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Laurie Niles

The problem with beginners....

February 27, 2008 at 7:43 AM

We've been talking a lot about the problem with late starters and the problem with early starters, and it's got me reflecting on the problem -- the problem with starting the violin, and continuing it.

Today when I was tuning little fiddles for my first graders at the public school, my student, A, a jubilant little girl who likes to be first in line, bounced up to me and announced that she could now play Suzuki's "Allegro," which is somewhere midway through the first Suzuki book. We've been singing the song as a game, so I had no doubt that she'd internalized the song. But play it on the violin? Considering that we just introduced the use of lefthand fingers a few weeks ago, and noting the number of stickers on her practice chart, I was more than a little skeptical.

"It's great that you want to play that song, but for now keep playing the Kangaroo Song to get your fingers ready to play it later," I said. "One day you'll play Allegro; maybe we can sing it today."

She took her place on the carpet, and as I tuned the others, I overheard a little bit of the Kangaroo Song. Then I heard her comment to a friend, "But I can play Allegro!"

Later in the class, each child got to play a solo of their choosing. My enthusiastic student came up to the front under the guise of playing the Kangaroo Song, lifted her violin to her chin, then said, "I'm going to prove to Mrs. Niles that I can play Allegro!"

Oh dear, I thought, but there she went. As she lifted her bow to the string, her eyes rolled upward, she smiled, and she started softly singing the song to herself, while moving her bow over an open Eing and fluttering her first finger vaguely up and down. A friend of hers said, "Um...?" and she stopped, smiling. She laughed and said, "I guess I forgot!"

"I'm glad you want to play it," I repeated, "But it wasn't really coming out of your violin. Let's get really good at the songs we are doing so we can play it later."

Now. An adult beginner, or a more sophisticated student, would never do this, right? Well actually...have you ever said, or heard, "Honestly, it sounded totally different at home!"

This, in a nutshell, is the problem. A problem, like an argument, isn't necessarily a negative thing. It's simply, according to my dictionary: "a question raised for inquiry, consideration or solution." The question is, "Will I ever be able to play what I want to play?"

To me the solution to the beginner's problem looks something like:

Enthusiasm + Direction + Daily Practice = Ability

My little student had wonderful enthusiasm, but she wasn't taking direction nor was she wasn't practicing what she needed to practice. (Teacher, DON'T kill the enthusiasm, just to put her in her place!)

The adult beginner usually has the enthusiasm. But an adult may question the direction so much that they go all over the place and don't actually head somewhere. Or their time for practice is so limited that they can't practice daily.

The early starter whose impetus comes from the parent may have a wonderful teacher to give direction, plus a parent to make practice happen every day, but if the enthusiasm doesn't grow in the student, it's all for naught.

So teachers, nurture all three in your students. Give them fun things to do along with good guidance, and keep on them to practice. That IS your job. And students, if you are not making progress, figure out where the deficiency lies. If you aren't practicing, well, duh. Then you need to practice, every day! Maybe your problem is lack of direction and needing a new teacher, but it also could be you refusing to listen to good direction and heed it.

The problem can be sneaky. Sometimes with all the direction and hard work practicing, you can get a slow leak in your enthusiasm bubble, and when you check it, you find it's completely deflated. Always be seeking that new inspiration -- a piece, a performance, the sound of something new, whatever fans your love for music.

The problem isn't that other people say you won't "make it." That's a straw man. You can solve the problem, if your goal truly is to play.

From Dave Ingledew
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 9:54 AM
Oh that is so right. I'm a button accordian player really but have been learning to play the violin for nearly two years now. Despite the fact that I know that when I was learning to play the accordian things happened quite slowly and only as a result of practice, I do run out of enthusiasm for practicing the violin over a period of a few months.

This weekend I went to the London Fiddle Convention and for a whole day was surrounded by dozens of players, some of them good some not so good, (all better than me :-) I went to a couple of workshops and there was a wonderful evening concert. Result, I'm so full of enthusiasm I have a job to put the violin down. Needless to say I'm improving again.

I wonder how many teachers are aware of the effect they have on their pupils when they play to them. I find listening to other players most inspiring and it gives me something to work towards and copy. I've talked to pupils who tell me that their teacher never plays the violin to them or with them, very sad.

Take care - Dave Ingledew

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 11:32 AM
I was reading those threads too, and I guess I do think that other people's comments can be a serious damper on one's enthusiasm, no matter when one started. What other people say can put not just a leak in the bubble of enthusiasm, but a huge gaping hole. And then the standard advice of "don't listen to what other people say" or "it doesn't matter what other people think" is kind of useless, not to mention impossible for a lot of players. Many of us are musicians because we want to communicate with our listeners. We play the violin precisely because what other people think and say matters deeply to us.

What I think is necessary instead is to be selective in who you have for a teacher and who you interact with, musically. I'm an adult learner--I started relatively early (at 7), but I took a lot of time off, and restarted again at age 40, and in the whole year-and-a half I've been playing again, issues of when I started and whether I'll ever be "any good," or "make it" haven't come up once (except on My teacher, who also teaches some adult beginners, just accepts where I am and works with me to improve from there.

From Lisa Perry
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 12:47 PM
"My teacher, who also teaches some adult beginners, just accepts where I am and works with me to improve from there."

Mine too. As an adult beginner, 43, I don't understand the big deal made about it in the threads.

From Jasmine Reese
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 1:11 PM
I think it was made such a big deal because some are so passionate about the violin, and they want reassurance that one day they'll be able to play the repertoire that made them begin to play the violin the first place.

Some play the violin for hobby, some play the violin for performance, and some play it for the pure euphoric pleasure in the challenge and the success. For the latter, it can be a big deal what people say. I am one of those people who play the violin for basically all three: hobby, performance (I love the stage, no matter how nervous I get), and the pleasure of accomplishing my dreams. Since I am so passionate, I am very sensitive sometimes and I need reassurance from others that I can do it. I can't just say to myself, "I can do it." I need support.

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 2:09 PM
Like Karen Allendoerfer,I started young, took a lot of time off, and started again when I was in my 30's, with the goal in mind of majoring in music education in college. During the time I was relearning (and remembering a lot of what I'd forgotten) the violin, never once was I discouraged by my teachers; they all rooted for me.
I think all three elements are necessary to playing, not just in order to be "good enough," but also just for personal satisfaction. But perhaps direction and being challenged are both necessary to maintain enthusiasm? I definitely need direction, and I need to be challenged, because without those two elements, my enthusiasm would soon fade away.
From al ku
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 2:12 PM
jasmine, you've made many good points. lets just say we think we deserve "support" and we did not get it. if we insist on dwelling on this subject of not getting "support", then may be we need to differentiate individuals who think that we shouldn't bother in the first place from individuals who simply do not feel like providing positive or negative feedback from individuals who are selective and trying to be factual. i believe i am the latter type. if people don't know us, don't know how we play, how we progress, our true nature/attitude/aspiration depsite what we say here,,,,if others say, yes, jasmine and al, yeah, to the moon!,,, isn't that irresponsible?
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 3:08 PM
I also wanted to comment on this:

"And students, if you are not making progress, figure out where the deficiency lies. If you aren't practicing, well, duh. Then you need to practice, every day! Maybe your problem is lack of direction and needing a new teacher, but it also could be you refusing to listen to good direction and heed it."

I think there's often more to it than "refusing" to listen to good direction. Sometimes there's a problem with just not being able to hear or understand good direction. There may be nothing objectively wrong with the teacher or the direction, but the student still can't (not won't--it's not a choice) hear it or take it.

I'm a little sensitive to this issue because this happened to me in my teens. I got discouraged for various reasons and stopped practicing. Practicing felt like a waste of time, and probably was: I didn't have goals I cared about, I didn't agree with my teacher about the music I was learning. I wasn't motivated at all by competing with my peers and seating auditions and recitals and performance. In fact, I hated all that competition and performance stuff. Passionately.

But after a break, a new situation, and a new teacher, I got my motivation back in my late 20's. I hadn't fundamentally changed. I was a little older and wiser, and had completed a PhD in another subject, but I was fundamentally the same person with the same interests and quirks, who would have felt the same way had I landed back in the first situation again.

And because I was made to feel like such a bad and inadequate musician and person for "refusing" to listen to my teacher and practice every day way back when, I had a lot of toxic baggage to work through when I came back and started playing again.

I think that baggage is mostly gone now, or at least lightened enough not to matter much anymore, but frankly, I really could have done without it in the first place.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 4:34 PM
Laurie, this is a very interesting blog. And the word "motivation" was never mentioned (Insert smiley face here).
From Kim Vawter
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 7:39 PM
Thank you for putting into perspectiver some of the things that i was thinking about as I started this instrument.
Some of us are intrinsically motivated and some of us need more acceptance and encouragement by our peers.
As an adult beginner we do the same things that kids do in first grade--They want to write the story but they don't know all the rules of grammar. I don't know all the rules yet but humming the melody is a start for me too.
From Rafe G.
Posted on February 27, 2008 at 11:38 PM
To be honest with you, it just is simply harder for an adult to excel more at this instrument because an adult requires more practice at something to improve in. Children can just simply learn things more quickly because their brain development is much greater then ours (I'm 23). Their bodies and minds are still growing, meaning that when being introduced to something like the violin their minds can absorb information more than somebody much older I feel (kids imagine things differently than an adult as well). That doesn't mean that an adult can't become a great violinist, but I feel it is much harder to improve more quickly because of the way we learn and our lifestyles. Enough said..
I also hear that females and males excel differently from each other due to their emotional levels (women being generally more emotional than men), a violin professor from John Hopkins once said in a masterclass. This obviously is something that could be debated on so I don't know if that is necessarily true.
From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 28, 2008 at 4:27 AM
Praise, even small praise, goes a long way in this muddled up, busy world. It is a bit (not a lot) of praise I'd like.

Picture two fishermen, down by the trout stream, both casting their lines into the water. One is 45 and the other, a learner, is 8. The kid hooks a fish. The 45 year old, an expert and an old salt from way back, praises the kid. The kid feels good about it and runs home to tell everyone.

Two weeks later the 45 year old expert is by himself at the trout stream, and meets a new fisherman, aged about the same age, who is also fishing there. The two stand next to each other. The less experienced asks questions of the expert, and is duly answered with good information. The new guy hooks a fish.

Now, if the expert praises the new guy, good on him. This is a very common thing to happen. The new guy feels good. If the expert is a little bit arrogant, or unfriendly and perhaps, weeeelll, maybe just a bit competitive of other guys his age, he might not say anything. Big deal! The newer guys understands all this and couldn't care less, but perhaps thinks to himself, heck, that other guy is a bit sore or grumpy.

But now put this into the context of learning a string instrument. It has been going on quite a few times in the learner's experience. The newer guy has been unlucky in the type of teachers he keeps getting. For some reason they don't like praising him.

Maybe he's no good. That must be it.....but he keeps catching fish. I'm just saying that some teachers need to bump up their praise levels...obviously many do, and I'm talking to a brick wall. I quit.

From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 28, 2008 at 4:48 AM
P.S. reading what I wrote above, I'm not saying that the learner is catching more fish than the expert.....I'm saying that the expert maybe caught 6 fish that morning and the learner caught one.
From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 28, 2008 at 4:59 AM
I'm wondering now if the problem I have met with is a form of "Tall Poppy Syndrome", a phrase known to most Australians. Hint: if you are doing well, in any one group, whether it be shovelling asphalt on the side of the highway in a road gang, or learning as an adult, you will be cut back into shape to conform.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on February 28, 2008 at 7:39 AM
"The problem isn't that other people say you won't "make it." That's a straw man. You can solve the problem, if your goal truly is to play."

You've said it all, Laurie!

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