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Can Adults Learn to Play the Violin?

Updated on November 11, 2014

I spend a lot of time not only playing, teaching, and writing about the violin but also reading what others have written. Others in the blogosphere have recently been addressing the topic of adult violin students. These articles have fallen into one of three categories: those which suggest adults do not have time to learn the violin (and subtly imply they should not try), those that suggest teachers prefer younger students (some of them do and will openly tell you so), and those that address the the cruel things more accomplished violinists like to tell adult beginners. Interestingly, aside from some dissenting comments posted under these articles, I was hard-pressed to find anything that encourages adults to pursue the violin.

Make no mistake: you can study the violin for a lifetime and still have more to learn. However, that is just as true for children as for adults. It is also true that many people, myself included, do not seek to be professional performers. This pressure from exclusively classical musicians for violin students to pursue a professional career in their chosen instrument is quite frankly narrow-minded and insulting to those who have chosen other paths and priorities. There is a high drop-out rate among adult students, possibly because they feel they are not making progress or because other commitments get in the way. On the other hand, adults are more likely to commit to practicing than a child and can learn violin theory faster.

As a side note: I do not believe any teacher who presumes that all students of a given group, age or otherwise, are incapable of learning by virtue of their inclusion in that group has any business teaching at all. It is the prerogative of the private violin teacher to choose who he or she is comfortable teaching, but stereotypes should never play a part in that decision.

I firmly believe that any adult who wants to pursue the violin should do so. Below, I have included some advice (five "don'ts" and a "do") for beginning the violin as an adult and for confronting the naysayers.

Don't Skip the Traditional Lessons

It may be tempting to save time and money by taking online lessons or teaching yourself using a book or video. The problem is you really can't and really shouldn't teach yourself to play the violin, or any instrument for that matter, if you have no previous musical experience. Some techniques are best learned with a two-way exchange. The instructor demonstrates it, you try it, and the instructor adjusts your position by physically moving your hand, fingers, elbow, head, etc. The process must be repeated over and over again until you no longer need the instructor to adjust your position. Everything needs to be in exactly the right place at all times. Otherwise, you risk injury or may be limiting your ability to play more complicated pieces.

There are things your instructor simply cannot do from a webcam. For example, it is kind of difficult to put finger tapes on the instrument if you cannot touch it. When I teach a student to position the left hand, I use my fingers as well as my eyes to make sure every bone, joint, and muscle is where it belongs. I run my finger along the forearm from the wrist to the elbow, tracing the groove formed between the radius and ulna. The center of the wrist and the tip of the elbow should be perfectly aligned. I also form the curve of the fingers with my hand rather than just telling the student to do it so I can make sure the curve is soft and the fingers relaxed. For this reason, I have chosen not to teach online lessons. I do not consider the level of service during an online lesson to be the same as what I can provide in a home or studio lesson.

Don't Expect Too Much, Too Soon

It takes decades of practice and experience to master the violin. Professionals will tell you that truly mastering the violin is impossible, for the instrument is so versatile that no matter how long you study it, you still have more to learn. Even if for those who have "mastered" the instrument and gained international recognition for doing so, it is only in a single genre of music (usually classical). It will take you a few years to reach a level where people will actually want to listen to you. Some do it in fewer years than others, but it always takes years. You cannot expect to learn everything there is to know about the violin by reading a book or working toward a goal song.

The major difference between teaching a child and teaching an adult is how the student gauges success. Four year olds generally do not care about the progress they are making as long as they are having fun and receiving lots of encouragement. By the time a child becomes conditioned to receiving grades in school, they have begun to develop the attitude that performance must be evaluated, and they expect evaluation on the violin and apply it to other violinists. A school-aged child starts out by categorizing a violin performance as "good" or "bad" with no rating scale allowing for variations in quality. If the performance is not flawless, it must therefore be a disaster. The student will therefore become his or her own worst critic.

Adult students move beyond this need for evaluation as they mature, but they still seek some way to gauge their progress. Often, this comes in the form of deciding, with or without first researching to discover what a reasonable goal might be, how long it should take to pass a given piece or method book. There are two major problems with this mentality. First, it presupposes that improvement can only be judged according to one's repertoire. This is simply not true. If you tell me how many pieces you can play, that tells me nothing about your tone, expression, experience, or the difficulty of those pieces. Telling me which pieces you can play gives me a little more information, but I still do not know how well you can play them until I hear it.

My students use their first books forever. They may add other books to them, but we are constantly reviewing and are therefore never truly done with any piece, even the simple ones like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." We may spend as much as a year perfecting "Twinkle" the first time, although we play other things as well to prevent boredom. After that, we return to "Twinkle" every time we learn something new, using it for everything from vibrato to improvisation. I have been playing the violin for twenty-two years. I still pull out my very first method book from time to time and spend a practice session reading/playing it from cover to cover. It helps me remember musical terms and keep those pieces sounding clean and professional when I demonstrate them for my students. It is therefore very important to me that I tell students to take their time and not worry about "passing" a given piece, for they will never truly be finished with it, anyway.

Do not set deadlines for yourself or spend a great deal of time contemplating which piece you would like to learn. Instead, set a specific, obtainable goal and force yourself not to look beyond it. The first goal I set for my students is to play "Twinkle." The second is to perform "Twinkle Variations," even if the only audience is a poodle. If your goals are beyond your current ability level, you will become discouraged and probably will not achieve your goals.

Don't Watch/Listen to Younger Violinists

It takes years to learn to play the violin, and children typically have more time than adults to dedicate to practicing their instruments. Furthermore, we tend to assume that if a child can do something, it must be easy. This simply is not true. Children actually learn slower than adults, and they have less endurance and become fatigued if they must hold their violin for more than five or ten minutes at a time. We take very different approaches to teaching children than to teaching adults. Suzuki students may start their training at birth with listening exercises and movement, preparing them to start lessons at the age of three. Adult beginners, on the other hand, may have a disadvantage in terms of prior preparation but have the advantage of maturity and life experience and are more coordinated and comfortable with movement.

In short, the performance doesn't tell the whole story, but adults tend to be discouraged rather than inspired when they watch children perform. As you become more advanced, you will be able to develop objectivity when you watch a violinist play and will find yourself analyzing the music and the performance rather than the attributes of the performer. Your journey in learning to play your instrument is unique from everyone else's, and it is important that you not become distracted by wishing you had chosen a different path.

Don't Set a Timer

I covered this concept in more detail in "Taking a Break from the Violin" and encourage you to read the entire article. To summarize, focus on repetition rather than the passage of time when you practice, and break practice sessions into smaller chunks if you need to do so. There was a time when the experts believed we should set an egg timer for thirty minutes and not put down the violin until the timer went off. This mentality has proven to not be as beneficial to the student as it was once thought, and if your instructor believes the timer is necessary, it may be wise to find a new instructor.

Don't Set Yourself Up for Failure or Discouragment

Some people just do not know how to keep their opinions to themselves. If you don't want to hear the negative comments, your best option is to not invite them. If you play for others in the beginning, do so only for close friends and family who will not be critical. The "will not be critical" part is important, for alas, it is often those closest to us whose careless words hurt the most. As you advance and build your confidence, you will be ready to play for larger audiences that may include strangers and perhaps other violinists.

You probably should not advertise to the world that you are learning the violin. Otherwise, you will find yourself giving impromptu concerts or receiving unsolicited advice from people who do not play the violin. By the way, if they do not play the violin or another member of the violin family (i.e. viola or cello), their negative opinion doesn't count. When you do play, go for what you can play well over what is more difficult. When the difficult becomes easy, it will no longer matter, but for now if you fail at your attempt to show off, you won't impress anyone.

Do Fall in Love with Your Instrument

If you want to be a successful student of the violin (at any age), it is important that you develop a love for playing it. This does not mean practice will always be fun. It does not mean you will not sometimes (or often) choose to do other things besides playing your violin. It certainly does not mean you will never get frustrated. What it means is that you can pick up your instrument, play your favorite piece, and get so completely swept away by the music that you lose track of time. When that happens for the first time, you will know in your heart that it does not matter how good you are or what other people think about your decision to pursue the violin. Nothing else will matter at that moment except that you are doing what you love to do.

Have a beautiful and blessed day!

Miss Courtney

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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