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Amanda Grow

Newbie Shame

August 8, 2009 at 9:01 PM

I figure the more I read and explore, the more I learn right? Well the more I read and chatted, the more intimidated I started to feel; not from the players, but a sense of "I am out of my league". Not only do I feel bashful about my play skills, but I even find I sort of cringe at the thought of my instrument compared to other people's instruments. The first strong sense of it I got was in relation to a local Irish session I know...

Ever since I moved to New England, every Tuesday night I go to a little Irish pub to meet up with some friends. At the pub there also happens to be a nice collective of local musicians who get together for an Irish session there on Tuesday nights as well. They order a big pitcher of beer, gather at one end of the pub, and play whatever they know. From violins to drums, they've got a real assortment of instruments happening! It's fun to sit and socialize with my friends, have dinner and some drinks, and listen to the session.

One day, a friend of ours announced that she was learning to fiddle and had joined a local class. We all encouraged her to start playing with the irish session once she felt comfortable - and eventually she did! She started timidly by creeping over to the session with her violin in hand and pulling up a chair, but she would just watch and listen rather than play. They told her the names of the songs and she'd go home to try and practice them. Eventually, she picked a song or two to play with them. At one point she invited her fiddling class to the session, and pretty soon the standard tuesday irish session was comprised of about 3/4ths violins. Her class had more or less "adopted" the session, and the other players didn't mind. They ended up with so many of them that they had to spill into the back room.

Around this time, a friend of mine who deals in historical instrument replicas got ahold of some Cecilio violins. Seeing my other friend play in the session had always sort of perked my interest in renewing my own fiddling. So I took my buddy up on the offer and bought a black Cecilio from him. I knew it wasn't an epic instrument or anything, but for the price it was right for me. Just something to get me started.

At first I was pretty happy with it. It's this crazy black color (jokingly the dealer who sold it to me, his wife calls it "very rockstar"). I took pictures of it to show it to my friends and family. I fussed with it and fawned over it for days. Then the giddy excitement wore down a bit and I started trying to be diligent with practice and learning as much as I could. I started to read some and really started second guessing my instrument. My little Cecilio was "okay" to learn on I think, but when I read about other instruments I started to feel like mine was, well... when you were a kid did you ever have a parent who wouldn't let you have "name brand" things so you felt self conscious about your knock-offs around other kids at school? That's the feeling I started to get about my instrument. Like, it's fine around the house to learn on, but the thought of playing it in front of others made the hairs on my neck stand up like a cat who sees something they don't like.

Meanwhile, my friend got so into playing with the session that when I show up for the night, I don't even see her at our table any more until towards the end of the evening, when she takes a break from playing to actually eat. A couple of times she started eating with the session folks. Our friends made a light-hearted joke to her of "what we're not good enough for you anymore now that you have your fiddle friends?" We had a good laugh, and then my collective of friends commented about how I had also gotten a violin to play. They turned to me and said "pretty soon you'll be part of the fiddle cliche too ay?" "yeah you should start playing in the session too", etc. I don't know how to describe the feeling I got from that inquiry other than SHEER TERROR. Me? Play with the session? With MY fiddle?

I really started scrutinizing my instrument and reading up about "good" violins/bows. Man that was a further maze of confusion at first. Everyone seemed to have a different idea about it:
These strings are great
These strings suck
Wait no it's just the E string that sucks
No all E's suck
No all E's are fine except for these particular E's
No no the rosin, this rosin is terrible
This rosin is wonderful
Rosin is everything
Rosin is nothing
This bow is made from a special tree in the rainforest
Wait don't deforest the rainforest there's this carbon fiber stuff
It's the age of the wood
NO it's the type of the wood
NO it's the shape of it
NO it's all of that!
Your bow and case should be X% the cost of your fiddle, wait I bought it from a friend who let me have it at cost so how does that factor into my %???
Aaaaaaaaaaeeerrrggh!!11!1! o_O; -_- >_<

It was tempting to buy "better" of everything. Then I slowed down and thought okay let's try a different approach. Instead of looking for what's best, let's just look at what I have now and see how bad is it really

Cracked wood? No seems fine. Pegs too loose/too tight? No seem to hold the tune alright. Sound post? Yep got one of those - though whether or not it's in a good spot dunno. Bridge? Sitting in the right spot, doesn't seem to be bending. What kind of strings? Steel, alright says some fiddlers prefer steel strings for the sound. Strings laying too close to fingerboard? No they seem ok. Bridge shaped funky? No seems fine. F holes look F-ish? Yeah. Anything seem crooked? No seems fine. Anything seem warped? No seems ok. Even the bow, which was the first thing that struck me as "cheap" about it when I held it, wasn't warped at least. Maybe I was being paranoid?

I talked to my dealer friend again about the instrument. He plays drums and a couple other instruments, and has a passable ability to hold most instruments for the purpose of seeing if they make a sound or not. But in terms of playing it, he has no clue. He leaves it to his customers to decide if the instrument is right for them or not. Mostly he only sells at festivals for fun (renessaunce festivals at that). Originally he got the violins because it was a good deal for him, and it was a more "traditional" instrument for public consumption compared to his viola de gamba or hurdy gurdy's for the historical re-enactment types. He thought hey, if someone who used to play sees the violin and wants it to start playing again, that makes him happy. I talked to him about what he knew about the instruments and he said:

"As far as I know, this company is chinese based. They make them in the factory and ship them back to the states to be set up. But to be honest, you ask me the difference between a german or a chinese or an italian violin? One's made by a chinese man, one by an italian, one by a german. To me, I'm no expert so when I hear someone play on an uber instrument vs one of these, I can't really tell the difference. I'm sure to someone with a refined ear the chinese violin might seem off, but to me, they all sound good. And to be honest, the tools some of these factory places have nowadays are way better than even the masters had back then. So is the hundreds of years old violin better sounding than these? Probably, but these factory ones sound fine for what I'm expecting to hear as an un-trained listener".

Later I decided to get brave when my visiting in-laws requested that I play them a couple tunes to hear how I was coming along. So I played a little for my inlaws and husband when I got home. I squeaked here. I hissed there. I clipped a string I didn't mean to. I mislanded my 4th finger (which is a whole other story but that's for another day). By my own standards, it was a train wreck. But they were very impressed. After the fact, little did I know but there was a reason they were so impressed: I had left my violin laying on my desk from when I was doing some research about it online. The three of them had gotten it in their heads that they wanted to try it. All they could get out of it was SCREEEEEEEAAAAACCH SCRAAAAWWWWK SCRAAAAAATCH SSSSHHHHH SCREEEE. (and in retrospect, I thought I saw some rosin up on my finger board before I started playing and wondered why). "Amanda you sound great. When you play it sounds like music. I can hear a song. We couldn't even get the thing to make a note". I didn't really believe them until I caught my husband trying to play it again when I came home early from work. I was walking up the steps when I heard this SCRRAAAWWWWWK SCRAWW SCRAWW SSSH SCRAWW sound. I mean it wasn't even notes behind the noise, just...noise. Man I've heard fingernails on a chalkboard played more melodic than that. He couldn't even get the basic sound of the E string to come out.

So I think I've reached a level of comfort with my instrument. I think if anything, the only thing I may upgrade is my bow because my instincts told me the moment I held it that it's terrible. So I'll go with my gut on that one. It doesn't need to be an epic bow, just something a step above terrible. And my case, because I think it's designed poorly. I'm still getting over my self consciousness about my instrument, and feeling better about it. I may not yet be session material, but I think blended in a crowd of other players my instrument will be fine for casual play.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 10, 2009 at 2:14 PM

This is really nice writing, and I enjoyed reading this a lot!  Being insecure is part of being a violinist, maybe because the high notes fry our brains...

Please don't get bogged down in equipment choices, as we all eventually find what works best for each of us.  Good luck!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on August 14, 2009 at 4:38 AM

Good luck! Starting is never easy. You are a super star just fot this!!!  If you can survive to learning violin, it means you are a tough person that doesn't get discourage by anything : ) This is a quality according to me!


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