The Well Aging Fiddler: Go ahead! Play with others!

January 29, 2020, 4:53 PM · A quick question for my fellow adult beginners: how is your confidence level? Are you doing ok? Yes? Great. You can skip this blog. 

 Or, did you say, no? Really? Oh dear. Well, guess what? I think I’ve found a way for you to get over that lack of confidence hump. 

 If you’re like me, you’ve been spending a long time – perhaps years – playing violin by yourself in your bedroom, living room, dining room, bathroom, (I hope not the bathroom. . .) and other lonely rooms. Every now and then you wonder what is going on. You’re wondering if you’ll ever get it. If you’ll ever be at a level where you can actually play with others. 

chamber music

Now, if you’ve got a teacher showing you the way, you probably played in some recitals along with the kids your teacher has as students. Perhaps even with some other adults at those recitals, and perhaps you’ve even participated in a few adult soirees where it’s just the adult students playing violin for each other. That’s great. 

And, perhaps, you’ve done what I do – go out and play in open mic shows at local pubs where the vast majority of musicians are in their late teens and early twenties, singing about broken hearts, and broken hearts, and more broken hearts. Well, if you’ve played at those shows, that’s wonderful. God knows those kids need to hear a little Minuet 1 by Bach to get over their angst and blues, right?

 But that’s all solo stuff. It’s great, but there is an important step you need to take right now. You need to get out there – really get out there – without your teacher, without your fellow students, without anyone who really knows you, and to play with other string players. 

If you’re like me, you may have convinced yourself that that day will come somewhere down the road. Certainly not today or tomorrow! After all, you need to wait until you’re really comfortable with a violin/fiddle, until your intonation is perfect, until you can play without thinking about your elbows, thumbs, pinky, bow direction, and so forth. At that point you’ll certainly be able to step into that enigmatic arena and show the world you’re ready. Until then, you’ll continue to play music for your dresser, or the tree in your yard, your dining room chairs, or bathroom sink. (Please don’t play for the sink. OK?) The never-ending-rehearsal will continue until the magic strikes.  Well, don’t do that. I learned this from a serendipitous experience.

Now, first things first. Here in Portland, the land of eternal rain, a person can get a little stir crazy with the grey sky, rain, wet pavement, rain, puddles, and more rain. So, I went a little bonkers on Amazon and bought about half a dozen silly t-shirts with drawings of violins and silly sayings like, “Be calm and play a violin”, “May the strings be with you”, and nonsense like that. I even made one with my own photo saying, “The Well Aging Fiddler.” Why not, right? I mean, you gotta do something with all this endless rain.

 Anyway, I was wearing one of these t-shirts during a yoga class, and one of my yoga buddies commented on it. Then she asked if I’d ever been in a community string class. I hadn’t and she suggested I join one that was starting the next evening. So, before I could talk myself out of going, I signed up for the class.  

I didn’t let myself overthink the whole situation. I just jumped right in, and that’s another thing we need to avoid. We need to stop thinking so much because it can get us into some real trouble. Now, in one context, it’s wise to step back and think about situations. Wear a helmet when you ride a bike. Put on your seatbelt. Carry an umbrella in the rain. (As a side note - a lot of people in Portland never carry umbrellas. Indeed, they are vehemently anti-umbrella. They also get very wet, wearing t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops in 40-degree weather. Believe me, the rumors are true. Some things around here are genuinely weird.) Oh, and don’t do drugs.  

That’s all common sense, and I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about the fear of putting yourself out there and just letting it happen. Don’t think too much! You know the television show, Monk? The show about a detective who overthought everything? Subsequently, he was afraid of his own life. You should watch it. Let’s face it, we all have a little bit of Monk inside of us.  Don’t be Monk. Play your violin with others!  

So, I went to the class with my fiddle. Was I nervous? Sure. Did I have some doubts? Absolutely. Did I make mistakes? Yep. But I also had a great time. We sat in a circle of 15 adults and fiddles, working on one song as we learned it by ear for an hour and a half. Our teacher broke it down into sections and we went over and over and over that song. While we were playing, I didn’t have time to think how I was doing. I didn’t have time to wonder what others thought of my playing. I just dove in and let it rip.  

When the evening was over, I was exhausted, but I felt great. I can do this. Sure, I don’t have it down 100%, but I’ll tell you, buckaroo, I ain’t all that bad. So, I’m going back next week and I’m doing it again. Why? Because I had fun, and wasn't that the point of all of this in the first place? So, to keep things rolling, I’ve also signed up for an adult chamber music class. Who knows? Perhaps some day I'll take a chamber group with me to an open mic show. I'll invite you to come when that happens. Better still - join us and play along.

So, in the end, it’s kind of like getting in a swimming pool from the shallow end. The water feels cold, and the deeper you get, the more uncomfortable it is. Plus, there is that moment – that crucial moment – when you have to commit to falling all the way into the water no matter what. So, you do it, and once you’re under the water, you wonder what all the fuss was about.  The same is true for playing violin with others.

Find a group, jump in, focus, and have fun!

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Replies

January 30, 2020 at 12:50 PM · What wonderful encouragement, Michael. Folk fiddling in groups - learning and sharing tunes - is such a good way to meet other musicians. We have had a Portland folk hero, Susan Songer, come to Ann Arbor and give coaching workshops on group dynamics, musical dynamics, technique, as well as teach us some of her tunes. Great fun. She is the editor of The Portland Collection - four volumes of the treasures of international folk music - old and new. I believe she conducts an orchestra in Portland, too.

You are right about getting out to play with others. It teaches us so much and adds a social dynamic to what we are doing. Folk groups are generally very welcoming, non-judgemental, and encouraging. Luckily, I have also found that among all of my classical friends and groups, too. (confession: My bathroom playing was in my previous home where those accoustics were fun; not so much where I am now.)

January 31, 2020 at 01:23 AM · Mendy here. I used to love in Hillsboro a little over a decade ago. There are so many community orchestras in the Portland area to choose from. I played in the Hillsboro community orchestra for 3 years and loved it, I hadn’t played in an orchestra since I was a kid, and it was intimidating at first, but this woman, Jose, took me under her wing. Over time I learned that she used to be a major pro. I learned so much from her and became a better musician because of her.

February 1, 2020 at 12:32 AM · 100% - You've described why I am in a community orchestra, to play with others. The orchestra I'm in is associated with one of the local community colleges and we have a mix of community members and students plus some working pro players.

I also joined with a small klezmer style group where we play for local retirement homes and such.

February 1, 2020 at 11:18 PM · I live in WV mountains in a very isolated region. Would have to drive 1 1/2-2 hours to get any kind of formal teaching. We have informal jam sessions usually weekly. I have learned to play this way. I don't sight read music but if I can hum, whistle, or sing a tune I can play it. I have learned several waltzes and classical tunes even. I am doing some online classes now. I really wanted to play. I know it sounds really primitive but I do the best I can with what I have available.

February 2, 2020 at 03:37 PM · 45.41.77.181 You know, there is a grass-is-always-greener kind of thinking in all of us.. To go to the WV mountains, learn the fiddle in jam sessions, and figure it all out by the seat of your pants sounds challenging, very real, and genuine. Personally, I float between classical training, jam sessions, old time music, Bluegrass, blues, Scandinavian music, and ear training with individuals. I've sat in the front row of classical concerts, just a few feet from the violinists, and noticed - to my amateurish horror- that their technique isn't what my teacher taught. I took a couple of lessons from a world class fiddler who insisted I use my wrist in a completely different way the I had been taught. Sometimes you just can't win. So, I don't know if technique A is better than technique B or even anything else. In the end, I think it's all about whether it sounds good. The best place to get any of this is a small storefront in Richfield, Minnesota, called the Homestead Pickin Parlor. http://homesteadpickinparlor.com They have teachers, the best old-time/Bluegrass music store I've ever seen, and nightly jams. But alas, I'm in Portland, and you are in West Virginia. There should be a fiddlers exchange program for people like you and me. So, we all do the best we can wherever we are. Best of luck to you, and I love your sense of drive and dedication.

February 3, 2020 at 02:42 PM · Fiddler's Exchange Program !! Love it.

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