Adult learner - tips on progression

April 19, 2017 at 02:08 PM · Hi there,

I'm 44 and have been learning the violin on and off for about 2 years now. I've been getting lessons on and off since I started, but just started getting regular weekly 30 min lessons in the last 8 months. I've just recently completed grade 1 Abrsm exam (received a merit 127/150). The first music exam I have ever done.

I would really like to take my playing up a level. I've probably been practicing about 30 to 45 mins 3 or 4 times a week at most, but I find my progress so slow! I will have a bit more free time soon and would love to commit an hour a day maybe 5 times a week to practice. Realistically that is the max I could do (along with my 5 children under 12 years and a part-time job??!) My goals are to play well and competently. I love the goal of exams and would love to get to grade 8 eventually. I am going to join a community orchestra in Sept that accepts beginnners and rehearses for 2 hours a week, so that will give me more experience and playing time.

Just looking for some tips really on how to progress and stay motivated! I was really driven before my exam, but now that it is done, I'm in a bit of a lull. I love playing and love the violin but it is so hard to stay motivated, even though this is something I've always wanted to do. I find it hard sounding so 'average beginner' (to my ear) when I play and would love to play 'beautifully' one day, not advanced, I am realistic, just competently and well. I have no background in music study at all, just the love of listening to classical music and singing!! ???? I

Replies (24)

April 19, 2017 at 06:11 PM · Hi Marie-Therese,

I am in no position to give any advice. Therefore I just write a bit about what helped me.

My first music school had a leadership problem and young teachers kept quitting. After three teachers in one year I looked for an alternative and found a new teacher. It makes a world difference to have a steady arrangement. I went from 30 min lessons to one hour lessons. Again, that was great for me because now we had time for technique, duets, repertoir, questions...

I increased my practice time. Now I am a bit over 50 min a day. Be careful because the body has to adjust to an increase. While practicing I keep a diary and write down what I should do the following day. I do 50% of the time technique and 50% repertoire.

Sometimes my teacher gives me little exercises to do for a specific problem. To not forget those and for repeating them I write those down on little cards (like kids use for learning vocabularies). I keep those in a box and can repeat them, put them in the front or back as I see fit.

I have a warming up routine, long bows, scales, vibrato, bow technique, etudes. Always the same steps.

It helps me to have everything steady and sorted.

I think somebody wrote it here before. We overestimate what we can achieve in two years and we underestimate what we can achieve in ten years.

The very best and congratulations for having five kids!


April 19, 2017 at 06:18 PM · Thank you for your encouragement Eva!! ??

April 19, 2017 at 08:46 PM · Marie-Therese,

Welcome to the Late-Starters! You have a potential for a long musical life. Obviously you want to play the violin and as an adult you probably have a pretty good idea of where you want to go with the violin. Communicate your goals to your teacher and make sure that the teacher is in agreement with your goals before you start.

As an adult you have a very different life from a child. You have responsibilities which make the dictum of X hours per day of practice unrealistic. The key to skill development is to work on a specific skill with total concentration and think about what you are doing. Get a digital tuner it will make life a lot easier. You can learn relative ear-tuning later but don't frustrate yourself with spending precious time getting the instrument in tune. Learn to listen to your instrument. You will hear the "ring" of the instrument when you play octaves of the open strings. You might also like some aids like the "Fretless Finger Guide" as a way to guide your fingers to the proper positions as well as get the sense of basic music theory on how scales are formed.

Most of all have fun, if you turn this into drudgery you will hate the instrument. Don't expect miracles, nothing worth while happens overnight.

Finally, the violin isn't hard to learn, or even the hardest instrument because you want to learn it. Yes, it can be frustrating but if you really want to learn it you will be successful.

FWIW: I started the instrument 40 years ago when I was almost 30. I've played with a community orchestra for many decades and the occasional solo in church. I studied with the same teacher for decades until he died. I've had periods of almost not playing and now, in my retirement, I have started teaching basics to young musicians who would not get private lessons because their parents cannot afford them. I also volunteer with a Youth Orchestra assisting with tuning and adjustments to the instruments of the young musicians.

April 19, 2017 at 09:43 PM · Thanks so much George, that is very encouraging to hear! At 44 I'm certainly a late starter! But I'll keep practicing and see where it takes me ??

April 19, 2017 at 10:20 PM · Keep it up. What are you asking?

April 19, 2017 at 10:36 PM · I'm sorry my post seems to have disappeared! I will paste it in again above ??

April 20, 2017 at 02:48 AM · Marie-Therese, regarding motivations, here are a few suggestions:

1.Write down your short-term, mid-term and long-term goals

2.Do have regular lessons

3. Seek informal performance opportunities. It doesn't have to be outside of your home, you can give mini concerts to your kids.

4. Get support from your kids. Just have a performance schedule and make an announce so your kids will remind you to keep working on your program.

These are just a few on top of my head. Have fun!

April 20, 2017 at 04:41 AM · I started at 50, and for me I find that a goal of 1hr a day was needed to make noticeable but slow progress, and the time increased the more I progressed, now aiming at between 1.5-2hrs (more when possible) after 6 years. Obviously time is at a premium for you and will be for quite some time, so try not to get discouraged if you find that your progress is slow beyond a certain level, it's quite normal. The community orchestra will challenge you, which is good. I don't think I would have been ready before 4-5 years for the orchestra I joined, but it all depends on the level of repertoire that the orchestra is playing. Sight reading skill is a must.

April 20, 2017 at 09:27 AM · Thanks very much, that is very helpful advice. I've been working everyday on my sight reading so it is improving. I'm not sure how the community orchestra operates, but they do accept beginners, I think maybe they have a separate beginners group to help new starters. I performed a short piece at my music school recital a few weeks ago, up on stage with lights and microphones! It was a great experience! I really need to stop comparing myself to others, this is really demotivating me at the moment. I know how I would love to sound and feel like I will never get there!

April 20, 2017 at 12:25 PM · Being in a structured learning program such as one required for ABRSM, the expectation would be that you follow the program, steadily, and steadily progress over several years. And in the end, that may be all that any of us can expect -- to spend several years developing the skills required to play as we would like to. But such a long-term program can leave you frustrated in the short term while you cannot imagine substantial progress, at least once you're over the very beginner's phase, where every new note is progress.

Especially as an adult, you don't have to follow the prescribed and assumed program exactly. You can and should discuss what you are missing in your playing with your teacher, who can then give you specific advice and exercises to work on, and capitalize on your specific motivation in the process.

My own teacher emphasizes sound production, and from the first lesson and in every lesson, makes me produce the best sound I can from the instrument and rarely lets me get away with less. So that is a specific skill which can be worked on, and does need attention in order to work. I personally didn't really care for that much, and was much more interested in the left hand and playing in tune, so would come back to every lesson with a poorer sound than he made me produce 10 minutes into the lesson, until I once decided, I don't quite know why, to work on bowing specifically and also focus on contact and tone myself. It needs attention and effort -- though not straining and often the opposite, and an intelligent recognition and combination of factors which can increase in complexity over time, but a lot can be achieved by anyone if they go in the right direction.

Tell your teacher if you haven't already, and again if you have but have not made any apparent progress, that you are very unhappy with the sound you're making and want to work on making that better, and see where it goes.

April 20, 2017 at 02:18 PM · I think it's fine that you want to join a local community orchestra. One thing you will discover -- quickly -- is whether the folks seated around you are supportive or not. Remember what Fred Rogers always advised: Look for the helpers. You may also meet one or two players about your same level that might enjoy coming over on a weekend to play duets with you. The main things you learn in orchestra are how to listen and how to blend with others.

With orchestra, there is always the issue of effort toward individual improvement vs. effort toward your responsibilities to the ensemble. I joined a local community orchestra, and I found that the pieces were not well chosen -- they were either trivial or way too hard for the group. Imagine a bunch of adult learners trying to play Sibelius's Karelia Suite or Grieg's Holberg Suite. It will not be super helpful to your individual playing skill if the parts are way too hard or too easy for you.

For me, I just found that the rehearsals themselves cut too deeply into my own individual practice time, so I discontinued. These days I've been re-evaluating my chances for continued significant improvement, and I may again revisit my opportunities with local ensembles.

April 20, 2017 at 03:04 PM · I agree with Paul. Community orchestra participation cuts too much into one' practice time. Instead of working on music that is either too hard or too easy for me, I would rather work on scales, etudes, and solo repertoire at my level.

April 20, 2017 at 07:16 PM · I also second Paul's concerns regarding joining local community orchestra. In addition, orchestra playing doesn’t require good tone production: you don’t need to play beautifully but just need to be together so the whole orchestra sounds right. Probably this is why I’ve heard so many community orchestra players who don’t have good tone production and don’t want to work on solo repertoire. Rehearsal time is another problem. It’s not unusual half of the time is spent on other sections than yours and you just sit there wondering why I spent whole precious evening listening to the conductor talking to the wind section? Having said that, you'll have to try it out for yourself. It's one of the best part of the learning: you asked and you've heard what we say, so go ahead and do some experimenting, then you'll have your own answer to share with the world :-)

April 20, 2017 at 09:43 PM · Community orchestras (CO) are varied. The one I played with for some decades was a multi-generational teaching orchestra where the teachers who ran the orchestra brought in their students (of all ages) and rehearsals were often mini-lessons. Unfortunately, a bunch of "Tiger-Moms" took over the board, made it only for children under college age. It's now a resume builder for young musicians with parents who want them to use their playing to get college scholarships.

There is another CO in my area that is pretentious with a Beethoven loving conductor who only preforms evenings and demands full dress (tuxedos, et cetera). I've recently found another, less pretentious, orchestra that I'm going to sit in with in the fall and see if they have the chemistry that I can work with (& vice-versa).

As far as "taking time away from practice" goes, if your goal is to play with a community orchestra the rehearsals aren't really time away, just practice for what you want to do anyway. What is wrong with that? Of course if you want to be a center-stage performer then you need to develop those skills and a community orchestra won't make that happen as that is a whole different path and late starters don't usually make it to center stage.

April 21, 2017 at 01:34 AM · Orchestra playing absolutely does require good tone production, but depending on the quality of your community orchestra -- and the attentiveness of your conductor, concertmaster, and section leaders to string sound -- you might or might not get nudged to .produce a nicer tone quality.

From my perspective as a community-orchestra concertmaster, much of the direction that I give concerns the desired sound quality and articulation, and the phrase-shape as an expression of the conductor's intent (which may include fairly precise instructions on how to distribute the bow to achieve the desired effect). Precision is a nice goal but it makes less of an impression on the audience than a greater beauty/musicality of sound as a section, I think.

Even beginners can be taught to play with a nicer orchestral tone quality.

April 21, 2017 at 02:36 AM · Lydia, as I understand, auditioned orchestras or high quality orchestras usually don't accept beginners or even some intermediate players. Where I live, those non-audition orchestras accept beginners and most players simply don't have the technique to produce good tone or fast clean notes, let alone good intonation. Even an auditioned semi-professional orchestra has some violinists don't pay much attention to their tone production. One of such orchestras I joined a couple of years ago was doing the entire piece of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. The more experienced members kept telling me that they "play for the effect". Ha!

That said, my current string orchestra in our conservatory is great. All players are advanced players at different stages of proficiency and we work under a very experienced director and well known guest conductor. Still, the focus is overall effect as an orchestra rather than individual quality of playing like you would expect doing solo works.

April 21, 2017 at 03:15 AM · I joined a community orchestra for 3-4 months. We played Mahler 2, first movement, Dvorak Othello Overture, and selections from Bizet's Carmen suites. The Bizet was easy, but the Mahler and Dvorak were a stretch, both for me and for the orchestra as a whole. I had to dedicate a few hours of home practice to these pieces every week to get them anywhere close to an acceptable performance level. I decided that for now, my time would be better spent on individual skill development. Once I get to the point where I can prepare the orchestra music from rehearsals alone, I'll probably rejoin.

April 21, 2017 at 03:43 AM · I still remember my first night rehearsal with the community orchestra... where I sat down in front of the Beethoven Symphony #2 partition, which I'd never seen before (and about 6x longer than anything I ever played before!). I think that I managed about 5 notes that night! (perhaps a few more, but it certainly felt that way) I have to say that the orchestral practice occupies 90% of my time (1-2hr/day). I try to integrate the difficult parts in my routine as I do for etudes. It has helped me immensely to progress and after 1.5 years of hard work, I can now begin to re-introduce more non orchestral curriculum into my practice routine, which I perhaps neglected a bit too much but life gets in the way. I have to admit, the orchestral work is very demanding on my practice time, but then, as an adult learner why am I doing this if not to play music, that's the whole idea. After a while though, the weaknesses start to limit my progress, and this is the time when I need to refocus my effort a bit if I ever want to be able to play every notes and with a nice clean intonation one day!

April 21, 2017 at 04:57 AM · I certainly did not mean to bad mouth orchestras. One could learn a lot of musicianship, if nothing else, from playing in an orchestra, assuming one does not simply follow the section leaders.

When I was in high school, I loved the orchestra. That was my comfort zone.

April 21, 2017 at 09:24 AM · Hi Marie-Therese,

Congratulations on Grade 1! :)

Like a few of the others I wonder about whether joining an orchestra is right at this point. On the plus side you might find it motivates you to play, and it's often easier to be out of the house for an evening than to make time to practice at home when you have a family. My teacher has a lot of adult students at all different levels and always recommends some kind of group/chamber playing.

The potential downsides are that you will be playing what the orchestra needs, not what will help your playing. Unless the orchestra is particularly set up to accommodate near-beginners, the music might be quite difficult for you. So if you don't find it works out, don't worry about leaving orchestra until a couple of years down the line. :)

April 21, 2017 at 11:46 AM · Much thoughtful and useful advice and moral support in postings here. For what it's worth I started violin at 41 and joined a learner orchestra (which did public performances) two years later. The orchestra was an education in itself: non-competitive, trained members in a diversity of styles and a varied repertoire. And it was very helpful in developing sight-reading. I've returned to violin in the last year after a long break and realised that it's a long - but rewarding - and that perseverance and acceptance of inevitable obstacles and perceived failures is inevitable. Some 'older' learners make quick progress, as I probably did, then find that it gets more challenging as you learn more about the instrument, and the skills needed. I suspect that older(dread word) beginners in particular may feel they ought to be making progress rapidly, but the fact it is it's an unending process for everybody. I found a musical friend's advice to see yourself as a learner and accept where you are at any given stage, rather than feel demoralised by the feeling you're not at the level you'd like to beliberating and encouraging. Enjoy your violin and your playing, and acknowledge the progress you make. It's a journey (another dread word, but sometimes apt) on which you sometimes move very fast, while at others come to what feels like a standstill. Good luck, and above all have fun.

April 21, 2017 at 12:10 PM · @Lydia the kind of nuanced instruction that you are providing to your section is also what I experience in our studio's chamber orchestra -- from the director who is an experienced pro violinist. I feel like I'm getting a violin lesson at every rehearsal, and it's wonderful. But I suspect that's not typical in CO's. More typical are sections full of players who are struggling to count rests and find fourth position. Fine details of articulation and bow distribution are of little use in that situation.

April 21, 2017 at 12:49 PM · Yixi and Paul, I think it depends. Arguably it actually matters more for section leaders to give instruction regarding what the sound should be like when the section is full of less-advanced players, because such players are much less likely to have had previous experiences in which they were taught how to produce a nice orchestral sound, and also less likely to be at a stage where they "instinctively" do the right thing. (I have also played in community orchestras which are semi-pro, where section leaders generally don't have to give much in the way of verbal instruction -- it's usually unnecessary.)

My community orchestra currently is pretty typical, I think. Our 2nd violin section is mostly comprised of intermediate-level players, most of whom can play comfortably in 1st and 3rd position, and everything else is "emergency position", and while there are a handful who take (or who have previously taken) private lessons, a lot of people are products of public-school teaching. The string sections have a number of adult beginners (though ones who have been playing for a number of years at this point). Figure that the typical player in 2nd violins could probably manage an okay Bach A minor 1st movement, at some time in the past.

Most 2nd violin parts in the literature we play (mainstream orchestral literature, but usually thoughtfully chosen with regard to difficulty) may have a handful of scary parts, but for the most part, the group can be made to sound better by subscribing to the belief that what the right-hand does is at least as important, perhaps even more important, than the left hand.

For instance, in a passage of fast notes that have downbeat accents, I really mostly only care that people hit the first beat of the measure on time and with the marked accent; that's what will be heard and the notes in-between can and probably will be a bit incoherent. Or in a soft melodic passage that's in a weird key where it's hard to be in tune, I care that people are in the right part of the bow with the proper bow distribution, because even if the intonation is squirrelly, the mood and balance (beneath a solo wind player, say) will still be right. And limited practice time applied to this creates much more improvement in overall orchestra sound than woodshedding notes during that time.

All-beginner orchestras or beginner/intermediate community orchestras, just like youth symphonies for elementary and middle-school students, should benefit from some thoughtful attention to sound -- and literature should be chosen at a difficulty level that permits that.

April 22, 2017 at 09:32 AM · Thank you very much everyone for the encouragement and advice. I will chat to my teacher about joining this orchestra but am leaning towards leaving it for now and maybe joining in another year when I feel more comfortable with my playing. Many thanks again

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