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.
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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