8 Adult Amateurs Talk Transcendent Moments & Finding the Time to Keep Playing

We spoke with eight string players from various camps or schools of study about challenges and what keeps them coming back to the practice room for more.

Sitting back down in the student’s chair is a challenge for any adult, no matter the subject. From carving out time for practice in a hectic schedule to being overshadowed by an 11-year-old prodigy during a recital, no one said being an adult amateur musician would be a walk in the park. It does in fact take years, or more accurately, decades to perform like Yo-Yo Ma, as one of these adult amateur players found out. I spoke with eight players from various camps or schools of study about challenges and what keeps them coming back to the practice room for more.

—Stephanie Powell

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Violinist Samira Saliba Phillips
Photo by Mark D. Phillips

Name: Samira Saliba Phillips
Instrument: Violin
Age: 56
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Camp: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Rusty Musicians Program

Why I Play
I play for the sheer pleasure in the physical and mental activity of making music. Most importantly, it’s the joy of being part of a community of people who can look at a page of notes and somehow make them come alive. Some of us do it much better than others, but it’s a gift for all of us.

My Goals
The first is to keep improving my technique and musicality. The more I grow as a violinist, the more I want to grow. The second is to find opportunities to perform challenging repertoire at a high level. Toward that end, I’m fortunate to be a member of an excellent community orchestra (the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra) and to have participated several times in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Academy for adult amateurs. Finally, I want to read through as much chamber repertoire as I can, just for fun.

My Challenges
My biggest challeges are holding myself to a high standard in my practicing and learning new repertoire without regular lessons and a teacher to hold me accountable. After 25 years’ worth of serious study with a variety of teachers, I’ve gotten to a point where I pretty much know what to listen for and how to work out problems within a piece, but I miss the feedback!

Transcendent Musical Moments
Playing in an HSO performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique”) was especially memorable. It is a work with many layers of emotion and moments of great intensity, and it requires a high degree of connection among the musicians and with the conductor. In that performance, everything fell into place. By the time we finished the last movement, I had tears in my eyes and the hall was completely still for a few moments.

Violinist David Preston

Name: David Preston
Instrument: Violin
Age: 62
Hometown: Charlottesville, Virginia
Camp: Interlochen Adult Chamber Music Camp

I began studying violin at the age of eight and played in school and youth orchestras through high school and into college. Then I more or less gave up the violin for the next 30-plus years due to work, travel, and family commitments. However, I started to think about playing again when our daughter and son began studying violin and cello, respectively. They both played seriously through their high school years, and my wife and I accompanied them to countless lessons and performances.

Largely inspired by my kids and their amazing teachers, I decided to make playing violin my big project for retirement. I began studying again about seven years ago, and have really worked at it in the past five years since I actually retired. I’m lucky to have found a wonderful teacher in Daniel Sender, an associate professor at University of Virginia’s McIntire Department of Music. I now play in two community orchestras and the occasional chamber-music group in the area. In the summer (and undoubtedly the highlight of my musical year), I attend the Interlochen Adult Chamber Music camp. This next summer will be my fifth year at Interlochen.

Why I Play
1. The pure pleasure of the instrument and the music. And of striving for and seeing progress.

2. Year-round reasons to practice, rehearse, and perform: community orchestras in the fall, winter, and spring, with Interlochen Adult Chamber Music Camp in the summer.

3. A diversity of musical levels and types: one community orchestra mostly for fun, the second for the challenge, and Interlochen for the joy of chamber music with a combination of prepared pieces and sight reading.

4. The fun social interaction that I find in all of the groups.

My Goals
My daughter played violin at a very high level through her high-school years, studying in the Preparatory Program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. I know I’m never going to play at that level, but I decided my goal in retirement would be to go as far down that path as I could. In other words, I’m really seeking to significantly improve my ability on the instrument and not just playing for the short-term pleasure of making music, given my current capabilities. I figure (hope) I’ve got enough time to take the long view—so I’m willing to start over in some cases to fix bad habits and build new capabilities.

Simply stated, my overarching goal is a step-change improvement in technique and musicality. But that’s a little abstract from a motivational perspective. More concretely, I also have in mind a couple of pieces I would eventually like to be capable of playing: one of the standard, but not too daunting, violin concertos and the Bach Chaconne. The point is not to perform these pieces in public (heaven forbid), but rather to advance my technique to the point where I could play through the pieces in reasonably good form for my own enjoyment and satisfaction. My other goal is to learn, and play reasonably well, a significant percentage of the chamber-music repertoire that I see played consistently at Interlochen.

My Challenges
1. Technical: Moving to a new bow grip. Continuing to play while fundamentally changing the bow grip forces a long frustrating period of transition, where neither the music played nor the grip are quite right. But I’m not willing to stop playing while I try to fix it. There’s also age-related reduction in flexibility that I need to find ways to work around or accept.


2. Musical: Improving tone production and intonation. And making use of that new grip and bow technique to facilitate more musical expression.

3. Personal: Deciding at what point I declare “good enough,” on some issue of technique.  When do I acknowledge that I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and decide to be happy with what I’ve achieved?  Or when to keep striving? Also, accepting that the amount of practice to yield a given improvement is dramatically higher than it was as a kid. There’s the age thing, of course. But sadly, fixing bad habits is much harder than simply learning to do it right to begin with. 

Transcendent Musical Moments
Without question I experienced a transcendent moment just last summer at Interlochen. To my delight, our son, John, who is 29 and a cellist, decided he would attend the camp for the first time. He and I separately met and enjoyed playing with another violinist and violist during the week, and all agreed we would try to get together to play something challenging before we left. We picked Schubert’s string quartet, Death and the Maiden. Fortunately, our first violinist (not me!) was up to the challenge of that part. So we read through the entire piece, and it was just glorious. We had our moments of making some beautiful music
and moments of humor—crashing and burning a couple of times. There was also the pleasure of successfully reading through a difficult piece and the simple joy of playing together with new people who are actively listening and responding to each other.

This was one of the highest-level chamber-music groups I’ve ever played with, and I took considerable satisfaction in reflecting on the progress I had made since resuming the violin. And I took particular satisfaction in playing with our son, and enjoying (and taking pride in) his considerable capability on the cello. A lot of lessons and practice time went into making that possible.

Fiddler Anne Duffus

Name: Anne Duffus
Instrument: Fiddle
Age: 63
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Camp: FiddleStar

Why I Play
It is the unending musical journey and the musical friends that keep me playing. The music just comes out of me. I really can’t explain it any other way than that. Music is a metaphor for life itself.

There is always more to learn, discover, improve on, and contribute. One never arrives, one just keeps going. In the fiddle I have found the sound and vibration that touches me to the very core.

My Goals
My goals are immediate and long term. My immediate goal is to be happy with where I am in my playing, while always striving to improve. This is really hard for me because I pretty much have an A+++++ personality and I want to play like the fiddlers I listen to.

My long-term goal is to be able to play Irish music at speed with great tone and rhythm.

“There is always more to learn, discover, improve on, and contribute. One never arrives, one just keeps going.” — Anne Duffus

My Challenges
Time is one of my biggest challenges. I am a veterinarian and own and run my own practice with little spare time outside of work. I use most of my spare time to practice the fiddle, but sometimes I come home too tired!

Relaxing while playing is another of my big challenges. I have really been working on relaxing my left hand while playing.

Transcendent Musical Moments
One was the honor of playing one of my original tunes with Liz Knowles. That was one of the greatest musical conversations I have ever had. (Need I say more?)

The second was playing “Shove the Pig’s Foot in the Fire” with Megan Chowning, Clelia Stefanini, and friends in Megan’s living room at fiddle camp. It was so Zen!

Fiddler Lisa Broody

Name: Lisa Broody
Instrument: Fiddle
Age: 61
Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
Camp: Sparrow Music Camp

My name is Lisa Broody and I have been playing fiddle for about ten years and got a late start on it, too! I was always interested in playing Irish and Scottish tunes, which eventually led me to old-time music! This eventually led me to Aisha Ivey, director of Sparrow Music Camp in North Florida, and her Old Time Ensemble Group at Florida State University. As a late bloomer, I’ve found that participating in the camps and ensembles has been priceless for gaining confidence and support. When attending Sparrow Music Camp, you learn how to jam with other musicians, form bands, and perform. And the beauty is that all who participate are at different levels of music ability  as well as age. My granddaughter participated during one of the weekends. She learned to play the ukulele and performed. It was a wonderful experience! Music has inspired me in many areas of my life, and it has been a joy to be included in this music community. Playing with other musicians challenges you to continue to learn and improve, as well as feel you are part of that community.

Violinist Nicholas Martin

Name: Nicholas Martin
Instrument: Violin
Age: 47
Hometown: Saint Paul, Minnesota
Camp: Mike Block String Camp

I grew up playing classical violin and orchestra music, and majored in music at Yale University. I spent a year in Ireland studying classical violin, but also started playing traditional music at that time. Since then I have been interested in a bunch of different styles, including old time and bluegrass fiddle, Celtic fiddle styles, western swing, Gypsy swing, jazz, and gospel. I love doing a couple music camps each year.


Why I Play
I simply love everything about the fiddle—every musical style I can get my arms around, the feel, the sound, the physicality, the beauty of the instrument. I could spend hours just playing thirds, sixths, and fourths in tune with a drone . . . or old-time fiddle tunes, over and over. I love everything from Merle Haggard to Beyoncé, from Kenny Baker to Jascha Heifetz. So it’s not a question of motivation—just time. I just can’t get enough!

My Goals
I spend a lot of time learning fiddle tunes, bluegrass songs, and swing tunes. I want to keep expanding that repertoire and especially working on improvising. My biggest goal though is to spend more time playing with other people, in jams and with bands. I’ve really enjoyed learning, at a couple recent music camps, about how to make an arrangement interesting. I love learning how to play a supporting role, enriching the music, and bringing attention back to a singer.

My Challenges
I would say my challenges are time—I’m pretty tired after a full day of work, and might not get to play until 9 pm or later when the kids go to bed—and perfectionism getting in the way of connecting with other musicians. I know the drive to improve my skill and versatility is positive; this energy keeps me trying to reinvent myself and not fall in a rut. But its shadow side is isolating myself until I feel “ready” to play with people.

Two things have really helped recently. For the perfectionist part, I’ve started to play a new instrument (banjo) where I have no expectations of myself. Everything is new and I appreciate anything I’m able to do, and I’m trying to transfer some of that openness back to the fiddle, where I have 40 years of expectations.

For the isolation part, I’ve been playing church music with some really embodied, passionate musicians. In that context it’s obvious perfectionism and self-criticism can only stand in the way of an experience of connection and transcendence that is not about me.

Transcendent Musical Moments
These days my transcendent moments come from playing with a young African-American vocalist, keyboardist, and guitar player whose experience, energy, and style are completely different from mine, but who is really inspiring me to grow. Improvisation, which always seemed a distant mystery to me, has become more natural and flowing with her, which even transfers back to other styles where I felt sort of blocked before. My other favorite thing about the last few years has been a yearly injection of new energy and material by attending one or two music camps each summer—Mike Block’s and Swannanoa Gathering especially. Getting to play and hang out with my fiddle heroes has been amazing.

Violinist Terry Chang

Name: Terry Chang
Instrument: Violin
Age: 30
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Camp: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Rusty Musicians Program
Why I Play

Making music with other musicians in ensembles is the ultimate thing that keeps me playing. I absolutely love playing with an orchestra and in chamber-music groups. It is rewarding getting to create music with other musicians and hearing all of the individual parts come together to form a musical masterpiece.

My Goals
My string-playing goal is to always strive toward being a better violinist—both musically and technically.

My Challenges
One of my biggest challenges is finding the time to keep up with my musical endeavors, especially when life gets busy as an adult with so many other responsibilities.

Transcendent Musical Moments
One of my most transcendent musical moments would be playing Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It was an incredible experience playing this magical piece alongside world-class musicians at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It was truly an experience I am so grateful for, and one that I will never forget!

Cellist Michael Freilich

Name: Michael Freilich
Instrument: Cello
Age: 39
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Camp: Bennington Chamber Music Conference


Why I Play
As an amateur, the time I spend playing cello is the ultimate way to get away from it all. There’s very little else that I can focus on when I’m immersed in practicing alone,   sight-reading with friends, or performing. I’ve come to treasure the times where I can focus solely on cello and music. For the last several years I’ve found this opportunity at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference. I spend a week totally immersed in cello with little time for anything else. It’s one of the best weeks away from work every year!

My Goals
I have a short-term goal and a long-term goal. My short-term goal is just to find balance between my cello-playing life and the rest of my life. This seems like an impossible task that I constantly struggle with. Balance doesn’t occur day-to-day or week-to-week, but every year I find a few months to truly focus on the cello. My long-term goal is to play a concerto with an orchestra one day. I never won a concerto competition as a kid; maybe I’ll win one as a grown-up!

My Challenges
My biggest challenge is finding enough time to play so that I can have satisfying musical experiences. I’ve had enough of these in life to know that music is most fun when I’ve put in the work required to make the sounds I want to make. I have a demanding career, and I travel a lot for work, which results in inconsistent playing. I’ve become adept at getting back into shape, but the best way for me to overcome this challenge is to make goals and deadlines. Whether it’s sight-reading with friends or a performance, for me having a goal is the key. Also, intonation!

Transcendent Musical Moments
I have two that come to mind. The first was performing Brahms B major Piano Trio with my wife playing piano and my best friend playing violin. They are both professional players, and as an amateur it’s a joy to be pushed technically and artistically. This occurred as cello was increasingly playing a smaller role in my life, which made the experience more significant. The second was playing The Swan with 150 other cellists at Hans Jensen’s Cello Happening at Northwestern University in 2016. 150 cellos!

Cellist Nancy Mack

Name: Nancy Mack
Instrument: Cello
Age: 65
Hometown: Cumming, Georgia
Camp: SCOR!

My son started playing the violin at age five so my life was heavily involved in lessons, events, and concerts. When he was leaving for college I realized I was going to miss the music so I decided at age 50 that I’d learn to play the cello. (I tried to play the violin, but it was “too hard”!)

Why I Play
I keep playing because I love the musical world I’ve entered! I had taken lessons and played alone in my home for nearly five years before I ventured out and went to SCOR!, a music camp for adults. It was eye opening and wonderful! The SCOR! teachers were encouraging and inspiring. It was because of SCOR! that I learned the joy of playing with friends and that is what keeps me playing!

“It takes a lot of time experimenting and listening to determine if the sound I’m creating is the sound that I want.” —Nancy Mack

My Goals
My first goal was to sound like Yo-Yo Ma, which I thought would be accomplished in about six months. All I had to do was learn where the notes were and put the bow on the string. I got a huge awakening. Not so easy. Now my goals are to continue my education with my teacher, continue to improve my tone, and first and foremost, enjoy the music I’m sharing with others!

My Challenges
The biggest challenge is accepting that I may never play as well as I’d like to. My former career was accounting oriented, so there was a method and solution. Music isn’t like that. It takes a lot of time experimenting and listening to determine if the sound I’m creating is the sound that I want. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Strings magazine.

Book cover for "A Practice Primer: make the most of your practice time" edited by Megan Westberg

Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.