August 21, 2013 at 2:16 PMI recently posted an article at the dance blog, Grown-Ups at the Barre, that references the recent popularity of adults taking up ballet, either returning after years away, or starting up in their middle age. Although I am a “returner” and not a beginner to ballet, I am most certainly an adult beginner to the violin. And the two artistic endeavors, while quite different from the other, run decidedly parallel courses. So I’ll rephrase the question for a violin audience. To all the adult beginners or “returners” reading here, tell me, what sent you [back] to the music stand?
I love hearing the reasons why others have decided to pick up the violin as adults. Some people say it’s because it sounded fun, that they’d always wanted to try. Others started in fourth or fifth grade, dropped the practice, and now hungered to take it up again. My own reason was odd: I’d decided to write a novel with a violinist as a main character and felt that renting a violin, taking a few lessons, would help my research. Even though I’d never even seen a violin up close before, nor played any musical instrument prior. Although I harbored a hunch I would never be a natural musician, something about the violin, and its music, was calling my name. And after those “few lessons,” the urge to really learn, for myself and not just for research, grew stronger.
I’d heard my share of the stories, how hard learning to play the violin was, and I understood that as an adult beginner, given my personal constraints, mastery was unlikely. But you know what? Maybe I didn’t want something to master. I didn’t want to arrive, five years later, only to say “done,” check it off the list, and go searching for a new thrill. A lifelong challenge, you say? Fine, I’ll take it. Something in me craves the “long term project” nature of it. This endless quest for something so beautiful and ineffable, something almost Zen-like in its pursuit.
So I signed on for more lessons. And kept going, through seven years, through many a dry spell, a learning plateau, losses of motivation, bouts of renewed determination. I’m still so inelegant-sounding on the violin. Who would have thought all these years of lessons would have produced such humble results? The rage kicks up in me periodically. I’m used to being good at my art—I dance, I sing in choirs, I write—and having it come easily, naturally. On the violin, I’m just a graceless adult beginner struggling with something I’m not very good at, nor will I likely ever be.
And yet, something important is synching. I can feel it, deep, deep inside me, when I’m holding my violin. The first time I heard the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings ring out when I played the same notes elsewhere, it made my heart leap and something in my throat catch. The thrill of that hasn’t gone away. And I love how beautiful my violin is, how delicate yet strong, with its curves, its lines, the wood’s rich warm glow. I love holding the violin close, tucking it under my chin, right up next to me. When I have bad weeks of too little practicing, too little motivation, I miss this part of it, and always find myself whispering an apology to the violin when I finally return. “I’m sorry,” I murmur. “It’s me, not you. I’m so sorry.”
In my busy life—likely every adult’s life, unless you’re retired and/or childless now—I struggle with keeping up with practice, with motivation. But even at my lowest, I can’t imagine ever giving up on this journey. As an adult learner, it feeds me in so many different ways. I’m willing to bet other adults out there feel the same.
And to those of you who are nodding, I’d love to know: what sent you [back] to the music stand?
© 2013 Terez Rose
Thanks for taking the time to post this - really enjoyed it.
One observation: I do tend to be a person who always has one focal area around which I organize my life. It was long-distance running for years, and then bird-watching (I still do both, but less intensely than I once did). So violin may be filling a need for an "organizing principle" in my life, which could be (and has been, and presumably could be in the future) met by a variety of other activities.
Thirty years later I found myself trying to push my children, then 7 and 10 to learn an instrument, an enterprise they are not interested in at all. *Insert sad mommy face here.* I explained how much I thought they would benefit from it and explained that I never had the opportunity to play the violin as I had always wanted to. I stressed that I didn't want them to regret passing up the opportunity if there was something they really wanted to learn.
At that point, my 7 year old looked up at me and said "But Mommy, you're a grown-up. Can't you do anything you want?". It stopped me in my tracks. I realized at that moment that I had been putting limits on myself that weren't there.
My boys had watched me go from couch potato to marathon runner, teach myself (and them) how to knit, and do numerous other difficult things. They didn't understand why I couldn't play the violin if I wanted to, and suddenly, neither could I.
However, a number of my adult students have come to me after contacting quite a few teachers and being told exactly that. It boggles my mind that people don't want to work with them...adult students value what they are paying for, practice efficiently because they understand the limits of time, and don't have stupid things like school orchestra chair placement to squander that precious time on.
My daughter didn't want me to learn viola until she was finished with hers, so I waited for her to graduate high school. Then I hit learning viola with a vengeance. I'd practice 4 to 5 hours a day - this with a full time job, and still having my daughter living at home.
Now I'm down to roughly 2 hours a day, but I'm in a community orchestra and I am taught by a professional musician. By the way, I also ran into teachers who refused me as a student because of my age and lack of prior experience.
Wonderful, wonderful stories! Hope they keep coming.
and here’s where to find it (among other places):
Hope you enjoy it!!
Most of my adult students play because they love the music, love the fiddle, relish the enormous challenge, embrace the infinite repertoire, harbor the desire to make something themselves, or want more out of life than the mindless, wasteful, soul-crushing consumerism that is our society's "entertainment".
Or, a varied combination of the above.
Hats off to all y'all.
Now go practice...
I'll have to remember that. "Yes, I'm an adult beginner who learned from scratch... and how!"
... and I liked your other comments, too!
Hey I loved the trombone, I really did! I played all the way through High school. I was in Jazz band too, we even won a contest to go participate in the Montreuz Jazz festival in Switzerland! It was great, but still, it wasn't a violin.
Anyway, the same story as many here. I went to college, spent some time in the military and the old trombone just sort of got left behind. So eventually I wanted to get back into music.
I started learning the guitar. While the guitar is a fine instrument it never really felt right. It just wasn't ME. And it wasn't a violin.
I then started gravitating towards piano. This was better, closer. I liked it. And yet.... yet,
tt still wasn't a violin.
Now I'm in my 40s and I finally realized the thing that should have been obvious years and years ago. The only instrument that actually is a violin, is a violin. So I started taking lessons. I know it's far, far to late to ever be a master violinist. But I'm 8 months in this feels better and truer and more RIGHT than anything has since my old trombone. I wonder what I might be now if I could somehow travel back in time and convince 10 year old me to make everyone understand this. But I can't do that. What I can do is, well what I'm doing. Take lessons. Practice.
I know I won't be able to become a true professional at this stage. What I CAN so is try and achieve the highest level of whatever potential I have inside me in the time I DO have.
And I will.
I found a used student fiddle on kijiji and went from there. I figured if I started there we wouldn't be out a whole lot of money if I didn't enjoy it. I did enjoy it and just bought my first decent fiddle a couple of months ago.
I was surprised by how I was able to pick things up relatively quickly. At least compared to how I thought it would go. My practicing has slowed down a bit over the summer, but I look forward to continuing forward.
I'm also very lucky that my wife and my children have been very encouraging of me in my new love. :)
>I started learning the guitar. While the guitar is a fine instrument it never really felt right. It just wasn't ME. And it wasn't a violin. [...] Now I'm in my 40s and I finally realized the thing that should have been obvious years and years ago. The only instrument that actually is a violin, is a violin.
I think that really says it for so many of us (and, for me, again, this would be ballet, more so than the violin, actually). It reminds me of the way I love Paris to the exclusion of almost every other city (except San Francisco, which, fortunately, is cheaper/easier/quicker to get to). My thought is, there's Paris, and there's not-Paris. When my husband and I lived in Europe, we visited dozens of wonderful, wonderful cities. But they were always not-Paris (except when it WAS Paris). And I've tried other dance classes and while they are excellent and worthy substitutes for the more expensive, exclusive ballet, they are always not-ballet.
I suppose the same is true for me and stringed instruments. I inherited my mother-in-law's mandolin, and it's a gorgeous, antique instrument, and tuned just like the violin, but I'm sorry. It's no violin. Guitar? Easy as anything to pick up, learn, start playing. Sorry. It's too not-violin. Even the viola. Sorry. Not-violin.
Oh, the lovely, inimitable violin. Here's to those of us who can't settle for less.
And I'm continuing to LOVE these stories! More, more!
That was 2 years ago. I’m taking weekly lessons from a great teacher and practicing as much as I can squeeze into a busy life. The fire is still there, even though the progress is slow. I delight in the little victories. Last night I tried a new song and was able to play it through on the first attempt – not well, but in time and mostly in tune.
I cringe each time I hear someone describe how difficult the violin is to learn. I am not a prodigy by any stretch, but I don’t find it difficult. Seems to me getting all 10 fingers working independently to play piano would be difficult. On violin, I only have to work getting 4 to work alone. Rather than difficult, I consider the violin exacting. Place the finger in the exactly right spot and apply the bow with the exact feeling, and the violin sings. Miss on either of those and the violin croaks. It took only a few months to get comfortable with holding violin and bow and to learn (without tapes) where the exact spots were in first position. I practice now to acquire the reflexes, muscle memory and ear to make hitting the exact spot more – predicable. That’s not difficult either – just takes time.
I practice to improve my skills. I play for the pure enjoyment of making my girl sing. I have all the time in the world.
Dang. Thanks for reminding me of that. : )
Fast forward 25 years or so. I hadn't touched an instrument in all that time, but I had built a collection of about 700 vinyl albums (mostly pop) and was immersed in music constantly. One morning I woke up and realized that I was fitting chords to every piece of music I was hearing, whether on the radio or just in my head. I realized that if I got a guitar and learned those chords, I could play all of that music.
That was the beginning of my return. Several years later, while playing guitar at someone else's house, I saw a mandolin hanging on the rack alongside his other guitars. I picked it up and figured out a few chords, and wound up borrowing it and taking lessons. Another friend was taking up banjo at the time; the two of us got involved in the local bluegrass scene and started honing our chops.
And now we reach the final question: why violin? In my case, it was even more accidental than my foray into mandolin. My banjo-playing friend had moved to a new house, and their stove was shot. We were converting to gas, so we gave him our perfectly serviceable electric stove. My friend had picked up a cheap violin some time before, and later found a funky handmade violin in an antique shop - so in return for the stove, he gave me his original violin.
At first I wasn't too serious. Since a violin is tuned the same as a mandolin, I knew where the notes were, and I would take the violin (err, fiddle) to bluegrass jams and mess with it a bit when I wasn't playing mandolin. Then I started visiting another friend who played classical violin, and we started playing together. Brahms, Corelli... another door was opening, leading into tantalizing landscapes beyond. I realized it was time to get serious about the violin, and signed up for lessons.
Three years later, I'm finally becoming less timid about appearing in public with a violin, although I realize that this is a lifelong pursuit. And yes, I believe that the violin is one of the most difficult instruments to play. For that matter, it's one of the most difficult activities of any sort that I've ever encountered. But when things work, it's so wonderful that I don't begrudge the effort at all.
So now I'm fiddling my buns off at bluegrass jams, playing small ensemble pieces with friends, and - in yet another twist of fate - find myself playing viola in a local orchestra. I'm loving every minute of it; I've found something that will keep me going for the rest of my life. (And that should be a long time, if the orchestra is any indication: the two members that passed away this year were each 92 years old, and playing right to the end.)
You wrote the statement: "I understood that an adult beginner would never come close to mastering it [the violin]." This is a broad and strong claim on behalf of all adult beginners. What evidence is there to support this assertion, and why do you believe it?
Kate, thanks for reminding me that the above statement should only reflect my own opinion, based on the comments and such presented to me. I tweaked the wording to clarify that. As for why I think as an adult beginner I could never master the art, the Bach S&Ps and all the concertos? Maybe because my own professional-level violin teacher confesses that it's something she'd love to quit teaching and devote the rest of her years to doing. Or because of all the wonderful, gifted violinists here whose thoughts are similar. Heifetz mastered it, along with another dozen or two of the greats. (Yes, it could be argued many, many more have; I just don't have the time to list 'em.) This is my thinking when I ponder the term "master." On a humbler "mastery" scale, and again, speaking for myself, I'll just say I know my energy and time constraints and that I lack something innate. Practicing 5x a week, much less daily, is a struggle. But hey, I'm not letting that stop my journey. And I'm always delighted to hear of other adult beginners who take the craft infinitely further!
I'm surprised that more people haven't given this answer here, but understand fully the time constrains on working parents, and that many might not even consider it.
While it would seem natural that I should return to playing piano when the need to make music started overtaking me again, the truth is that I had always yearned to play the violin. It's voice calls to me, and when I began itching to bring music back into my life in a meaningful way, I decided to quit "wanting to play the violin", and start "doing".
I have an extremely capable and kind teacher who seems to enjoy having adult students as much as her younger ones. She guides, corrects, and challenges me, but the truth is that without my own strong personal motivation it would never happen. I want it. I work for it. It is happening - music - darn good music at times too!
It's been every bit of the wonderful journey I had imagined it would be, and the fun thing is that I am just really getting underway. I have no illusions of being a master at this - but I do have absolute confidence that I can play really well and love every moment of doing it. At the end of the day, isn't that really what all of us play an instrument for?
"...If you doubt yourself, you will fail."
Regarding Kate's comments, I must agree that such statements are not productive, and your statement is only true in one sense of the word master, and not in other senses. I grew up in the martial arts culture where mastery is said to come from within. There are many true masters of the martial arts that started as adults.
An instrument is, or should be, an extension of oneself. Yes, there are only a handful of people who can play like Perlman, etc., but there are many who are master violinists (think Grappelli, great fiddlers, excellent violin teachers) in that they have successfully allowed the violin, their craft, and their music to be an extension of them as a person...understanding the instrument, playing with the control and ease of walking around the block, having developed their unique style, regardless of whether or not they can play every with every complicated classical technique. This is mastery in my opinion, and this is the mastery that we all can strive for, no matter what age we start! As an adult beginner, it is VERY possible that one day you will look at yourself in the mirror, after a wonderful performance bringing joy to those around you, and you will say, ah yes...I am a violinist. Even simpler, a quick google search defines a master as: a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. Why cannot you be that? Happy playing and practicing :)
My own journey started with my mother's ambition for her sons to play musical instruments. Mom made me practice, which I hated, and made my brother and I perform, which I hated even more. Going away to college meant emancipation from mom's watchful eye, and I put the violin aside. At age 30, and married with children, an accidental meeting with a neighbor who told of an open musical house every Friday evening around the corner in Brooklyn Heights to which anyone could bring their instrument and play music. I had never heard, much less played a string quartet. I went to those musical evenings and joined in. I was hooked. That was 45 years ago and I have not stopped playing.
It is rare for a week to go by without a quartet session. I have been concert master of community orchestras and consider my violin my best companion. This month I purchased a violin made by David Gusset in Eugene, Oregon and love its sound which, of course, makes me want to practice even more.
Thanks for your additional comments, Timothy. I’ll just leave it at a “thank you” and respect those of you who disagree, and felt I misspoke. I told my truth, shared my story. Apologies if it irks anyone else. That hadn’t been my intention.
Personally, I am not irked at your comments, and in re-reading Timothy’s do not infer that he is either. There is no need for apology. As the topic was raised, we are simply trying to further the discussion regarding adult-beginners and mastery. Discussions in which there is disagreement leading to an exchange of ideas and information are generally fruitful. It would be beneficial to all for the conversation to continue. Certainly we can, while agreeing that no one has intention to offend others in the process.
If I understand your response correctly, you feel that you will not master the violin for two reasons, one of which is that violinists whom you respect are of the opinion that no adult-beginner can master the violin, and have convinced you of the same. This is your truth and story that you shared. The danger in adopting this assumption and broadcasting it further is that it places limitations on both the speaker and recipients, leading to self-fulfilling prophecy. Why would anyone on a journey wish to do that to herself? And why would anyone want to consciously do that to others? It would be more productive to question this assumption that was handed out, figure out for oneself to what extent it is true, and share those findings. My guess is that any adult-beginner or returnee, would consequently come much further along the journey towards mastery than she would otherwise, and that she would be happier for the greater progress.
At the very least, it seems to me that anyone (and I refer here to the 2-dozen or so violinists from whom I have heard similar statements in the past 2 years) holding opinions that place limitations on others should refrain from broadcasting them, as they are performing a disservice to the community of learners.
From reading your posts, I infer that you are a kind and nurturing person who would not wish to inadvertently discourage others, who chooses her words carefully, and who works to be as thoughtful as possible towards others.
Thank you for sharing your story!
So much music, so little time...
Yes, you're right; doing both is the way to go.
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