The psychology of learning the violin

Edited: July 5, 2021, 4:49 AM · In the 70s as a teenager, all I had was a borrowed plastic oboe. Apart from meeting a competent reedmaker who was prepared to sell his reeds and then learning to make my own reeds, there were no variables I could change other than me. I played that oboe in the British premier of Prokofiev's Duenna under Howard Williams of the English National Opera.

But violins have a thousand variables you can change in combination, so you can always be expressing your self-dissatisfaction in ways other than by practising. The more money you've got, the bigger your problems.

I wonder if anyone has written a book on the psychology of it.

Replies (14)

July 5, 2021, 5:10 AM · It's also a thing about online forums. If you go to a photography forum you find people obsessing about their equipment. If you go to a running forum you find lengthy threads about different kinds of shoes and sport watches and things. If you come to a violin forum you find people talking more about rosin (which makes a trivial difference) than effective practicing (which is vital for everything).
Edited: July 6, 2021, 10:54 AM · There are many threads here on how to practice, and many web sites and U-Toob videos also. Posts are often long and very personal, and on videos we talk much too much. (I am trying to prepare videos where I don't say a word..my students will have quite a shock!)

We have to combine the skills of a psycho-motor therapist and those of an speech therapist, not to mention a philosopher and a sports coach.

Also, music has the wonderful way of uniting people of very different outlooks, personal, cultural..or even political!

In a word, on the violin we have to learn to totter, walk, then run...over and over again.

Edited: July 5, 2021, 5:56 AM · Yeah, I hate videos. 9 minutes of talk and 1 minute of demo is the average.
One of the things I like about Fiddlerman is there's usually 2 minutes of demo in any 2 1/2 minute video.
Edited: July 5, 2021, 7:36 AM · Ha...I thought it was just me ! I have also given up on violin instruction videos. First the ads, then 5 minutes of talking followed by a 10 second demo.

As for equipment : I never spend more than $600 (Australian) on a violin. Setup with Wittner geared pegs will cost an extra $150. Strings are always Tonicas and rosin is always Hill Brothers. Sticking to these rules makes life simple !

Edited: July 7, 2021, 11:44 AM · I'm glad Aaron Rosand said that he puts his third finger on the Parisian Eye for his bow hold (and explained what he did with his other fingers). I could have watched that video ten times and missed that detail even though it's glaringly obvious after having it pointed out. I *did* notice that his pinky fingernail was weirdly long, but I was ready to dismiss that (I envisioned various purposes, some nefarious) -- until he explained why -- because it helps anchor his pinky on the bow stick.

So I'm glad Rosand talks a lot in his instructional videos. There are plenty of violin-instruction videos without any talking. Usually they're called "recitals" or "concerts" though. I learn a lot from those too.

July 6, 2021, 1:18 PM · There must be a constellation of factors that is particular to violin that encourages people to fuss about all kinds of external factors in a way that isn't AS pronounced with other instruments (I think guitarists can be similar kinds of weirdoes).

It has a steep learning curve (name an instrument that takes as long to make a competent sound on). There ARE differences between cheap and expensive instruments, but there is also a whole lot of mystique created by various sub-industries in order to sell their wares, so it feeds the idea that the equipment is the salient difference maker. Violins can be kind of fussy and can change due to factors like humidity.

Because people often come in with an idea that they can gain competence on the instrument in short order, which is more possible on just about any other instrument, and because there is a lot of variation in teaching quality, and because violin has some weird appeal to delusional self-teachers, then people with all kinds of magical thinking spend all kinds of time thinking that stuff that is either totally around the margins, or has absolutely no effect, like buying 20 kinds of rosin, or finding the just-right kind of strings, becomes the focus of people who would be better served just practicing more (assuming they know how to practice effectively).

It doesn't help that a lot of great violinists with big name instruments use the instrument names as a marketing tool, perpetuating these myths. Really great violinists are at a level where they can sensibly look for differences in tone by looking at different strings, because they have nearly accomplished what they can in finding the sound they want through their technique, while the average player should try and find a set of strings that work well on their violin and not sweat their string sets.

July 7, 2021, 10:15 AM · I enjoyed reading Paul Deck's comment above. I totally agree with him. Aaron Rosand was one of my teachers, though I never took a formal private lesson from him. He performed in Miami every year and I would always be in the front row carefully observing his violin technique and musical phrasing. I also attended his masterclasses at the University of Miami and would take every opportunity to chat with him. He personally weaned my off my shoulder rest! As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by just watching." So true!
July 7, 2021, 10:24 AM · Well, violins are expensive, but tweaks are cheap, relatively speaking. A good set-up makes a world of difference in both sound and playability. Strings make an audible difference. Rosin doesn't for the audience, but does for the player in terms of tactile feel and sound, and it's cheap.

Humans like novelty. One only needs to look at how the number of people who tried a unicorn frappuccino to figure that out.

An awful lot of hobbyist musicians are STEM people, who may have a higher tendency to enjoy equipment nerdery. I find the nerdery to be a pleasure unto itself.

July 7, 2021, 10:59 AM · I get the tendency to focus on gear, which is its own kind of hobby, but it's also a total sidetrack that should not be confused with playing better. If people like to geek out and buy stuff for its own sake, then its a fine hobby, like stamp collecting. I just have a sense that a lot of people, when faced with the reality of the difficult learning curve (and if you have bad teaching where it isn't clear that practice -> improvement), it is natural to confuse the hobby aspect of collecting gear with the magical thinking delusion that collecting gear is the secret to better playing. That delusion takes the natural point of frustration in something not going how a person wants as a jumping-off point to go find the magic bullet, and takes people away from working on their practice quality and quantity, which I think is unfortunate.

I'm largely projecting my mindset from when I had bad teaching, which lead me to believe that the only people that can play well are the mysterious natural talents, contrasted to when I found a teacher whose teaching lead to consistent improvements, which changed my mindset to seeing the cause and effect of practice and improvement.

It makes sense that a lot of adult beginners fall into this trap, because they often have a lot of hopes and expectations, but don't truly understand the time and energy it takes to play well. What a frustrating hobby to choose to take up!

July 7, 2021, 11:32 AM · That depends on your instrument, Lydia. If you have a 1000 dollar violin one set of Eudoxas will set you back nearly 10% of the price of the instrument.
July 7, 2021, 1:59 PM · Albrecht, that's true (I have long been an advocate that if you have an inexpensive violin that feels inadequate, you should take the money you were going to spend on expensive strings and save it towards an upgrade instead), but the marginal cost of string experimentation is pretty small.

For instance, if you change strings every couple of months, you have to change regardless of whether you're going to experiment or not. So the delta to go from Dominants (roughly $75) to Eudoxas (roughly $90) is $15, which is not an unreasonable experiment.

Edited: July 10, 2021, 7:55 PM · I had the opposite mindset from Christian, even though I was a self-taught late starter. Perhaps this is because I was self-teaching not out of delusion about how easy it would be, but because of rejection by teachers who insisted it was impossible. I was entirely focused on technique, to the point that I didn't upgrade things I probably should have upgraded.

I've only ever had the violin I inherited, and I only ever bought one viola when I had to return the viola I had been borrowing for four years. (I spent far more on the viola than my ability justified at the time, but the fact remains that I only ever bought one.) I used inexpensive student bows on both violin and viola until 2010, even when I'd been playing an expensive viola for several years. (I bought a bow when I was playing on a borrowed viola, and then already owned a bow when I bought the viola.) I didn't experiment with strings at all until I'd been playing violin for 9 years and viola for 8. I simply used Dominants on both; Dominant was the brand the luthier recommended for the violin when I first started out, and the brand that came on both violas that I had played until that point. I tried Vision strings on my violin within the first year they were on the market (I think 2008), mostly tempted to do so because they were on sale at a local shop, and then started using a Larsen A on my viola about a year later. I still use Visions on my violin, and the next time I tried a new string combination on my viola was not until 2017. I also used the same Hill Dark rosin until I dropped my rosin cake on concrete in 2018, and only switched to Jade because I needed rosin immediately and the shop I went to was out of Hill Dark.

On the other hand, I always seem to see at least a few people in lower-tier community orchestras spending so much on strings that they really should consider upgrading the instrument. People go to even greater extremes than what Albrecht is suggesting. I've seen Evah Pirazzis on a Stentor Student II, the strings costing almost half as much as that entire violin outfit. And I've certainly seen people on the internet who claim they can't afford an instrument over $500, but then drop $300 trying out several sets of strings in one go.

Edited: July 11, 2021, 2:49 AM · The violin's technical demands are far greater than people expect when they set out. Greater than most other instruments. Beginners can imagine the strings or the bow or the rosin or the violin are the problem.

Forums like this don't help - a beginner asks what strings to use, and all those people with 40 years' experience list every string make they have ever liked. What every beginner should really be told is "Tonicas".

Part of that problem is defining "beginner": - some people possibly imagine that, like language classes, you are a beginner in your first year, intermediate in your second year and advanced in your third year, whereas I'm in my third year of violin and happy to call myself a beginner. Impatience may make others in their third year unable to accept that they are beginners.

As Andrew says, you can't change strings until you have stopped changing yourself. That's basic science, apart from the fact that strings change during their lifetime.

As to rosin, I've played around with that, foolishly, but it's a cheap hobby.
I had mostly been using Hill Dark recently, but the latest lot of Dominants took a long time to mellow out, so I switched back to amber (Royal Oak Classic and Guillaume); and Brian's first comment above made me realise he didn't specify which Hill rosin, and they make a light one, so I bought one, my first in more than a year. It arrived yesterday, so I haven't tested it. Still foolish, though - the Royal Oak and Guillaume are perfectly good enough.

July 12, 2021, 1:35 PM · Gordon, Hill light is one of my 3 rosins that I have. It's my general purpose violin rosin.


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