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Learning a Violin's Lessons



A simple Internet search will tell you that the average amount of time it takes a person to learn to play the violin properly (which I assume means well enough that the instrument rarely makes the ear-piercing shriek of a misplayed string) is two to three years. I can't speak to the accuracy of that yet, but I hope to be able to confirm it in roughly 20 to 32 months. Having taught myself to play the guitar some years ago, I recently decided to do the same with an even more complicated instrument for no other reason than because I want to be able to play it (whereas I primarily picked up the guitar to impress women in college).

Picking up the violin is a rather specific example of taking on an endeavor on one's own, but there are definitely lessons to be taken from doing so that anyone can benefit from. Whether you've got a big project at work or school, a business you're trying to start, or you're going with the sousaphone over a string instrument, a few concepts are universal when tackling a solo project.

  • Be strict with yourself. You can't learn, create, or improve anything without putting in the work. Whether it's a skill you're trying to perfect, a book you're writing, or a business you're trying to build, you have to make yourself put in the time and effort. For my part, I do everything I can to pick up my violin and squeak away at it for about an hour a day. I may not always want to and my schedule may not always offer me much leeway, but I push myself to take that time.

  • But not too strict. Don't be so hard on yourself. If I got in a huff at myself every time I hit a sour note or forget what comes next in a song I'm trying to play, I'd never get anywhere. Frankly, I'd probably end up in a screaming rage and smash my delicate little starter violin, which would bring me back to square one at best. Pushing yourself through any difficult endeavor is the only way to get it done, but don't push yourself so hard you snap. Take breaks, have a snack, get sleep, relax when you can, and be patient.

  • Find little ways to motivate yourself. Look for things that you want to do and learn within your larger project. After learning all the beginner exercises in the lesson book I bought, I found that most of the songs it contained were rather dull ones. So I found sheet music for all sorts of stuff I like, from traditional Irish music to simple versions of my favorite Barenaked Ladies songs. Find the parts of your project you enjoy most, keep focused on the end goals you're looking forward to, or in my case pick a song you really want to impress your significant other with (or annoy them, in my case).

  • You never really do anything on your own. Saying that I'm teaching myself the violin is only true insomuch as I'm by myself in my apartment when I play, with or without pants. But somebody wrote the books and songsheets I practice from, and the YouTube videos I watch to help get my finger placement and bow holding correct. You may be starting your own business or working late hours by yourself, but there are tools and services that other people already created and you'll need to use them. You may even need support of some kind from friends, family, coworkers, etc. Doing something "solo" doesn't mean you can't get help.

  • Relax. One of the biggest impediments to my playing since I've started has been my tendency to grip the violin neck and bow too tightly to play properly. And, the more frustrated I would get as I tried to get through a song, the tighter my grip would get. Then my playing would get even worse; my grip would tighten again, and so on. Don't try and grasp what you're doing so tightly that you lose the ability to do anything at all. That's how you wind up backed into an inflexible corner. Being tense in any undertaking can prevent you from working at your full potential, not to mention it will likely suck all the fun out of anything you do. Take a breath, put the violin down, and pick it up again.

So far my learning experience has been quite frustrating, with more than a few of those aforementioned shrieking strings. But given how much I like playing my guitar now I have no doubts that, some day, my violin will be a great source of enjoyment for me. And if you stick to what you're doing and work through it, you'll wind up with a skill, business, or project you can be proud of.

Though if you live in my building, try and keep the sousaphone noise to a minimum before 10am.

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. You can follow some of his other writing on Task & Purpose. Paul is also the writer and director for Vetted, a television comedy highlighting the follies of veterans transitioning in NYC, and edited the first Present Tense ebook.

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