or, What’s So Hard About the Violin, Anyway?
In my last post I maintain that learning and playing the violin is difficult for everyone, whatever the level of intelligence and coordination, but for those of you who are not violinists or musicians (or perhaps are the prospective parents of one), I’ll try to explain why. Below is my theory formed after years of observing my students, other musicians, and myself.
I tell my students that playing the violin is not just difficult – it’s impossible, which is why even great and famous violinists still have to practice (and why even then they sometimes make mistakes). Whenever I have to break down some piece of technique for my students into ever smaller steps so they can learn them, I marvel at how many things violinists have to do at the same time and how fast their minds and bodies have to move in order to do them. In fact, things go so fast that it seems that everything is done simultaneously. This is not true. It is always step 1 to step 5000 in a nano-second, perhaps, but always in order. And this is only one reason we have to practice so much for years – to get the order right so that we can do it without consciously thinking about it, thus to permit ourselves to focus on the music.
We also have to hear every note we play BEFORE we play it – not afterwards. This seems impossible when we play at what seems the speed of light, but it is true – if we don’t know what we want to hear, how can we play it or even get it in tune? I tell my students that we are not just training their hands, but training their ear to be ever faster than their hands so that their hands are directed by their ear instead of vice versa. (The hands may or may not move faster than the eye, but they certainly move faster than the ear if not trained to do otherwise.)
Not only that, we must think about what we want to hear, what we are actually doing and what we are going to do next without ever thinking about what we have just done. This takes incredible mental discipline, acquired over years of practice.
Human beings are made of three components: the body, the mind and the soul – or spirit, emotions, whatever you want to call the spiritual part of yourself. To play the violin, or any complicated instrument, you must have an exquisitely trained body, and an extremely acute and disciplined mind to understand the music, practice and play it, and plan your interpretation. And without the soul or the emotions, you will sound like a robot or a computer which, of course, will not get you far. The problem is that the spirit cannot really speak UNTIL the body and the mind have been trained to the point that technique, reading and memorization are almost automatic. Only then can there be real interpretation, transmission and even spontaneous inspiration. What makes it all really difficult is that in order to play well, all three elements – mind, body and soul – have to be present at the same level (100%) simultaneously. How many activities can you think of that require the presence of all three of these elements at the highest level at the same time? None come to my mind. Many activities may require two of the three but very few things put the demands on our whole selves that playing music does.
This is why playing a complicated musical instrument like the violin will make you smarter. It trains EVERYTHING and, more importantly, trains what comprises this everything to work together.
Further, you may ask why it is that we like to play an instrument like the violin if it’s so difficult and demanding. My theory is that when we play, it is one of the few times in our lives that we are completely whole human beings – that we are using all of our resources at the same time to the utmost level we are capable of and it feels good. That’s why even small children like to play.
This is why playing a complicated musical instrument like the violin will give you discipline: everyone likes to play and few like to practice, but practice you must and it can be dreary, tiring and even boring at times – but this is good for us, too, It teaches us to perform a task and do it well even when we don’t feel like it or don’t particularly enjoy it, in order to create something greater. It teaches us to have goals and to develop the persistence necessary to achieve them. In essence it helps us to raise our wisdom levels so we are nevermore “too smart for our own good.”
Post Author: Eloise Hellyer