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I've learned something

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Published: December 19, 2013 at 9:45 AM [UTC]

I’ve learned something. And it took me two years. This is what happened.

Two years ago, when I was 49, I started learning the violin. At my second lesson with my first teacher, she explained to me how to move my left elbow. Only, I got it the wrong way around. So I went home and practiced. As you can imagine, it was by no means a small feat to move my elbow towards my body while my fingers went from the g string to the e string and the other way around. So I practiced, very, very hard.

A couple of lessons later both I and my teacher noticed how extremely difficult it was for me to play on the e string. Mind you, as far as I was concerned everything about learning to play seemed extremely difficult, so I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing something wrong. Anyway, at some point we cleared up this misunderstanding and I got the movement more or less right. That is, I could have told you what was supposed to happen, and execute the movement in isolation. As soon as other things demanded my attention though, which for me in playing the violin means pretty much always, my body would return to this perfected bad habit.

After ten lessons, I changed to my current teacher. Since then, there were myriad other trifling matters, like keeping my hand still, moving from the base joints, not hammering my fingers like I wanted to drill holes in the fingerboard, keeping my wrist straight , relax, relax, relax etc. etc. Not to mention finding the right setup, with or without It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named on ;-) Anyway, by now, we have begun to sort many of those out, and when I look in the mirror, my hand looks remotely the way other people’s left hands do when they play the violin. Yay! It takes time and it takes practice and it takes a lot of patience, but it seems to work.

The elbow issue, however, still keeps me company in the shape of pressing against the fingerboard with the base joint of my first finger. Only, I wasn't aware this intractable problem stemmed from the same root. After the matter had been addressed (again) in last week’s lesson, I decided to sit down and analyze it (again). This is what I came up with:

  • I know the change that my teacher wants me to make;
  • In my lesson, it has been shown that I can actually do it;
  • When I try to do it right at home, I fail miserably.

The nature of this failure seemed to be that I couldn’t not press and keep my wrist straight. My conclusion was that obviously something else had to change too, but I didn’t know what. So that’s the question (or rather, one of the questions) I brought to this week’s lesson.

Now something interesting and subtle happened. I told my teacher my problem, and, as usual, he said: “Show me”. I did and he said something like: “Now keep your hand round and relaxed”. I don’t remember his exact words, but as I was focussing on what he said, he made my left elbow move back by touching it. This was of course the very change that I was looking for, and I almost missed it! Riddle solved. I guess he must have done this in my lesson countless times before.

The important point that I take away from this, apart from the obvious one, is: I am not as good as young kids seem to be at learning from my teacher’s tactile cues. That is, I can only utilize them if I have consciously verbalized the change that they entail. It is very much more difficult for me to remember a physical sensation than it is to remember its description. From now on I shall therefore (a) pay more conscious attention to my teacher’s tactile cues, and (b) be sure to translate the change they initiate into words before moving on.

I love this journey, besides bestowing on me the pure joy of making music with others it teaches me a lot about myself and about learning (my favorite field of study for as long as I can remember). I would be very interested to hear from others who started playing at a later age. What are your experiences when it comes to tactile cues? If you started young, do you retain this capability for learning from such cues? If you're a teacher, are you aware that such a difference might exist?

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:59 PM

Record your violin lesson on a video camera, preferrably set on a tripod such that the camera captures your play and your teacher's instruction. Review it thoroughly at home during your home practice. That'll save your time and effort. Good luck.

Posted on December 20, 2013 at 5:36 AM
I love, love, love your post! I work with adult beginners and also young children. I think you are right on the money. Children learn so easily from the "feel of it," and adults need to have those things verbalized and summarized after they have been demonstrated kinesthetically. Thank you for posting and helping me have a better understanding of my adult learners. (I am very much like you, and find the study of how learning works to be one of my favorite subjects. :)


Posted on December 21, 2013 at 1:05 AM
we all know each Individual has their own learning pace: no matter fast or slow, guaranty the learning must take time.
My learning in this process is to understand:
till brain can respond & retain the information
practicing = Brain + physical = repetition create the ease connection between the brain and physical execution
review = repetition to figure out what & how to do so every day.
From Terri Hayes
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 7:39 PM
I'm 51 and am just beginning to learn Viola (about 2 months now). Its been quite a challenge. Mostly because I know how to read music (treble clef)... and suddenly, none of the notes are where I believe they are (alto clef), and the mechanics of getting my fingers in the right place - consistently... has been challenging. I am very sensitive to playing a note out of tune, having played woodwinds for many years (35 years ago) - and its most frustrating to find that I have no good predictable way to know if my finger is going down in the right place - until I play - and then its wrong. For me, there is nothing a teacher can tell me that will fix this. My body needs to learn how to measure my spaces... She can (and does) say, third and fourth finger should touch... and I predictably say, "yes, yes, I know that" (because intellectually I do)... but it does not fix the problem being that my hand is incorrectly predicting where to start in the first place.
Over all, I'm having a great time - its really really hard! Which is just what I wanted... I dont think I'll have a chance to get bored with it very soon. But I look forward to the time when I will know how to hold the thing (consistently) so that it doesnt hurt 5 minutes in, and to the time when I can put my fingers down and make the sound I'd like to hear, instead of continuously having to correct and correct and correct each time.
From Pat Brown
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 3:35 AM
I just started taking lessons this last May at age 58. My teacher taught my son some 20 years ago.

I have had 3 lessons with her [a lesson every 2 months] and I believe I am doing fairly well on my technique. She has used the visual of me being a tree, my arm and hand the branches a little bird [the neck of the violin] coming and sitting one the crotch of the branch, all the while she was putting my body into correct position. She placed my hand on the bow and a picture was taken of it, I have it to refer to. I was raising my right shoulder when I was bowing, she got a rice filled bag and placed it on my shoulder to relax it while I played.

She has had me work on maybe 5 things for the next lesson.

We talk about music, why you usually down bow at the beginning of the measure. I read music and am using the Suzuki book and listening to the CD. She has had me practice playing the songs on the different strings which has helped me memorize tunes and help me get to know my violin.

We always end the lesson playing a duet or me playing accompanied by an electronic piano.

I am having so much fun!!

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