Slough of Despond

September 22, 2013 at 12:54 AM · I'm retired and returned to the fiddle two years ago. Up to now I've been so keen & passionate, but for some reason (teacher away? old age?) I've started to feel that I'm going backwards. The sound I'm making sounds worse than before - I don't want to practise as much as I used to do - and I am beginning to wonder if the game is worth the candle.

Have any of you experienced this, and how did you overcome it. Are there tried & tested solutions? Go in for exams? Find a new teacher? Go to a fiddle school or violin camp? Have a 'rest' for some weeks before going back? Just ride with it, and persevere? Find a new repertoire? Sleep & exercise so that you feel more energy? Any and every 'magic wand' accepted!

Thanks in advance for any replies

Replies (27)

September 22, 2013 at 02:30 AM · One thing that helps me is to play with other people. Do you know anyone you can get together with? If so, pick music that's both nice-sounding and challenging - something you can really sink your teeth into. A friend and I have been doing this, and it's really helped me climb out of the doldrums sometimes.

September 22, 2013 at 04:57 AM · It is rare that it happens, but when I feel like things are not progressing or I am not playing as well as I had been or my motivation is hitting a lull... the best remedy I have found is to do a quick run through of my current assignments and then move on to a day of just "playing". I revisit items I played previously and particularly enjoyed, I look ahead in my books and do some sight reading on pieces that I am interested in, or I choose one item of technique that has been hovering just out of reach and research it from various sources (i.e. read about it, watch youtube video series on it, etc) and just dive into that one aspect and try some different approaches to see if I can make some headway. There is nothing more motivating than to just make music without worrying about every aspect of it, or to make a break through on something that has proven to be a real challenge for me personally. It never takes more than a day's refocus like that to get me back in my groove. I have learned to give myself some time at least several days each week (after I have wrapped up my normal practice work) to just play what I feel like that day. I love making progress and I never pass on my planned work for that day and week, but it is nice to go back and play things that feel comfortable and which allow me to take some delight in recognizing how much better it sounds now than it did when I first tackled that particular item. Besides, I do this so I can make music after all and it is all too easy to just drill and work through sections of things to the exclusion of just playing music for the joy of it.

September 22, 2013 at 09:14 AM · Hi Mollie

I really get where you're coming from!! I often wonder why I'm putting myself through this. I've been learning for 2 years now and sometimes I wonder if I'm making any real improvements. I go for lessons each week and try and play most days. But it all seems a bit plodding and pointless at times. I try to practise at least 3 - 4 times a week. I don't push myself to do it every day. I know I probably should but I'm not that disciplined. I don't think it would help me to force myself. Anyway Like one of the other comments, I go over some things I played at an earlier time and usually can see some improvement with those tunes so that bucks me up a bit. I always start with some scales, not necessarily looking at a book. Just getting my intonation and bowing going. Once I've got the violin out of its case, I get into the mood. I go over the difficult stuff and try and repeat bars of music at a time if I'm having difficulty, at the beginning and towards the end of my practise session. I always end with something that I can play reasonably well so that I end on a positive note (pardon the pun!). I practise on my own (perhaps you do too) and I think it's very difficult to keep motivation going. If I need inspiration I like to have a look at Youtube at some other beginners - it helps to see that other adult learners have some of the same issues when playing. Also some of the teacher on line give good info which can help.

Good luck Mollie. Hope your motivation returns soon - just try taking the violin out and promise yourself to do some scales and the rest will follow. x

September 22, 2013 at 10:40 AM · happens to me sometimes as well - learn a beatles song and if that doesn't help, learn another.

(later) - this is pretty doldrums pulling out of:

September 22, 2013 at 01:24 PM · I think that happens to most players at one time or another--we are (as C.S. Lewis put it once) pendulums in our interests and motivations.

I agree with earlier posters that going back to some piece you loved--but maybe didn't quite do well--some months earlier and play it can often stimulate the enthusiasm. Leaving pieces alone they continue maturing, as does anything we think about after we stop--brains/minds are wonderfully complex that way.

Playing 'with' people is good, is playing FOR someone--like visit a retirement home, or friends stuck inside. Either with or for reminds that, however much "fun" playing is, it is also communication, and can be a gift. Giving helps.

September 22, 2013 at 01:51 PM · When I think of the energy I used to have for doing stuff (including learning to play fiddle) before I turned 60, I get tired thinking about it. My new passion is for afternoon naps, and taking it easy at other times. Sorry, I have no antidote to offer, just an anecdote.

September 22, 2013 at 02:59 PM · Hi,

Each one has his own way but for me it is:

- To suscribe to a recital either solo or with friends if I can. If I lack time, it's better to go for it with an easier peice than to systematically refuse any concert opportunities for a long time, which will lead to more stage fright and less pleasure the next times.

- To listen to my favorite recordings of many genres (not just classical or the genre you struggle in!)

- Listen to musical documentaries, interviews, movies etc.

- See if it's a technical problem with the violin/bow. That often happens... the soundpost can be baddly adjusted and it will play and sound awful compare to the usual state.

- Play some easier things and record it, make a youtube video, anything.

- Take a break for a short time, a few days maybe at most and do exercise outdoors and think about it during that time.

- If it's a school/teacher thing, do not hesitate to find something more suitable of your needs since it can totally ruin your pleasure and motivation to stay in a bad fitted place for too long.

Well, just my opinion, as I said each one is different :)

Best of luck,


September 22, 2013 at 05:31 PM · I also started about 2 years ago and retirement is not very far away. I came into it cold - no music background other than 3 yrs on trombone back in 1971. My main advice - do not take a break. I've found that for every day I'm not able to practice takes 2 days to recover. I posed the same question to my teacher - Why am I sounding worse than before? His response - you always sounded that way, but now your ear has progressed to the point where you're able to recognize it. He was kidding me - but not by much.

If you're stuck in a rut - go for the little victories. Do long bows on the open strings and make each one sound as smooth as you can. Do a slow G scale - working on making each note in tune and with good tone. I'm working on the Mia Bang books and I will replay earlier lessons and compare how hard they were at first to how much easier they are now.

At this point I'm not too hung up on how I sound. There are good days and bad days. If I'm having a bad day, then I will go thru my lesson, but look to the small victories, like managing to play the piece in tempo even if it sounds like crying cats or managing to keep my bowing centered and smooth and not hit strings I shouldn't.

Finally, you've got to find a way to have fun. For me, I'll open the fiddle book to a new tune and see how close I can get to it on the the first run. I will also play duets with my computer. I have Musescore - a free music program that will play music scores using the instruments you pick. My Bang books have pieces where there are student and teacher parts. I program them into Musescore, then play them back - instant duet and no performance anxiety!

September 22, 2013 at 06:29 PM · Thank you for all the lovely replies. I'm already feeling more cheerful. Every single post here is helpful & I'm definitely going to try out the advice.

September 22, 2013 at 07:17 PM · Hi, Mollie. I read from your bio that your husband bought a piano. Does he play it? If he does, why not the two of you play a little duet together, even if it's simple one is fun and rewarding. And I am sure it will spice up your learning experience.

September 22, 2013 at 09:21 PM · Thanks, Yinmui - yes, we do play together - especially Playford & Carolan - though not so much lately. So you're right - getting back to it would cheer me up. I do think playing with other musicians is the answer; I wonder how to find them, though. Ad in the local paper? Hmmm...

September 22, 2013 at 09:23 PM · David, you are absoluntly right that after 2 years, a skiped day can be harder to catch up... But many musicians that have study for 4-5 years and more tell that you can take longer breaks with very small consequences as you gain experience. Your body remembers more. I heard Itzhak Perlman tell the same thing... I guess it's true then :)

I'm not for taking huge breaks but just a little one if sometimes, things are getting nasty and out of control... or motivation is lost etc.

But what you tell is totally true...


September 23, 2013 at 02:13 AM · I remember that someone here mentioned the 3-months mark and 2-years mark that many adult beginners stop playing. Maybe it's an urban myth, but it may help to know that you're not the only one struggling. There seems to be many tricks like playing with/for someone or join orchestra/jamming group (virtual or real) as mentioned here already. Another trick is buying a new instrument(violin, viola, cello...)/bow(s) if your bank account allows. I personally gained a tremendous moral support from fellow adult players through the "Adult Starters" facebook group. Nice place to vent or gain a support.

September 23, 2013 at 03:10 PM · Hi Noriko

I also joined the group you mentioned and I must say, they are really supportive. I agree with some of the commentators that taking a short break of a couple of days or so can help. I enjoy it much more when I go back after a couple of days and as I think someone else mentioned, my muscle memory seems to improve. Forcing yourself (at least for me) isn't a good way to go about it. So long as I can see little improvements then I'm happy about it and feel I'm doing something right. If I'm playing for 'pleasure' then that's what it should be !! Love all the comments x

September 25, 2013 at 02:14 PM · I am a little shocked to realize that I have now been playing for 7 years since I took the violin out of the closet and started playing again at age 40. I think everyone goes through these periods--I certainly have, many times in those 7 years.

I have to say, that I haven't really approached this process with my own personal improvement at the forefront of my mind every day. Every once in a while--maybe when the seasons change, or when I finish working on a piece and maybe perform it--I take stock and ask myself what I've learned and how I've improved. Sometimes I blog about that.

That seems to be about frequent enough for me to check on my own progress. Then I've usually come far enough to be able to make a bit of a forest out of the trees.

But checking in on my own progress daily, or even weekly, would be discouraging and not a little overwhelming.

Instead, in the moment I tend to think about specific passages and very specific problems. For example, right now I am taking a break from working on the first violin part of the 4th movement of Dvorak's 8th symphony. I have a concert on November 3rd. I have a rehearsal tonight, in fact. I know the piece will need to improve a lot between now and then. But right now I'm just getting fingerings and notes down for page 13.

There are some shifts there, and some very high notes that I have trouble identifying on sight. If I took stock (again, right now) of whether my ability to sight-read high notes above the staff has improved (not very much, frankly), I would get discouraged. I still have trouble distinguishing between A and C, let alone fingering them.

But rather than doing that, I'm just plugging away, identifying the high notes on my own time and learning what they are (G, E, Bb, A, A, A, C, A, C . . . ). Tonight at rehearsal, I will play the right notes.

By November 3, I will have done this multiple times for all the pages. And I will enjoy playing the symphony.

And if I look back a few years, I realize at that time I couldn't play the first violin part of this symphony at all. So even though it doesn't really feel like it in the moment, staring down all those ledger lines, I actually have made progress.

I think that for adult students, violin playing is not a sprint. Don't measure your progress in the moment, just plug away at small, specific problems and goals, and they will add up eventually.

September 25, 2013 at 06:54 PM · There are some fab answers here. Since the OP, I have joined adult starters - played duets with my husband - tried replaying favourites & playing what I like - and taken on board the advice about not being too impatient. The only advice I don't dare take is to have a break...

All the same, the depression has lifted, for the moment. And next time, I'll be more prepared.

Thank you, everyone, for such kind & helpful replies.

September 25, 2013 at 08:57 PM · I think that there is a problem with starting the violin in your 50s or older. That's me, and I've been scraping away every day for 3 years. I'm not prejudiced against myself... I believe that you can learn anything at any age, though it may take a bit longer. The thing about the violin is that it takes a long time to get to the point where you can enjoy it. To me, enjoyment means that you can play simple tunes with other people, tunes that give pleasure to an adult. The violin should be learned by young children. After 5 years, those that can do so will have mastered intonation and the unnatural position. They then have the rest of their life to enjoy it, should they wish.

The trouble for us older folks is not the hard work: it's simply that there are not many years of life left. By the time I master the basics, I'll be older, uglier, and possibly dead. The payoff is very small. This doesn't mean the older people should not learn a musical instrument. Just not the violin.

Older people like me should learn the flute. Within two years I would have been where I am aiming at: able to play simple duets like the Telemann canonic sonatas with a friend. Why do I persist with the violin? I'm stubborn, and I don't really like the sound of the flute. But that's just me.

September 25, 2013 at 11:11 PM · Michael, thanks for sharing your story...

That's no fun but 50 isn't 90... Many people say that with a good teacher, a certain basic talent, time and proper instrument, one can master the basics after maybe 3-5 years and play very decently (by this I mean with a more professional sound and repertoire) after maybe 10 years. Many music programs have 8 to 10 levels that can fit in this gap.

If really no progress has been done in 3-4 years, I would question myself about the teacher and if your teacher is great/good at teaching... then maybe it has to do with you (flexibility, ear, coordination whatever) and then, of course, it's better to not continue the torture any longer!

But if you consider yourself musically good in terms of ear, theory etc. and you are healthy physically, it may not be you the problem...

Just things to think about...

I wish you good luck!


September 26, 2013 at 08:07 AM · Yes, I too have to hope that there's some point in continuing to play my violin, even though I'm in my third age. Like you, Michael, I want to be able to play tunes with and for other people, and sound 'quite nice' when I do. I look forward to things being a bit better after another three years - people seem to say you need five years before you're really getting anywhere. But on slow pieces, provided I don't feel nervous & suffer from bow-shake, I already don't sound too bad. And why is that - because I have quite a nice violin that I bought, with good strings on it. Michael, maybe you would feel better about your violin playing with better equipment?

Tell you what, though - your post has made me feel much better, because a) I know I'm not the only one to feel discouraged and b) I admire your stubbornness & I want to show that I can 'thole' it too!

When all's said and done, the violin is an instrument with *soul*.

September 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM · I think when you deal with the instrument day to day, it can be hard to hear your progress, which ends up being discouraging. Unless you record yourself, you might not hear all the small incremental improvements, especially over the course of a week. (My teacher can tell me something sounds much improved when I still feel like it's not better than it was the previous week, but he has the advantage of hearing things a week apart, while I'm hearing each day's teensy improvement.)

I think it's useful to have a goal -- one that's short-term and achievable. That helps you to feel like you're getting somewhere and there's a point to doing this "for fun".

At the moment I'm trying to prepare a performance, and I'm stuck in a bunch of different kinds of despair. (1) I've come back to the violin after a ten-year gap (the second time I've done that), and my playing level is drastically below my playing level a decade ago (when I had a return to the instrument after ten years), and even more drastically below my childhood level. (2) I may have bitten off more than I can chew, trying to prepare a very difficult concerto for performance with a community orchestra towards the end of this year. (3) I expected that I'd be playing this work at its current level four months ago, so every bit of improvement feels like it should have already happened. (4) I usually have a little over 30 minutes a day to practice, and I have a demanding job with a lot of travel, and often I end up picking up the instrument while feeling exhausted and just wanting to relax.

I'm genuinely enjoying the experience, nevertheless, but it feels like masochism fairly often. The feeling of masochism, though, may be in part what makes it rewarding -- the satisfaction of overcoming something difficult.

September 26, 2013 at 09:32 PM · An interesting discussion, indeed.

The statement that one is not progressing (as expected), implies that there is a referential point, something or someone to compare with. Typically this referential (and imaginary) point is in our head and the discrepancy between "ideal" violinist and real one is useful to motivate us to practice and perform.

If, however, this gap is too big, the frustration is counter-productive.

The wold amateur comes from French (the) "lover of".

So, it is important to remember to play music for the joy if it.

Reward (small or big) from playing music is important, so good motivation to practice will come not from comparing oneself to an "ideal" violin player, but from getting real pleasure from making music and sharing it with other musicians and the audience.

Big motivation bust also comes from a great instrument - reward yourself with a great violin and a bow and that in itself will motivate you to open that case every day and make the music alive.

September 27, 2013 at 08:18 AM ·

If you find yourself not making any progress and constantly frustrated, this is a sign to get a new teacher. The right teacher can resolve things in months that the wrong teacher is unable to accomplish in years. A lot of students blame themselves: I have no talent, I wish I could play like them, I'm tone deaf, I have no sense of rhythm etc... As a guess, I would say 80% of the time it's the teacher that is to blame for these problems.

I put diet first and foremost. If I don't eat well, I won't exercise. If I don't exercise, then I'm not focused during practice or practice less.

Practice three times a day for 15 to 20 min. every 4-6 hours, and make the last practice over 30 min.. What you do is practice the difficult areas of a piece or new technique ONLY (place a X at the areas where you make constant mistakes). Repeat the bar, phrase or technique 6-10 time ONLY, then move on to the next bar, phrase or technique. Do this for the short practices, then work on the complete piece in the evening.

The idea behind this way of practice is the minds processing time, because we won't learn things until the mind processes it. The more processing you get in the day, the quicker you learn, even though the total practice times are the same.


Day one. You practiced 15 min. in the morning, 15 min. at lunch, then 30min. in the evening. Total practice time 1 hour. Total minds processing time 6-12 hours.

Day Two. You practiced one hour in the evening. Processing time 4 hours.

One more point of advice that I tell my students. When your learning something, speed kills, slow is natural and fast is forced.

good luck

September 27, 2013 at 10:38 AM · I picked up the violin for the first time almost 2 years ago at age 49, with admittedly a rather solid musical background. My main desire was and is to be able to play with others as much as possible. I am now at the stage where I can play a Telemann trio sonata with a friend who is a professional hoboist. Do I sound as good as him? Not in this lifetime. Do we enjoy ourselves playing? Absolutely!

Also 6 months ago I boldly joined a community orchestra. This season we will be playing an abbreviated version of a Brandenburg sinfonia, Handel and Haydn. I sweat a lot during rehearsals and practice for hours at home to be able to keep up, but I couldn't be happier.

I agree that one needs a good teacher. Mine steps it up every week but effectively helps me solve the problems I encounter. I am glad that he has high expectations of me and feel obliged to work hard to meet these.

Like Molly at first I was afraid to even skip a day of practice. Since I cut my hand at some point and had to stop for 10 days, I no longer have this fear. Everything I had learned before turned out to still be there when I returned. I even think it is beneficial, because I am very much oriented to achieving. Taking a (short) break helps me relax, which of course benefits my playing.

So it might be true that for some people it may be overreaching to pick up the violin in your fifties like Michael said, but certainly not for everyone. You won't know until you try.

September 30, 2013 at 07:39 AM · Sometimes trying instruments can help! You'd think it'd make you want something better, but it actually just makes you love playing and hearing good sound. That in turn helps you create good sound since know what it is you're trying to emulate. Even if it's subconscious, your musical palette is broadened and you can create more colors and play with confidence.

It seems counterintuitive, but it works. Last night, I had a solo recital I just wasn't feeling at all, but I found out a fine violin shop was doing an exhibition down the road. I went there, played for about two hours on the 1701 markee Stradivarius they happened to have, and even though I'm a violist and didn't do that violin much justice, it got me all fired up, and I played one of the only few flawless recitals if my life. It can help!

September 30, 2013 at 01:52 PM · For me the best part of music is getting to play with others so I'd do whatever I could to make sure I was getting to do that as much as possible.

Do you have pubs around you? I'm not really in on the fiddle scene but a friend who does both fiddling & classical goes to jam sessions at the pubs around town. If you have a teacher or access to one, you could ask them to put you in touch with other players who might be interested in group music. Also check out the local community orchestra scene. Are any of these around you?

September 30, 2013 at 01:54 PM · can't edit my above post just now, the link I tried to include is

September 30, 2013 at 02:39 PM · The great thing about is that you can get loads of advice, encouragement, sharing of experiences, expert opinion, empathy, and (hopefully) criticism that is constructive. In regard to all that, the numerous above responses by everyone are great, and (I hope) helpful.

So, let me just add a couple of brief, practical suggestions you may or may not want to consider.

1. Watch out for the ordinary, everyday "self-talk" (that is, the things we keep telling ourselves over and over again that are discouraging or self-defeating). Change the self-talk to something positive.

2. Motivation has 2 sides. One is the inner drive, the enthusiasm, the goal, and all of that. But the other side is that you can have all the enthusiasm in the world, and something can still get in the way. So ask yourself is there's some kind of "roadblock" that's keeping you from doing what in your heart you know you want to do.

3. (And I've said this before). Just do a tiny, tiny bit each day as your daily "chore." I suggest 3 minutes, with full concentration, playing something basic, playing it super slow, and striving to get it perfect. You've got to do it every day, rain or shine, no matter how you feel. 3 minutes isn't that much to ask, is it?

4. Remember the great Bobby Short quote: "Life is hard. And if you're an artist, it's harder." Playing the violin is one of the most difficult things in the world to do. Even Heifetz once said, "You think you've got problems? I have to be Heifetz every day."

Hope that helps.



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