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.
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.
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