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I Feel Sick Playing The Violin, but I Love It. Help!

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Published: December 1, 2013 at 4:09 AM [UTC]

I am a violin student in the first semester of my senior year. I am working on a Bachelor's in Music (not a performance major) with a minor in business administration. I plan to get a Master's in String Pedagogy. This has been one of the toughest semesters I have had. I have been swamped in homework assignments from various classes, especially my accounting class, and studying for tests. Also, I am up to my ears in music. This is my first semester playing in the first violin section in orchestra and also in chamber (a string trio). I am also working on three solo pieces for my private lessons (Beethoven Romance No. 2, Bach Partita No. 2 gigue, and a Mozart Sonata). I have so much on my plate! The Beethoven Romance is kicking my butt. I can't seem to get it together. I hate all of the shifting and the crazy accidentals. My teacher continues to tell me to let go and just play, but this is difficult to do when your technique sucks and no matter how hard you work, you still cannot get it. I love the violin very much. I've wanted to be a violin teacher since I was a little girl. I can't see myself doing anything else. Yet, for the past week, the very thought of the violin has caused me to feel literally sick. I feel extremely sick thinking about the Beethoven and my chamber music. I have not touched my instrument in a week. Tonight is the first time in a week I have picked it up. I began practicing the Beethoven and again I began to feel sick. After thirty minutes I had to put it down. My stomach feels nauseated. I use to love to practice.I don't know what to do. I am now in tears because the very thing I love is causing me so much pain. Have any of you ever gone through this? How did you handle it?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 5:59 AM
I think you are feeling sick because you are overwhelmed. Also, it sounds like perhaps you went straight to the difficult music you are trying to learn, perhaps because you are stressed and under a deadline. My advice would be to practice scales for about a half-hour, and perhaps a few other technical exercises. Focus on relaxing as you play these technical things. Know that any technical exercise you do will actually help you learn to play the other things faster and better. Then when you are fully warmed up, conquer a small goal in your new music.
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 6:03 AM
I just went through the same thing. I'm in my senior year in high school and I'm working on Symphonie Espagnole, Bach Partita No. 3, and starting ziguenerwiesen, all on top of just getting through 4 of my 8 competitions this year. What I did was stopped practicing for literally a month. I went through some terrible private lessons, but when I went back to it, I was back in practice shape.

Good Luck!

Posted on December 1, 2013 at 6:26 AM
Hi Desiree,
I hope that you will allow yourself the freedom and time to re-connect with the feelings that once led you to your admirable aspiration. As my teacher once helpfully advised me, "This is philosophy, not gymnastics!" And it sounds like you have a good and helpful teacher, as well...
My own humble observation: Music is a wide world to be explored and participated in, not a narrow ladder to be ascended towards certification, or glory or fortune... Like a poet, you are entitled to your own point of view, your own language, your own message. If that changes with time, that is alright, as well...
Happy trails!
From Ray Randall
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 6:54 AM
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From Andrei Pricope
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 7:33 AM
1: Take a deep breath!
2: Review and reinforce your technical foundation (scales, shifts, arpeggios, double stops, etudes) for accuracy, evenness, and facility.
3: Practice mindfully, thinking about how exactly each technique applies to and facilitates your repertoire. Little things have big impact.
4: Divide your work in achievable chunks and plan accordingly. Follow your plan and fine-tune it.
5: Focus on process and progress, NOT the end result. Auditions, recitals, competitions will come and go. What's important is your growth as a performing musician and aspiring teacher.
6: Watch/listen to the great performers clinically and figure out what they do and how they do it: position, timing/coordination, articulation, bow management. Also learn from lesser players what NOT to do, and why.
6: Keep breathing, find balance, work smart and hard. Your anxiety is the result of unfocused practice and lack of preparation. Excellence takes focused effort. Magic doesn't happen - taking time off only puts you more behind and creates more panic.

Seek solutions and figure out your own way out of your frustrating rut. As a teacher, you'll need to be able to find ways to help your students do the same - it's hard to preach to others what you don't/can't/won't do for yourself...

Important point: you didn't practice for a week, but then when you played your Beethoven you wonder why it's not better? Here's two words: DAILY SCALES!!! (not Beethoven, for which it sounds like you're not quite ready).

The BIG problem is, you don't yet know clearly WHAT and HOW to practice for results, for progress. Consequently, the foundation is shaky and unreliable - of course the building is crumbling. Find out exactly WHAT part of your technique "sucks" and find/ask for solutions.

It also sounds like your teacher is not helping (which may be a painful blessing in disguise, by the way!).

You could have been in a much better position technically, musically and emotionally had you practiced your basics for one week (no repertoire!) instead of wallowing in doubt, misery, wonder, sickness, and self-pity... A good lesson to learn!

You've come a long way (I read your bio) - stay the course, these plateaus and self-examinations are a natural part of the learning process! Although a waste of valuable energy, your frustration is a reminder of how much this means to you, and that's a good thing for you to know. If all fails, remember Oscar Wilde's quip: "The anxiety is killing me - I hope it never ends!" :)

Good luck (but don't rely on it...)!

I recommend Simon Fischer's books (Basics, The Violin Lesson, Scales, Warm-Up), Galamian's "Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching", Applebaum's "Art and Science of String Performance", and Klickenstein's "Musician's Way"

From Danielle Martin
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 7:40 AM
You sound like you're having some anxiety symptoms. Not uncommon, especially for freshmen, seniors and especially for anyone who is under a lot of stress. I know I went through a lot of anxiety when I was in college, and still do! See if there's some counseling or stress management support on campus. If you really cannot find the time or energy, take a few moments each day (or as often as needed) to remind yourself what you love about yourself, music, the violin, a sunset, an awesome tree, anything that will redirect your nerves away from the bad feelings and towards more positive ones.

Plan ahead to next term, and see what you can do to lighten your load. I'm sure your teacher wants you to do well and progress, but not at the expense of your mental and physical health.

If the physical nausea is too much, keep some peppermints and/or ginger candy in your case. See if having one of those in your mouth while you play helps quell the stomach acids.

One more thing: if it makes you feel better, you have all your life to learn all the Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Khatchaturian, etc. you want to learn. One of the joys of being a violin teacher is being able to continue playing and learning. Don't feel you have a time limit breathing down your neck, because you don't.

From Claire Allen
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 2:23 PM
The fact that you feel so strongly about violin is a point in your favor, as overwhelming as it can be. It can be important to let your feelings out, and maybe even take just a day away from the instrument to clear your head. The challenge, though, is to turn all that wanting inside you into really clear, productive, and focused practice that will get you where you want to be.

I agree with all the above comments to reevaluate your technique. With a hopefully lengthy winter break coming up for you, this is the perfect time to spend 2-3 weeks on scales and etudes. I suggest doing some brainstorming about your technique and what you want to change/improve specifically about each aspect. I know how overwhelming it can be just to feel "My technique sucks!" I've been there. So make a list - shifting, doublestops, left hand coordination in scales, in arpeggios, string crossings, trills, tone production, vibrato, playing at the frog, etc. Then pick two or three things each week to work on, and come up with a strategy such as finding a way to play a scale that works on that issue or finding an etude that addresses it.

I would also suggest playing through all of the three-octave scales - put them on a rotation so that you're always cycling through them and have the keys in your fingers. This way, when a scalar passage comes up in music, you'll have that easily accessible to you and it won't seem as overwhelming.

To the list of book suggestions I add "Practicing for Artistic Success" by Burton Kaplan.

Something that could be really great for you since you want to be a teacher would be to video yourself playing and then watch it back, pretending that you are your own teacher. If you were your student, how would you address the challenges that you face? Also, on the subject of teacher training, I highly recommend Mimi Zweig's workshop at Indiana University. It transformed my own playing and gave me a really thorough foundation for my teaching.

Finally, I suggest being really honest with your teacher about how you feel. Tell them how overwhelmed you are and ask them for their assessment of your technique, along with their suggestions for what you need to work on first in order to make things better.

Best of luck to you! Do keep us posted on how things are going! You sound really determined and passionate and those are amazing qualities to have as a person and as a violinist. :-)

From Claire Allen
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 2:27 PM
To clarify, since you said you DID take a week away from violin, I meant...

*take a day away from the instrument - take a day away because you're purposefully taking a day for yourself and self-care, not because you're really busy doing other stuff. Actually take a day as a break. Get a massage. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Watch a movie. Just give yourself time to relax and enjoy being you.

From Ilyas Khan
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 3:51 PM
Dear Desiree.

I note that the other commenters have provided some really helpful feedback. I am afraid that I am just a beginner, so I dont have the experience to be able to comment from their perspective. However what I can do (and will do) is say a small prayer for you, as well as sending a request to St Cecilia, one of the patron saints for musicians.

I also want to say how wonderful of you to be so brave and honest in your blog.

with warmest regards from England

From marjory lange
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 4:29 PM
You are coming up on finals, aren't you? juries? performances? It's called stress. Others have addressed all the playing parts; I want to suggest you take a long walk, or do some yoga, or exercise your body in some way to try to restore the balance of the whole person. That will help you deal with the stress.

And, about being in so much pain from something you love as much as you do the violin? That's what love does hurts. What you hear as your technique 'sucking' is proably your ear getting more acute, more particular. Sort out 'practice' from 'play,' and when you do the latter, give in to the music.

All the best.

From Christian Lesniak
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 5:54 PM
I wrote this assuming that you were ~20. Hopefully there is still something useful for you:

-Sleep - Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (even weekends). Don't watch TV, use internet, eat or drink alcohol in the 2 hours before sleep (Unless you find yourself waking up hungry because of it). Don't get any caffeine in the 6 hours before sleep. Sleep is always the thing that college students respect the least, but it's really the single most important element of stress management and learning

-Yoga / aerobic exercise - This really fortifies you against stress and clears your mind. It causes your brain to produce neurotrophic factors.
Link to Wikipedia about effects of exercise

-Counseling - Chances are that you can get free counseling/therapy on campus

-Consider starting a meditation practice (I think aerobic exercise might be more effective in the short term)

Another thing is that sometimes we just need another perspective. Get a lesson or two from another teacher. This might be the spark you need to get you motivated. This person might also let you know what you most need to work on.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 1, 2013 at 8:34 PM
I think you've gotten some potentially great advice from all the other commenters. The biggest challenge may be sorting through it all to figure out what works for you personally.

In that spirit, I'm going to offer what works for me, knowing that it may not be applicable to everyone. But there are as many reasons for playing (and loving) the violin as there are players, and I think that understanding that principle can only enrich your teaching.

I agree that (without knowing you and only reading this), it sounds like your physical symptoms are probably due to anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. But you might want to see a medical professional to rule out some other ill-timed physical cause. If you are getting generally run down due to overwork, as can happen this time of year for many reasons, you might have picked up a virus, or something else.

But assuming that's not the case, if it were me, I would not "step back" into daily practice of scales and etudes and other technique builders. Personally, if I weren't already feeling sick and anxious, spending a half hour every day on that would guarantee that I soon would be. I also can't imagine working on three solo pieces of that caliber simultaneously, in addition to orchestra music.

I also don't think it's a bad thing overall that you took some time off playing--it is your mind/body's way of pulling the plug and saying "enough already." But, as you already know, you can't expect a break to make your playing better, at this level especially.

In the short term, I would look for some commitments to cut back on, and be thick-skinned and non-perfectionist about it. How hard do you need to practice that orchestra music? Maybe not very, since you can probably fake some of it if you have to. How hard do you have to work to get a passing grade on your non-music assignments? Maybe not very, since they aren't in your major. If you trust your teacher, let him/her know how you're feeling and decide together which one of those 3 heavies you are going to put on hold until you finish the other two. If you don't trust your teacher, maybe it's time for a new teacher.

In the long term, I would try to prevent the necessity of having to cut back on things already committed to by practicing saying "no" in the first place. (This is something I struggle with as well, so I do understand how that is easier said than done.) There are seminars and books and other resources dealing with this topic. University counseling centers are usually very up on it.

The other long-term attitude adjustment that has worked for me, but which I expect not to be universally applicable, is that my motivation for playing the violin has very little to do with whether I make progress, or get better technically, or not. It seems like that personal improvement aspect motivates a lot of people on this site, from conservatory students to adult beginners.

While I agree that playing the violin is not much fun unless one achieves a certain basic level of competence, I achieved that basic level a long time ago, and afterwards, I found a continued intense focus on personal growth and achievement to be mostly anxiety-provoking (and joy-killing), especially when I was in school.

I play the violin because I like the listen to the music under my ear. I like the way the instrument feels under my fingers and the way the bow feels when it makes contact with the strings. I play the violin because it connects me with other musicians across time and space. When I play the violin in church, I feel like it puts me in touch with the divine. I play the violin because it helps me make new friends and gives my small extroverted side a chance to peek out and shine. I play the violin in an orchestra because it gives me a chance to be part of something larger than myself.

I'm not immune to bouts of anxiety or feeling like I'm not good enough, or even to feeling sick of the violin, on occasion. Like you, I'm an adult returner. I started playing the violin 40 years ago, and quit for a long time. Twice. But I started again, and keep playing now, because it filled a well; a deep need that is completely separate from personal achievement and technical progress.

I may sound like I don't care at all about technical progress (someone once called me "anti-technique" here on this site). But I don't believe that's the case. I do play scales, every practice session, but only with a specific goal or purpose in mind. (That's the only way I can tolerate them.) And I like etudes, I'm not sure why, I just do. My intonation and projection have improved a lot in recent years, and I no longer get as dizzy up in the nosebleed section of the Eing as I used to. I'm happy about all those things, and proud of them, but I regard them as a means to an end, not the end itself. If that makes sense.

What I'm saying is, reconnect with why you loved the violin in the first place. I'm guessing that it probably wasn't because you nailed all your shifts perfectly or because you met your daily practice goals (whereas for some people it really seems to be that. More power to them). Maybe it had to do with sharing music with others, with loving children and/or teaching, or just with the sound of the music. Whatever it was, think about how you can do that the best you can, and that's where you should focus your efforts and energies. On what nourishes you and your music.

From Reynard Hilman
Posted on December 2, 2013 at 6:11 PM
Maybe you're not at liberty to do this, but I would suggest forget about all the stuff going on now, maybe if possible drop some of your commitments if it's making you unhappy.
Then think of something that made you really love the violin. Find your favorite pieces that you have played in the past, that's not too simple but also not too difficult, ask your teacher you want to work on polishing that piece, instead of the Beethoven. There is a lot you can improve even with something you have played in the past.
From William Rhoden
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Reading through the comments, there is a lot of good advice. I had a similar experience my junior year of college. I was a fraternity president, music education major taking a full load, involved in campus ministries, MENC(now NAFME), and trying to practice. I was so frustrated during practice that one time my shoulder rest fell and I kicked it into the wall so hard that it split in half. It was a KUN Bravo shoulder rest....not the wisest move.

But, I didn't give up. Eventually life changed but the violin was still there. Know that frustration is a period that many players go through, and most of your future students will have to deal with. Do not give up, because you will get there someday!

Another idea is practice pacing. Often if I am in a hurry to practice. I hate it and don't feel like I get anything done. However, if I know I can spend an hour on just one or two songs or even measures, then at least that day, I can do something good with those parts. Perhaps pick one thing for your practice and focus on that for most of the time. Then next time review it for a few minutes, but focus on something else for most of the time.

Finally, prioritizing is key. Violin is not going to be no. 1 all of the time, but if you want to be good enough to play seamlessly on the highest levels, then it takes a lot of practice time. My biggest jump in college came the summer after my junior year, when I had the time to schedule a few eight hour practice days. Each hour was focused on one exercise/movement. I would play for 55min and rest for 5min. It was a marathon, but stress was low and it made a huge difference.

I hope you find something that works for you. Just don't give up, and think long term success. The more challenges you deal with and overcome as a student will help you when
your students have trouble. I'm sure this experience will help shape you into a fine teacher!

From Desiree House
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 5:32 AM
Thank you so much for all of your comments and understanding. The last thing I want to do is give up now that I have come so far. It would be foolish and it seems that all of you understand deeply from your hearts what I am going through and I greatly appreciate it. Love to you all!! :)
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 2:30 PM
You have been given so many wonderful comments. The best piece of advice I have is to do what you love. Always remember that it's not about what comes next in the future or what you are trying to do with your life. It's just about doing what you love.
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 6:05 PM
It is easy to become overwhelmed.
Don't forget to breath.
"AGH!" - Charlie Brown

Practice slowly and analyze your difficulty, practice the difficulty. Think. If you can't play it slowly, you sure can't play it fast.
Some passages benefit from practice with dotted rhythm, then reverse, repeat until sure, then normal rhythm slowly and increase to tempo.

Sing a couple bars, sing it again. Now play it the same.

LH: Articulate. SPEAK. Firm. Precision. First focus!
RH: Paint, color, modulate, massage.

It is always more valuable to work smarter than longer.
Practice well. You can do it.

From Ron King
Posted on December 3, 2013 at 6:57 PM
I have gone through situations like yours many times in my life and you have been offered some great advice.

I returned to the violin a year ago and there are some days when I get frustrated because I cannot do the things I did when I was younger. My older hands don't follow my brain's commands and I want to put the violin back in the attic.

When that happens, I just like to take a day off - not from the violin, but simply from the piece that is not working. So I go back and play some of my favorite pieces. Relaxing with my favorite music helps me remember that I do know how to play this thing after all and it puts me in the proper frame of mind to tackle the difficult new piece.


Posted on December 4, 2013 at 6:53 AM
I understand what you're going through. The first time I had it, my solution was to switch to viola. ;)

Seriously though, I'm a university music student too, and I have times when I hate practicing. What helped for me was to find music that I liked - not just violin and viola music, which is what I used to listen to all the time, but any music that really inspires me and makes me appreciate beauty again. Last year it was choral music for me, and this year it's piano, as I found a brilliant new pianist at school who totally inspired me to practice more because of the passion she possesses for her instrument and the dedication she has to practicing, even when she's having a bad practicing day. It does help to be around people who love music as much as you do, and I think all of us struggle to some extent with what you're going through.

Oh, and what also really improved my practicing difficult pieces was actually to warm up with a lot of scales, arpeggios, and double stops. Mine sound awful, so it's rather painful, but my tone is amazing when I finish a long warmup of scales and technique, and I get a lot more done working on my performance pieces afterwards, even if initially I have to drag myself into the practice rooms rather unwillingly.

That's just my two cents - it might help, it might not. Just keep remembering how much you love music, and take time to appreciate beauty of any kind, like Danielle said.

I wish you all the best!

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