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One year of playing the violin again

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Published: December 30, 2013 at 3:01 AM [UTC]

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.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 30, 2013 at 2:07 PM
Good luck this year! As someone who returned after a 25-year hiatus about 17 years ago, it was not a linear process. You are right that it is like bike riding in the sense that you never forget how to do it, but it is never easy. Make sure you have a good teacher, and you can make the process as smooth as possible.
Posted on December 30, 2013 at 2:20 PM
Congratulations, Lydia, on your return and on your hard work. I appreciate your pointing out the amount of work that it takes with basic fundamental drills and etudes to develop a clean and controlled technique that can allow you to play music to your standard. You're right: It is a lot of work.

From Kate Little
Posted on December 30, 2013 at 2:21 PM
Congratulations, Lydia, on your return and on your hard work. I appreciate your pointing out the amount of work that it takes with basic fundamental drills and etudes to develop a clean and controlled technique that can allow you to play music to your standard. You're right: It is a lot of work.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on December 30, 2013 at 5:31 PM
Lydia, I can relate! I too started a few years ago after a long hiatus, and as coincidence would have it, with the Glazunov concerto. Twinkle, which came later in my development, would have been better.
I put myself on a diet of Kreutzer, Bach and Sevcik, and in a few years I was back to sort-of-decent. Then I met my present teacher, and eased off a little on the Sevcik.
I've stopped trying to be "as good as I was in my youth", mainly because it becomes increasingly difficult to find meaning in that expression. My teacher in those years told me that it does not matter what you play, but how you play it -- and I might add "now" to that very true statement.
Good luck, and keep us posted!


From Duane Padilla
Posted on December 30, 2013 at 7:03 PM
Hi Lydia:

I wanted to congratulate you on your great performance of the Glazonov! You sound wonderful! I"m a full time violin teacher and would be proud if any of my teen students played that concerto as well. I'm still playing the violin professionally and would be deathly afraid to perform that piece in public! Such courage!

I also wanted to say how much I admire your return to the violin after a long hiatus. Indeed studying an instrument is much different and harder as an adult. I'm almost 40 and decided out of the blue to learn jazz guitar. I've never even touched the guitar before but many of my friends play and I figured, "I'm a music teacher, how hard can it be?" The answer....very, very hard. For me, the main thing has been to not be afraid to be a "twinkle twinkler" again. I've been trying to plow through as many beginning guitar method books that I can get my hands on. As you say, to get the fingers and brain firing at the same time has been for me one of the biggest challenges. But totally rewarding.

You totally have the technique to do all of the things you mention., play chamber music, etc. Totally go for it!

Here's a video of my guitar adventures after one year of trying to figure out the instrument with no lessons as an adult. Never too old to keep learning and studying music!

Posted on December 30, 2013 at 10:32 PM
I have also started again after 32 years of brake.
All those time I dremed about plaing the violin.
After one year I can say: my be I will not be perfect but I am totaly happy. I see every day progress. Now I play with understanding and what is more important with feeling.
Doing exercises every day I would be quite good in next years.
Now I am 47 and I am hapy I have been brave enough to start again.
I send my best regards from Poland.
Posted on December 31, 2013 at 12:01 AM
Hello Lydia,
Congratulations on your performance. Very nice. I can't imagine what it would be to come back to the violin.It is so difficult.

I am a percussionist and played into my 40s. I'm 69 now and began violin Jan 2012. I love it and love to practice. I'm doing it for my brain to keep it working. I wouldn't know how it was to come back to violin but I do not want to go back to percussion. Been there. I love violin. It is good for me to read your blog and hear your recording. Thanks. Anitra

From Lydia Leong
Posted on December 31, 2013 at 7:00 PM
Thanks everyone!
Posted on January 1, 2014 at 8:19 PM
Oh, Lydia - your video and comments are such an encouragement. Thank you for starting the New Year for me in such an eloquent way. And thank you also to those of you who shared their reactions.

I was a full time viola teacher before cancer treatments left me with my life (thank God) but also with severe, chronic peripheral neuropathy. I cannot play for longer than 30 min and even that leaves me with tremendous pain. I've tried other instruments that do not use fingers, but my viola is life and my longing. I watch performances by others with a mix of elation, jealousy and despair.

I may never perform again, but will hold before my mind your insights about enjoying (entering with joy) what I am able to do, maybe an etude well played, a movement, - being a fulfilled amateur/semi pro that is still able to contribute and share the richness of music with others.

A very happy new year to all of you.

From jean dubuisson
Posted on January 2, 2014 at 11:44 AM
Lydia, my congratulations on your Glazunov! and best wishes for the new year-
From Christina C.
Posted on January 2, 2014 at 7:54 PM
Bravo Lydia. You should be very proud.
From Christina C.
Posted on January 2, 2014 at 7:55 PM
and if you *want* to be playing chamber music again... make it happen!

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