Can a middle aged beginner really learn the violin?
September 13, 2016 6:58 PM   Subscribe

I understand that I'll never be as good as someone who started at age 6. I bought myself a violin in June, and I'm doing the Suzuki Violin School Book 1 and I can't get past #14 (Minuet no 2 by Bach). Up to this point in the book, I feel like I was progressing nicely, but now I feel I've reached my limit.

I practice daily, sometimes for an hour or more, I have a teacher, have learned some of the easier tunes on Fiddlehed (Youtube), I have some music background, I have commitment to daily practice, but my determination is failing because of this darned particular piece. Here it is in case you're curious: book 1 piece that little kids can play. I don't want to perform or win awards, I just want to play pretty music, but is this realistic? Has anyone out there done this in middle age (with job, kids, etc)? Also, now as I'm typing this I'm beginning to wonder if I'm just being a baby, so there's that too. Thank you for listening, MetaFilter!
posted by hollyanderbody to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well what does your teacher say about it? What's holding you back? He/she may have some insight into a particular bit of technique that you need to perfect before this piece comes easily to you. (I played violin for 9 years, quit at 20, considering taking it up again almost 30 years later.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:03 PM on September 13, 2016

I'vented spent decent amounts of time playing piano and clarinet, as well as singing which I'm currently involved in. I can't speak to any specific string technique or issue, but I can say that a lot of times in my music practice, I will kind of plateau for a bit before making a big jump.

So in singing, I'll spend weeks having a really tough time trying to be able to easily find a note that's a really weird interval away from the one before it. Then, suddenly, it'll just click and be easy to get to one day. I think what you're describing is just a really normal part of the physical and cognitive aspects of learning an instrument - progress won't always be linear and might include these exact kind of frustrating plateau periods even when you're practicing a ton and working really hard.
posted by augustimagination at 7:42 PM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

You can do this. You've made a lot of progress in a short amount of time. Now you've hit a wall. It's only natural. It's cyclical. If you keep at it, you'll get through it. Plus ... Bach. Just because there's not a lot of notes doesn't mean it's easy.
posted by falsedmitri at 7:46 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

sorry, June of this year? you've been playing less than four months? Even if you played other instruments before & have some prior musical training, there is no possible way to tell yet if you're going to hit a ceiling where you can't progress any further because of slow memory, arthritic fingers, bad coordination, whatever other ailment of the aged, not for another couple years. and if I were you I'd give it a decade of daily practice before a rigorous self-assessment.

There is a theory, and I don't think it's supported by any research but I choose to believe it for my own confidence boosting, that the reason children progress so quickly is only partially because of neuroplasticity or whatever, but rather mostly because a disaffected 13-year-old can come home from school and lock herself in her bedroom to practice the guitar for six hours straight if she feels like it, because she doesn't have a full-time job. adults don't generally have that much time, even if they have talent and drive, so they go slower but theoretically just as far. An hour a day is, I think, what you need to dedicate on average if you want to keep getting better, so as long as you're doing that you probably will. plateaus are normal and pretty universal. you have the advantage over kids in that you can have the patience to keep playing through a plateau instead of quitting in frustration.

(I started playing the mandolin a few years ago in my early 30s and if I'd put in this much consistent effort when I was twelve, I'd be a professional now. but when I was twelve I didn't have a mandolin, or want one. so there you go. anyway it's enough like a violin that I feel like I can speak confidently about this.)

also: Lloyd Alexander's My Love Affair With Music is about exactly this, learning to play the violin as an adult, it is a great and tragic book and I recommend it to you even though it is out of print and I may have the only copy.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:46 PM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think this is the trickiest piece in the book, for what it's worth. My daughter is 10 years old and studying violin - this was her least favorite piece in the book and the hardest for her. Minuet #3 was much easier for her; maybe it will be for you as well.

What about this particular piece is difficult for you? The arpeggios? The tempo? The length? I have different suggestions based on what you find difficult about it.
posted by mogget at 7:59 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Lots of thoughts above about how you can definitely keep going, so I want to offer some concrete suggestions of how to vary up your practice because that's what helps me get through plateaus on particular pieces (I'm a violist). This happens to everyone sometimes.

- Play the piece with open strings, using only the bow hand.
- Practices 1-4 measures at a time and slow down the tempo a ton. Don't speed it up until you play it perfectly 10 times in a row.
- Vary the rhythm - play everything with a slow/fast/slow/fast alternation or visa versa (like a dotted quarter/eighth note alternation).
- Practice scales and arpeggios for the key that the piece is in.
- Clap the rhythm of the piece with the metronome.
- Hum/sing the piece until you can sing it from memory or in your head.
- Take a day or two off from the piece and come back with a fresh mind and fingers/ears.

The particular skills that this piece seems to test are playing arpeggios and quick string changes, so I would focus on the bow hand and arpeggios in your practice. PM me if you want to chat more - I'm coming off a multi year hiatus from playing and it can be so frustrating sometimes for things that look easy to be hard, but it gets better!
posted by asphericalcow at 8:02 PM on September 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

To answer your headline question: yes, you can learn to play the violin!

Often times, these kinds of obstacles are solved by a different practice technique. It's hard to troubleshoot specifics without knowing what you're having particular difficulty with. But, I would encourage you to explore with your teacher how you're practicing and what alternative strategies you might try.

This is the great thing about learning as an adult. You can participate in designing and employing disciplined practice strategies. (Children often employ the repeat-the-same-thing-until-your-parents-go-insane technique. Ask me how I know.)

Don't give up!
posted by bkpiano at 8:06 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I learned a new instrument in my teens using a lazy version of the Suzuki Method (I could already read music so I used the books and skipped around a lot instead of just playing from the recordings). I plateaued on that song too! It's kind of the culmination of a lot of early skills, plus some quick arpeggio patterns which are the basis of a lot of Western music but which take some dexterity. If I were you I'd try to:

- Play it super slow- like 1/2 speed, super boring- until you can do it perfectly. If you make an error go back to the start of that phrase and get it right- don't play through mistakes in this kind of practice. Mark up your sheet music with all the parts you habitually mess up (make copies first if you hate scrawling in the book, although I like looking back at my scrawly notes). And then gradually ramp up the speed by a few metronome points each time til you can play it at speed. This is boring and takes forever but it works.


- Skip ahead to the next piece, and come back to this one in 2 weeks; I bet it'll be much easier. Be a temporary quitter! Get some instant gratification! They're YOUR music lessons, and you're a grownup- you can be the boss of you! :) Good luck! You'll get it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:14 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

thanks everyone! I appreciate you taking the time to encourage me!
The specific difficulties are: 1: the arpeggios: i cant make them sound clean and tidy. but even worse is 2: In measures 6-7: rolling finger 2 from e string to a string, without it sounding terrible. thank you again
posted by hollyanderbody at 8:24 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite trombonists started at 60. (He was maybe 68 when I was listening to and playing with him.)

Biggest suggestion: I'd go on and do something else for a while... or even just not worry about it and move on.

You can also invent exercises out of the bit that has you stuck. Pull out different 2 or 3 or 4 note bits and loop them, starting from a variety of spots around where you're stuck. Do them as slow as you need and for a nice long time, not just til you can get it. Also, rolling finger sounds like strength, i.e., long-term. If it's muscles you need, just do a bit of a-b-a-b-a (back and forth between the strings) as a little workout each day and don't worry at all how it sounds.
posted by spbmp at 8:35 PM on September 13, 2016

Mid 30s here, and picked up the violin a few years ago. I spent 3 years working in a group class for adults. It helped tremendously for just getting over the idea that I needed to be better now when I could see that my peers were in the same boat. I can't recommend a class like that enough.

The class helped me with the basics and got me to the point where I could play some basic stuff easily. I then joined an orchestra for amateur adults - that's been a great experience too.

Nonetheless, I still can't play well. I'm slow, sloppy, and my tone is generally bad (it's fun anyway though), but I'm definitely learning. I won't ever be an expert or as good as someone playing since they were a child, but I am definitely getting better to the point that I can play recognizable pieces for fun.

That said, stick with it if you're having fun. I'd recommend a group class if that's an option for you - instruction and peers helped me to learn faster than practice by myself.
posted by owls at 8:50 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, I'm the kind of multi-instrumentalist that can pick up anything and get to be pretty decent in six months of practice. I'm not here to brag, that's just how it's been for me. For some people, it's languages or higher maths or internal combustion engines or whatever; for me, it's musical instruments.

So, yeah. You're on month four? Give it some time. For what it's worth, I have found that clean arpeggios on any new stringed instrument take a frustratingly long time to ramp up. It's just one of those muscle-memory skills that you just need to do eighteen billion times before you're passably good at it. Keep working at it (maybe on a different piece?) and check up on yourself. One useful trick here, to add to the many other useful tricks already posted, is to record yourself stumbling through the piece, then shelf it and don't touch it for a month or three, but continue working on other pieces. Then come back to it, and record the new performance, and compare 'em. That will tell you if you've actually plateaued, or if you are currently experiencing tunnel vision regarding your current degree of progress.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 9:15 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

My mother started playing the violin when she was 40? 45? Other than learning a few guitar chords, it was her first go at strings.

She is about 60 now and plays both classical (she plays with a university orchestra, soloist and I *think* she has played with a quartet for weddings and such) and folk? music with a big group of musicians at regular jams.

I can't judge, as I stopped playing the violin when I was fourteen, but she seems like a great violinist to me! She really loves it. It has expanded her world a lot.

She did start lessons with a full time job (business owner) and young teenagers at home, so it's possible if you can carve out daily practice time.
posted by tippy at 9:26 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you asked your teacher for suggestions?

The arpeggios are tricky, definitely. I agree with the suggestion practice them very slowly and very slowly increase the speed.

I like the Allyson's Violin Studio channel. She does a "play through" for each piece and a longer "practice" video. The practice video for Minuet #2 is here.
posted by mogget at 9:34 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can become a totally acceptable high-school level player starting as an adult, enough to soldier along in a community orchestra violin section eventually with a bunch of work as long as they're playing easier literature.

1) the more attention you pay to impeccable, relaxed technique at the beginning of learning a bowed string instrument the better. If your teacher is not spending a lot of time working on this with you, consider a different teacher who will, since good technique will solve most playing problems.

2) you're doing just fine if you started in mid-summer!

3) the arpeggios are about effective string crossings for the most part. In that video, pay attention to the guy's bow distribution. Notice how he's right in the middle of the bow with smallish bows for the crossings, and starts the piece there rather than at the frog? That's where you need to be; if you are habitually starting nearer the frog it is going to end up very clunky there.

4) for the other part you mentioned, make sure your 2 is really pretty square on its tip on the G before you roll it. If your fingers are flat like duck feet it is a lot harder to not sound like out of tune garbage. Practice alternating between just those two notes verrrrry slowly, then speed it up a just a little when slow is perfect, then do it a bit more etc. Then, once you're accurate at speed add the rest of bar 6. When you've got that perfect, then add the rest of bar 7 and 8 and when you've got that, then bar 5.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:17 PM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

charmedimsure has a lot of good advice.

1) I really like the dotted slow/fast exercise I mentioned above for 2 handed coordination problems; try it specifically on arpeggios in the piece and arpeggios in the same key. You have to do it both slow/fast and fast/slow to get the full effect.

2) Ask your teacher for feedback on both your finger positioning for the 2nd finger and your general hand/wrist alignment - you may need to move your wrist or elbow a bit to get the right angle and have your finger a little flatter than usual on the E string note so that you can just roll your finger back to perpendicular for the A string note instead of moving it and completely placing it again.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:45 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you tried just playing the measure after the trickiest part over until it's solid and then working backwards measure by measure? So often we play from start to finish, but when I reach a vexting part in a piece I work the problem measure(s) and the bookending measures backwards and that technique seems to help a lot. I don't mean to play the notes backwards, I mean to chunk by measure and play the last measure until you have it, then add the preceding measure, and so on.

Also leaving this and returning to it in two weeks is a good idea. Sometimes we work the technique so hard that we trip on it until we rest and shake it off.
posted by sockermom at 10:47 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

As my username suggests, I play a GDAE-tuned instrument, but not the violin.

Yep, patience and time. You're committed to doing it daily - keep at it!

Playing with other people in an unstructured way is great, too - is there a celtic, folk or bluegrass jam scene that's tolerant of beginners you could have access to in your area (if any of that floats your boat - the stuff Fiddlehed covers lands in those wheelhouses)?

Agree with the above answers about letting something go for a while if it's really frustrating. Go to something you find fun and easy for a bit, spend time listening to examples of the thing you're hung up on, and go back at it later. You have no deadline, it's just improvement over time you want. You will get better.

Record yourself playing something now. Keep hammering away at it. Record yourself playing that thing a few months down the line. It's one way to encourage yourself.

So, short answer to: Can a middle aged beginner really learn the violin? is...

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:54 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you might enjoy this YouTube video of an adult who progresses to learn violin in 2 years:
posted by tinymegalo at 11:15 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's another book about an adult (40 years old in this case) taking up a stringed instrument (cello) and enjoying it very much.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:07 AM on September 14, 2016

I started playing the piano last year as a beginner! With a job, kids, etc. I've made a lot of progress, but I'm still pretty bad. That's okay.

I think piano is easier than violin, but I'll share something my teacher told me that helped: It takes 5 years to learn an instrument. If it's been 5 years and you're still not very good, give it another 5 years.

Even with young children on the violin, after a year they're mostly still scratching out Twinkle Twinkle.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:46 AM on September 14, 2016

You went from zero to contemplating Bach in three months? That is such fast progress that it seems improbable to me.

I've just started flute lessons after not playing for 40 years. I was surprised by how many things my teacher wanted me to work on that were not the notes of a particular piece. Time, tone, breathing (not a problem for you :-)), etc. You need to spend time learning to play the violin better, not learning Bach. Scales and arpeggios.

The Bach minuet is in one of my books. It looked intimidating, but was not too hard, note-wise, because the arpeggios are still familiar to my fingers from long ago.

You are just not ready for it. Practice the basics. BTW, my teacher says Bach is always hard.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:44 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I started violin when I was 11, but it doesn't matter if you're 5, 11 or middle-aged when you start: There will ALWAYS be pieces you have a hard time with, even if they seem easy. I often get tripped up by simple pieces (still!) because my fingers don't always do what my brain wants.

There is a trick for practicing arpeggios and difficult changes, though, and that might help:

1. play the sequence slowly first until you can definitely change between the notes as long as you're doing it super slowly.
2. then play the notes like this: long-short-long-short-long-short, so that you still have a slow change between every other note, but a faster change between the rest. This is harder, but only half as hard as playing the actual thing.
3. Now swap the long and short notes (short-long-short-long-short-long) so that you're practiving faster changes between the rest of the notes.
4. Once you can do 2 and 3, play everything in the normal rhythm, a bit faster than you did at 1. Keep repeating the steps until you get it up to speed.

And like everyone else said: you're much further than most people are after only playing for four months!!

And despite having played since I was 11, I'm also working through Fiddlehed videos at the moment, because I only learned to play from sheet music and I would like to learn to improvise. Always learning!
posted by easternblot at 7:07 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Long-time off-and-on violinist here. I can't remember exactly how long it took me to get through Book 1 as a child, because I was 7, but I strongly suspect that for the first four months I was playing Twinkle Twinkle and and Long, Long, Ago and walking back and forth in the hallway practicing how to hold my violin up with my chin and no hands.

Children have more time to practice. They also don't notice as much how terrible they sound and how long it's taking to make progress. I bet you're progressing much faster than a kid - you just have an adult's ear and ambition.
posted by cnidaria at 8:32 AM on September 14, 2016

Also enthusiastically seconding easternblot's arpeggio technique. I've used the long-slow and slow-long syncopations to practice all kinds of difficult runs and they are very effective.
posted by cnidaria at 8:39 AM on September 14, 2016

When I was first learning the violin, I put 1/16" pinstripe tape on the neck to mark the notes, so I could play in tune until my fingers learned the relative distances between the notes. It helped so much, since it was one less thing to think about.

That piece is tricky -- lots going on on the neck, you'll need to really play it slowly to get your fingers used to how they need to move before you can play it at normal tempo. It's a natural part of learning an instrument: just because our brain knows what needs to happen doesn't mean our bodies can quite do it yet.

Try just doing the fingering and leave out the bow, and ask your teacher for tips on that finger roll in the 6th and 7th measure.

You can do it :)
posted by ananci at 3:51 PM on September 14, 2016

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