I used to love playing violin. But mastering it broke my heart and more recently in a book she wrote called Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music, which is both humorous and heartbreaking.Life can be difficult, when you love playing the violin. It can be downright discouraging, as former Juilliard student Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch illustrated, first in a 2016 article called
I certainly have sympathy, even empathy, for Rauch's experiences: the "hours of tedious, obsessive nitpicking" that can shred the soul and kill musical enthusiasm. Training at the elite level is unforgiving and carries no guarantees. Keeping balanced in an environment of top-level expectations can be nearly impossible, particularly if you are matched with the wrong teacher.
And it's not just at the top levels that this can set in; learning violin and playing it reasonably well require a unique level of precision at every phase, and this can be crazy-making. Just producing a reasonable-sounding noise on the instrument requires some serious coordination, not to mention issues of intonation, tone production, music-reading, memory, fluency, etc. It's one demanding instrument.
And yet, I would argue that striving for mastery on the violin has actually strengthened my heart, not broken it.
I see the same in my students. I'd even defend tedious and obsessive nitpicking -- as part of a healthy overall diet. There is a positive side to the deliberate, single-minded effort of perfecting a technique on the violin: achievement.
More often than not, I've found that the "impossible" is actually possible on the violin. Striving for those goals has taught me that some things take more than a day's work to achieve; they can take a few days, or a week, or a month -- even years. But practice and persistence brings those goals ever closer, until one day you pass the mark and don't even realize you've reached a new level of mastery. Because with violin, there is always more, that is true.
But I try to remind my students (and myself): "Do you remember when this was impossible? And you did it anyway?" I still remember one of my most frustrating moments with the violin -- I was in grade school, learning Seitz Concerto No. 2, III. Somehow the top of the last page was simply impossible. There was no way in the world that I would ever ever ever be able to play that. That seems almost comical, looking back. But I remember it, when a student playing "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" says with very real frustration, "This is impossible!" And I've remembered it for myself, when music like Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht" or something equally challenging has hit my desk. Yes, this seems impossible; yes, I will learn it.
This faith in the process translates into other areas of life. Playing the violin has assured me that when things get difficult, it helps to make a plan and work it step-by-step.
I used to love playing violin, and I still do, nearly 40 years later. Certainly I've overdosed at times; become too attached; gotten my ego too entangled in the endeavor. I've failed auditions, I've had to take a break here and there. I have not reached every goal, professionally, and I have not learned everything there is to learn about the violin.
But at the end of the day, I still love playing the violin. It's taken me to some amazing musical places, and it has rewarded my devotion in ways that I never could have expected.
*This article first appeared in 2016.
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