What Learning the Violin Has Taught Me About Life

http://”Violin Still Life” by cbyeh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I was nine years old, my school offered the opportunity to learn an instrument. We were told that we could become a part of our school’s orchestra.


I was thrilled at the idea, although I’m not sure why. My parents loved music, but neither was a musician. Still, I happily chose to play the viola, and joined the small group of music nerds in my elementary school.

I fell head over heels in love with the sound of that viola. I fell in love with the deep purple velvet that lined it’s case, and with the smell of the resin that I rubbed onto my bow.

As I played the viola, I learned about the joy of harmony, and was always thrilled to be the lower voice to that of the violin. To this day, I sing alto every chance I get.

My fourth grade year was largely shaped by my love of my Thursday morning orchestra rehearsals and my Tuesday after-lunch strings lesson. Sitting here right now, at the age of 63, I can still remember how I’d wish my Tuesday lunch time over, so that I could step onto the stage in our “cafetorium”, where the dusty curtain would be closed and the small group of violin, viola and cello players would practice in the musty warmth.

Playing my instrument, in a crowd of other young musicians, was magic to me. It lifted me out of my world and brought me into a world of sweetly entwining harmonies. I felt such a surge of power as I played my little beginners viola.

But at the end of that year, I learned that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing. My big family just didn’t have the money to allow me to continue.

I can still remember sitting in the back of the family car after our end-of-year concert. My parents were taking us out for ice-cream, to celebrate my musical achievement.

I couldn’t stop crying. Ice cream or none, I was heartbroken to give up my lovely, golden hued viola.

But life goes on, and childhood sadness fades away. I went on to have a happy childhood, a healthy adolescence and a very good adulthood.

Over the years, I’ve indulged my love of music by joining several choirs and by learning a little bit of acoustic guitar. I listen to music, of course, and I go to see live music as often as possible.

But I’ve still held onto the memory of that viola, of the sweet song of the bow being pulled across the strings. I never stopped wanting to try it again.

And here I am.

A grandmother, a lady with arthritic fingers and an achy back. A retired teacher. A good cook. A reader and a would-be-writer.

And I have once again taken up my beloved strings and bow. This time I am learning to play the violin, instead of the viola. This is in part because that’s what was available to me (thank you, brother Dave!). But it’s also because the violin is easier to learn.

Enter my wonderful, patient, talented, encouraging teacher, Susan.

My dream is coming true because of Susan’s gentle guidance. In the past four months, she has taught me how to hold my violin correctly, how to hold the bow and how to place my fingers. She’s shown me how to put enough weight in my wrist, and how to make “long bows” and “short bows.” The technical parts of playing are beginning to make some sense.

But here’s the best part of what she has taught me.

Susan has taught me to give myself some slack. She has shown me how to look at the goal, and not the individual steps to its achievement.

You see, I am kind of hard on myself when it comes to the violin. I know what a good violinist sounds like; they are sweet, and smooth and effortless. The voice of the instrument is tender and pure.

When I play, on the other hand, the strings tend to shriek. The bow bounces. My notes are either just a bit too sharp or just a bit too flat. I can’t seem to keep my aging eyes on the strings, the bow, my fingers and the music while also paying attention to the movement of my wrist and the position of my right shoulder.

I want to create the sounds that I hear in my head; I am not happy with the struggling, wobbling sounds that emanate from my violin.

Even my dog, Bentley, tends to howl when I play.

It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing.

But Susan keeps me on track. And here is how she does it:

Susan reminds me that children learn by simply doing. They do not think about each finger, they only think about the song to be produced.

“Look at the bigger picture,” she seems to say, “Make the music that you want, don’t keep questioning yourself.”

And she tells me to be patient with myself. She tells me that I am on a journey, and that every step is one to be celebrated. She constantly reminds me that this week I am able to play a simple song that was a struggle for me a week ago.

I am learning. I am growing. I need to embrace and celebrate my progress. I need to accept the fact that I am not an accomplished musician, but that I am someone who is moving forward.

The best part of what Susan has taught me, though, is that when I play music, I do it for myself. I am my only audience. I do this purely for pleasure.

This isn’t a job, or a class, or a medal to be earned. It’s a chance to express myself through music, through the music of a lovely, graceful stringed instrument. It’s a chance to send my emotions out into the air through my bow, through the vibration of these strings.

She is teaching me to take a breath, to do my best, to accept my mistakes and to enjoy my brief moments of musical beauty.

What I love is that these are the exact same lessons I have tried so hard to impart to my children, to my elementary school students, and to my grandchildren.

What a gift!

With my violin awkwardly tucked under my aging jaw, as I carefully pull the bow across those carefully tuned strings, I am reminded that moments of beauty, like moments of success, are both rare and precious.

Thank you, Susan!

Now I’m going to practice my Christmas Carols.

19 thoughts on “What Learning the Violin Has Taught Me About Life

  1. I played the violin in grade school and into Jr. High. I wasn’t very good and found that I enjoyed listening to a skilled player more than making my own music. Still, the experience deepened my love and appreciation for the instrument and the people who chose to learn it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You did it, good for you! So happy that you decided to pick up an instrument again. Susan sounds like a wonderful instructor. Enjoy everything about this experience and lessons. Soon Noni can give her 2 sweet grands a taste of what they may want to do when they are older.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Our family cat used to come and sit at my feet and howl when I “played” the violin. I never gained enough confidence to really learn to play. It is only as an adult that I have gained the ear to hear the incredible beautiful sounds that a musician can draw from their instrument. Every once in awhile I still pull my violin out but only when all the windows are closed and the neighbors can’t wonder at the horrific noise emanating from our house! I admire your courage.

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  4. I made a real connection with you because 1 I started violin at age 29 and 2 I feel exactly the same way about making squeaks and the bow bouncing later on though.. I am actually doing a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance online at The Baptist College of Florida now. My dad’s younger sister is over and keeps telling me without saying to quit violin that I need to be able to pay for myself. She knows I know I need to practice, but I just learned how hard it is to be a pro, though I got in as a piano/organ major at Loyola University New Orleans out of high school. I also took singing, as I was in church choir mostly age 8-17. I’m so glad you are playing violin. I used to want to play viola. I thought it was too late. I wanted to play violin at 6, and my dad and grandma didn’t answer, maybe because I was in gymnastics and ballet. I thought I was in trouble for being me or something. I think I could be a singer, but I’m really holding on to violin and would do another college degree if I had to, been wondering about that and today with my aunt. I still plan to make it in one of the arts someday, though. I grew up doing them, and I was jealous of Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005) and feel people dislike me for hard times and only singing myself most of the time and planning on acting. I think it’s a good thing to learn a musical instrument, especially an orchestral one, and things like learning a 2nd language, which I’m also trying to get to, German. I want to move to Germany and experience its classical music. Sometimes, I dream of opening places for people of all ages to learn to make music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We certainly do share a lot! Like you, I have been singing for years, and love it so much. I want to continue to grow, so I am learning the violin. And I love languages! I have some German friends, and have been trying to learn some basic German. I am also working on some Italian, as that is my ancestry. So fun to just keep learning!

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      • Hey, it’s me with a new account. You about topped on the search results for violin here on WordPress. Italian? My piano teacher was Italian and from NYC. She went to Juilliard. This was New Orleans, so I guess she was very dark and with a beautiful family. I’m actually 1/2 Chinese-Indonesian, anyway. I may have like up to 5% Italian according to 23andMe.com, though the results change. I do have a little German, and it seems more the American type from Pennsylvania, maybe from Bavaria 23andMe says, up to 5%. So, I’m mostly Irish, otherwise, my last name being first it says Irish, then Norwegian/Danish, and then maybe German. There are English last names there, too. It may not be that old a country. Yea, I liked to dance and sing growing up. I did gymnastics age 1 3/4 – 8. My mom was #1 in gymnastics in Indonesia and actually said I was good at it. She did ballet before and was good at it and danced around the area, but I was never that good as a person. I’m glad you have German friends, too! I am about to move to the Cleveland, Ohio, area and major in German and take violin in their after school program, which is a private lesson, group lesson, and performances with solos, ensembles, “what have you.” I wanted to do violin rather than band but never had it. I did piano, anyway. I became more serious as a major. I had to go home! So, I was hanging around a musical theater thing and got interested in oboe again. Later, I was gonna take singing and switched to just violin on the stop as I heard the Freiburger Barockorchester play online Brandenburg Concerto 3. It sounded very exciting, and I remembered wanting to play since I was 6 years old. I also wanted to do art when I was 3, singing when I was 5. I actually want to move to Germany. I still like the US. It’s very different I guess. My aunt’s husband is German and he and his in-laws seem unapproachable sometimes and it’s hard. Well, keep up the fun in violin. I hope you make it and get to perform.


      • Thank you!!! So fun to meet like minded folks out here. You have such a cool and interesting background; as I kid I always regretted the fact that my ethnic background was so dull. Italian, Italian and more Italian. Now I know that it doesn’t matter: I lived with a Tunisian family and they were SO much like mine. I have friends in France, England, Scotland, Germany, Tunisia, Iran and Russia. In the end, we all love our families. We all love good food and good music. We all want the same things. AS for the violin, I’m loving it mostly because it’s just for me. No dreams of performing, no pressure to be perfect. It’s strictly fun! Stay in touch!

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Tunisian family sounds very interesting. I’m glad you have friends from so many different countries. I don’t really have any friends, but I did before. I moved several times. I was gonna keep going in violin until I got good like I majored in piano. I used to play piano for fun, but I had always wanted to play violin, too.


  5. What a beautiful story! ❤️ I’m 44 and I played the violin as a child also. In middle school they didn’t have strings so I switched to clarinet but it wasn’t the same. A few years ago my adult son bought a violin to try to teach himself to play since he plays guitar. He lost patience, gave it to me and said for me to play it. It sits in my closet. I got it out once and it was terrible. I grew up in a musical family.. nights just sitting around with my Dad playing guitar and teaching us great music. I long to re learn the violin. Perhaps in midst of this crisis would be a good time and therapeutic. I go through the same thing you did but with singing. I love to sing, music is how I get through life. But my voice never starts out how I want it to sound obviously.. I have to train it and remind myself that it’s ok to sing an octave lower than Carrie Underwood! Bless you and this journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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