December 2013

One year of playing the violin again

December 29, 2013 20:01

One year ago, I picked up the violin again after a hiatus of nearly a decade. It was my second long break from the instrument. I played as a child, put it down for nearly a decade, picked it up in my late twenties for a few years, and then took another near-decade break. Now, at almost age 40, I'm playing again.

Adult returnees to the instrument are often told that it's like riding a bike -- you never forget how. Having done the long break twice now, I can assure you that it's not true. You do, in fact, forget. Even solid past training and a strong intellectual understanding of how the instrument should be played, won't save you from the effects of atrophy. Your muscles are gone, your ear is less attuned, and even the nerve conduction -- the myelination that allows speedy signaling between your brain and your muscles -- deteriorates, making your reactions sluggish. And the older you get, the less easily you can rebuild myelin, and the less flexible you are. You can still learn, but you have to put more work into it.

The first long break I took was disastrous -- when I came back to the instrument, I couldn't even manage to play a scale. This second long break was less problematic, and I don't know why. Things that I knew particularly well, I could for the most part still play, if not with the desired precision. Sight-reading was difficult, though, and learning new things would turn out to be an exercise in frustration. I needed to rebuild the foundation before I could stack things on top of it, and I failed to do that properly.

In the year that's passed, I have turned into a mediocre violinist -- far more mediocre than I want to be. After my first long break, I put myself through a strict regimen of technical exercises; within a year, I'd returned my technique to good shape, though I never regained my childhood level. With this second break, I did mostly etudes but not the battery of drills that were part of my previous experience, and I think it hasn't been nearly as successful -- I have technique that's functional but not clean and controlled, and it's significantly below the level I was at when I last stopped playing. The two different approaches to returning to the instrument have taught me a huge amount about what it really takes to play the violin -- how much of it one takes for granted and that becomes invisible, from the muscles you need to build to the ear that you have to develop.

Some adult beginners and adult returnees describe the violin as a passion -- this never-ending joy that they are practically intoxicated with. I don't feel like that. Making music is a key part of my life; its absence is always felt. But there are plenty of days when I have to make myself practice, days when it feels every bit as torturous as it did in my childhood, days when I would rather be doing anything else rather than dutifully putting in the time and trying my best to be focused and productive. Yet that discipline by itself is something that I consider to be valuable -- 40 minutes a day of practice, on the average.

The word "amateur" is sometimes used as a perjorative -- as if doing something for the love of it was somehow lesser. This, I think, is tragic; we need more amateur musicians. And while the violin is "merely" a hobby for me, it is part of my identity. In my years of not playing, I always used to dream about the violin -- not only playing, but about the physical instrument itself. There's something deeply right about the feel of it in my hands.

The past year hasn't been without its satisfactions. I spent almost nine months of it preparing to perform the Glazunov violin concerto with the community orchestra that I joined. Performing with an orchestra is always an immense privilege and joy, and it gave me a goal to focus on. But, as my teacher put it, I performed it at the level I was at six months ago, not the way that I play now. I was fumbling and sloppy when I learned it, and I could never undo the way that damage had set in. Now I'm looking forward to working on new things, done right.

This year, I hope to rebuild in earnest. I want to feel like the instrument is a natural extension of my hands again. I want to feel precision and control. I want my ears to be properly attuned. I want the patterns to be ingrained in my brain again so that sight-reading is an automatic function. I want to play chamber music again. I want to feel like I don't need to apologize for the way I'm playing.

And I hope to blog about the journey, too.

For posterity (video taken with an iPhone): Performance, December 15th, 2013.

(Please do feel free to leave comments on the video.)

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