I remember getting my first violin, and feeling enchanted from my 6 year-old eyes, the cloth covered, curved box made of wood stained with a dark orange hue. It seemed almost scary in its unapproachable fanciness, as if it possessed magical properties. So I just kind of looked at it with a sense of awe, until I heard some musicians play it, first in a bluegrass band, and then in a symphony, with the promise that lessons and practice would lead me being able to do that. So I tried to pick it up – and practiced my first assignment – an open A string to a steady rhythm that I was taught as “Mississippi Hotdog.” (which I guess would be one with grits in it)
My teacher could play an amazing “Mississippi Hotdog,” with each note ringing out clearly, and keeping the beat perfectly wherever she felt like setting the metronome. About half the time, my “Mississippi Hotdog” sounded like the annoying static-y noise I would hear when I went to the wrong TV channel. It took a few months of doing nothing but @%$*#& “Mississippi Hotdog” on a open string before we even talked about putting the other hand on the string to play actually notes. When we did, I usually ended up with something that sounded a little like a very sad cat. This in turn led to another few months of hard work before I was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Violin playing is hard. Specifically, the worst part of learning is often at the front end. Some instruments, like the piano can be learned cumulatively – meaning it’s easy to do at first, and then can get more complicated as your knowledge builds. Violin playing is much more like riding a bike – it’s basically impossible at first, but you have to train your muscles to cooperate, and certain bodily movements have to become basically automatic. That’s why you often have to spend so much time simply learning how to hold the bow, or get a pitch in tune. It can be easy to get discouraged at this point (and I have seen a few students get discouraged and lose interest when progress wasn’t going fast enough) – but here are a few things I find are really helpful in helping to maintain a sense of motivation past the hurdle:
1) Never let the love of music die
When I first started lessons, my mom made the observation that the kids who carried their own violins seemed more likely to stick with it then those who had their instrument carried by parents. I’ve sense discovered what an ingenious discovery this was, that students who really “own” their instruments are the ones who keep going even when it’s too hard to get right away. Previously, I’ve written about the concept of internal motivation – or that a student needs to really desire to learn music for its own sake, because he or she really wants to. The great painter Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” So, I consider one of my main jobs as a teacher to maintain a sense of fun playfulness and love of music even when it gets hard. The discipline needed to reach proficiency will come if you really love it. But you can help me out in this goal! Keep listening to music, especially stuff with violins in it. Listen to your body, and know when you’re pushing it too much, and feel free to take a break. Play music-related games so you can “practice” without it feeling like drudgery.
2) Remember you are learning “music,” not just “violin”
Dragging a bow across a string is not just a technique. It is a way to play rhythm. It is not enough merely to know where the fingers of the left hand “should go” on the finger board, you need to listen carefully and know what it means to be in tune. Thus, playing the violin is not an act in itself, and sometimes it may be helpful to take a break from building technique, to instead build up “musical intelligence” more broadly. This can be accomplished by singing, clapping, playing a shaker or other percussion instruments, and dancing, as ways to work on matching a rhythm and pitch to what you hear. As I’ve been writing this article, I’ve been taking breaks with this very fun computer game where I have to press keys in order to make songs. In doing this, I’m working on my ability to play a song to a steady beat, building up connections in my brain that will strengthen my ability to play the violin for real.
3) Focus on only one thing at a time
One of the main reasons violin playing is such a challenge is that is requires you to do so many different things at the same time. Even “Mississippi Hotdog,” my favorite song of all time, requires an overwhelming level of coordination that can go wrong if any individual muscle is pressing down too much or not moving enough. It’s too much to think about at one time, which is how many people end up practicing things incorrectly and making everything even more difficult. Instead, really try to concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, try playing a song one time focusing on keeping the bow straight and in between the bridge and the edge of the finger board, and then do it again with making sure the fingers on the “note hand” aren’t jumping up after you lift them off the string. With my beginner students, I find it sometimes helps to focus on bowing on open strings, and then working on the note hand by plucking “guitar style.”
4) Daily short practice is better then inconsistent long practice
Violin playing is something that is only going to get easier with consistent practice. Trying to “cram” practice just before a lesson is about as effective as only brushing your teeth before going to the dentist. But I understand that, realistically, we’re not all students at Julliard or the Berklee College of Music. For many of my students, school, work, and friends gets in the way of working on everything every day. My encouragement to them is simply this – practice less more often. Even on days when you feel totally stressed out and overwhelmed, at least get the violin out of its case, and play scales for 5 – 10 minutes or so. Even that small bit of practice, with appropriate levels of concentration, activates the pathways of your brain, that, over a long period of time, will make playing come more automatically, so you can focus on actually making music.
A parable –
Once upon a time, there lived a little pony in a forest far away. One day, the pony found a huge tree that, according to his bird friends, had the juiciest, largest, and sweetest apples in the world. So he went to the tree, and discovered, sadly, that these amazing apples were only on the tree’s highest branches. He stretched out as far as he could go, but couldn’t get anywhere near the apples he wanted. But our pony wouldn’t give up. Every day, he would go up to the tree and stretch his neck, trying to reach as high as he could go. At first, it was really hard, and he couldn’t stretch anywhere near the apples. But, after a very long time of going to the tree and stretching his neck every day, he found it got easier and he was able to stretch higher then he had before. Finally, one day, he discovered that he could reach the apples, but that he had to work harder to reach down to the grass, because his stretching had made his neck longer. And he had become the world’s first giraffe.
And the moral of the story is – Your body, and your mind, are capable of far more than you think. If you just work at pushing yourself just a little bit every day, things that seem impossible will become second nature. Happy practicing!