By Mary Chan | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
How hard can it be? I thought, after watching a ten-year-old perform a Bach violin concerto with ease on YouTube. It takes a certain hubris to pick up the violin as an adult. I come from a generation of instant gratification and constant validation so it wasn’t hard for me to believe I could achieve that level of mastery too.
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I’ve actually played the violin before. When I was ten, I joined a youth orchestra and had a little rendezvous with the fiddle. The conductor moved me from last chair to the principal second violin within months, and suddenly my ten-year-old self had a sense of purpose, direction, and an inflated little ego. My time in the orchestra came to an end when my family moved. I have never stopped identifying as a violinist though. Through the years, what memories I had as an amateur transmuted into the tall tale that I was, in fact, a budding virtuoso who was forced to cut my career short. The latest adaptation of that memory followed me well into my 30s while I was living in New York.
Inspired by the buzz of musicians and artists that filled the city, I decided to sign up for adult violin lessons, hoping to pick up where I left off. In my nicest collared shirt (because that’s what violinists wear, right?), I marched into the nearest music shop and asked to see their violins. A disheveled clerk resembling Kurt Cobain looked confused at first, but then lit up, “Actually, someone just dropped off a violin yesterday.” He disappeared in the back room, and I stood there, awkwardly bobbing my head to the indistinct music in the background, trying to fit in with the musicians in the store. As I looked around, it became clear that I was in a used guitar shop, which explained the confused look earlier. However, there I was. With my collared shirt and untapped talent. Demanding my violin.
Clerk Cobain came back and plopped a violin case on the counter. “Here,” he said. “Give it a try.” It hit me that I hadn’t touched a violin in 20 years. I clicked open the latches and could feel the ears of nearby customers perk up. Through muscle memory, I tightened the bow and swiped on some rosin like I knew what I was doing. From the corner of my eye, I could see the stock worker in the hallway put down his box and curiously look over. By the time I positioned the violin on my shoulder and rested my chin against the wood, I had an audience of four waiting for me to treat them to a private violin concerto.
Maybe it will all come back to me, like riding a bike. I took a deep breath and pressed the bow against the A string. Within a quarter of a stroke, two bystanders immediately quailed and moved away, the stock worker went back to his inventory, and the salesman quickly escorted me to the back room, where I could have “more space to play” (later suggesting I buy a practice mute). Clearly, I was not the virtuoso I imagined.
After my public display of ineptitude, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I no longer had to pretend or wonder; the sound I produced spoke for itself. There is a disarming relief to failure. The little critic on your shoulder no longer judges you. On the contrary, it praises you just for trying.
I could have given up then, but the little ten-year-old inside of me stirred with excitement that afternoon. When I felt the ring of the violin against my ear, a deep part of me resonated. I knew I had to honor it. While my excessive confidence is what drove me to pick up the violin, what sustains my pursuit is honoring that childlike wonder and enthusiasm. It comes as a tiny voice that often gets lost beneath the loud demands of every day, but it’s always there.
It’s there when I hear beautiful music. It’s there when I see a dancer float through the room. Whenever I witness greatness and beauty, I’m met with that voice longing to participate.
Music is like alchemy, the way it enhances life: it helps me concentrate, run an extra mile, and even fall more deeply in love. Learning an instrument allows me to step over to the other side and unravel its mechanics. The violin presents me with an infinite array of options to fine-tune, like knobs on an enormous sound board. An adjustment in posture can make the resulting sound go from a triumphant declaration to a defeated whimper. Every angle of my bow and every gradation of pressure emotes a different expression.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the options, I am excited by the possibilities. Much of my progress and continued enthusiasm is owed to my extraordinary teacher, Ed Davis of StringSchool. He has a way of breaking down the most intimidating music into manageable, digestible components. I often leave class feeling like I can do anything.
Eventually, I learned enough to experience the visceral satisfaction of string resonance. I learned that it is one thing to listen to Bach and an entirely different experience to play Bach. I developed a reverence for Itzhak Perlman. I stumbled upon Yehudi Menuhin’s yogic influences.
Picking up an instrument as an adult allows me to meet myself right where I am, with whatever time I have. Evening TV is replaced with evening études and repertoire is practiced in the laundry room while my daughter naps. I’ve since surpassed my ten-year-old self—and left my hubris far behind in that musty little guitar shop. However, I’ve managed to keep the enthusiasm inside of me alive.
Playing the violin has become a form of self-care, where I am actively nurturing the child in me—the little “virtuoso” longing to participate in the arts. The reward of practicing is immediate: quite literally, it’s music to my ears.