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Never Say Never

October 5, 2013 at 1:04 AM

Over fifty years ago I was that most wretched of creatures, a mediocre conservatory student. I had entered the conservatory against the advice of my parents and violin teacher, and once I got there, it went quickly downhill. I was not admitted to the orchestra the first semester and was encouraged to switch to music ed. But I did not want to be a public school music teacher and was enthralled by being in an intensive musical environment, even though it was painful to experience my lack of progress in spite of very hard work. So I persisted, and graduated as an orchestral major, which did not involve giving a senior recital. I even went back for graduate school, although no longer as a violin major.

After I earned my master’s degree I gradually stopped playing, picking up the instrument less and less each year. But I remained very interested and involved in music, and was lucky enough to have a job that put me in touch with a lot of musicians. I did not really miss playing at all, but it often occurred to me that I was living proof that you cannot necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire if you work hard enough. Nonetheless, I have never for one minute regretted that I went to the conservatory. Being able to immerse myself in music was a great privilege, and I have always been very grateful to my parents that they supported me in this even though it was not their first (or second) choice for me.

At some point, maybe in the late 1980s I saw that an auction house here in NYC was offering free evaluations of instruments, so I took my violin over. The fellow got very excited and wanted me to put my violin up for auction “since I was not playing any more.” Well that made me feel guilty and I got my violin fixed up (there was not much wrong with it, it is not a temperamental instrument) and joined a community orchestra, quit, joined another one, quit, and then re-joined. I started to practice a little more as could barely manage the parts.

Fast forward to my impending retirement, and I decided I would like a few violin lessons for a retirement gift. My initial goal was to improve my sound a little for orchestra. I had my teacher picked out already, a young soloist who had played a couple of concertos with our orchestra. After the first lesson I got completely hooked and am still at it over seven years later. I just had to try again, but it was very painful at first. It is one thing to return to something you were successful at in your youth but quite another to return to something you have failed at. I was not even sure why I was doing it but I just had to try again.

My teacher has been wonderfully patient with my angst and has supported me in all that I wanted to do. I played at her studio recital less than a year after I re-started (Bach: Gavotte en Rondeau, from E major Partita) and for the first time, found that I was actually able to convey something. Very excited, could not sleep all night. Have made some other goals along the way. For my 70th birthday, I gave my first ever solo recital to a small group of friends (Mozart/Kreisler: Rondo in G; Bach: Chaconne; Brahms: Sonata No. 1). About a year and a half ago, my orchestra was doing a concerto I was studying and with a “now or never” recklessness, I asked the conductor if I could read a movement with the orchestra at the first rehearsal. I did the slow movement (more able colleagues read the outer two movements, it was the Dvorak). It was a very thrilling experience, could not sleep all night.

This has all made for a fun retirement, but why was I not able to learn in the first place? I am convinced that is because I was self-taught until about age 11--not on the violin, but on the piano. Around age 8 I taught myself to read music and soon was plowing through all the piano music in our house--until it changed key or got too hard. This wreaked havoc on my musical brain for violin, because music had become something to daydream by. And it was totally undisciplined. So it was very hard for me to make the mind-body connection that is necessary to convey musical ideas. It is better now, and I am finally able to enjoy it more (at first I felt like that fellow in “Flowers for Algernon,” rushing to progress before my faculties start to fade). I hope that my story will serve as a cautionary tale against self-teaching (could say much more on that) and as encouragement for late starters and re-starters. I am happy and grateful that I tried again.

From Karen Collins
Posted on October 5, 2013 at 8:42 PM
thank you SO MUCH for posting this!
From Kimberly Simpkins
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:07 AM
Thank you for sharing! Very inspiring!!!
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:44 AM
Wow, nice story! I'll agree with you... if we are lucky, we live for many decades and it's incredible what can happen over these few decades. We can make music projects we would never have thought of...


From marjory lange
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 3:07 AM
How lovely your living is.
From Christian Lesniak
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 3:46 AM
For me, as a kid playing, I didn't really have a concept of quality. I just wanted to play, and cobbled together a technique. It made everything very mysterious and stressful, because I couldn't imagine how all those notes got played. I just thought that only geniuses with magical powers could do it and the rest could not. I have come to be free to go at my own pace and focus on quality now with my teacher. I have a stronger conception of sound now, and more importantly, I understand that technique is built on other technique, and that all aspects of violin relate to each other, so I don't have to reinvent the wheel for each new piece, I just build on my foundation. For me, the biggest difference in returning to playing has been to see the path out in front of me, instead of relying on some magical thinking to suddenly make me great from one day to the next. Also, relearning with an emphasis on relaxation means I don't have to be in horrible pain after 30 minutes of practice.
From elise stanley
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 7:23 AM
Alice, oh dear, we have a lot in common. In my case we could not afford private lessons so it was not an option, but like you I learned by osmosis not guidance. I was fortunate to be in a school that valued orchestra very highly so we had good teachers - but none that gave individual instruction. It seems to me that back then it was sort of expected that you figured out how to play the instrument yourself.

I did not follow a musical career as you did but after over 40 yrs break returned to the instrument for 5 years now. At first I continued as I started, trying to teach myself but then I realized that lessons were something I could try and could afford. Like you I have experienced a passion and growth in my playing that I would never have dreamed of as a kid.

But I think there is something more. I know its heresy but in some ways I seem better able to learn now than back then. The most curious is that I could not memorize a piece for love or money back then and yet now I have learned whole movements. Its not easy but it is possible.

Thanks for posting - its helped me think....

From Bertil Ottertun
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 7:46 AM
Very nice to read your writing about the new possibilities we have to improve violin playing "after work" (as retired). I have made a similar experience starting lessons for a professional violin teacher as 70+. Now I am enjoying to play in a mixed symphony orchestra with both young and eldery people students, amateurs and professional violinists. It is a great thing in many respects. It is never to late to move from fiddling to a more "organized" form and combine individual training with playing in a symphony orchestra. Thank you for your "succes story" - I confirm your statements to 100 %. KR / Bertil Ottertun, Gothenburg, Sweden
From Anne Brüggemann-Klein
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 2:18 PM
Alice, thank you for sharing. I love how things turned out for you (how you made them turn out). You are an inspiration.
From Sue Porter
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 10:28 PM
Flowers for Algernon! Instant memories. What a sad but thought-provoking story. One of my school favorites. Worth looking up if you haven't read it.

Even we normal folks have to work on our goals now. Life is short. So glad you're enjoying music in a new way these days.

From elise stanley
Posted on October 7, 2013 at 2:13 AM
Hejsan Bertil: jag var föddes i Göteborg!
From Alice Trimmer
Posted on October 7, 2013 at 3:28 PM
Thank you everyone for your kind comments and especially for sharing your own experiences and insights. Elise, it has certainly been true for me that I learn better now, and was interested to hear your experience about memorization. One never knows what surprises life has in store.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 7, 2013 at 5:33 PM
"I learned by osmosis"

Elise, somehow by grabbing your hand and show you the right thing to do, all the water of violin knowledge was transered from your teacher's brain to your's :)

From Carol Fisher
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 11:47 PM
ah, us septugarians! I studied piano from age 9 to 20. Violin from 12 to 26. Two of those years were serious violin study in Amsterdam. Came back to the US and a chaotic life. That was in 1969. Violin went to the wayside. Two years ago, in chatting with an acquaintance, I learned of a teacher about 10 minutes away. So there I was, aged 70, starting again. I'm doing good, not like the quartet path I had previously been on, but enjoying it very much. Bought a good violin/bow, play at events, take 2 lessons/week, think my teacher is terrific. What could be better...!

From Roy Sonne
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 3:29 AM
Hello Alice, Many thanks for your wonderful testimony. I'm remembering when we were fellow students together at the conservatory. I'm also in touch with your old roommate G.M. Very best wishes from Pittsburgh.
From Alice Trimmer
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 5:22 PM
Carol, Bravo! It is wonderful to read about your experience "coming back." Maybe you will find yourself on the "quartet path" again, who knows? There are many wonderful chamber music workshops for adults.
Roy, Good to hear from you, I remember you well. My former roommate and I have kept in touch and enjoy a visit once in awhile when she comes to NYC to hear her husband play.

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