What is it like to learn the violin, viola or cello, as an adult? As a teacher, I warn adult beginners that they can expect something like a cross between kindergarten and physical therapy. If you can accept those two conditions, then you can go quite far! But it means that you have to resist feeling embarrassed about truly starting at the beginning, and you need to prepare to do more repetitive work, physically, than you might expect.
When you learn a foreign language, you start with the alphabet, numbers, and very simple words and phrases such as "hello." When you learn to play an instrument, you will start with simple tunes and exercises, and you probably won't dive right into the more complex tune that inspired you to play. Of course, you should still listen to that tune and keep it as your goal, but learning basic fluency comes first.
In your lessons, don't be embarrassed to play because you aren't good at it. I've noticed a phenomenon in adult beginners: sometimes they talk their way through lessons to avoid playing! They don't really know they are doing it, but it just feels more comfortable because they know how to talk, and they don't yet know how to play. Be aware that you might feel weird about doing something that you aren't yet good at, particularly in front of someone else. Embrace the fact that you are going to make mistakes, play badly, squeak, misunderstand instructions, get it wrong, etc. It's all part of the learning process. You didn't learn to walk without falling down many, many times. Falling down -- and getting back up again -- is part of what gave you your balance. A good teacher completely understands this and is there to help you find that balance.
Also, don't be embarrassed to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or other tunes that seem simple and perhaps childish. There is a reason that beginners start here; those tunes are at the core of everything. (Have you ever heard what Mozart did with that simple tune?) Starting with a basic repertoire of simple tunes gives you a foundation on which to build up to more complex music. Make it a strong foundation!
Playing the violin (or viola, cello, bass, guitar) is a physical activity. Just like any physical activity, it involves strength, dexterity and muscle memory. Just as a physical therapist will give a patient specific exercises to repeat when learning to walk again after a serious injury, a violin teacher will give a student various exercises and assignments to build technique. And if you expect to achieve physical fluency on the violin, you will need to practice DAILY and repeat those various exercises an astonishing number of times.
First, one has to play something correctly, and it can take many tries before you are playing something with the right position, correct fingers, correct bowing technique. Many students think they've completed their task once they've gone through the arduous process of learning something correctly. But that's actually just the start -- then you have to repeat it correctly, at least 10 times. And then you must repeat the same thing tomorrow, at least 10 times. Suzuki said that 10,000 times is about the right number of times to repeat something, and the students and teachers who worked with him attest that he meant it, literally. One of my teachers had a saying, "Perfect, plus 100!" A hundred repetitions might be a more realistic goal for regular practice; that's 10 daily for 10 days. Or, simply playing your piece twice a day for 50 days. Better yet, play something that you know every day for a year; it will sound quite nice after that year!
As you can see, you can play with the math, but repetition is absolutely essential for achieving fluency on an instrument.
Finding a teacher
You can probably learn a lot about how to play the violin from the Internet, and frankly from Violinist.com! But I would recommend finding a teacher so that someone can hear you play in person and help adjust your practice routine according to your particular needs. Inevitably, different students develop different issues with holding the instrument, etc. and those issues require some tweaking from a teacher.
Here is an entire blog about finding a teacher.
Finding an instrument
It's important to understand that having well-functioning, good-sounding instrument is essential to your learning, as a beginner. A bad violin is a lot like a bad computer: it will not do what you ask it to do; it will require a million work-arounds that cause you to lose time and concentration, and in the end you'll feel frustrated and want to chuck it out a window. Here is an article that describes the many pitfalls of purchasing a bad violin.
In all likelihood, you will need help finding an instrument that will serve you, whether it involves fixing up a violin already in your possession, renting or buying a new one.
If you already have an instrument, you also may need to change your expectations about it. Unless Grandma or Grandpa was a professional musician, it is highly unlikely that the fiddle you found in her attic is actually a priceless Stradivarius! And in fact the $500 you would spend to fix it up might well be better-spent just buying a new fiddle. But you will need someone trustworthy to help you make that call.
And when it comes to buying a violin, making an online-purchase can be costly and very disappointing. It does help to start out with some trustworthy and recommended brands, but you'll want to be sure that you can hear the violin before you make the purchase (to that end, places like Shar offer in-home trials of instruments.) You can find a lot of good recommendations by searching right here on Violinist.com or posing the question to our discussion board, but in the end, it's probably best to make this purchase with the help of a violin teacher or a musician friend, or to rent for a while until you feel like you have enough knowledge to participate in that purchasing decision.
Those are a few of my thoughts, as a longtime violin teacher, on what to expect as an adult learner. I welcome thoughts and perspectives from other teachers, as well as from adult learners themselves!
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"...a cross between kindergarten and physical therapy" You nailed it!
Don't forget, that for many of us, it also involves learning a foreign language as well---reading music.
Personally, I feel that having a teacher is a requirement, not an option if you actually want to make some real progress. 100% worth the cost!
Hi George, I really love the Doflein Method and get my students going on it as soon as possible. It's a good sequence (particularly when you get into the positions in Book 3) and importantly, there is so much duet-playing!
I hope you don't mind Laurie but I'd like to add a link to this page from our "Adult Violin Beginners" page on www.violincompany.co.uk.
I talk to lots of adults who either want to start or want to take up the violin again from where they left off at school, when the opposite sex became more attractive than the violin :-) and this sort of information really helps them, when trying to make their mind up to take the plunge.
Dave Ingledew - info"violincompany.co.uk
I'm not going to say having a teacher is a requirement, because I've done pretty well mostly self-teaching (I advise AGAINST doing what I did) and I know several very competent amateur string players who are completely or almost completely self-taught. But some kind of teacher, even if not in the context of traditional one-on-one lessons, is extremely helpful. And there are plenty of options today that weren't available ten years ago if traditional lessons aren't a possibility. Skype lessons are increasingly common, and some teachers offer video exchanges that can be useful as a "lite" version of lessons. I've seen some teachers offering online group lessons that are less expensive than one-on-one.
One thing I find unfortunate is that many teachers still reject all beginners older than a certain age; I was told by one that even 10 was too old to ever get beyond beginner level. After being rejected by multiple teachers, I had the mistaken belief for many years that I'd have to first get to conservatory level on my own to have a chance of being accepted by any teacher as an adult. It was only much later that I learned that there were plenty of teachers who do accept adult beginners. If I were to go back and give myself advice, I'd say to be more persistent in finding a teacher, and if there really are no local teachers available, look into some of the online options that are more interactive than YouTube videos.
As an adult beginner, I just play to enjoy holding the vibrations near my ear, usually with my eyes closed to “hear” it better. I spend hours with my violins, named “Beethoven” (Guarnerious) and “Diamond Joe” (da Salo). I have a Coda GS bow, and I couldn’t be happier. I know I’m not going anywhere with this. No auditions, no competitions, no conservatory’s tuition. Just the pure pleasure of drawing a beautiful tone out of that wooden box. A meditation and a blessing. Sometimes I have tears, I don’t know why.
I started violin, then viola, fifteen years ago, at 43.
First I bought a guitar, took it home, put on my legs and thought: This is not what I want. Some days later I saw a violin in a shop and asked the seller if I could hold it. This was my instrument.
Five years later my wife gave me a viola, a huge 16"1/2, on June 12th, sweethearts day here in Brazil. I still have this viola with me.
In these 15 years I went on with the same teacher, Sergio Carvalho. He's also my marriage godparent and a good friend. Every Monday we have a class, half music study, half coffee.
Another good friend is Marcos Schmidt, the luthier of my baroque viola.
As an adult I have in mind that my goal is to play the next piece of music. I know that sound like Menuhin had played the Beethoven adagio will be impossible to me:
but I pleased to play Telemann concertos.
I started learning the piano at 6 (which I continue playing). And I started learning the violin 2 years ago, at 25. And I agree with the post.
I'm enjoying the process of learning an instrument as an adult. I must confess that while playing twinkle twinkle, the problem for me was not the song itself, but playing it completely out of pitch. As an adult, you have a better understanding of music, so you focus more on your own mistakes than children do.
I also love being on pair with some random 10 year olds who take lessons with the same teacher. It's a funny situation to arrive at the lesson after work, clothed with my suit and my tie, while another kid is putting away his violin. I love observing the respectful look he gives me when I take off my tie, and take out my violin... and how that look turns into a surprised and teasing one when he realises that I play like (or worse than) him.
Another thing you might expect is very little practise time, tired, at odd hours and with a heavy mute.
Of course, you can also expect any child around (little brother, cousin, son, neighbour...) telling you blatantly that you suck when they're given the opportunity. Children don't lie (sigh!).
And you can expect people around you not understanding why you bother learning an instrument.
Our society promises us great things without an effort, and that's simply not true. Anything valuable you want, demands an effort. And the violin is sublime, so it demands a huge effort. In my case, I'm pretty sure it will be a lifetime one. And I'm glad.
My oldest student is my mother, who started viola at 75, and is now 76. I'm going to send her the link to this article. My best advice to an adult considering starting a string instrument: start now, because it won't get any easier if you wait longer.
I started learning the violin at age 60 just over 4 years ago - having played lots of other things. It certainly is the hardest instrument I've ever tackled, but ultimately, the most rewarding. Unlike mechanical instruments like the piano or flute, you never know what note is going to come out until you actually play it... and intonation has been a challenge I've never struggled with before. But just recently, after over 4 years, things are gettinhg better. The dog no longer leaves the room when I open the case and I can see all the pleasures to come! Well worth the effort but it has been a massive undertaking.
Adults have seriously busy lives and find it much harder to fit in practice time. One bit of advice I usually give to busy adults is to keep their instrument somewhere central to their lives - mine sings so much more often when she's living under a silk blanket on my piano (a table or shelf would do too), shoulder rest attached so she's always ready to play.
Then all you need to do is find lots of 5-10 minute slots - while you're waiting for dinner to finish, while your child is getting ready for drive you to drove them to soccer practice, the 10 mins before that show starts (if you don't do netflix), when the teenage daughter won't get out of the bathroom. Just do one thing in that 10 mins - fix the intonation in a new hand attitude, play with a new bow stroke, learn a shift.
It's surprising what can be done in a couple of short practices a day, especially if the longer practice would have been skipped. This has kept a few people I know playing when they were otherwise ready to give up.
I agree with all said. I started from scratch 3 years ago at 69. My teacher is a saint for staying with me. It has been the hardest thing I have ever tried to do but also the most rewarding. Every day I realize how bad I am, but how far I have come. My goal for now is to be able to play something that someone else will actually enjoy hearing. God bless Mike.
As a late beginner myself I would say that finding the right teacher was very important. I found a teacher that specialized on adults (not only beginners) and I think it shows. She adapts her teaching to each students. She asks about goals and what you want to get out of the lessons. And she is really able to work with the different way different adults learn.
As for the violin - my approach was to find a luthier that let me take home different violins to test for weeks as well as let my teacher play them until I found one that fitted me. And as I had a loaned violin for the first six month I can really agree to statement that a good violin and a good bow make quite a difference. Both must fit together and fit to you and then quite a number of things become easier.
I'm an adult beginner. Your article is really well written. Unfortunately, I don't have a teacher because of two reasons: a) finding a violin teacher in my city is next to impossible. The fact that I was able to find a music store that sells violin is surprising enough and b) I started playing 3 months ago to develop new skills and to have something inspiring to do in my leisure time (nothing serious enough to spend more money on).
There's a substitute I found for myself for listening to my mistakes. I watch progress videos on YouTube of other people and compare my sound progress to how they have accomplished in the same time period and if I'm worse than worse the i know I've been doing something incorrectly and so i experiment on myself with everything I'd learn so far. :)
Laurie, great article. Right on the mark.
I really can't add much to it or elaborate except to maybe relate some of my own experiences which likely re enforce these ideas. ]
I am glad to see that there are a few who will teach adults. I can understand why a teacher might use discretion when an adult student comes along. The main thing I think an adult beginner needs to know is the reality of what's involved and be willing to do it. Many pick up violin as something they believe they will pick up fast and be playing along well in a short time. This usually isn't the case.
After two years I am not where I wanted to be. Not at a bad place either. My Soundcloud page lists my most recent violin recording.It gets a "meh" rating from me. Even for someone who plays or has played various instruments the violin will be a challenge compared to many other instruments.
Biggest struggles presently are the occasional string squeak. The occasional intonation issues.I feel I'm still in the land of the basics.
But I can play! And I can get better at it!
There's no one answer fits all here. The points of the article apply to all.
I started five years ago at age 61 and still continue. My only goal is to keep going.
So far it’s been a great journey - I have no idea how far it will take me.
Of course, sooner or later we all play a last note.
The caption for the photo accompanying this article should be "Gone Fishing."
In some ways being an adult 'returner' is harder than being an adult beginner because you expect your rate of improvement to be the same as it was when you were 15. Possible I guess, but I haven't experienced anything close to that.
Thanks for the endorsement for Doflien, I often feel lonely in a Suzuki world (strange that I was fluent in Japanese and much to my mother's chagrin could never learn German where she was fluent).
I would like to add to all the great and sensible comments I have always wanted to play the violin my aim was the top level but life got in the way ,i have now started and my only advice to any age is do it both theory and playing it is great therapy at 82 I have been playing for 2 years and have not reached the twinkle star yet so that is something to look forward to but the theory I am flying all the best regards john A
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May 22, 2018 at 07:15 PM · I was one of those Late Starters, but that was over 40 years ago and, outside of Japan, Suzuki was unknown. The problem for the adult beginner is that Suzuki may not be the best method.
Granted I'm biased to Doflien as that was the method my teacher used and it starts with posture and the "attitudes" of your left hand fingers on the fingerboard. Starting with the first attitude (half step between 2&3) you are taught that this is for major keys where the open string is the same as the key-signature and also on the next string (key of D-Major on both D and A strings progressively the other three attitudes are taught and related to how they work with various key signatures). Not fun so far. But, every page turn has a little duet for teacher and student (the Doflien's commissioned the Bartok Duets for their method). Starting with simple straight harmonies and moving to where there are actually two different parts.
The adult mind needs a bit more than "just do it" and needs to know why, how does it work, et-cetera. In short you start learning basic music theory while learning the basics. Doflien does get to "Twinkle" but only when you are ready to handle all 12 variations.
As a person who taught adults supply chain management for a living I know that it isn't the same as teaching children. There isn't any one-size-fits-all way of teaching anyone anything. You have to meet the student where she is and know where she wants to go. There are many roads to the destination.