the gift of permission to fail

pinao baby


One of the main challenges of learning the violin is the lack of instant gratification.  You will not be able to play perfectly after one lesson. Or two, or a month’s worth.

As a student, you may spend several weeks practicing nothing but bow holds, or playing a single note on an open string – all in the name of developing the skills necessary to play with a confident, beautiful, controlled tone.

It is very easy to get discouraged with such intensive practice, and such hard work that seems, at first, to go nowhere. It is not easy; mistakes or flubbed notes are almost guaranteed, at least until you have put in hours of deliberate and careful practice.  There are no short cuts, which can make it easy to feel like quitting.  However, here’s why you shouldn’t – and the good that can come out of doing things that involve struggle.

The violin educator Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized music education by looking at how a child learns to speak their native language. No infant is formally “taught” how to speak, but they all learn to communicate with fluency and competence. This is because they are surrounded by language all the time, hearing it until they pick it up in a way that makes sense to them. His “mother tongue method” involves learning songs by listening to them played well, over and over again. I am in no way disparaging the importance of his influence when I point out that the “Suzuki method” is in fact very similar to the way most of the world’s cultures teach their traditional folk musics.

One very important part of an infant’s language learning process is called “babbling.” The baby hears the adults around him or her making noises with their mouths, and decides to try it too. At first these noises are random, just improvisational experimentation. Over a course of several months, the child gradually learns how to create sounds that have culturally recognized meaning.  It is not something that can be rushed. Before a toddler learns to walk or talk with ease, they must be treated with a lot of patience and gentleness – allowed to do it “badly” for months and months.

This same process carries throughout life. You will forget a vast majority of the information that has been spoon-fed and made easy for you. To really remember a skill, you must struggle through it, and figure it out for yourself.

My job, first and foremost, is to be patient with you as you struggle through and gradually learn how to do it automatically, in a way that makes sense to you. It is even more important that you are patient with yourself. You must give yourself permission to fail, and to keep failing – recognizing that progress may sometimes be slow. Millions of musicians the world over have have had the same struggles you are having, and have made it through. At the end, you will be able to play, in your own voice, with confidence.


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