I started Violin Lessons at 39.

I don't consider myself to be a musician. An writer, yes. A designer, yes. An artist - probably. A musician? Nope. I once played a little piano, a little guitar. Jared plays the guitar pretty well, and we put Elliott in violin when he turned 7, because that was the instrument he wanted to play. I've mentioned several times how amazing it is to hear live music being played in my house. But I haven't told you this story yet. ;) First though, as always: backstory.

Meeting Ms. Petia

By total chance in 2012 we met an extraordinary woman named Petia Radneva-Manolova. She had recently moved to the area from California (via Bulgaria, where she was born, and she'd been playing with orchestras all over the world). Elliott and I both loved her immediately, not only for her warmth and humor and excellence at teaching - because she truly LOVES showing people how to play - but for her incredible relationship to the violin as an extension of herself, even something MORE than herself.

Ms. Petia. at Elliott's recital, december 2015

Ms. Petia. at Elliott's recital, december 2015

She understands and relishes the  opportunity to reach people right down to their souls. It's partly the magic of live music, especially when it's played by a virtuoso, and right in front of you. And it's way more than skill, and even more than art, although it's both of those things. Her playing is transcendent.

I am an exaggerator. I know it. Everything is Awesome for me, as the Lego song says. And it's at times like these, when I find myself sitting as she plays for us at the end of a lesson, with my eyes closed to the heavens and tears streaming down my face, that I regret all my exaggerations, because I have no words left to explain what her playing IS for me. It's spirit, and love, and a mountain stream, and the fog rolling in off the sound. It's hope, and goodness, and dancing in dappled light, and the joy of larks in the morning. It's the voice of God. 

I told her (and this was not even entirely a joke) that if she didn't mind, could I just set up a little pillow and snacks in the corner while she practiced and taught lessons? Elliott teases me because I've cried at every lesson I've attended. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and didn't have an opportunity to hear live classical music until I was an adult. So maybe that's why her work is so breathtaking to me. Why I really do cry every time she plays. She should probably actually be a little creeped out by me. I'm glad she's not. 

Indeed, she seemed really delighted - truly, deeply delighted, when I told her last February that I'd like to learn to play. I wouldn't have been brave enough if it weren't for her, and for my son. And so about 14 months ago, it began.

in the beginning: it was hard.

In our very first lesson, Petia told me that the violin is the most difficult instrument to learn how to play. This is apparently a matter of some dispute among musicians, especially if you play the french horn or the oboe. But no guitarist or pianist who really knows is going to argue the point, and neither will I.

Example: It took me - when I was 8 - about an hour to learn how to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the piano one-handed. On the violin - at age 39 - it took me a week.

My violin, and "The Red book"

My violin, and "The Red book"

With the violin, there is just more - a lot more - that you have to keep a handle on, in order to even make a single respectable sound. Aside from the usual musical stuff like finding the note on your instrument and keeping time as you find the next one and the next, there is also the fact that right and left hands are doing completely different things - at different angles and levels of pressure. You can't push too hard, or move the bow too slowly in relationship to that pressure, or pull the bow down at a cross angle. Notes are a lot harder to find with the left hand because there aren't keys or frets. Although - you can see in the photo above, she puts stripes on to help the beginners. As you progress in skill, you get to take one stripe off, and then two, etc. Note the THREE stripes I still have.

But here's the big one: The harder you try, the worse it sounds. The violin will not be dominated. You cannot bend it to your will - you have to lower yourself in and find the perfect balance of position and angle and pressure and timing and emotion and find the note and coax it out. All while standing there and trying to find the F sharp that comes next and trying not to ding the E string because you overcorrected on the way over to the A. And then do it in an instant for the next note and the next. 

And to top it all off (this might be a matter of dispute - the french horn and oboe players haven't weighed in), badly-played violin sounds worse than any other badly-played instrument. And it's VERY easy to play badly.

One year later: it's still hard.

I've kept at it. Had to take a break for a few months, but in February I graduated to "The Red Book," which is the second in the Belwin String Builder series we mainly use in lessons. That was a really proud day. I have, if not full mastery, at least a working knowledge of such noble classics as "The Dancing Bears" and "The Happy Camel" and "The Caterpillar." Now I'm on to greater heights with "The Muffin Man." So Look Out. ;) 

I've also been bringing in the LDS Hymnbook every week and picking songs from it to work on in addition to the lessons. Being able to play "Come, Come Ye Saints" as a violin solo - much as the pioneers might have played it at their campfires on the plains - has been one of my best accomplishments (oh, and you can see that right here). I dearly love that song, and I dearly love being able to play it through with mostly all the notes. :)

A year later, I'm struggling with a lot of the same stuff. I push on the strings too hard, and I always, always overcorrect. The angle of bow between the two middle strings is about 4 inches, and I find myself dinging the next string over A LOT when I'm trying to switch between them. Because I'm nervous, and a perfectionist, and I try hard. And the violin isn't about trying hard. Practicing hard, yes. But pushing too hard, no. And I'm wound pretty tightly, as you already know. NOT trying hard, is really hard. Relaxing, letting go, trusting that the fingers and bow will make it there, THAT is hard. And it's also entirely the reason I will keep playing.

Here's why I keep playing: flow

I've been told it takes a lot of courage to begin something like this as an adult. And I guess so. I have at least 20 years on every one of my fellow-students of Ms. Petia's. And I play songs like "The Happy Camel" with as much quiet dignity as I can muster. I know what they really mean, though - is that it's hard as an adult to go into something really big as a beginner, knowing that you'll be sucky at it for a really long time. You might never get beyond the sucky phase at all, and as an adult that's a kind of defeat you see right from the start. 


Every so often I play a mostly-perfect song. A really decent song, right at the top of my skill range, with a minimum of dinged strings and notes I forgot I needed to sharp or hold another count - and I feel the magic of it. Magic that I made or was part of in a way that's beyond just a person standing there with wood and horsehair in her hands. The playing becomes, for a minute or two, its own living thing I'm participating in the creation of, rather than being the sole creator. 

It's been called rapture. Some psychologists and artists call it flow. I'm going to talk about flow in a future post. It's a precious thing, and a lot of people would give up careers and fame and fortune just to pursue that flow every day, just to have it for a handful of minutes at a time. To be fully alive and aware, and somehow touching, by your ordinary action, the intangible strings of creation itself. 

Everyone has flow experiences

I know you know what I mean. Feeling an expanded, perfected universe of possibility in the context of a very narrow circumstance. Making a drawing. Making a scrapbook page. Making a meal. Playing a song on the violin. Rapture. Being able to reach that state - even for a few minutes now and then - is an enlightening and enlivening experience like no other. A HUMAN experience like no other. I've found that along with the other ways I know I can achieve flow (drawing and handcrafting and digital scrapbooking), I can achieve it in violin, and I'm hanging on to that.

I love the great sounds I make, more than I dislike the terrible ones I make. I love my teacher. I love striving for that flow when I practice and play. And frankly, I really LIKE being a beginner. As someone who is a teacher for a living, I have a ton of admiration for anyone who decides at 30 or 40 or 50 or 60+ to learn something complicated like Photoshop. And putting myself at the beginning of something worthy-but-complicated keeps me humble and appreciative. :)

Okay. Your Turn! 

1. Have you begun anything as an adult that say took great courage to start as a beginner? 

2. When was the last time you felt flow? What were you doing? Can you describe it?

3. I need a name for my violin. Ms. Petia's fiesty French lady is named Matilda. Elliott's half-size was named Hans, and his new 3/4 size is named Gretta. What should mine be?