One note at a time

The violin reveals its secrets slowly. One must be attuned to its possibilities with an almost reverent observing, akin to the sensory awareness of a naturalist in the woods. While this frame of mind brings a necessary focus to practicing, it’s a reminder that learning to play violin is not for the fainthearted.

What keeps me going is the promise of a discovery. If I am observant enough, I’ll realize some slight adjustment of the hand, a pulling in of the elbow, a relaxing of the shoulder brings progress.

My latest discovery has to do with the amount of finger pressure applied to the strings. It’s one of the million and one crucial things you had no idea you needed to learn back when you were struggling to play Twinkle Twinkle.

There’s an exercise to help determine this.

With your left hand in position, you start the exercise by lightly touching the string where you’d normally play a note. Then draw the bow across the string.

This delicate amount of pressure produces not a real note, but what’s called a harmonic–a raspy sound, not all that pleasant. Gradually you add an incremental amount of pressure on the string, stopping just before it actually touches the fingerboard. Because the string needs that freedom to fully vibrate for the clearest sound.

When you realize the distance from string to fingerboard is barely an 1/8th of an inch, you get a pretty good idea of the nuanced amount of pressure needed.

I’ve done this exercise numerous times, always with disappointing results. Until this week.

Suddenly I became aware of the string’s vibrations through the ends of my fingertips in a way I never noticed before. The vibrations were strong. I need press no further. My fingertips tingled. I couldn’t even see the minute amount space between the string and the fingerboard. But it was obvious this was the sweet spot.

Upon further study, I learn there are even more precise steps needed for accurate finger action.

My mind understands the concepts. That’s the easy part. Training my fingers to obey requires new mind-body connections, and a lot of no-nonsense directives to my unruly fingers.

It will take time to train myself to loosen my “beginner’s grip” on the violin especially since there are so many other techniques to discover. Like finding the exact place where the ‘ring tones’ live. A violin’s ring tone.

It takes a quiet, relentless courage to place the violin and lift the bow, something to be acknowledged but not dwell upon. Just showing up every day requires a certain “capacity to tolerate, endure, even thrive on uncertainty” a quote attributed to Chekhov that I relate to.

Success involves being able to pose the correct questions. Waiting for the answers. Taking it one note at a time.

8 things to remember as an Adult Beginner

When you’re an adult beginner violinist in your 70s, expectations shrink about ever sounding as good (or being as adorable) as a 5-year-old virtuoso performing a perfect Paganini on YouTube. And at 70, you assume that just about every violinist on the planet has had a head start over you.

I could easily regret not starting when younger, like in my 60s, but the reality is, it never occurred to me to take up violin until the moment it did, shortly before my 72nd birthday.

Yet I still have ambitions. Even if it’s as minimal as leaving the door ajar when my husband is home. Or learning a new piece. Like Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, a beautiful song which looks teasingly simple, but I know will be a challenge for me.

Since I’m a bit ‘late to the gate’, I try to make the best use of my time. Part of this comes into play before I even pick up my violin. It has to do with awareness and self-care of my physical, mental and emotional health. If any of these are in short supply, my practice is noticeably compromised, aka a ‘bad day”.

Mental health in regard to learning violin is, for me, about focusing. For over a year I’ve kept a daily Practice Journal which basically has two components. Intentions and Discoveries.

Intentions: First I set my Intention for the day by deciding what pieces and what techniques I want to work on. Often I read over previous days’ notes to see what I learned.

Discoveries: Discovery takes place during practice. Instead of just plowing into a piece, if I stop and ask: what new aspect can I discover about this piece? Or why do I continually fumble this passage? What is my body doing that prevents me from getting a better sound?

When I started realizing how much learning to play was a matter of problem solving, my practice sessions became moments of discovery. These are little light bulb moments. Sparks that keep me going.

When I stop to isolate and analyze the problem, I usually discover something that gets me closer to a beautiful sound. The more specific I get, the better chance for edging forward and building on that. Jotting down notes in my Practice Journal as soon as possible assures that I’ll retain it better.

When I keep this frame of mind, I’m wasting less time stepping in the same hole every time I turn the corner.

Physical Health: Playing violin takes a lot of energy. I’m a morning person, so a good practice session before lunch means I’m at my best energy level. Sometimes though I practice too long, straining my somewhat arthritic back, something I deal with by taking a long break, doing yoga and back stretches.

Emotional Health: I’ve learned to look for incremental achievements. As a perfectionist, this has helped more than anything to keep me going. I’ve learned that incremental achievements are the norm. So are days when you seem to regress.

When I have a really bad day, thoughts of throwing in the towel do creep in. Why am I trying to do the impossible? Why not just watch old movies and putter around the house? A sour note of a thought. So far, I’ve been able to let these off-putting ideas pass.

And in spite of the fact that I don’t sound like someone who’s been at it for ten years, learning to play the violin feeds my spirit in ways no other activity accomplishes.

I love to hear from other #adultbeginners, whether you’re learning violin or any other new skill. I love real stories about grownup people striving to do seemingly impossible things.