions I started taking my violin to some Old Time and Bluegrass jams here in Portland. Now, before I took up the violin I’d been a regular participant at these jams with my guitar and mandolin. I could hold my own without any difficulty. When I started on the violin, however, I set the guitar and mandolin aside. I’m not good with multitasking, and juggling three instruments seemed like a bad idea. Plus, I thought I’d be too frustrated with the violin. I could pick up a guitar or a mandolin and play music without any trouble. With the violin, the whole thing was – and remains – a challenge.

So, with my fiddle in hand, I walked into a jam. I was nervous, but the folks at the jam were warm and inviting. They were surprised I didn’t have my “usual instrumentation” but excited to hear me play the violin. Well, they were excited until I actually played.

While I could do basic chords, when it came to breaks I couldn’t keep up. I was stressed. I made sounds unfit for humanity. When we played, “Old Joe Clark” I was so nervous and unfocused, I completely forgot how to get through the song. It wasn’t my finest hour. Indeed, while I soloed for less than a minute, it felt like a week.

Did I quit? Well, of course not. I went back the next week and tried again. The results were similar. I didn’t pull off the Grammy winning performance I’d hoped.

For the third week, I brushed the dust off my mandolin, tuned the strings, and carried my mandolin along with my violin into the jam. My ego needed a boost. When I played the mandolin and sang things were different. People smiled. The energy jumped in the room. I was back.

So I put the mandolin down and picked up the violin. Well, it was like going from 90 to 20 mph. I did show them I can play music, but I also showed them I have quite a way to go with a violin.

Undaunted, however, for the next jam, I decided to play my guitar. This would be great. I’d been playing guitar for 55 years. If I could do well with a mandolin, just think about how that guitar would sound!

(Can you see the rabbit hole I’m diving into here? It gets worse.)

Well, to my surprise, not playing guitar for 20 months took its toll. While two years ago I knew pentatonic fingering patterns in all keys up and down the fretboard, in these inactive months I’d forgotten some of them. I had to spend a lot of time relearning finger patterns I used to be able to play in my sleep. I spent hours on the guitar. I spent time going over and over and over patterns until I had them back in my head. I ignored the fact that my wrist was bent (should have been straight) and my fingers were spread wider over the fretboard, and I had to press hard to get the steel strings to bend over the frets.

After three days of this, my wrist was a mess. I’d stretched the tendons too much. I could barely move my fingers. Oops.

I went to a fourth jam, I took the mandolin and violin but I left the guitar at home. My wrist was in a brace. Once again, my mandolin playing went well – with some pain – and my violin playing was iffy. Halfway through “Arkansas Traveler” I forgot what to do and the whole thing crashed into silence.

That’s when I realized I had to stop, think, and accept the fact that Fiddle Tunes will have to wait a year or two before I consider attending their amazing summer workshop. I’m doing well as a student, but I’m just not ready for something of that magnitude. Just because we want to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it right now. Just because a first grader thinks they should be in high school doesn’t mean they get to register as a freshman. You have to do the necessary work to prepare yourself for a productive experience. There is a time and a place for all things, and the trick in life is recognizing when those times and places exist.

Like it or not, it takes time to get satisfying results, and pushing the results too fast shortchanges the entire experience. The moment I made the decision to postpone my Fiddle Tunes participation things got a whole lot better. I wasn’t under unnecessary pressure. In the back of my mind I kept worrying about how to spend the next six months learning a lot of fiddle tunes, Irish songs, Scandinavian music, double-stops, intonation, and on and on. I was overloading myself.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have goals. They are necessary so we can move forward, however at this point I need goals within my reach, and not beyond my grasp. Give me two years, and I'll have a great time at Fiddle Tunes. For right now, though, I need to listen to my teacher and pace my work. I'll get there, but I'm going to walk rather than try to flap my arms and fly.

Also, to be fair to my teacher, she didn’t bring any of this on. Indeed, she’s been out of the country for the past six weeks. All of this came about due to my overthinking the situation, turning 70, and creating a problem - and a fantasy - I didn’t really have the skill or knowledge to carry out this experience in an enjoyable and satisfying timeframe.

She’ll be back here next week and we’ll get lessons going again. My wrist should be fine by then. I might mention my extracurricular exercise in pushing things too fast or I might not. It’s a little embarrassing. So, for now, let’s just keep this between ourselves, ok? I’ll get back to the basics, and I can relax and focus at a reasonable pace.

Patience is indeed a virtue. Sometimes we have to experience the opposite action to appreciate what we can gain from living one day at a time.


Replies

January 9, 2019 at 09:38 PM · Nice thing about patience, it does get better with age; I should know, I just turned 70 and have been playing violin for five years.

January 9, 2019 at 11:30 PM · Suzanne Claffey...me too, 70 and been playing 5 years. I'm just 45 minutes away from Port Townsend but way to intimidated to try to go to the summer jam fest! maybe someday before i can't drive that far. Ha Ha

January 10, 2019 at 04:03 AM · Fred DelGizzo: WOW turning 70 in April, I found this piece enlightening. I’ve been playing violin for 5 years and jazz piano for 45 years. I have all the scales passing tones bebop licks technique feel and delivery with the piano ?? and willing and ready to run my fingers on the violin ??

“BUT” the violin requires enormous patience. I practice a lot the violin is next to me always ready to be picked up. I finally found a jazz violin teacher who I hope can help me transfer my jazz knowledge into the violin technique.

January 10, 2019 at 08:58 AM · I am 75 and have also taken up violin, 9 years ago now, having played piano all my life in all types of music as a semi-pro with a drummer and also without. Patience is the answer and practise every day essential. I am at last seeming to sound better and more assured. However, the piano has suffered and now I need to do some work in that department again!! But its all worth it when I can play in the local University orchestra and keep up with the others.

January 10, 2019 at 03:07 PM · Thanks for sharing this! I turn 69 tomorrow and loved reading this article. "A year with a nine is an existential year of being almost something else." Whatever it is that I am becoming needs a lot of patience :) I played violin as a kid and then started up again two years ago. Patience is key!! So I think what I'll be this year of being 69 is HOPEFUL and persistent as I seek to get a pleasant tone while accommodating the increasing arthritis in my fingers and tight tendons in my wrists.

January 10, 2019 at 09:08 PM · I'll be 69 this summer, and I've gone far enough through the guitar -> mandolin -> violin transition that in bluegrass circles I'm now an alpha male fiddler. I remember and feel your pain, though. Hang in there - it gets better, and sooner than you might think. If you're not ready this summer, you probably will be next year. But check the schedule - there might be a place at the camp for less experienced fiddlers. Up here in Vancouver (the Canadian one, not the one next door to you), on the first Monday of every month there's a "slow pitch jam" where people have a chance to ease into things. You might be able to find an equivalent.

I still play mandolin in one group when our mandolin player can't make it. These days, though, I feel more comfortable with a bow than a pick.

January 11, 2019 at 01:50 AM · Thanks to all of you for your comments. It's great to have a peer group!

January 11, 2019 at 05:59 AM · Funny enough, at one point I also found it painful to pick up a guitar for the first time in five or six years, after playing only viola for that whole time. That was also the last time I attempted to play a guitar. A ukulele is playable, but the left hand position for a guitar is too much of a stretch.

I think, when it comes to learning a musical instrument, patience is harder for us adult learners than for children because we are so much more aware of what the music should sound like.

The other difficult thing, at least for me, is that I get a lot less patient when nearing a big milestone. In 2018 I started learning the Walton viola concerto, one of the "big three" 20th century viola concertos and the piece that inspired me to start learning viola in the first place. For three months, I got very little done because the efficient practice methods that had become ingrained over the past 18 years went straight out the window. I kept getting impatient with the detailed, methodical practice required to learn that kind of music, and kept trying to just play straight through in tempo because my "pie in the sky" goal was close enough to taste. Eventually, once I got used to the idea of playing the Walton concerto, it was easier to just think of it as the next piece I was learning, and I started taking my time and doing the real work.

January 12, 2019 at 12:24 AM · Thanks so much for continuing to make your posts. I'm feeling like the young pup here at 51 and only playing for the last year and a half. The only performance stuff I've done so far is recitals and playing for my husband or cats. But, in the beginning I didn't even want my hubby or cats to hear! It's all getting better. Much slower than I would like but considering I haven't played any musical instruments since I was about 20/25 and finally found someone to teach violin to an adult, I have to consider it progress. I am starting to prepare for my first big performance though. My husband has encouraged me to play for our church. My first comment was "you've heard me play right?" but I did have to agree that it had gotten better. I think the biggest challenge as an adult is life getting in the way of time to practice. But, I'm trying to be patient. Keep up the great work and keep posting!

January 12, 2019 at 02:01 PM · Thank you so much for this post! I'm 59 and returned to the violin right at a month ago. Haven't played since my early teenage days - played from age 7/8 until 13. I taught myself how to play the acoustic guitar and played that from ~13-19 as the violin just wasn't an option at that time, but I never enjoyed at as much as the violin. VERY sure I would have no idea what to do with a guitar if I picked one up, it never really became "my" instrument.

Fast forward to today. After only 4 lessons somethings are easier than I expected (I had no expectations of remembering anything at all), but of course it will take time, patience, and work to progress properly. I've a great teacher who is being very patient with this enthusiastic returnee and he doesn't let me get too far ahead of myself (if that were even possible at this point), very thankful to have him. Returning after so long is humbling, exciting, and delightful all at the same time! Can't think of why it took so long to return, but life is that way.

I'm focusing on being patient and on enjoying the journey. As Connie said, keep up the good work and posting, it's very encouraging!

January 12, 2019 at 02:14 PM · Great piece, inspiring and comforting to read! I'm turning 60 soon and returned to the the violin last year after 40 years of not playing. It was exciting to discover I remembered how to play and humbling to realize I'd forgotten. I attended with great happy anticipation, a chamber music drop in and discovered that particular skill, sightreading, keeping up, seemed to have vanished (or still be dormant maybe, hopefully!). Its a funny thing to be learning again at this age but it is totally involving, fun, exciting and as you describe so well, takes patience. Well worth it though. So wonderful to find this community!

January 15, 2019 at 10:09 PM · Thanks for your experiences and encouragement. You've all given me an idea.........however it's too early to discuss at this point. Stay tuned!

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