Recently on social media I saw a post from an adult violin student who had been playing for less than a year and was taking on a rather difficult bit of repertoire -- a couple of movements from one of Bach's solo Partitas.
An interesting conversation ensued, with a good deal of "Good for you!" cheerleading mixed with hefty skepticism about the whether a Bach partita is an appropriate choice of repertoire for a beginner.
This certainly gave me some food for thought and brought up a number of questions. For example, is it a good idea for a student to dabble in repertoire that is far beyond his or her ability level? Is it detrimental? Is it beneficial?
There is certainly nothing wrong with the impulse to learn a piece of music that you love. It can provide motivation and give meaning to all the work and practice.
The problem comes when a student confuses "learning to play a piece" with "learning to play the instrument." Was this the case here? I definitely cannot say.
But generally, putting the majority of one's efforts into learning a very advanced piece when one does not yet have advanced skills does present not just some challenges, but also some problems.
I'll offer my efforts on the piano as an example. While I've taken lessons over the years, my efforts have landed me short of being able to play, say, "Clair de Lune." But I love the piece, and I do "dabble" with it for fun. I enjoy the parts I can play, and I work seriously at the parts I can't. But I'm still "dabbling" in Debussy - I do not expect to be able to fully play the piece, unless I were to bring my entire level of skills as a pianist to that level. I've appreciated the teachers that have worked with me on foundational technique much more than the ones that tried to skip me ahead without it. As a violinist, my fingers can do a lot - even play some Debussy or Chopin. But learning one or two pieces does not -- by itself -- build the broad foundation for fluency on the instrument.
It's a little like learning to recite a beautiful and complicated poem in French - when you don't know how to speak French. Without any prior knowledge of the language, your first efforts will be very stilted. Since you don't know any rules of pronunciation in French, you have to take every word, one-by-one, and figure it out from scratch. Since you don't know what the words mean, you'll have to figure that out, and you might miss some of the idioms along the way. In the end you may get to a point where you can recite the poem reasonably correctly, and maybe you even picked up a few things about the French language.
But that doesn't mean you've learned French. If you wanted to learn another French poem, you'd still be starting from near-zero.
If you really wanted to learn French, you'd need to start with the alphabet, learn the general rules of how letters are pronounced within a word, how they are spelled. Then you'd want to learn how verbs work, how the words in the language work together, how to construct a phrase. You'd start with simple phrases, say them many times. Then you'd string together slightly more complicated sentences. If you're really serious, you'd likely try to go to a French-speaking city or country and talk with native speakers, so you can practice conversational French, acquire the proper accent, learn the practical application, etc. At first you might not understand much, and people might not understand you, but little-by-little it comes along. Once you have built your knowledge and spent long hours speaking the language, you start to achieve fluency. If you can reach fluency, then you can easily recite all the poems you'd like.
Learning to play the violin, or another musical instrument, works in much the same way. You start with workable goals, master them, and then over time you build fluency in your playing. Each step needs to hold the possibility of mastery, so you can build on what you've accomplished and continue to progress.
If you are simply learning enough technique to eek your way through a series of very difficult pieces without completely drowning, then you are not really building toward fluency. Every time you start a new piece, it will be like starting over again.
Don't take this the wrong way, though. You can still dabble in difficult repertoire. But if your goal is to "learn to play the violin," then you must start with a healthy and robust "violin diet." That means regularly practicing appropriate-level scales, pushing your technique just the right amount with workable etudes, and learning a progression do-able pieces that you master so well you can do them standing on your head. For dessert, you may dabble. In fact, dabble away! It's motivating. It shows you where you need to go. It gives you moments of connection with something you really want and love. Nurturing your love for the instrument and your motivation for playing it - this is just as important as practicing every day.
Some might say, "Well I just want to play certain pieces, that's my only goal, I'm not looking for fluency on the instrument."
To be honest, I reject the notion that adult students can only be dabblers, that they can never actually get good at playing the violin.
When a teacher says, "You can't just play what you want," a student might feel offended. But that student would do better to see that as a sign of respect. This teacher wants to teach you to play, not to just let you wander aimlessly through the repertoire of your choosing. Work together to find a balance between the "violin diet" you need to grow, and the "dessert" that feeds your spirit, and may find a lot more enjoyment and less frustration in the journey.
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