Violin Lessons – The Adult Beginner

I have been surprised and impressed by the number of adults who will begin the challenge to learn to play the violin. In preparing for this article I requested email input from the adult beginners that I have had contact with and will be using their suggestions as well as giving you my own thoughts.I have come to believe there is one great myth out there regarding the adult who takes up a new instrument: “It is harder for an adult than it is for a child.” There are many versions of this: “Children are more flexible;” “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” Well I don’t believe this is true at all. I believe the reason this myth persists is due to different expectations between adults and children.Children want to play because they heard a violin somewhere; or a parent or grandparent plays and they want to be like them, or for many other reasons. But children are used to being on the beginning end of things, and are used to people teaching them and telling them how to do things. They go to their lesson every week, Mom or Dad helps them practice every day, and before they know it they’ve been at it for a couple of years and are sounding pretty good!The adult on the other hand is by now very proficient at their chosen profession and in many cases is the teacher and not the student in their field. It is uncomfortable therefore, to be a beginning violinist and to play at a beginner level in front of someone who is proficient (his or her teacher). They look constantly for progress and measure themselves against a standard that they have chosen — often an unrealistic standard.I had one student who said he’d always wanted to play violin. His wife gave him a violin and a month of lessons for his birthday, and he was very excited and very nervous. At work he was used to being in front of a boardroom full of executives and this is where he was most comfortable. When he came to lessons he was sweating and nervous and nothing I could do really calmed him down. I’m really not that intimidating! It was just too hard for him to be the beginner again. He lasted about a month and then was too busy with work to continue with violin.The adult students who stick with it have no pre-set expectations other than to play as well as they can. I asked adult beginners what their expectations were when they began lessons. Heather, who began viola lessons in her 40’s said she expected it to be difficult and expected to take as long as two years before she’d want to play for anyone. Bill, who began in his 60’s said he had no real expectations, he just wanted to do as well as he could. Melody, who began lessons in her 30’s, said she just wanted to be able to share music with her son and husband. All of these students have been playing for more than a year now and are seeing great improvements in their tone and in their overall playing.Staying motivated is particularly challenging for the adult student. I advise all my students to continue to play passed-off songs in their practice sessions. When you’ve finished a song and moved on to the next one, play the old songs in your practice sessions often. They can be good warm-up, and they are great encouragement. They get gradually easier and easier which lets you realize that this song that was once so hard is now easy! You have visible progress!Bill stays motivated by listening to good players. He says it’s all difficult, but also fun “when sometimes I make real music.” A big help for Heather has been keeping a violin journal. “About once a month I write in it,” she says. “It helps me sort out motivation hurdles. I try to make a record of it any time I have an A-ha moment. It helps me keep the bigger picture in mind.” Listening to really lovely music also motivates her. Having a goal she wants to meet by a specific time and preparing to play for others is a great motivator. “Because it is so difficult, the sense of accomplishment on mastering a new skill is absolutely thrilling,” says Heather.Melody says, “Having the common interest [with my husband and son who both play violin] bonds us together in a very sweet way. This gives me lots of motivation to keep learning even though I improve very slowly. And as a role model, I want to show [my son] that I won’t quit even though it is not easy.”I asked the adult students if they had advice for someone considering violin lessons as an adult. Bill said, “Go for it!” Heather advises, “Be very honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting to begin playing, and about the time and energy you will have available to invest. Having said that, I would still encourage almost anyone to at least give it a try. Learning something new, especially something as challenging as violin, has been shown in scientific studies to be one of the best protectors against dementia in older age!”Now a few words for the teachers. Teachers need to be aware of the different motivations and teaching approaches for adults versus children. Heather mentioned that it is important not to demand performance in recitals from adult students. I agree with this and always encourage my adult students to play, but let them have the final say. If they choose not to play in the recital, then they can come listen and support the other students. “Also,” says Heather, “Practice rules will be different. Stickers might make an adult feel kind of silly. Instead tell students about new skills presented in each song. Validate their sense of accomplishment by mentioning each thing they learned when they pass off each piece.”Teachers can help [their adult students] best by tuning in to each student personally. Maybe even keep some notes on file, review them right before the lesson or once a month, especially if you have a large studio or an otherwise hectic schedule. Keep reminding us of the benefits of learning violin, tell us how courageous we are, (we are courageous, you know!) and help us to be reasonable in our expectations.”Here are some further suggestions for other adult beginners:Bill: “I have new questions every week and we deal with them. There is no substitute for a real live teacher.”Heather: “A news story on TV talked about recent research showing that our brains record almost exclusively the last frame of mind or emotion associated with any experience. Here’s how this works: you could spend 30 minutes at the dentist getting your teeth drilled without anesthesia, and if you won a million dollars on the way out the door, you would look forward to returning to the dentist!”Ok maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but I decided to try it. For about a week, I ignored the timer and made sure to stop playing on a ‘high’. It worked, creating almost uncontrollable urges to play! Thoughts bordering on insanity would enter my mind that went something like this: ‘If I get up 20 minutes early tomorrow, I can play for 15 minutes before work.'”I also remember clearly periods of time when I was working specifically on extending my stamina, and would be thoroughly worn out every day when I put down the violin. Soon I would begin thinking of a time to practice and think: ‘I am too tired to practice!’ And I really felt tired too. So with all the other things we have to think of and remember while practicing, we need to figure out how to end on a high note almost all of the time. For myself, playing violin is a treat and a pleasure. In my heart of hearts, I feel it is a sacred privilege.”Teachers who are on their toes can help students feel this way too and send students out the door with a million dollars every week.”Geanellen: “I have found out that my dear very old fashion tape recorder, (probably the 1st kind ever made way back when in my much ‘younger’ years) 🙂 [is very useful]. I take that to class with me and I tape what the teacher says, and have her play the pieces she wants me to work on. If the piece is a fast Irish jig, she’ll play it the way it is suppose to sound up to tempo, but then she’ll slow it down. Sometimes she breaks it down into measures. Then all week at home during my practice sessions I turn on the tape recorder and play along with it. It also has helped me to learn where to place my fingers, so I’ll stay in tune with the music.”I feel that this out of any suggestions is probably the best one for me. As a very active senior citizen, I have a gazillion things going on in my head, including helping my 90-year-old mother who is legally blind and still lives at home on a 10-acre farm with cattle. By the time I get home from a lesson, I don’t always, (well, OK hardly ever) remember whether the teacher said, ‘bow up’ or ‘bow down’ etc., so by having the tape recorder, she talks to me every time I practice, and we practice together. :-)”All these adult students have mentioned that playing the violin is quite a challenge. It reminds me of the movie “A League of Their Own.” Dotty tells her coach Jimmy that she’s quitting baseball because it just got too hard. He very wisely replies, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great!” All these adult students have tackled the challenge of the violin and are practicing right through the hard times. You inspire me!