Returning to the violin after 7-year hiatus

April 30, 2007 at 04:05 PM · Hello. I am new to this site. The postings are super. It is incredible to see in print some of the very same struggles and questions I have had over the years. The support of this site is part of the positive energy I am feeling as I return to the fiddle after taking significant time away.

Background: I studied for about 10 years, ages 13-23. It was hard work, but I held my own in youth and college orchestras. While I could handle advanced orchestral repertoire, I was disappointed to not go beyond Bach in in my solo work. Playing ceased to be much fun within a few years of leaving college, even with a community orchestra and within about 10 years of leaving school I pretty much stopped playing altogether. However, I did take voice lessons and made good progress in a short time (with no small nod to the impact of all of my years of violin study!).

About a year ago I was motivated to return to playing, and have enjoyed the process of getting my violin ramped back up. I upgraded my bow, which has made playing much more enjoyable because I am not fighting against the lighter weight of the bow I had always used.

Now that I am older, it is easier for me to listen to myself now and stay focused and I am getting more pleasure now than I ever remember. Even better, my fingers remember where to go; I just need to regain strength and speed.

I need guidance on tuning and practicing. I can tune with open strings, but sometimes need a little help. Does anyone use an electronic keyboard when the tuning fork and your ear are just not jiving?

Unlike my earlier days, it is now just plain fun to practice. I need help setting up a routine. Do I break up time by practicing, for set amounts of time, intonation, bowing, vibrato, et al using my etudes and a piece? (This is what I used to do.) Or is there another approach that may be suitable. Money is tight, so a teacher will probably be out of reach for awhile, unless for a one-shot session. My goal is to play in a small ensemble (small chamber orchestra or perhaps quartet if I find a match).

I look forward to any ideas you have to share. Thank you.

Replies (21)

April 30, 2007 at 04:47 PM · Dear Debbie

With understanding that You do not see it reasonable to go through all of technical repertoire, You have played before, and as result You looking for alternative way to bring back freedom and mobility of Your technique as well as tonal stability, I would recommend "Concept and Study For The Violinist". Please pay attention to the methodical recommendations preceding musical text.


April 30, 2007 at 05:17 PM · I'm in a similar situation. I took a break of 7 years and started again last fall. I'm also not yet with a teacher but I want to be again. I think that is a good goal to have, sooner rather than later, but I haven't yet taken my own advice. I'm also playing viola now (after playing violin much as you did, throughout high school and college), which I started over 7 years ago but then stopped too.

I've been going back through Wohlfahrt, doing some scales, but less than a teacher would make me do. It's fun because I've gotten to the point where Wohlfahrt is easy again. I couldn't get a good sense of how you felt about Bach from your posting, but I think Bach is a good composer to get back into playing with. Even though it's challenging to achieve excellence with Bach, Bach sounds at least moderately pleasing even at the beginning when you're not feeling all that confident or necessarily good about yourself because it's been so long, and there are just a lot of patterns and good things in the music that give your fingers and brain a workout.

I'd also recommend the "Solos for Young Violinists" series by Barbara Barber. They are short, rewarding pieces that you can probably learn on your own if you pick the book at the right level for you. And they come with a CD to listen to, either Barber playing the piece herself or just the piano accompaniment so that you can play along. I've found that listening to her play the pieces is helpful in the absence of a teacher because she plays well and accurately, and playing along with the piano part myself is fun too. And it doesn't take too long to learn one of those from start to finish so I haven't gotten bored or lost.

Once you play a few months you will probably get a better sense of what your next set of goals will be--i.e. which community orchestra you want to set your sights on, which chamber group, etc.

I'd also recommend keeping a practice log. I didn't do that as a child and I find it helps now in helping me see how far I've come and what progress I've made. It also keeps me focused from week-to-week, and without a teacher that's likely to be an issue you need to keep on top of.

April 30, 2007 at 06:27 PM · What Bach were you playing? There's a big difference between Minuet in G and the Chaconne.

I played from sixth grade through two years of college and then took an eight year break. At the time I quit, I was playing Viotti No. 22. Before Viotti, I performed pieces like Czardas and Polish Dance in high school. I quit in college because I had no idea how much mork I had left to do, nor how to achieve my goals. When I began playing again, I picked up a few of the easier movements of the Bach D minor partita. I began a daily routine of scales, arpeggios, double stops, and Kreutzer. Then I started pecking away at the repertoire list, which you can find at sites like I tackled a little Kreisler, then the Bach E major and Danse Macabre. I began playing easy trio music in public. I worked on Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, then Mozart's concerto in G. During this time, I played in several local musicals and with our community orchestra. I also performed Milhaud's trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, and a trio by Clara Schumann for cello, violin and piano.

Last summer, I practiced orchestra excerpts and auditioned for the Anchorage symphony. I played six concerts with them this year, which was a tremendous benefit to my abilities. I also took a semester of private lessons (finally) in Anchorage through the college there. I learned so much with a teacher, and began assembling the Bach B minor partita, some Sarasate and Ginastera (still working on those two). I stopped the lessons in January because the 300 mile drive through the mountain pass in winter was a bit much at the time.

I took a month off this spring after a heavy performance load in order to recover from tendinitis. At the time I quit practicing, I was working on Saint Saens Intro and Rondo, just for fun. It's still a bit difficult to get that last bit up to speed. ;)

Just finished Verdi's requiem. Thinking about what to do next, with summer approaching. I think it's too late to get my spring recital repertoire back in shape, but perhaps I will set my sites on the next big piece to tackle for fall. I'm thinking maybe the Saint Saens sonata #1.

In the three years that I've been back on the violin, I don't always practice regularly. I go through seasons of activity, and summers are usually spent outside. When practicing regularly, I usually aim for three hours. You can get a lot done in less time, but you have to be very wise in how you spend your time if you only put in an hour a day. You can still definitely make progress with an hour. In fact, last summer I only practiced 30 minutes a day. Since I only had this small window, I chose twenty minutes of shifting exercises and ten minutes of orchestra excerpts, figuring it was better than nothing. That summer completely overhauled my shifting. So yes, even 30 minutes can give you improvement.

I think there are a few key things that make for a successful journey on the violin as a self-motivated adult. Read lots of books about violin technique and violinists. Stay on line and read everything that everyone else has to say. Not everyone is right, but after a while, you begin to see patterns and it becomes easier to sift the nuggets of good advice from the chaff.

Also, develop the habit of devoting half of your practice time to technical issues. Don't try to do everything at once, but pick something that stretches your current level of ability and work on improving it.

Find lots of little steps when it comes to your choice of repertoire. Play lots of things that feel easy, and also a few things that stretch your abilities. Buy lots of sheet music. Try a piece or two for a while and if it isn't coming together or you don't enjoy practicing it, look for something else. There are many pieces to choose from, and there's always a good option for you, but you may have to look a bit for it. I have a file cabinet full of pieces I started and haven't finished, but I have a handful of pieces that actually make it to a performance.

Join an orchestra or find some outlet for performing. The more goals you can set with others, the more likely you will keep playing.

If possible, have it in your mind to seek out a teacher in the future. I know, money and scheduling, but this is such a valuable way to save time and get fresh input.

Good luck, and have fun!

April 30, 2007 at 09:39 PM · Welcome Back! is one of my favorite ways to stay motivated and learn. I post in between twenty minute bursts of practicing--keeps my brain going.

I would recommend getting out the Kreutzer for increased speed and agility. Dont, Schradiek and Sevcik exercises are also helpful, but not as helpful as Kreutzer. You should also consider finding a teacher/coach who will work with you on an as needed basis.

As far as practicing, my advice? Always be happy with what you get. Don't stress your muscles or you'll injur yourself. Little by little, step by step. Start small and grow. A few lines of Kreutzer, a few lines of Bach, a few lines of a concerto every day will grow into great violin ability over time.

It sounds like you're in a good place to improve now that practicing is fun again. Another feather in your cap? You've got nothing to lose!

April 30, 2007 at 08:55 PM · As Kimberlee pointed out, practice with breaks. You get so much more out of practice time when you let your brain reset every 40 minutes to one hour.

April 30, 2007 at 11:33 PM · Hello Mikhail, Karen, Emily, and Kimberlee. A warm and grateful "thank you" for your ideas and support! It is great to return to practicing and playing with a feeling of fun to accompany the journey.

I will explore all of the suggestions that you all made so I can decide what will get me back to speed in an enjoyable way. It will be challenging to create a practice routine for myself and I am excited that there are so many resources on the web, including communication with this community.

For what it's worth, I went back into my sheet music to review my repertoire: I had played the Bach E Major as well as the Double Concerto. Before stopping, I also studied the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro and begun to dip into Schubert sonatinas. My goal is to not overplay pieces I worked very hard on in the past, otherwise I will feel like I am in molasses. I will identify those that will feel good to play, though, particularly with a clearer ear and more responsive bow!

May 1, 2007 at 02:51 AM · Debbie,

Like you, it only took a few voice lessons for me to know that I can sing, but I wish I could say the thing about my ‘violin signing’ after years of practice and lessons. Like you, I started to play the violin around 13 and worked hard for a few years until I hit the college. Unlike you, I didn’t wait for 7 years but 20 years before returning to violin again. It goes without saying, I didn’t like the sound I made last October when I first got back to it, and I didn’t know where to pick up the whole thing. 20 years ago I did so far as Czardas and was working on Mazas and Kreutzer, but now I’m about to finish Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro, and I think I’m playing better than I ever did. Since I’ve got a demanding day job now, I don’t have a lot of time practicing (1 ½ hour/day at the most). Having a teacher really helps a lot, but without a doubt is the most important source of help for me. I recommend spending first a few weeks really get yourself familiar with the site and the folks here. I printed out hundreds and hundreds of pages of discussion and read them again and again. It’s a goldmine here.

As a returning violinist, I had a terrible time deciding where to focus and I think this is normal, as it’s hard to balance our memory of the past performance, our musical taste, and expectation, without knowing exactly where we are technically speaking. In the end, I think it was Kreutzer that gave me the focus, as I know if I do it right, time will be well spent. Kreisler’s P&A opens my eyes to a lot of technical issues and I worked on them step by step the last a few months which are the best practice I’ve ever done. Practice with a metronome also does magic to my progress technically and my understanding musically.

Others have already made excellent point about practice with a lot of breaks. I also recommend stretching and checking your neck, back and shoulders to make sure they are in balance and not tense. Violin playing can be physically demanding, especially after stops playing for a while. The body will need some time to get used to it.

I’m sure you’ll work out a practice routine quickly if you have limited time and other obligations, as they will probably dictate how your routine will look like:) However, if you can, always practice during the part of the day you are least tired. We can do all sorts of things when we are tired, but it’ll be a waste of time if we practice when tired.

Singing is much easier than violin playing and singing can make us extremely joyful and happy. Why then do we singers go back to violin instead? Interesting, eh?

May 1, 2007 at 11:39 PM · Hi Yixi. I so much appreciate your post. Thank you for sharing your experiences and advice.

Wouldn’t you know that I have managed to exacerbate some tightness in my upper right arm in just in a few sessions of practice. I am seeing my p.t. in about a week to have it worked on and will ask for stretches and exercises to help it heal properly and fully.

How cool that you also found voice so easy and that you figured out you could sing! I had been encouraged by talented friends who sing and it opened up a new world that as you noted brings joy and happiness, and is easily available (no opening of cases or rosining a bow or putting on a chin rest). Yet, the violin did call again, I didn't expect it and here I am. The best part is that I am much happier and genuinely excited about playing than I remember from my younger years.

May 2, 2007 at 01:41 AM · Debbie,

I felt the same way with violin playing and I think it’s quite common among a lot of armature adult violinists, as now we play for the right reason(s). Practicing for ourselves is like having a treat (or the love we give ourselves) each time we pick up the violin, isn’t it?

As for the physical part of, I have to tell you this story. I started to develop a sciatic pain, which I never had experienced before, as soon as I started play violin again last October. I went to see my GP, but the x-ray found nothing wrong with my spine. I was sent to physiotherapy and I did a lot of stretching and walking according to the instruction came from the p.t. I stopped going to the physiotherapy after a few sessions, as it didn’t provide me with any self-sustainable remedy.

My GP and the physiotherapist told me that the cause of the sciatic was my sitting long hours during the day in my office so the muscles are getting so tight that press the sciatic nerve. I ended up putting up the computer in my office high enough that I stood most of the time when I was working; yet, nothing helped.

Who would have known, the pain in my leg was caused my primary activity of the hands! I later figured out that the actual cause of my sciatic pain was not sitting long hours, but it was my improper violin playing! As I was trying so hard to get it to sound right, all the muscles in my body were trying to compensate (as our body usually does), and all the muscles were just overworked for no good. The worst parts were my neck, back, left hip and thigh that they all got really tense to the point that the sciatic nerve got pinched causing the pain in my left hip and leg.

I discovered this problem shortly after my first lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher in town. Within a week of taking the lessons from her, my sciatic pain was significantly reduced. 10 lessons went by and I’ve been working long hours sitting and playing violin daily completely free of this nagging pain.

It’s (especially Buri) got me to look into thinking about how to prevent injury while practice smartly. I’m forever grateful to him and I highly recommend you read some of the threads under “health,” and you’ll find some amazing advice that our doctors or other health professionals wouldn’t know. I was originally trained as a nurse so it’s not the most comfortable thing for me to admit that healthcare is in most cases in our own hands.


May 2, 2007 at 02:02 AM · Several violinists of my acquaintance stopped playing for many years to pursue their successful careers in other fields and then resumed violin playing upon (or close to) retirement. One was 50 and one was 60.

I have also had at least one student in her mid-twenties who resumed violin playing after a hiatus of similar length to yours. We worked on the Mozart concertos and the Bach E major. Classical music (late 18th C) is very good for improving off string bowing for orchestral and chamber-music playing.

Going back to the pieces you once played is the best way to start and find your weaknesses and work on them in a familiar context.

Another good approach is to start lessons again. Perhaps you can find a teacher who will take you on for an indefinite short time just to check out your technique and see that you are doing everything correctly.

Some community orchestras have very good string coaches who can help those, who are willing to listen to them, to learn or re-learn to use their bodies and ears properly. Also orchestra can be a very good medium for perfecting your counting and music sight reading AND for findiing people to play chamber music with.

There is nothing better than chamber music playing to increase your skills (as an adult) for a lifetime of enjoyable playing, without going through (the more profound approach of) an exhausting "adult virtuoso routine" of at least 2 hours of systematic, daily practice of fundamentals.

Perfecting the most difficult passages in orchestra and chamber music will do a lot for your technical improvement.

May 2, 2007 at 02:23 AM · My personal experience with armature orchestra is this: it’s a lot of fun to be part of a group playing something you like. You’ll learn how to play in an orchestra only by playing there, as private practice isn’t going to prepare you for this no matter how virtuosic you are. And if you have a good conductor, you’ll learn a lot musically.

That said, I find orchestra is not a good place for you if you feell your intonation is shaky or that there are a lot of techniques that you want to improve. Orchestra pieces just can’t replace etudes and solo pieces, just as orchestra can’t replace a teacher. If you want to polish up your techniques, time you spend in an orchestra rehearsal can be better use at home for practice, IMHO. But if you want to play just for fun and are content with the way you are playing, then yes, orchestra is the place to go for sure.

May 2, 2007 at 12:11 PM · My personal experience -- taking up the violin after a 25-year hiatus -- leads me to make only one recommendation: get a teacher, so that you do not pick up or continue bad habits. Get someone who can guide your return to the violin and take you far beyond where you were when you stopped. Worked very well for me. Good luck!

May 2, 2007 at 01:30 PM · I agree you should get a teacher. As a professional musician, believe me, I understand when you state "Money is tight". However, lessons are worth the expense many times over.

May 3, 2007 at 02:50 AM · Thanks everyone for your feedback and support. The physical therapist got me in today last minute due to a cancellation. I now have stretching and strenghtening exericses to do for my injured right arm. (I took a spill on it last Nov. and really hurt the area right beneath my right shoulder.) His advice was to play only 20 minutes at a time while building my strength back up. Boy, was I surprised to realize just what we do to ourselves to play the violin that goes against our natural posture. When I was a teenager and young adult it never occurred to me that this would be an issue or problem to contend with. Innocence.

I appreciate the ideas of what types of style of piece is helpful to review particular skill. The interesting thing to me is this: I am doing something now that I know I did not do in all of my years of lessons: really listening. For me, this is incredible, particularly because I am not tired, unmotivated, or overworked. I think I will know when I will be ready for a teacher (and he/she will appear?). I appreciate the advice of finding someone who may be available for "tune-ups" as it were and I think that my former teacher or others in the Boston community will help lead me to the right person.

Again, I am so happy to players who are so articulate and insightful about the experience of playing violin!

May 3, 2007 at 03:13 AM · Yixi, thank you for referral to the health page. Turning "29" or "39" for that matter is not all it's cracked up to be sometimes.


May 3, 2007 at 11:14 AM · Debbie, since you are in the Boston area, you might want to check out the Longy school.

They put me in touch with my teacher 8 years ago (when I was taking lessons, before the most recent break), and she was really great.

Also they seem to be able to put you in touch with and/or offer Alexander Technique classes. I haven't done this through them, but 12 years ago in CA I had some serious back pain when playing and an Alexander Teacher I found on my own helped me so I could practice longer and sit through 3-hr. orchestra rehearsals again.

Your comment about posture made me think that it doesn't hurt to keep these issues in mind.

May 3, 2007 at 08:07 PM · Hi Karen. That's a great idea on Longy. In fact, that's where I took my voice lessons. I hope that the p.t. will do the trick with my arm since it is directly related to a specific injury. If it does not pan out, I will most definitely keep Alexander Technique in mind.

Thank you.

May 3, 2007 at 08:28 PM · Physiotherapy and massages gave me instant but not sustainable relief of discomfort. I had to go back again and again to get the injured area treated. AT doesn’t cure injuries directly, but it gives me the most elegant tool for healing, injury prevention and general improvement of the mind and body functions in a self-sustainable manner.

May 4, 2007 at 11:44 AM · Hi Debbie,

I share your pleasure in rediscovering the violin, having just resumed lessons after a gap of about 36 years, during which time I played very sporadically, my violin fell apart (literally), my technique no doubt as well (from a low starting point). What I have gained in the meantime is patience, application, freedom from the fear of failure, and gratitude for each note I play (as mentioned elsewhere here). I manage an hour's practice 4 or 5 times a week between work and family life, and love it. And there is the friendly competition with my son, catching up fast on piano, to help us on... I have a teacher and already feel the difference it makes to my focus, even though most of the time he is pointing out things I 'knew'. It's the difference between wandering a landscape, pretty though it may be, and following a compass... You get somewhere!

May 6, 2007 at 10:45 PM · I played sporadically for years, until my daughter started violin. In the 7th grade in particular, the conductor was willing to issue to me the 1st violin part, and I played that while my daughter practiced her 2nd violin part (for a middle school orchestra, they were very advanced!). My objective was to make practicing alot more fun for my daughter (there's nothing deadlier than practicing 2nd violin by yourself). I accomplished my goal and my daughter enjoyed practicing far more, so she became much better. However, this strategy also got me back to regular playing and practicing. Now, she's working far more on her own, and I joined the local chamber orchestra (which has very challenging music!).

May 20, 2007 at 03:20 AM · Well, I'm going to add my 2 cents to this post since I just joined the site...I am glad to find so many in a similar situation. I was a college student for 2 years at Manhattan School of Music, but that was (as Laurie Niles likes to say) 1,000 years ago. When I left MSM I was at Sibelius-Tchaikovsky level.

For the next 15 years or so I played 'when I felt like it' with 2 university orchestras, took a few lessons, but practiced only very erratically.

Then while in Paris on a postdoc fellowship (10 years ago now!) I joined a terrific local orchestra playing really good repertoire (the musical culture in Paris is tremendous, with conservatories in every Arrondissement). This was great, got me back into shape, and there is really no reason why I should have stopped playing when I returned to the States...except that, well, 'life happened'.

It is really true (at least in my case) that time seems to accelerate as we get older. It is hard for me to fathom that I have really taken nearly 10 years off (again!) from serious playing. But there it is; the calendar does NOT lie.

I started practicing again last week, with brand new strings (why not suffer all possible frustrations simultaneously?!), fingers like sausages and a wooden bow arm.

The good news is that the imprinting of all that hard work from 1,000 years ago is still there under several layers of dust, and after a few days of playing Dounis, Galamian scales and unaccompanied Bach reeeeally slowly, my fingers and bow arm are becoming more responsive.

So...I am now wondering where this will take me. I am lucky enough to live in a University town with a great college orchestra and a really nice hall...but I also have whole blocks of the year when I literally have only micro-increments of time to do anything non-work-related. Maybe I will practice a lot this summer and audition for one of the local orchestras in the fall.

Given the 'time acceleration with age' and the fact that, well, as we all know, Life is seems I have no more time to waste.

Anyway it has been very gratifying to me to read that there are many others in similar situations, and I look forward to reading your updates...

By the way, I agree with those who have stated on other posts that it's too bad there are so few programs for 'adults' at conservatories and universities (does this suggest a possible career opportunity for aging Boomers...?)

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