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When You're Not a Cute Kid Anymore

Sarah Hemm

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Published: January 10, 2015 at 5:08 PM [UTC]

I was a Suzuki kid from age 3 – so my childhood was filled with people exclaiming how wonderful and talented and cute I was for playing the violin. Everything was going great. I was very serious about violin but still having fun. In 6th grade I was accepted into the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and steadily moved up the ranks. In 7th grade I was a first violin in the 2nd level orchestra. In 8th grade I moved up to the 3rd level orchestra (and was one of the youngest members) but I was in the back of the 2nd violin section. Now, this messed with my head. I was comparing myself to other violinists, the majority of them in High School, and I was getting frustrated because I wasn't moving up as fast as I had before. To make a long story short, a severe doubt in myself combined with a sudden lack of parental support meant that I quit violin at age 14. Something I will always regret.

I later returned to the violin, but something happens when you grow up and are no longer a cute kid. When you play violin as an amateur adult, people don't gasp in amazement like they do when you're playing Vivaldi at age 10. They just expect you know how to play. When I came back to the violin in my 20s, it was extremely frustrating. I went through the range of emotions – regret, sadness, depression, who cares, anxiety, panic, what's the point, it's too late for me, and so on.

If anybody else is in this boat – I want to tell you what saved me. Finding a great teacher. There were so many years I spent “trying to be as good as I was when I was 14” to no avail. I fought against myself and my instrument. My goal to finish the Suzuki books seemed impossible on my own. I found a great teacher in September 2014, at age 32. I came in brushing up on Book 5, and after working very hard and attending weekly lessons, 3 months later I'm at the end of Book 6.

Don't spend as many years as I did trying to do it on your own. Find a great teacher and you will be back on track, enjoying your violin journey, and all the regret and frustration will fade away. Promise.

From Claire Allen
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 12:41 AM
What a great story! Thank you for sharing, and best of luck on your journey!
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 12:48 AM
Nice anecdote.

What you describe is the fame effect. You wrote about it well. My son chuckled as I read it. So true about the cute factor.

I'd like to add that it ain't just the teacher. What really matters is that you play for the love of it--for the love of the music--for your own internal interest. If a child doesn't have this, she or he won't continue. And the fame thing does cause confusion--especially if that love isn't strong enough.

But how do you culture that love? The problem to me is that too many kids don't actually play with their instruments. They play them, but don't play with them. Repertoire fed to you from an orchestra or a teacher is fine, but it isn't from *you.* Children should never be discouraged from fiddling around.

From Steve Reizes
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 1:41 AM
When I started back after a 20 year layoff (I didn't think I was "good enough" to be in the college orchestra as a non-music major, sound familiar?) I worked solo on my old Wohlfahrt book until the learning curve flattened and then found a teacher. I'll never be as good as I could have been, the fingers don't learn as easily when your older, but I am now much better than I would have gotten on my own.
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 1:43 AM
Hi Sarah,

I came back to the violin at age 26--I've had 3 teachers since then and all of them have been amazing in helping me rediscover my love of music, and to regain and surpass the technique I had when I was 14. The personal satisfaction of learning and performing Bach, Bruch, and Beethoven is much higher now compared to when I was a child, and I look forward to rehearsing and performing with my orchestra more as an adult!

I think if you take co-workers or non-musician friends to a performance, you might find that they are in awe of you --and more importantly, that they had a wonderful evening of music and watching a friend (you) in your element--followed by a recap of the program over a bottle of wine which you probably couldn't do at 12 years old.

Keep at it Sarah...

From Dale Forguson
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 2:03 PM
I first picked up a violin at 56, then switched to viola at 57. Since I didn't play as a child I didn't go through the angst of "what might have been" as profoundly as some of you but I'm certainly not a cute kid either. There are no mulligans in life. Look to the future and make the most of it. What other people think doesn't matter unless you think it does.
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 3:57 PM
I really enjoyed the story.... As a child through High School (I'm 49 now), I took lessons and ended up around book 7-8 Suzuki. College came and I really didn't want to make violin a vocation, so I went into Science. The violin training game me a distinct advantage and I did well and ended up as a plant breeder. I love violin......always have, always will. I just never fell in love with the concept of being a musician. I think many people are in this boat.

I don't think there was ever much more than a week when I didn't play. Fast forward to 2-3 years ago. I finally got an instructor just a little older than me and we got along great (the garden produce and fresh Salmon I would occasional bring to lessons did not hurt our relationship). She did wonders for cleaning up my technique with a little Kreutzer and Flesch. My job changed six months ago and I had to move. I'm out of lessons now, but have what my wife calls a monday play date with a guy who just started playing violin (he's very good on other instruments). I help him out and we just have a great time.

Long story short... If you love it, you will keep the violin in your life. You cannot help it.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 11, 2015 at 7:53 PM
it`s a poignant story and a lovely blog. I am glad you are finding happiness through the violin now.
It`s not a big deal but there is something that comes to mind when I read this that might be worth a thought. I think having goals is essential to violin playing and any other worthy endeavor. In his book `The Inner Game of Tennis,` Gallowey writes about the fundamental difference in quality between goal focused and non-goal practice. It`s a question of concentration.
You certainly seem to have goals but a slight question mark popped up in my head. Is finishing Suzuki book six the best possible goal? I sort of wonder. As an intelligent and musical adult I thought maybe there are other options that might help you get more satisfaction from your love of the violin. In the long term it might be something like playing the Mendellsohn or Beethoven concerto, or doing a recital (!). All perfectly feasible. then one works backwards to medium term goals. What do I have to cover in order to achieve that goal. then you can figure out goals in terms of areas that need improving in your playing. Then your short term goals might focus on individual works from any book related to those goals. It`s rather like bringing oneself into the here and now through the means of goals rather than looking at the present through the lens of the past. The only important thing now is every beautiful note you produce in the present. Listening and watching lots of great performers and trying to get the same kind of sound as them in certain works is very helpful in this respect.
Another meandering two cents.
Looking forward to hearing of your success

Posted on January 11, 2015 at 11:50 PM
I played the violin in 6, 7, and 9th grade. I then moved and didn't pick it up again until about 10 years later. I found an AMAZING teacher that supports me and keeps me grounded (like when I stress over making the same mistakes). The first recital I played in with this teacher, a junior high student looked at my music and said "I remember playing that years ago." It made me doubt a bit, but then, thru the help of my teacher, I realized that I am doing this for myself! I am taking time, after work and all other "grown-up" things, to do play. I do mot have school teachers or parents making me practice and preform. I am doing this for myself and myself alone!!!! I have never looked back on my decision to return to playing!!!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 12, 2015 at 6:29 AM
Greetings! I'll chime in to say that I would defend the goal of finishing Suzuki Book 6! I have several students currently working from that book, and what good repertoire it is: La Folia, several Handel sonatas and also several short pieces that offer opportunities to work on some specific skills, like up-bow staccato. Plus, Book 6 prepares one for Book 7, which is to say, after finishing Book 6, one is pretty solid with the skills needed to tackle Bach Concerto in A minor, which is a worthwhile goal for anyone!
From Paul Deck
Posted on January 12, 2015 at 3:03 PM
I kind of agree with Buri about "finishing the book" as a goal. The Suzuki Books are viewed as rungs on a ladder, and perhaps rightly so, as finishing each book really is a milestone. But let's be careful about how we define "finishing." Presumably some fraction, at least, of the pieces therein (ideally all) will be performance-ready or close to that. My strong hunch is that most students start the next book before reaching that standard, however, and once they do that, then they don't look back. Continuing to polish the same pieces can get boring, we all get that, but an adult student should have a longer attention span, and there is much to gain in the process.

Maybe an upgraded goal would be a corresponding "book recital" which needn't be restricted to pieces in one book, of course, or even to Suzuki pieces. Pick a selection of pieces -- I love La Folia too, maybe even add a few variations from another source -- and a Handel Sonata and a couple of other pieces, and you've got a nice recital. Flesh it out with something from Book 5 if needed, or add something of comparable level (e.g., book 3 of Barbara Barber). About 40 minutes of music with an intermission would be lovely. Along the way you can warm some of the pieces up in a studio mixed recital or adults-only recital if your studio has those (see Claire Allen's blog post on that!).

In my younger daughter's cello studio, you can say what book you're "in" but you can't say you "finished" a book until you've had the corresponding book recital. That's a tough standard but I think there is wisdom in it. I'm working toward a recital of my own now, and I'm starting off with a couple of performances early this year of my newest piece, which is the first movement of the Haydn G Major Violin Concerto. I learned it when my older daughter was preparing it for her recital last year. I hope I can play it as well as she. (Believe me, I've really lived for the day when I can say that, and now honestly I can.)

Laurie, the Bach A Minor is a true highlight of the whole Suzuki program. I agree that is just a wonderful concerto and a great achievement. I'm still struggling a bit with the third movement but I'll get there.

Back to the original thread, I started at 5, quit at 17, and returned to playing in my 40s. I started lessons with my daughter's teacher after seeing how good he really was and the progress she was making in a short time. Funny story, at my first lesson I brought what I was working on when I quit violin at a teenager -- Mozart 3. After struggling through the first couple of pages with some pointers from my teacher, he finally stopped me and said, "Paul, do you have any Suzuki books?" Far from being insulted, I felt so relieved. I knew I had no business EVER playing Mozart 3 as a kid. True story -- my teacher back then assigned it to me because I could not play the Accolay. I my second lesson with my new teacher he taught me about "ring tones", which I had never been taught in 12 years of childhood instruction, even though the "Solo and Ensemble" judges consistently nicked me for intonation. Everything I learned about agility (practicing passages in rhythms, etc.) I learned back then from my piano teachers. My daughter has made more progress in five years than I made in twelve. She is learning to play the violin properly, and that is much more important to me than how fast she climbs the rungs on the Suzuki ladder. And now, at last, I am learning it properly too, slowly but hopefully surely.

From Ron Blair
Posted on January 15, 2015 at 6:38 AM
I'm starting out as an adult student. I'm not doing it for anyone or to be an amazing player vim doing it for myself. I have a rare neurological pain disorder, which makes it hard. But that makes me want to succeed even more. A good teacher is essential. I wish I would've started as a child, but that never happened. At least I can start now. Better late than never!
Posted on January 17, 2015 at 12:23 AM
I was passing a pawn shop and bought a violin, cheap, $100. The shop that was restringing it called and said 'it's a viola'. Being a total ignoramus I said 'whatever, do what you need to do' I began lessons at age 66.

Flash forward six years later, I have taken lessons from four different instructors. I should say I've frustrated four, well intentioned women who were probably more frustrated than I was. I always knew my tone was non-existent and that led me to quit lessons and try to figure out why I sounded so horrible.

So here I am, on my own, practicing double stops, shifting and always listening to tone. I practice much slower, warm up with a drone. I spent a bundle on a new viola too (should say fell in love with it, a Jay Haide 16"). So my time in a room in my garage is what I look forward to every day.

The issues for a music teacher with an adult student:
- need the progression of skills just as a child does
- knows when he/she sounds bad and plays poorly
- just because he's a 'big kid' he isn't mature (musically)
- take much more time to progress
- tell him/her how to practice, no adult supervision available

For the adult student:
- listen and learn, remember you're the student
- stick to the lesson, don't go off on your youth
- practice twice what a child would be expected.
- be humble, your teacher may be younger but has a lifetiem of experience.

Anyway, great topic.


Posted on January 17, 2015 at 7:21 AM
I played violin from ages 13 thru 24 and stopped. Then came back 3 years ago and have taken weekly lessons since. I'm 74 and of course I'm not as good as I was (or as good as I remember I was!) but I'm as good as I am. And that's good enough for me. ??

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