Saturday, January 9, 2016

Learning Violin: Nuts and Bolts

I just watched a fascinating video of the progress of an adult beginner on the violin over a two year period. I am going to make some general observations about this, not give a lesson on violin playing. Here is the video:

The player, twenty-four years old (after the two years, presumably) had a total of eight lessons, but most of this progress was without a teacher, it seems.

It is fascinating to watch, even for me, having spent around thirty years teaching and seeing the progress of many students over the years. What is interesting is to see the progress condensed into these short clips. I would have loved to have had some clips of my progress as a student, but sadly, video was much rarer then and the equipment so expensive that most people just didn't have it.

One thing to realize is that what you are seeing is just the highlights, the dessert, as it were. Each one of these little clips was preceded by hours and hours and hours and hours of slow, grueling and likely out-of-tune, practicing. Then, after a lot of work, the camera is turned on for a few seconds to capture the final results. In other words, learning an instrument is a very long, very demanding and often very boring process, at least from the outside. So why do people do it? Well, these days, a lot fewer do do it. But the answer is that there is something absolutely magical about creating music--even rudimentary music. Being able to play a tune, or lots of tunes, is a rare and special thing.

A music student approaches each day with the attitude that they will spend as much time as necessary and be as painstaking as necessary in order to make the most progress possible. Often there is a particular moment when this urge reaches a kind of climax and it is during this time that the bulk of the progress is made. For me it was a year I spend studying with a master in Spain in my early 20s. I practiced six hours a day, which took all day because there have to be rest periods in between, not to mention lunch! But I did not practice more than six hours because I discovered that your right hand fingernails would wear away faster than they grew with more hours practice. So I practiced the maximum possible. About an hour and half was devoted solely to technique: scales, arpeggios, slurs and other exercises. I would memorize two or three pages of music every day as well as maintaining older repertoire.

Before this year, I had played the guitar for a few years: first as a bass guitarist, then an electric and acoustic six-string one before switching to classical. But it was during this year of supreme effort that I actually became a good guitarist. I had been a bit of a hack when I went to Spain, but afterwards, when I auditioned to enter McGill University as a guitar performance major, I was not only the best student who auditioned, I was the best guitarist in the department. McGill is the finest music school in Canada.

Believe me, no-one could possibly sit through a video that documented the work that you actually have to do to master an instrument. But this little five minute video gives you just a taste of it.

Not to reduce in any way our Norwegian beginner's accomplishment, but this is what a violinist sounds like who has fully mastered the instrument. This is the Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati. In January 2008, he performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory all the sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo violin. This is the first part, the three sonatas:


Anonymous said...

Very cool! Just love it.

The thing is that evolution never intended for us to play musical instruments: the kind of eye-to-hand coordination required for great playing is highly unnatural. What's remarkable is how one can, through sheer hard work, make the unnatural natural. Like language this seems a skill uniquely human.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! Or ear-to-finger, perhaps. Uniquely human, with the possible exception of the meadowlark.

Christine Lacroix said...

I loved your 'with the possible exception of the meadowlark' comment, Bryan. Very funny.
But is this girl's progression typical? Especially since she apparently learned on her own much of the time? I remember reading that Lyndsey Stirling's parents could only afford to pay for one 15 minute lesson a week for her. Gotta give these ladies credit for spunk and determination even if you don't love the repertoire they choose to play.
By the way, I read somewhere that most of the great composers among Western European songbirds are males. AHA! Finally the answer to your 'why no great female classical composers' question?

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually, I suspect, and some violin teachers would probably agree, that her progress would have been much better with regular lessons with a good teacher. For one thing, she could have been shown from the beginning how to tune the violin properly. Also, she could have been pointed towards better repertoire.

Re male songbird composers: an evolutionary biologist would have a theory as to why most composers tend to be male.