I used to love playing violin. I still do

December 28, 2022, 7:20 AM · 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 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.

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.

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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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Replies

December 28, 2022 at 02:14 PM · When the violin (or anything else) is just a hobby, then one can enjoy it on ones' own terms. When it is your profession, or especially when you hope it will be, then it's not on your terms any more.

Laurie I think your overall thesis is a good one, but whether one can bear the continual withering criticism, responding always with renewed determination, is a matter of one's individual constitution. One also needs to feel that one has the talent to go the distance. (But if you don't, then there are other lines of work, and you can become a hobbyist like the other 99 percent.)

As my daughter is considering a career with the cello, I'd like to learn more about what it means to "have the right teacher" at the highest levels. My thought was that having a teacher actually capable of picking the nits out of your playing and willing to expend the bandwidth would be a good thing, rather than shopping around for one who doesn't seem to mind that your thirds need work, for instance. I wonder what would happen if my daughter's current teacher suddenly decided, for just one lesson, to demand perfection in every detail, even for just a short section of a piece -- because that is not happening now. Just to give her an idea of what she might expect at the next level.

December 28, 2022 at 02:51 PM · Love changes in ways nobody can anticipate. My fascination with the violin started in Jr. High and was quickly put in a drawer. It rekindled when I found my wife's "Family Violin" in the attic and the rekindled love grew till life limited the amount of time I could devote to the instrument.

Retirement made it possible to restart playing getting back to my original goal of the occasional hymn tune in church. Then, fate stepped in with a grammar school child who lived across the street who really wanted to learn how to play the violin.

"A Whole New World" opened up and my ability to play connected with my ability to teach and the love rekindled.

I've enjoyed assisting children from families that cannot afford private lessons. At the same time I've discovered the joy of teaching adults that have that same childhood desire that was unrequited for decades.

There aren't grades or other measures to reach for, just the ability to play music for yourself and family. No dreams of a concert career or chair in an orchestra.

To be sure, the violin is a strict teacher that does not hand out top grades easily but, with devotion and love the resonances of the instrument reward the musician's effort with the gift of music.

Music being its own reward.

December 28, 2022 at 05:31 PM · In my opinion, the problem is not the difficulty of the instrument, but the involvement of big money. A similar article could be written about sports, or science, or dance, or painting, or fiction writing. When you have to please the big money donors or customers, directly or indirectly, you risk losing that faith in the process.

December 28, 2022 at 09:07 PM · Paul, I say this respectfully, if your daughter wants to pursue a career playing the cello professionally and her current teacher is not demanding near-perfection in thirds or anything else regarding intonation or rhythm, then your daughter either needs to switch teachers or start demanding the highest possible accuracy of herself through recording her practice and listening critically to the playback. “Good enough” isn’t good enough for those with professional aspirations.

I must disagree that the problem is the involvement of money. The problem, if one wants to define it as such, is that in professional music we are constantly striving to reach the highest possible artistic level and that requires perfect intonation and rhythm as well as beauty in phrasing. We do this for ourselves at least as much as for an audience. In all honesty it isn’t typically the large donors who notice when we have an off night. It’s we ourselves whom we disappoint.

It must also be said that the process of winning a job in an orchestra is utterly unforgiving when it comes to accuracy. Music as an art may not be a competition but winning an orchestra job most certainly is.

There are plenty of fine musicians who have concluded that the brutal process of winning a job in professional music is not for them, and they live happy and fulfilled lives as serious amateurs who earn a living doing something else, or as dedicated teachers and performers in the gig economy.

People need to find their own paths and I respect all. I am deeply grateful for the joy which my career in music has brought me but there was a high price to pay at the outset.

December 29, 2022 at 07:19 AM · There is another way. Having scraped through (sorry!) ABRSM Grade VIII level at school with some enthusiasm, a modicum of striving and absolutely no feeling of "mastery", throughout my adult life I've only ever played the violin for enjoyment - not deferred but immediate enjoyment. I've been immensely fortunate in the opportunities available in my area and experience of the orchestral, chamber, choral and operatic repertoire has increased my love of classical music vastly. It has also brought me my closest and most enduring friendships. For me it's never been about personal achievement, just playing.

December 29, 2022 at 01:16 PM · A rich variety of contributions here, and encouragement for violinists of all tribes and types. Thrilled to hear that Laurie has taken part in a performance of Verklarte Nacht, fabulous music that is definitely beyond the amateur world where I belong, seeing as I do myself most closely reflected in Steve’s account. It’s the love that glues and nourishes our interest...please excuse a slightly madcap pair of adjacent metaphors. There’s also the love of listening to music, studying scores, reading about music, and conversations about music. I’m beginning to gush but I hope that my point is coming across...for some reason I tend to ‘overwrite’ in the last days of the year!

December 29, 2022 at 08:16 PM · After playing violin as amateur for 65 years (not a typo) I can’t fathom how elite players play at that level, but I do know it’s possible to improve your playing well into old age. While you lose fast learning, easy coordination , energy and quickness you gain other ways. You realize that your brain and body ‘learn’ while you are away from the instrument. You learn to take your time and not force it and are astonished at the progress made when you have faith in your abilities. Much of it comes from not being driven to prepare for specific performance dates. On my ‘relaxed’ schedule it can take 6 months to learn a piece that would’ve taken a couple of weeks at most when I was younger, but now I really learn it and it sounds great. It’s possible that longer preparation arcs would help even younger players to relax, trust their bodies’ ability to learn and consolidate their ability to play even very difficult pieces with confidence.

January 3, 2023 at 04:08 PM · I just read the article from your link, and I have come to the conclusion that this might be all a matter of attitude.

Actually, I don’t agree at all with what I understand is Arianna’s problem: When you really love music as much as she claimed to have originally done, it seems absolutely logical to me that you strive for investing all your efforts in improving your skills, in order to be able to actually play that music. I mean, how can you NOT be the more happier as a musician the closer you get to making your musical ideas come true?

What I also noticed in her article was that she trained to become a soloist, and didn’t quite succeed. Well, what does this have to do with music, after all? Not knowing her, of course, I assume that she could have made it to get a job in a fine professional orchestra. Is this not a place for making really good music? I love my existence in my orchestra, and whenever I like, I can give chamber music concerts, in addition to it. I can pick a couple of pieces of my own choice, work on those as much as I like, and then perform them. In the orchestra, there are often enough inspiring conductors so that I can really enjoy making music without distress.

The difference to being a soloist is not a matter of music, it is rather a matter of if you are the star of the concerts or a sort of anonymous somebody within a tutti group. You can enjoy music on a professional level on either side- if it is really the music you are talking about, not your self esteem issues. If we give a great concert, I am not the one receiving the flowers. Afterwards, I go home, and most people of the audience probably won’t know that I have just played. But again - this doesn’t have anything to do with the music.

January 4, 2023 at 04:12 AM · I can relate, somewhat, to author Rauch’s experience. I had a childhood ambition to become a symphony player. Listening at home, own my own, to classical music was part of what nerved me to take up violin. Hearing and seeing a professional orchestra perform at my elementary school was another factor.

I had six violin teachers from the time I was a kid till I finished my degree program. Still, I didn’t get any orchestra experience till high school. Fortunately, in my pre-orchestra study, I’d already developed enough technique, plus mastery of higher positions, to move up through the ranks and, within one semester, sit next to the CM, even filling in for him during his absence.

What started to turn me off to the idea of a musical career was that, early in my degree program, now in my late teens, I got a really good preview of what a symphony player’s life was actually like. I played one summer session in the CSO’s training school, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, then auditioned for the regular season that followed. I won the audition; but by season’s end, I started wondering: Do I really want to work THIS HARD - with the long evening hours, the high decibel levels, the quirky conductors with big egos?

I decided not to audition for the next season. But the year after that, the orchestra bug still pestered me, and I decided to audition again. I won this audition, too; but then, in mid-season, I handed in my member certificate and told the administration that I didn’t want to continue. There was always an in-depth waiting list of players to fill vacancies, so I’m sure they had no trouble getting a replacement for me.

Since finishing school, I’ve enjoyed violin-playing a lot more as a serious amateur, no longer an aspiring pro. I listen to orchestra music a great deal but no longer care to be one of its players. A lot of Vcom members thrive on orchestra playing, professionally and non-professionally, but it’s not for everyone.

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