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Terez Mertes

How Close This Time

November 12, 2012 at 1:50 PM

I’d been thinking it might happen this time. I didn’t want it to, of course, but when that feeling hits, it can take you down hard. When it hits you for the tenth time, well, that might be it.

This time I even said the words to my teacher. “I’m very discouraged. The truth is… I’m thinking it might be time to quit.”

This was last month. I was a coward and said it to her answering machine, two days after a particularly discouraging violin lesson. I told her I just needed some space, some time, and that I wouldn’t be practicing, or coming to the lesson that fell the day after my birthday. It was my gift to myself. When skipping a lesson and a week of practice is the biggest gift you can give yourself, well, that’s saying something.

I understand the importance of perseverance here. In the past, I’ve managed to work my way out of it. The unwillingness to practice could always be bullied. “Just put in the forty-five minutes, dammit, and then you’re off the hook.” Or the gentler “at least start. Pick up the violin and run the bow across the strings. Routine will take over, and it’ll feel good.” Or the sugar-coated approach of “play something fun, whatever you feel like.” But this time, I resisted them all. Fiercely.

What came around the week of the missed lesson was an eerie, ungrounded feeling. I didn’t want to practice, to go back to that dutiful, hopeless, uninspired place. And yet, I felt so darned sad about it, missing the touch of my pretty violin. It was sinking in what I’d lose if it were permanent, even as the relief was undeniable. There’d been simply too many Friday afternoons when I was too tired and I pushed myself to practice anyway. Or weekend days that I was busy, or out of town, and oh, the guilt, to go both weekend days without practice. The busy school night where parenting challenges (okay, I confess, also the two glasses of wine that followed) stole my practice time slot and I just didn’t care, I didn’t need one more challenge that night, I wanted only to top off my wine glass and sit in a quiet room with zero stimulus. To drop the heavy sense of responsibility to this craft, to say “screw it, no more,” was a true load off my shoulders.

I’d told my violin teacher we could talk in my following lesson, since clearly I wouldn’t have “what I was working on” to present during the lesson. She was understandably alarmed by it all, and called one night. I have a good relationship with her, but like any long-term relationship, it is not without its bumps. Seven years, steady weekly payments from me without fail, and suddenly this enraged me. Jobs give you two weeks off, kids get summers off school. Why no long break for me, the paying student, ever? I was sick of it. It came to me that if I needed to quit to get a month off without paying, well, that was one more reason to quit.

She’s a smart and seasoned teacher; she knew when to listen, when to assure, when to agree. Between that night’s call and the following lesson, we discussed and agreed on new parameters:

- Lesson time reduced by a third, to thirty minutes. Less time for me to feel responsible for filling with pieces I’d worked on (or failed to). Further, if I have to cancel a lesson—another thing I decided I wouldn’t torture myself about—the cost I sacrifice is less.

- I am free to take a month off if I feel I need it, with advance notice and the understanding that she can’t guarantee my preferred time slot upon my return. Fair enough.

- I’ve decided to seek out familiar, beloved classical tunes, like Mendelssohn’s “Nocturne” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Grieg’s Peer Gynt excerpts, Bach’s “Bist du Bei Mir,” among other pieces, all with uncomplicated sheet music accessed free online, to supplement the lesson books we’ve been using. During my practice time, after scales, I work on a piece because I’m enjoying it. If an assigned piece brings me more frustration than pleasure, after a decent effort, out it goes.

- If I miss a day of practice, even two (or, gasp, three), really, it’s okay in the big picture. If practice time averages twenty-five minutes and not the previously requisite forty-five, it's better than nothing. Only ten minutes? Hey. Better than nothing.

- I understand, as a result of all these choices, that I will most likely never “go somewhere” with my violin playing. It may remain a home practice, certainly now, given my various obligations elsewhere. There it is.

I ponder the reality of the final one and there’s a certain poignancy to it as I recognize it might well apply to my writing career as well. A dream of “going somewhere with it” is failing to actualize and, in truth, it’s pretty damned tiring to keep trying. (This is likely a rehash of my last blog, the process of turning fifty and the life introspection it produced: I’ll keep writing, regardless. The need in me is too strong, too innate. But I’m letting go of the pretty dream. Relief mingles with grief, and yet it’s a softer grief than it might have been a year or two before. Paradoxically, it relaxes me, and up springs a renewed desire to “go have fun” with my other art form, playing the violin. It’s easier now, knowing that there’s nothing to lose, nothing at stake.

There is no failure here. That is my new motto, in so many aspects of my life. I show up, I have an honest experience, which means I put my heart into my practice and go with whatever my energy/mood/motivation dictates. Walking away from the violin after fifteen minutes is not failure. Staying an hour to plug away at something challenging and/or rewarding might feel like success that day, but it’s no promise of a repetition of such days, or that it will all propel me to the next level. It just happened to be that day’s honest experience. I imagine when you tally them up, you come up with equal parts good and “meh” days. No planning or theorizing or self-berating is ever going to change that.

How close I came this time to losing my violin practice in the process of discovering all of this. But it didn’t happen, and for that, I am so very grateful.

© 2012 Terez Rose

From Christina C.
Posted on November 12, 2012 at 8:24 PM
Just wondering how soon before you get to the good stuff? I don't have an especially good feel for where you're at in terms of level and play (it's possible that I don't follow your blog closely enough so I missed it).
I'm probably.... definitely... projecting my own personal bias here, but the reason most of us folks who play music for something other than a living is the joy of playing with others and the promise of more & better group music experiences is a huge motivator. Whether it's teaming up with a beginner cellist & each taking a line in the Bach's Anna Magdalena Notebook or getting to play a late Beethoven 4tet, I think there are possibilities whatever the level and the sooner you get to start experiencing the joy of taking part in things like that the better. It does wonders for the soul and spirit & to me, the violin is the tool that brings me those wonders. Sorry for preaching & I hope you work it out.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 12, 2012 at 9:58 PM
Christina, thanks for your response (not preaching at all!). You're right, there's that whole facet of making music that I'm not currently connected to. Some day down the road, when my schedule and personal obligations free up, I definitely want to consider that. Right now, alas, even the thought produces a "not enough time!!" panic in me. That's one of the reasons I wanted to cut my lesson down by fifteen minutes. One little extra nub of "me time" for me. (Rather pathetic, I realize; I have definitely overextended myself in my personal life.)

Enjoyed your feedback!

From Dottie Case
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Terez....if we had the means to chat about things, I think you'd find how similar my life and commitments/challenges, etc. are. Here's a true fact, from 1 adult beginner to another... You could take a couple of MONTHS off and not only not suffer, but maybe benefit from it. In fact, and rather sadly, I am no longer taking lessons at all, much as I'd like to. I play in two orchestras, a string quartet and various pits, and the truth is that I am still progressing, still improving. On occasion I wish I had time to take a lesson a month to learn new rep., BUT I am LOVING what I'm doing.

Maybe it's time to consider whether you need a real break from LESSONS so that you can focus on enjoying the violin and the music. At our place in life, lessons can equal production, and something that was a joy begins to feed resentment. I am there with a few other things in my life.

I'd be happy to privately chat more about this if you feel an inclination to touch base.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Here's to taking breaks, to being gentle with yourself, to getting off the hamster wheel.

I've been sick for the past month. And then the "cure" was worse than the disease for a couple days. Now I think (hope!) I'm out of the woods.

And while I was in the middle of it I had to cancel not 1 but 2 violin lessons. While I was talking to my teacher about this, I said, maybe I need to skip playing this upcoming orchestra concert. Or at least I needed to skip rehearsal that night. My teacher said "I know you feel very committed to this, but maybe if you can let go of that feeling for one concert, you've earned it."

While I was saying that I realized that I had not missed an orchestra concert since February 2008, my first orchestra concert with this group. Virtually everyone else has missed at least one concert over the years--and the world didn't end. It won't end if I'm in the audience this time, either.

There will be time again, in another season. I think it's great that you found a way to keep it up and not quit altogether.

From Dottie Case
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 1:12 AM
Karen..Because of some major commitments and life events this year, I have said 'no' completely to One Orchestra this year, and after playing a concert just this past Saturday (as section leader) in the other one, I am taking a break and won't be playing another until April. It makes me sad, but there is relief too. And I know that by the time I get back to it, I'll be even more eager to make music again.

Hope you are feeling better!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:21 AM
Dottie and Karen, how wonderful to read your comments. Thank you! And Karen, yikes on the health issue! I was just thinking it was two years ago today that I had my own Big Sickness, with a fever for a shocking 13 days, and I had to cancel not one or two, but three violin lessons. A freakish time (aside from that, I've never been sick beyond 36 hours). Now that I've got some perspective from it all, I see it for the good thing it was (relatively speaking) in my life. I didn't want to take a break and life made me take a break. (That was when I learned, as well, that you could take six weeks off the violin, and Dottie, like you said, not just "get by," but profit from the absence.)

Really great to read your experiences - thanks so much for sharing them. : ) And Karen, I hope you keep feeling better and better in the health department.

From Christina C.
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:17 AM
I would fully agree with walking away from lessons for a while if it's becoming clear that they're no longer something you want to do. That's not to say that you have to walk away from music... you may even find more time to enjoy it.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:26 AM
Hey, a new comment while I was formulating my last reply - cool! Yes, I agree, Dottie and Christina, that it's good to consider going lesson-less. Recognizing that that's an option has been very liberating. But I'm happy to report that right now, that part of the equation is much less of a problem. Since I dropped down to thirty minutes and have focused more during my home practice time on stuff I really want to play, it's made me look forward to the lesson more. And one thing the lesson provides is a time chunk on Tuesdays where I'm focused on music only, and not my writing, my family issues, my other obligations. Frankly, it's a good mental break from that other stuff.

Mostly I'm relieved to know it is a viable option if/when I get that trapped feeling again. Funny how once you know there's an open door in the room, you feel less claustrophobic about staying in the room. (Did that make any sense at all?! It's getting late...)

From Christina C.
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 1:43 PM
great! Glad to see a happy ending to this!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 1:37 PM
Just a thought, but when one of my students wants a break, I suggest trying another violin teacher. Seven years is a long time with one teacher. Sometimes a different, fresh approach is healthy and good.

Hang in there!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 3:32 PM
Terez - I agree with Anne's comment. As I have found since restarting the violin, it pays to switch teachers periodically. And, I more than sympathize with your feelings. I dropped violin playing for 25 years before taking it up again. With the violin, one thing that is important to remember is that you will probably want to do something with it later in life, when your offspring is gone from the house and some of your other obligations are less pressing. In your place, what I would think about is setting up a violin regimen which might be essentially a holding action for a while. You try to keep what you have accomplished and make any sort of progress you feel you can. You don't fret the small stuff like whether you have done your 30 minutes every day or made it to your lesson every week. You play the music you want to play. Anyhow, that's my $0.02. Good luck, and keep us posted!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:09 PM
Hi Anne, hi Tom, so glad to "see" you two join the conversation! Anne, changing teachers - yikes! Don't think I'm ready for that yet. Our relationship is good, and she really handed out all the right answers through this past drama. Not to mention there aren't a whole lot of violin teachers parading through Santa Cruz. If I lived closer to SF, or even Palo Alto, Menlo Park, there would be a big variety to pick from.

Anyway, like all this feedback, it's good to hear, to bear in mind. And Tom, you nailed it with your comments about future years, establishing a holding pattern of sorts now. That does, indeed, seem like a good, solid plan.

Anne, one option, now that I think of it, would be for you to move to the Bay Area. I'll leave my teacher to take from you, okay? All you have to do is move. ; )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:15 PM
One added comment that I am happy to report is that last night, I looked at my watch and said, "whoops, there went my time slot for practice, oh well". First thought was "no worries! Whatever feels right!" And second thought was, "well, that Nocturne from Mendelssohn is coming along nicely and will be ready to present in my lesson tomorrow, maybe I'll just run through it one time since I enjoy it so much."

And so I did it, in spite of the late hour, enjoyed it, spent 20 mn on it, and the time flew. Dang. Something's working here. : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 4:21 PM
Me again. Anne, question. On this..
>Just a thought, but when one of my students wants a break, I suggest trying another violin teacher.

Are you effectively giving up that student, or do you find that they come scurrying back after a spell with another teacher? That sounds daunting in its own right, suggesting that to a student (unless you're trying to get rid of them, and in that case, it's a win-win situation, eh?).

Can you tell I'm someone who resists change, even as I get mired down in the ensuing muck? There's something I can learn here... But only if I don't have to change anything! ; )

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 7:39 PM
When you are feeling completely bogged down it's easy to jettison the thing that feels least crucial. Family, work, illness, all trump the violin some days. When you step back and look at it, though, everyone needs to have something they enjoy that is theirs alone. For adult amateurs, music is it.

Several years ago someone asked me why, with three small children and a full-time job, I was still playing in my orchestra. The answer was simple, "Ummm, BECAUSE I have three tiny children and a full-time job!" There were a lot of nights when I was afraid I was too tired to haul my sorry ass to rehearsal, but was always glad to be there once I settled in.

If some weeks your lesson just feels like someone else wanting another piece of you, that won't help. It sounds like your teacher is happy to help you take the (self-imposed?) pressure off. Go to learn, to enjoy, and to get the heck out of the house besides another trip to the grocery store!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2012 at 9:39 PM
Lisa, loved your response, especially this:
>Go to learn, to enjoy, and to get the heck out of the house besides another trip to the grocery store!

That made me laugh. I have a 13 year old, and back when I started, when he was 6, I guess, it was very much a refuge from the mommyness of it all. And it was my way of finding needed solitude in the house, by saying "it's my time to go practice, alone." Even now, I like the solitude aspect of it. Guess that's why I'm not too wild about hurrying to take it all to a group environment just yet. Ah, but the time will come...!

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 14, 2012 at 2:37 AM
Just had to chime in here.

Terez, I totally get your comment about claustrophobia and an open door. It's happened to me. Two weeks ago, it happened to one of our
colleagues. I assured our leader that if we give him time to decompress, he would take a less extreme view of his needs and he did.

Regarding children: To my frustration, I've learned that they don't stop needing you--they just change how they need you. Mothers need to take what they can get, but they're not getting anything if it's not what they feel they need.


From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 14, 2012 at 2:39 PM
Here goes:

I will move to SF if you buy me a flat, and pay the yearly real estate taxes. Otherwise, I would be living in a small cardboard box underneath a highway somewhere. (The cats would most likely object!) It would probably be cheaper to fly me out there every week...

(Smiley face here)

Also, sending a student to another teacher isn't giving up on the student. Quite the opposite: If the student is to be the best student they can be, sometimes that means another teacher will be the answer.

Keep practicing. And practice *before* your nightly wine swill!!!

(Another smiley face here, of course)

And, of course, listen to Holzman. Wise man!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2012 at 3:53 PM
Fran - always great to hear from you, and thanks for the comments/commiseration/parenting wisdom. You said it all well. Good to know you are, or have been, in the same trench with me.

Anne, no problem, I will buy you a flat!! Yay!! ...Oh. Wait. I misread your request. I thought you wanted a flat cardboard box that pops up into the cardboard box you were going to live in. (My grey cat, btw, LOVES cardboard boxes.) Mind you, I will still buy you this flat box. And the property taxes on flat boxes are a steal, btw. In fact, yes, I'll pay that too!

Yes, good point on the "practice before the nightly swilling"... but wait! It's not nightly! Just, um, well, okay, lotsa nights. But only when stress leads me to it. I blame it all on parenting. Okay, most of it. Some of it. That, and the fact that I like wine. ; )

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