Why bother?

July 15, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·

I can't wrench myself away from the violin.  These are some of the reasons:

1. Playing music yourself, even if not at a professional level, is a different way to experience music than passively listening to it performed, and one that is at least as satisfying as listening to even the best musicians, and in some ways even more satisfying—or maybe I should say it’s satisfying in different ways. Not that listening to outstanding musicians perform, either on recordings or live, can’t be deeply satisfying, but performing by yourself and for yourself is a very different experience.
 
2. The challenge of struggling to master a piece, even if you aren’t quite able to take it to the level of a professional performer, or just getting a technical exercise down, or even just getting a scale in tune. I even enjoy playing scales!
 
3. Playing the music yourself—working on it—gives you a more intimate familiarity with and understanding of the music than just listening to it. 
 
4. Playing the violin yourself makes listening to professional performers a much more rewarding experience. You’re sensitive to so many more of the subtleties of phrasing, tone color, dynamics, etc. that the performer brings to bear on the music. And you’re more dazzled by feats of virtuosity when you know what it takes to achieve them. That’s particularly true of listening to outstanding violinists, of course, but it’s also true of listening to ensembles and orchestras and even other instruments such as the piano. 
 
4. Along the same lines, sometimes when I listen to a “real” violinist, I almost feel as if I’m experiencing sympathetically the physical sensations of the performer as he or she plays the instrument, enhancing my enjoyment of the performance in a way that isn’t accessible to those who don’t play. Anyone else have this sensation? Or am I just plain looney?
 
5. And related to the last point, I even find pleasure in the physical sensations of playing the violin, completely independently of (and sometimes despite) the sound they produce—the even dropping fall of the fingers on the string, sliding the hand up the neck, the smooth and fluid motion of the right arm and wrist, etc.
 
6. The violin and the bow are among the most sensuously beautiful products of human handiwork. You open the case and there they are—you’re gripped by an irresistible urge to take them out and tuck the violin under your chin . . .

Replies (33)

July 15, 2010 at 10:50 PM ·

Bill,

I like your reasons.  I agree with most, if not all, of them.  

But I am put off by the way you introduced this topic. Many of us are amateurs here and don't think of our efforts, or those of other amateurs, as "pathetically little".  The idea that one must be a professional in order to have something to show for oneself as a musician is an idea that should have been put to rest a long time ago.

July 15, 2010 at 10:56 PM ·

well, I guess thats Bill's perspective and he's entitled to it of course.

I thought your list was fantastic.  For me it misses one element: when I play my violin in my basement study room I AM a virtuoso.  In my head.  The music flows from me as it did from any of the best.  Sure, its a crash of reality if I tape it but my mind has lots of bounce and the next day I'm back to out-playing Heifetz....

And you think you are nuts :)

July 15, 2010 at 11:01 PM ·

'I am put off by the way you introduced this topic. Many of us are amateurs here and don't think of our efforts, or those of other amateurs, as "pathetically little". '

My apologies.  But I didn't say my efforts (or those of anyone else) were pathetically little--I said my own results were.  And maybe I should have used one of those cute little funny face symbols (which, frankly, I personally detest) to indicate I wasn't being entirely serious. 

July 15, 2010 at 11:37 PM ·

Greetings,

that`s a wonderful list Bill.  I think the lucky professionals would also say pretty much the same about themselves.

Perhaps it is a characteristic of humans that we do not use enough-   the abilty to get deep satisfaction from using all our resoyurces in an endeavour of pour choice.  Unfortunately mthe down side of modern technology has established `time wasting,  non resource using actviities as the norm.  (TV,  video games and the like) This leaves in my opinionm,  aglaring gap in people`s lives which can only be filled by mind numbing drugs (Prozac,  Starbucks,  prunes, ecstacy or excess sex)   or a passive acceptance of extreme violence .

Keep on truckin,

Or rather trundling around on yer eco friendly bicycle.

Cheers,

Buri

July 16, 2010 at 12:51 AM ·

I really enjoyed this post :) I agree with quite literally every single thing you wrote.

July 16, 2010 at 12:59 AM ·

I second to Allison! its a great observations!

July 16, 2010 at 01:56 AM ·

Good observations Bill and thanks for the post.  I think your observations apply to just about any recreational activity.  For example, I enjoy golf.  But, it doesn't mean I have to give Tiger Woods a run for his money to enjoy it.  After looking at your 6 points, I would say all of them apply to golf, with the exception of #6.

Some might argue that amateurs get MORE enjoyment out of music than pros.  Not having to earn a living, we are at liberty to play what we want when we want, with no pressure except our own self motivation.  As with any "recreational" activity that can also be a profession, often times the professional life is not as glamorous as one might think.  For example, I can't imagine being a virtuoso violinist, spending the majority of my life on the road, sleeping in hotels and eating out 200+ days a year.  Same goes for pro golfers on the PGA tour.  It would be a miserable existence IMO.  And this is what success brings.  Let's not even talk about the "not so successful."

 

July 16, 2010 at 03:59 AM ·

A lot of interesting points.  I will zero in on two of them.

"Playing music yourself, even if not at a professional level, is … at least as satisfying as listening to even the best musicians."  Agreed.  I trained for a musical career; but there was a lot about the music business, while I could still view it from a safe distance, that turned me off.  At 21, I decided to ditch the whole idea.  But I wouldn't have been without the training for anything.  It's an investment that I can keep drawing on.  It doesn't run out.

"I even enjoy playing scales!"  Same here.  Ditto for arpeggios, shifts, double-stops, trills, etudes, and bowing studies.  I can fill a whole evening with my own cadenzas and fantasias that I weave together from such technical material.  It would take me even more time to write them out.

For me, the real test is here: Would I continue practicing and playing daily if I knew that no one except me would ever hear the results?  The answer is yes -- I would continue.

Like so many other amateurs, I won't have the audiences and name recognition that Sarah Chang and Josh Bell and Hilary Hahn have.  So what?  The important thing is that I'm having a great time with the music.  I'm happy to play for anybody who asks me.  But I don't crave the spotlight, and I don't feel the need to prove anything to anybody.  The adventure of exploration, discovery, and problem-solving is gratifying enough.

July 16, 2010 at 04:50 AM ·

Bill, I most whole heartedly agree with all of you points.

I would like to add one. I enjoy watching other violinists as well. This brings both sight and sound into the experience. I enjoy watching fingers dancing on the fingerboard, shifts, vibrato, bowing. As someone who is learning the violin, I appreciate the effort it takes. I love watching the player's facial expressions as well.

I also enjoy watching a string quartet perform. Watching not only their technique with their instruments but the non-verbal communication amongst the members of the ensemble.

Playing the violin certainly makes music a much richer experience, both as someone who plays and instrument and as an observer.

Great post!

July 16, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·

"Sure, its a crash of reality if I tape it but my mind has lots of bounce and the next day I'm back to out-playing Heifetz...."

I'm even crazier than you, When I listen to, let's say, Gil Shaham play, I pretend that it's me playing!

I loved the list, good work. But, of course, I'd like to add my two cents. I'd add to it the enjoyment of playing in the middle of a symphony orchestra, being part of that body because you play the violin, and hearing the music from the inside out. That's one reason I love to play 2nd violin, you are in the middle of the action, seeing the Conductor from the front, hearing the intricacies of the music from the inside and all around you. Someone who listens from the outside (I'm coming at this from a violinists point of view and the person isn't one) doesn't see what we see.

I think you have more to show for your decades of experience than you you think. I used to think like you until I started playing in a symphony orchestra. Being around other violinists, just listening and watching them, helped me blossom. I'm much better than I thought I was! Plus, the encouragement has helped me progress. So, you can teach an old dog new tricks!

July 16, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·

 Great stuff, Bill.

the abilty to get deep satisfaction from using all our resoyurces in an endeavour of pour choice."

Gardening, golfing, hunt'n-shoot'n-fishi'n, model-railroading - anything's got to be healthier than daytime TV. I still derive masochistic pleasure from regular battles with the instrument, and sometimes I fantasize that I found the secret at last.

As an ex-pro, I do at least have a pension to show for David Beckades of effort .. !

In the end, don't we all want to be able to sing "I did it MY way" ??

July 16, 2010 at 07:41 AM ·

What they ^^^ said, and...

There's so much stuff out there these days. You can get a lot of it for nothing. Free CDs, downloads, You-tube. It has the potential to turn us all into passive consumers.

Playing an instrument, however badly, is to participate in the joy of creation.

July 16, 2010 at 08:19 AM ·

Julian "Playing an instrument, however badly, is to participate in the joy of creation".

Love it!  Though sometimes it feels like a piece of armageddon too...

July 16, 2010 at 09:24 AM ·

Such a wonderful thread!

July 16, 2010 at 09:35 AM ·

"Playing an instrument, however badly, is to participate in the joy of creation".

Agreed, but surely it's only the drummers amongst musicians that can recreate the the "Big Bang" that created the universe.

July 16, 2010 at 10:03 AM ·

@David Beck
Agreed, but surely it's only the drummers amongst musicians that can recreate the the "Big Bang" that created the universe.

Musicians and drummers in the same sentence. Shome mishtake, shurely. ;-)

July 16, 2010 at 12:55 PM ·

Well, it certainly doesn't apply to dummers! Hehe!! :o)

Elise, you crack me up!

July 16, 2010 at 01:25 PM ·

>Smiley,

Do you really think that the list applies equally to any musical instrument ? 

@Don,

Not only music, but everything we do for recreation.  That's why I used the example of golf.  Bill's points about appreciating the worlds greatest applies to any endeavor.  Take your pick, cycling, painting, kite surfing, skiing, yo-yo, chess, it doesn't matter.  It is only after you get into something that you can really appreciate what the worlds greatest have to offer.  But, we do not have to be on the same level as the world's greatest to enjoy an activity.  And as Bill points out, the level of enjoyment is arguably greater when you are personally engaged rather than watching (or hearing) the worlds best.  For example, I loved playing little league baseball.  But I find baseball exceedingly boring to watch, even the worlds best.  There is a huge difference between observing something and participating in it.

July 16, 2010 at 01:44 PM ·

Bill's wonderful post certainly resonates (lol) with me.  Perhaps the simplest way to look at it is the old adage that. in life, it is the journey that is important, not the destination, or that the journey is the destination.  It's great to take the journey, even if, compared to others, you accomplish "pathetically little" in terms of how you measure up compared to the best.

July 16, 2010 at 02:29 PM ·

 

I may not have read all of the posts thoroughly enough, but Lisa’s was the only one that came close to mentioning why I bother- playing with others. I used to do a lot of orchestra & I do get a thrill from being a part of symphonic pieces that I like, but overall I prefer the one-person-per-part & intimacy of chamber music. My musical activities have basically become my social life & it’s something that I value very much.  I also have met a lot of extraordinary & wonderful people in the process.

July 16, 2010 at 03:22 PM ·

Don: try competetive ballroom dancing.... ;)

July 16, 2010 at 05:39 PM ·

I only get mad at myself.

Keep doing it, and with others! There are a lot of snotty (OK, just a few) professionals out there, and I'm one to, but I love playing with people who love the music. Amateurs sometimes have a deeper love.

I think we do it because we have to ... (It's much worse, as an addiction,  than coke, even the stuff you get in cans ...)

July 16, 2010 at 05:53 PM ·

"Amateurs sometimes have a deeper love."  How true.  I was shocked by Andre Agassi's revelations about his hatred of playing tennis and particularly professional tennis.

July 16, 2010 at 06:00 PM ·

All true lovers are amateurs.... even the professionals

 

July 16, 2010 at 07:16 PM ·

this discussion reminds me of an experiment done a while back.  if i remember correctly, 2 groups were invited to solve puzzles, with one group told that there would be monetary reward for each puzzle solved.

at the end of the session, the groups were told to stop and hang around for 10 mins till the data tabulated.  but there were no data tabulation.  instead, the 2 groups were secretly observed for the next 10 mins.  without reading the rest, any guess on difference between the groups in terms of behavior ? :)

well, the group that was told to do it for money stopped the session immediately as told and started to flip through magazines.

the other group, while waiting, continued to work on the puzzles.  

similarly,  perhaps the motivation for violin playing by some of you can be longer lasting and deeper,,,

July 17, 2010 at 03:42 AM ·

"I can't imagine being a virtuoso violinist, spending the majority of my life on the road, sleeping in hotels and eating out 200+ days a year."

I'd happily embrace all the miseries of an international concert career if I could play at a level to sustain one.

Except for one thing:  I'd have to spend too much of my life away from my dog.

July 17, 2010 at 08:00 AM ·

Al: thats a terrific experiment!  OTOH, there are occupations where you get paid but you love it so much you do not want to stop.  I think being a musician can certainly fall into this group (playing is not like sitting and mindlessly doing puzzles) - I've certainly seen it (and been there myself) in science. 

July 17, 2010 at 08:28 AM ·

Bill, I have a good friend that is a flute virtuouso and he has...no home. He travels non stop playing concerts and doing master's classes. He is truly a phenomenal talent (was the last student of Rampal, and he is credited with discovering Tchaikovsky's lost Flute Concerto). But, his life has been given over to his immense talent and therefore, no dog, no wife, no home (maybe I should have said "wife" first). At the same time, he is doing what he loves, even though it's not making him rich. But, he is in a different class than the rest of us, and I'm just happy to be able to walk a part of his travels with him.

July 17, 2010 at 12:16 PM ·

elise, i understand what you mean.

we all look for that ideal set-up where we do what we truly enjoy, and being good at it, and get paid well for it.  some may say, we don't need to be paid well.  that is fine, too:)

i think even for each individual, the outlook in life changes with different stages of life, often very dramatically.

when a player is younger with no family and other concerns, with boundless energy, travel extensively may be even desirable.  when the player gets older and assumes more responsibility, there may not be enough time and energy left for the pure pursuit of music at all costs. 

it is a tough call, how we evaluate ourselves or others, on the basis of being a successful  musician or on the basis of being a successful musician/person/spouse/parent/dog owner.

 

July 17, 2010 at 02:26 PM ·

Lisa, have you noticed that men soloists have way more a "normal life" with wife, kids and dog than female soloists.  (well often...  I'm sure there are many exceptions of female soloists with normal lives and happilly so!) 

Anne-Marie

July 17, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

Christina C

"I may not have read all of the posts thoroughly enough, but Lisa’s was the only one that came close to mentioning why I bother- playing with others. I used to do a lot of orchestra & I do get a thrill from being a part of symphonic pieces that I like, but overall I prefer the one-person-per-part & intimacy of chamber music. My musical activities have basically become my social life & it’s something that I value very much.  I also have met a lot of extraordinary & wonderful people in the process."

Yes, that for me is also THE thing. I don't really like orchestral playing, and I've done far too much of it.

Also, I am an amateur and a professional. I should say I was a professional, but as an amateur now, I play a lot better and really love the chamber music.

July 18, 2010 at 12:59 PM ·

I have to admit that I'm not as dissatisfied with my own playing as the impression I deliberately gave in my original post, even though I certainly can't say I play at a professional level.  Lamenting my lack of accomplishment seemed like a clever rhetorical trick to lead into my attempt to proclaim to the world my boundless love for the violin.  However, my exaggeration of my own limitations as a violinist precluded me from adding one more point to my list, and now that I've confessed to having been disingenuous on that score, I can add it:

7.  Progress.  The sense of progress that you get, for example, when try playing something you struggled with a while back and that now seems--well, if not easy, at least natural.  You know what you need to do and how to go about doing it, even if you still need to work a little to bring it up to speed.  (Nothing about the violin is easy; if you think something is easy you aren't listening to yourself hard enough.)

Yesterday, going through a stack of music, I stumbled across the Medication (that's what students at Curtis used to call it, according to Arnold Steinhardt in his wonderful book, Violin Dreams).  Like nearly everyone else who reaches a certain level, I'd worked on it at one point.  It's so short, I thought, and it's easy (refer back to what I wrote in the last paragraph) and fun to play, so why not give it a quick run-through before going on to something more challenging?  Well, I spent about an hour trying to get it back in some kind of shape--not just the rather limited "technical" problems it poses, particularly intonation, but the musical problems (which are also, in a sense, technical problems) of phrasing, the singing line, connecting the notes seamlessly, the gradations of dynamics, tempo, tone color, etc.  But in contrast to when I originally tackled this piece, I felt I had a good idea of what needed to be done, and even discovered some new ideas--without, in the end, being fully satisfied with the result of my efforts. 

It occurred to me that this piece is a perfect vehicle for learning how to make music precisely because it doesn't pose extraordinary "technical" demands, so you can focus on the music, and I realized how much I had learned from working on it.  And, like Arnold Steinhardt later in his career, I also realized that, yes, it really is a beautiful piece that in its own way takes full advantage of what the violin has to offer. 

And the thought dawned on me that anyone who sneers at the Mediation from Massenet's Thais (as I did at one point, like nearly everyone else who reaches a certain level) hasn't quite attained maturity as a violinist.  Maybe that thought represents a kind of progress on my part, too.

July 19, 2010 at 02:48 PM ·

Bill,

When I still programmed in Fortran we had a saying: constants aren't, and variables don't.

One could add "easy music isn't".

So far, I agree completely with what you have put into words.

Bart

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