There’s no short cut to this. No commercially-made miracle fingerboard guide, not the world’s most exquisite instrument, not fancy strings, nor Youtube video, raw talent, or fluke is going to make you into a violinist. There are two ingredients that make you a violinist – a violin and plenty of work. Everything else is secondary.
I knew this. In my head, I knew that it was going to take years to develop my skill (for I have no talent) to the point where I can stand to hear myself play. My heart, however, hoped that my dedication and inclination would abbreviate the process. My heart is accustomed to disappointment by now in matters such as these. And yet there is still a faint ache when I once again fail to meet my own expectations.
In learning violin, there are leaps and plateaus. Some leaps are higher than others. Some plateaus break faster than others. But it never fails. There will be a period of status quo for however long, and suddenly that skill you’ve been struggling with is now easy and you’re moving on to the next thing. Sometimes you get 10 things in a row before you plateau. Sometimes you get one, then weeks of disappointing practice where the simplest new skill is frustratingly beyond reach.
You will rarely hear from someone in the throes of the process that the effort is not worth it. Practice is the key to those sublime moments when what you hear matches or even exceeds what you expected. Occasionally there are whole sessions where notes fly off the strings like sparks off a sparkler and there’s no stopping the swelling joy over what you have produced. Though often far and few between, the potential for it to happen makes approaching each and every session with the violin conceive a flutter of hope that this time you will be on fire.
That’s what I dream of – a sublime fire, quiet passion. No need to become a touring soloist for me, just a competent musician. No double-stop will halt my progress, nor decrescendo bring me down for long. Because these skills can be mastered, and there will be new challenges to overcome, and new sparks to light. In the meantime, I will lean on my practice and hope that drawing the bow across the strings causes those smoldering embers to light up.
Frustration is a symptom of learning. It means that you are bumping up against things that are holding you back. – Emily Wright
Emily Wright, quoted above, wrote a blog post about a concept she calls “note salad”. You can read about it here: Hearing Versus Listening The narrative discusses the phenomenon where a musician has all the ingredients, but can’t mix them together to get the piece to sound right. They are so distracted by all the things they know they are doing wrong, that they can’t focus on the musicality of the piece.
I think this is what is happening to me. My teacher has given me the tools, shown me the way numerous times, and I’m still so overwhelmed by GETTING THINGS RIGHT that I can’t hear what I’m actually playing. So while I know what it’s supposed to sound like, I don’t make it sound like that.
It drives me nuts. One solution would be to record my practice. That hasn't panned out, not least because I don't like the way I sound, which is exactly why I ought to. But since I know this is happening, I should be able to be mindful enough to avoid this particular pitfall. Except that I'm not.
There are a number of beginners attempting to learn the violin sans teacher. Honestly, at one point, I really thought I would be one of them. My grandfather taught himself how to play on a violin from Sears. No one can tell me how well he did, so I only have the story to go on. My grandfather and his violin are long gone.
I rented a violin for about 4 months and purchased a copy of Essential Elements. YouTube was the resource I turned to to answer all my questions. At the end of 4 months, I still couldn't play anything with any satisfaction. Thinking the violin was not for me, I turned my rental in and figured it was never going to happen.
But I couldn't let the idea go. Several months later I started haunting violin shops and calling prospective teachers. Finally, the third individual I contacted decided to give me an interview, and he has been my teacher ever since.
At my first real lesson, he gave me something incredibly valuable. My teacher taught me how to draw the bow across the strings without making that horrible scratchy sound. It was magical. I almost cried. Maybe that's not a big deal to anyone else, but it was huge for me.
Over the past year and a half, he has given me so many valuable tools - how to hold the bow, how to practice each challenging skill, timing, music reading, what is the best order to learn a piece, how the arm, the wrist, and the elbow should move, and so much more.
I couldn't get those things from a book. Certainly there are books out there that cover it, but I needed timely and simple correction in terms that made sense to me. The speed at which things are absorbed increased exponentially with his guidance.
The best part is, when something isn't right, he knows exactly why. It's almost as if he sits in my practice room with me all week because he nails it every time. Moreover, he knows more than one approach to helping me understand how to fix it.
Everyone can learn, but not everyone can teach. Not only is my teacher a good player, he is a great instructor. I know I am often frustrated, but it is never because he doesn't give me what I need to succeed. It's because I don't have enough time to devote to applying the principals he taught.
So here's to all the fantastic violin teachers out there. Even if you don't hear us say thank you often enough, know that you are making a difference in someone's life. And to my teacher, if you ever read this - Thanks!
Frustrating, frustrating day. I expect work to be annoying and to not go according to plan. Part of my job description is “management” which means I get to manage all the crazy things that get tossed my way. I start out the day with a solid plan and an expectation of executing X number of tasks, and by lunch I’m on a wild goose chase, looking for a file in another state by phone, while fielding emails from 6 people and filling out last minute reports to make other people’s jobs easier. What was I doing again?
What I didn’t expect was for my violin lesson to be quite so frustrating. While I wish that I had four hours a day to devote to scales, arpeggios, concertos, and etudes; in reality, I get roughly one hour most days. One. Which means that I can’t memorize a concerto like, ever, my scales are sloppy, repertoire is sketchy at best, and everything else is pretty much hit or miss.
I want to be good. I really do. Not Hilary Hahn good, just able to play well enough to make it sound more like music than it does now. Currently I play violin sort of like a drunk roller skates. Bach must be rolling over in his grave.
I know what it takes to get better, but I just don’t have the time to devote to it and it is frustrating. Not sure why it matters so much. It’s not like I’m going to go anywhere with it. They’re not going to put “violinist” on my headstone or anything. I’m just so tired of being a hack.
Bah! Time for an adult beverage.
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