January 2014

The Journey: Leaps and Plateaus

January 14, 2014 19:30

Early on in my adult learner journey, I seemed to detect a pattern to my improvement levels. For a long time, it might seem as though I was staying at the same place, not getting noticeably better nor worse, and then, out of the blue, there would be a day when I'd think to myself, while practicing, "Wow...I'm sounding pretty good today!". (Good of course, being a highly relative term). Then I would practice the next day and it would be the same and I would realize that 'this' had become the 'new normal'. My progress all along the path was like that...if I were graphing it, it would be a relatively flat line, then a sudden jump, where I would then level off onto a new flat line. Like climbing a hill, then walking along a plateau for some length of time before the next climb.

Nineteen years into the journey, I'm delighted to realize that the same thing is still true. As I've written before, I have more time this semester than I've had in many years, and my focus (OK, perhaps obsession may be a more honest word) is violin....focused practicing like I've not had a chance to do in a decade. Or maybe ever, since I realize that I have so many more tools to bring to my practicing now.

This 'new' focus has really just been since the New Year, and I'm sort of stunned and delighted to have already hit a 'new normal'...and one that is blowing me away. There were times today when I'd play a passage and it sounded sort of amazing, and I found myself thinking, "Is this me and MY violin?", and then I'd play the passage over and over and over, just to wallow in the sound and the ease and the freedom.

There's more I could write but I want to bask in the happy for a while....

2 replies


January 5, 2014 22:33

After my last post, I had several people message me privately, asking for more info about my ‘story’, many with questions of how I had gotten from where I was to where I am. While there are certainly other people who also could (and do) write on this topic, it’s one that I continue to ‘live’. Not only was I an adult beginner, but I have many students who are adult or late beginners. However, as I thought about how to share some part of my story and thoughts about beginning in adulthood, I realized that the defining characteristic of an adult learner is that we do it all while still living our grown up lives, in bits and pieces where we can find the moments. (I can remember standing at my kitchen counter with a music stand in front of me, grabbing a few moments of practice time while waiting for the spaghetti water to boil.) It seems to me, at this time, a bit artificial to write out a 'history', though I believe that I started at one time (parts 1 and 2 are somewhere back in my blog history). What remains true for all of us is that the ‘story’ is still about fitting the passion into our real lives.

So, tonight I carefully placed my Ipod Nano into the $3 armband, slid it up my forearm then dragged myself down to the basement where my dinosaur used treadmill resides, and slogged through the C25K Week 1 Day 1 trek. For the uninitiated, C25K is short for "Couch to 5 K", a program which is supposed to prepare any average couch potato to run a 5K after some weeks (6? 9?) of gradual training. In my case, the plan (dare I say goal?) is to be able to shuffle (as opposed to jog or run) MOST of a 5K by say, late July.

Now I know what you're thinking....those are heady goals I've set for myself. Still, as I was gasping and praying for the 60-second 'running' intervals to hurry and end, I was struck by how completely this C@%K (oops...think I'll leave that uncorrected ;) journey mirrors what it is for an adult to decide to begin learning the violin.

While shuffling along, I was listening to a Podcast on my Ipod, where I would be given directions about when to speed up, and for how long. The man's voice kept encouraging me to 'stay loose, keeping my arms low'. As I would begin the ever-so-slight increase in speed between my 90 second 'brisk' walk (ahem) and the 'run' (ha!) I would focus on 'staying loose' and trying to keep my arms low. Only, I realize I don't really know what that means. So, while trying to not fall off the treadmill, I would try to first visualize what 'loose' might look like, and compare it to how I felt. Then, I'd think about keeping my arms low (well, except for when I was clutching the arm supports), experimenting with dangling elbows, unclenching fists, etc. I'm sure that at times I resembled nothing more than a Neanderthal shuffling home after an unsuccessful hunt, only wearing some really cute and colorful shoes.

When I began taking lessons with my first serious teacher, I'd been playing for a year and a half, and had learned both hands completely wrong. This new teacher, who has some serious cred in terms of HIS teachers (Galamian, Gingold, and Fenyves) worked to re-do my entire set-up. I can remember struggling with the bow hold, while he would describe this and that 'thing' that I was to do. I finally asked him exactly which muscles were supposed to be involved. I don't think he understood my question...in fact I vividly remember him moving my hand into what should have been the correct position, and him exclaiming in some confusion, "I don't understand...why is this so hard? This shouldn't be this hard!" I almost had myself convinced that my hand was deformed or something. Still, I angled and moved and tried, but there were 2 things that finally made it go 'click' for me. One was that I watched him carefully, and then would watch myself in the mirror at home. I still remember drawing the bow and seeing my hand make the same shape as his. Secondly, I realized that he was showing me how the hand would support the bow, but I was attempting it with the bow out in front of me, What I finally realized was that once the fingers were all placed, then I needed to sort of 'pivot' the wrist downward, so that the wrist was below the level of the bow, not above it.

It felt so frustrating and stressful when I didn't understand what he was asking me to do, but once it went 'click', it was there and it was solid and really never needed another correction. 6 months later, his administrative duties caused him to hand off his students to a hand-picked teacher that he hired to replace himself, and by that time, my new teacher (with a similar pedigree) was very complimentary about what a great set-up I had.

I wish that I had someone here watching me on the treadmill, who could help me to figure out what 'loose' legs and 'low' arms look and feel like. There are physical things that, once learned, make the task immeasurably easier. Adult students bring very different sorts of analytical tools to the tasks we are learning---we evaluate and experiment and think things through. This can make for some early confusion (especially when one is trying not to fall off the treadmill while evaluating) but once a thing is learned, it is there, because it is 'understood', not just learned.

As I was torturing myself for 30 minutes (with very little pay-off visible in the near future), I realize that, particularly in the earliest stages of playing, that experience is the same in many ways as my treadmill time. Even when one 'LOVES' the violin, virtually no one 'loves' the early lessons when it seems that every time you correct one physical things, 3 others go wrong. The sounds we are making are not always lovely, and the ability to really make the instrument sing (ahem, my 5K) seems to be so distant in time as to be almost unbelievable.

Still, I am told by my betters, that it will get better. In fact, one of my cheerleaders today reminded me that, though my 'run' was slow and ugly, I at least "lapped the people on the couch". I liked that thought...because, the truth is this....July is going to come whether I am ready to participate in a 5K or not. But, if I persevere, I'll be able to enjoy the fruits of my labors. Next year is going to come, whether I improve as a player or not. So, I may as well take steps, even if slow ones, to progress as I can, because I can't get this time back. I can tell myself that I'm 55 and 40 lbs. overweight, thus maybe not 'runner' material... but if I give up now, the only thing that will be true is that next year I'll be 56 and 45 lbs. overweight.

Now, If I could just find someone to help me analyze what 'loose' and 'low' are supposed to be...

8 replies

Goals, and other scary thoughts.

January 3, 2014 22:36

I had a curious experience recently---being that I started playing violin at age 36, I had asked to join an 'adult beginners' group on FB. I recently discovered a reply from the moderator of that group, who very kindly and politely declined my request to join. She explained that she had seen me here on V.com, and could tell that I was a teacher with a busy private studio, and since the group was intended for adult beginners, it has a 'no teachers' policy.

I certainly had no problems with that, but it started me thinking about the sort of 'moving goalposts' phenomenon that must have taken place at some point. I began to wonder, at what point in time had I crossed some invisible line that would disqualify me from describing myself as an adult beginner? I suppose some of it is semantics...I had been thinking of 'adult beginner' as describing 'one who began violin as an adult', and the group may have been thinking of itself as more along the line of 'adults who are at a beginner level'. Still, it was a surpise to realize that somehow, it's become a bit illegitimate to describe myself as an 'adult beginner'.

It just happens that I'm thinking about this for another reason as well. I find myself in the position of having more time in my schedule this year than I've had for several years in the past, and for the first time in maybe 10 years, I'm able to structure my time to allow for the sort of violin focus that I had when I was truly an 'adult beginner'. As I've been sorting through old music and thinking about how to approach my new focus, I realize that in some ways, I don't really know how to set goals for violin. While it's true that I worked hard when I took up violin, it's also true that in many ways, my progress always ran way ahead of my goal setting. By the time I'd been playing 2 1/2 years, I was already far more accomplished than I had ever dreamed of becoming when I started, and then everything after that point has just been a surprise, to me as much as anyone else.

I haven't 'studied' for the last 10 years or so...I've been caught up in the busyness of teaching and playing in orchestras, sometimes on a sort of auto-pilot, while finishing my graduate work, etc. But just lately, I've thought back and asked myself what I was doing when I was still 'studying', and why. I knew that I was not really ever going to perform most of what I worked on (though I did do Mozart 3 in juries one year),but the point was to be able to have the experience of playing great music, while learning how to play with more skill. As I think about how to make a plan to progress this year, for the first time ever, I find myself asking if perhaps I've not reached quite high enough.

That scares me to write it...not because I think I have any particular 'gifts' but maybe because there is a certain security in having a role and an identity. It discomfits me to think about reaching higher in a way that may take me to ......where?

I suppose that when one has no real goals, then it's impossible to 'not' meet them. Since I always knew, by dint of my late start, what WASN'T possible, I'm not sure I've ever really thought too hard about what IS possible. And it feels almost greedy and self-indulgent to grab for more.

One thing that was true for me, beginning as an adult, is that there's a great deal of the standard repertoire that I'd never done, due to lack of time. My formal studies stopped after Mozart 3 and Bach am and I've never played some things that 'everyone' plays, like the Bruch, etc.

So for now, I'm going backwards, in reviving and reviewing 'old' works while getting in the study groove again. I find that I have many more tools to bring to the process than I had back then. And then, after that...we'll see. I think that the road ahead will crystallize some during the reviewing section. And I think at some point I need to jump in with both feet and set a goal or two, even if that feels scary to start.

14 replies

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