Do I have to be stretched?

March 8, 2013 at 08:38 PM · I've been playing for 15 months now after a huge break. I play baroque, classical, early music & Irish & Scottish folk tunes with my teacher, who is a gifted performer becoming more well known. Lucky me! But because I practise two hours a day and am passionate about music, he thinks I'm better than I am. I have just stopped feeling nervous in his lessons but I still hate playing stuff that is beyond me, making mistakes and a horrible sound. All it does is sap my confidence.

I have several books of classical concert pieces and he is keen for me to move on to them. But I dread making a pig's ear of these pieces and going backwards, because of the damage it will do to my psyche. I think I need to romp on my plateau for a while till I feel in control of my bow and my fingers.

I also feel that it may not be sensible to expect me to play concert pieces. I am nearly 62. Shouldn't I just settle for playing some pretty pieces and not making people don ear muffs?

But when I say things like that, he says I am setting myself up to fail and emails me material on having a 'positive mental attitude'. I think I'm just being realistic.

What do you think? Advice will be much appreciated!

Replies (25)

March 8, 2013 at 09:11 PM · Thanks, Don. The problem is that my teacher is so charismatic; practising isn't a burden, but disappointing him is, so I don't want to do it if his theory is correct. But he's a young man of promise, so how does he know what's right for an older woman whose skill is making the best of a much smaller ability?

You're right, though. I should have the strength to make my own mind up!

March 8, 2013 at 09:27 PM · Your teacher is right, you do not know your limits. I am a bit younger but not that much, approaching 50 fast. Tell your teacher what you ventilated on the forum and ask for the second opinion some 'very old' violin teacher. That will assure you of your abilities.

March 8, 2013 at 10:42 PM · "Do I have to be stretched?"

Hard to say. How tall are you now?

March 8, 2013 at 10:45 PM · About five foot seven inches. But I used to be five foot eight! :)

March 8, 2013 at 10:45 PM · You'll never know how far you can progress unless you have a teacher, who knows what they're doing, to push you. I'd say this dictum applies in all walks of life - for "teacher" read boss, spouse, peers, etc, as appropriate.

March 8, 2013 at 10:48 PM · Good point, Trevor - just so long as he doesn't get me riding a bicycle at the same time!

March 9, 2013 at 12:39 AM · Do both. Venture into the mountains when the weather is clear; romp in the meadows closer to home on stormy days.

Besides, no one can 'stretch you'...all a teacher can do is encourage you to stretch yourself.

Whatever you do, love it!

March 9, 2013 at 12:57 AM · "About five foot seven inches. But I used to be five foot eight! :)"

That's in the ball park. When women get under four feet, or over seven feet, guys get intimidated about dancing with them. Not sayin' it's right, just an observation.

March 9, 2013 at 04:29 AM · Hi Molly, if I were you, I would be honnest about all that to my teacher... Your ambitions, your goals, what type of music do you like etc.

Tell him that you want to progress and will work at it but that, at the same times, you sometimes want to enjoy the ripen fruits you worked so hard to harvest... Otherwise, where is the motivation?

Personally in my lessons, I sometimes take up some easier peices for a while to play as chamber music with my teacher or for some concerts just for the sake of playing something the closest I can of pros and feel happy and good with it (as you said, so that people don't need to wear ear muffs :)

I would say that as amateurs, beeing happy is obviously a balance between beeing challenged and enjoying the fruits of our labor. This balance may be move towards one side or the other depending on each student. You just need to have a teacher who can work within the balance that fits you...

Good luck!

ps: to not make him feel bad, tell him that you do want to progress (usually that is why we take lessons...) but that you also want to do easier things to feel happy. Always work at our very limit is not a recepie for hapiness for many people...


March 9, 2013 at 07:29 AM · I understand, Molly, many times I too thought to myself of my teacher 'NOW she's asking too much of me!' But, you know, I hadn't really worked out if that were true until I actually gave it a go. And you know what, my teacher was right, not me.

As many here on the forum, I'm also an adult student going back after a very long break. I'm 47, but not a very confident player at all. I also think I sound yuck most of the time and can't understand her enthusiasm for concert pieces I struggle to even read. However, I know, and she very well knows, that if she doesn't 'stretch' me on a regular basis, that it will never happen left up to me.

We obviously don't sound as terrible as we think we do, or our teachers would have us doing simpler stuff all the time until we get it right. My teacher is also younger than me, but she has taught for many years now, and I trust her judgement as much as possible. Sure, take a short break from time to time, but it's your teacher's job not to allow you to become complacent for a minute.

Good Luck!

March 9, 2013 at 11:02 AM · Hi Mollie,

We're in almost identical circumstances - except that I would kill for your teacher! I'm in my early 60s but returned earlier than you 5 years ago and I think went through very similar phases. Initially all I wanted to do was play pieces - anything I could get my hands on - and then a process started where I needed help to improve and then needed to play with others etc etc until where I am now, chomping at the bit to learn concertos and Bach S&Ps and equally eager to work on etudes (though the bach serves that function too ;) ).

When I initially read your post my response was with the teacher - fantastic, they get your ability and promise and want to develop you to your fullest. But then I tried to put myself back to 15 months in and I realized that at that point I too was resisting being pushed and, like you, reveling in the discovery that I could actually still play this thing! I suspect that a difference between us is that you were probably much more advanced when you quit (I was ~13 and had never had a private lesson) and hence, its likely that your 14 months might correspond to my 4 years or so. But that would take a chat and a glass of wine to compare!

As suggested above, perhaps the best course is to do both. First, talk to your teacher about moving on with some caution - there is I suppose a danger that too much pressure could sap your interest, which is really your biggest asset. But too little might leave you eventually regretting what you might have achieved.

Try taking on a challenging project - but limit it to just one piece and ensure that you only spend a fraction of your practise time on it - make that clear to your teacher so that their expectations are not too high.

Good luck with it returner-sister!

[Edit - I just read your post again - our time courses are remarkably similar!]

March 9, 2013 at 11:36 AM · Boy, am I glad I started this thread! It's fab to get the benefit of your experiences: whatever side of the fence you alight, too, you all show such a great gift of empathy.

Elise - hi! We do share a similar history but look where you are now, playing in orchestras? Can I really get there in 5 years? I think it's down to your particular character & talent. But you are so inspiring! Very best wishes.

After reading all these lovely posts over, I see that the consensus is 'Yes, you do have to be stretched; but gradually, & maintain your level of fitness & your joie de vivre at the same time.'

But please - keep the replies coming, if poss!

It is so heartening to hear your advice & real life stories.

March 9, 2013 at 02:10 PM · Mollie, it's the "have to" part I don't agree with.

March 9, 2013 at 03:20 PM · Yes, sorry, Marjory. I put it badly, not for the first time - looking for a short snappy title, I suppose. I loved your answer about romping in the meadows but not ruling out mountain climbing either.

Have a nice day.

March 9, 2013 at 03:46 PM · In college I had a wonderful teacher, Eddy Brown, who was a pupil of both Hubay and Auer, and himself a retired concert violinist. What he assigned to his pupils was scales, etudes, and a mix of pieces. The mix of pieces included a few that were easy, the majority which stretched us a little, but with some work, were doable, and a few that were in the NO WAY category. It was a good plan that built my confidence, enabled me to play musically (on the easier pieces) and to grow technically (on the harder ones - so that eventually, they too became easier).

With one more recent teacher, working through the Paganini caprices, there were times at my lessons when I was literally cringing in my struggle to play through them, because I was so embarrassed to have anyone hear me play so badly. But I have to say that doing so truly did force me to grow, and I am SO grateful for what I have learned in the process(even though I'm not going to be playing Paganini for anyone other than my teacher anytime soon...).

I loved Marjory Lange's comment: "Do both. Venture into the mountains when the weather is clear; romp in the meadows closer to home on stormy days." Very good advice!

March 9, 2013 at 03:47 PM · Mollie,

At some point every time you play will be a stretch - so you might as well start stretching now! I know I "stretch" every day.

I'll be 79 this year. I play every day, usually starting with the cello to loosen up and then switching to violin. I'm in 2 groups, violin in a conductorless chamber orchestra and cello in a piano trio. I dropped my symphony orchestra a couple of years ago, mostly because it was a regular nighttime thing, but also because although it was conducted by professional musicians, they were among the worst conductors, technically, that I've sat before in the 62 years I was doing that

My formal violin lessons stopped when I was 12 and my cello lessons when I was 17, but I never really stopped playing, although I slowed down a lot during grad school. I was past 60 before my community orchestras started to play Mahler and Shostakovich and other "stretchers." I didn't start to "stretch" on violin until after a master class when I was 40. I didn't work (stretch) on Dvorak and Boccherini cello concertos until after 60. I was lucky to be in situations with professional coaching after I was 60, but it was for the groups I was playing with, not individual coaching.

I think it would be helpful if your teacher were younger and understood the problems of aging bodies, but since he isn't perhaps you can inform him about that part of it. The premier violin teacher in our county here had been principle 2nd violin with the San Francisco Symphony for 20 years and founding concertmaster of the local regional orchestra (semi-pro). He was old enough to understand what happens to violinists bodies as they age. The violinist I play trios with every week, restarted violin at age 60 after a 30 year break and took lessons from this former concertmaster - after about 5 years he was auditioned into the Berkeley Symphony and played in the same community orchestra I did, and regular string quartets - and the piano trio that we got going about 14 years ago.

You will do it if you really want to reap the rewards it will bring!


March 9, 2013 at 05:41 PM · In view of Andrew's response it may be appropriate for me to go into a little more detail about my transition from the orchestral cello to the orchestral violin that I described three days ago here on the "violin crisis" blog (

When I started violin lessons five years ago it was specifically to deal with a technical "wall" I had reached in playing folk fiddle, and at that time I had no thoughts whatsoever about playing violin in an orchestra. My teacher sorted things out pretty efficiently and after my first year I started having thoughts along the lines of "This is getting good, I wonder if it would be possible to get to the stage of being able to play violin in an orchestra ... perhaps in a year or so?". A few months later I felt confident enough to mention these thoughts to my teacher who then made little changes to the structure and content of my lessons. At the end of the second year with her she said it looked like I was ready. I then had a word with my chamber orchestra's Secretary and Leader just before the Christmas break, and they agreed to the changeover, which was at the first rehearsal in the New Year. Since then, my violin playing has spread to three other orchestras and the occasional ad hoc ensemble.

Although I have been a cellist all my life and a bit, I don't think my cello playing per se was a significant factor in making the relatively straightforward changeover; I think it was my long orchestral experience, but I have learnt a lot more since through playing in the violins!

March 9, 2013 at 07:38 PM · There are many different levels of "stretching". Some teachers will push you to the very limits of your capabilities, to the point where even just a couple of measures can be a huge struggle. Others will push you in smaller increments.

I think which is right for you depends on your personality, circumstances, and perhaps the particular nature of a particular type of stretch.

For instance, a player might have a piece that they really, really want to do -- and they're willing to push themselves and have the determination to break through all of the technical challenges in order to do it.

I think the ideal thing is for a teacher to think, "It would be good for you to improve X or gain Y skill," and then come up with a combination of exercises, etudes, and a repertoire piece that's designed to go after that particular goal. If you're someone who doesn't want to maul the piece initially, it should probably be something that is technically reasonably comfortable but which requires you to do X/Y.

Given that you practice a lot, it should be reasonable for you to do one piece just "for fun" -- something that you know you will be able to play well and which reinforces and solidifies the skills you already have -- and then spend the rest of your time on stuff that helps you improve.

March 10, 2013 at 12:40 AM · Pushing is fine, but you want to feel like you can polish the pieces you are working on. Work with your teacher to find stretches that won't feel like the rack.

March 10, 2013 at 01:45 AM · Mollie:

I am also a returner to the violin for three years now.

Stretching at our age is not fulfilling. Suggest to your teacher that instead of stretching that he guide you in a walk through the gentle garden of discovery. This way you are learning and improving but comfortably getting each facet settled, understood and incorporated but waiting for another detail to learn when the need comes along.

When playing the violin there are so many independent things going on. There might even be 100 separate actions happening while playing the violin but one can only concentrate and reprogram the subconscious for one action at a time. The other 99 actions follow subconscious inputs. But each facet will have it’s time for improvement when the need arrises. When learned, we will the 100 actions to produce the music we desire.

We are lucky to have ingrained all that we learned as kids but thought we didn’t learn. Incorporating key signatures flew over my head as a youngster therefore this is an area where I need to put special emphasis when I am playing.

Your instructor may be young enough to be your son. Therefore you can explain to him that you wish to tour the botanical garden of discovery and not the jogging path of stretching.


March 10, 2013 at 01:09 PM · "Your instructor may be young enough to be your son. Therefore you can explain to him that you wish to tour the botanical garden of discovery and not the jogging path of stretching"

That's so cute :)

I once read in a horseback riding book that when mastered, it should be like a gentle/fun car ride on sunday afternoon...

(Ok I admit that the struggle can be bigger to get to that stage in a given peice or study but everyone need these "car ride" moments to be happy! Even the military trained pros...)

I think the same about any "piloting" type activity may it be playing violin, Sessna Piloting, horseback riding etc.

March 10, 2013 at 01:52 PM · One hundred seperate actions ... I can only count up to two - maybe three if it's a waltz.

Over a glass of wine ... !!! Never talk of wine and fiddle playing in the same sentence!! (Correction - I've just remembered that I often have a glass or two and play. (I saw a pianist in a trio knocking back one or two just before a recital last night ...)

Seriously though, you have had some good advice. But it's OK to be stretched as long as you can unstretch as well. Forward, and back, and then forward.

Play and practise to advance and be stretched - but play also to be comfortable and enjoy - so that the stretching is one thing, but the easier and very necessary music making is the other end of the balance.

March 11, 2013 at 02:42 PM · Thanks, everyone, for being so nice & so sympathetic. I will mull over your thoughtful replies. Have a great week!

March 11, 2013 at 04:27 PM · for someone returning to an instrument after a significant break, my hope would be that the teacher would get a feel for where the student had gotten to in terms of the basics and how much of that actually stuck through the break. If you feel that your teacher has determined that you have a good foundation in place, then taking on pieces that felt like a stretch to build your technique further would make sense. But have you had a conversation with your teacher about what you'd like your lessons to entail? I started violin as a kid & took a very short break during university. When I started lessons again I found I had to transition a bit to being an adult student.... being more of an active participant meaning asking questions and playing a role in what direction my lessons should take.

oh... and welcome back to the madness!

March 11, 2013 at 06:49 PM · Thanks very much. It's a very pleasant mania!

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