By Greg Cahill
You saw a YouTube video of Anne-Sophie Mutter at age 14 playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, and her achingly beautiful performance has inspired you to learn the violin. But you’re worried that string playing must be mastered in youth, that you’re too old. Don’t worry. “When there is a ‘knock on your door,’ never ignore it,” says violinist, recording artist, and educator Julie Lyonn Lieberman. “If this—or any instrument—speaks to you, heed the call. Learning to play the violin can take place at any time in your life. It’s challenging, yes, but it’s also healing and fulfilling.”
Typically, children start playing violin between the ages of 6 to 9, allowing sufficient physical, intellectual, and emotional development to tackle the instrument. Of course, there are exceptions—you may know the story of 4-year-old child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dazzling the court of Maximillian III of Bavaria in Munich with his fiddle. But such examples are rare and should not deter you from pursuing your dream. The discipline and life skills you have acquired can be an advantage. Here is some advice and inspiration to help you get started on violin at any age.
Finding the Time to Practice Violin as an Adult
Learning to play the violin requires a lot of time and effort. Are you prepared to face frustration as you struggle to master technique? Will you set goals and commit to months of effort before you quit? Are you ready to set aside a daily bloc of time to practice? “For grown-up beginners, I advise making the violin a routine, like brushing your teeth,” says violinist and online bowing coach Zlata Ihou-Brouwe of Violin Lounge. “Consistent daily practice is what sets you up for success. Some get motivated one day and practice for hours and leave the violin to catch dust for the rest of the week. Strive for five minutes a day and your routine will automatically get longer. When you try to find time, don’t search for big chunks of time. You might not find them. Go for those tiny moments in between: the couple of minutes your pizza is in the oven or if you are waiting on something. Also, practice bowing exercises without the violin when waiting in line and on the road.”
How to Find a Violin as an Adult Beginner
There is a debate whether it’s better to buy or rent your first violin. But renting-to-own has advantages. If you rent a violin for $50 a month and then quit, you won’t be out thousands of dollars from a purchase. If you stick with it, most shops will allow you to apply the fees to the purchase of your rental violin. If you buy the violin outright, be sure the dealer allows trade-ins toward a better step-up instrument. There are reputable online dealers offering quality instruments and attentive customer care. One benefit of renting, or purchasing, from a local violin shop, however, is that the staff can help to fit you with a proper chinrest and shoulder rest, as well as select the best bow for your needs.
Finding the Right Violin Teacher as an Adult
Look for a teacher that specializes in adult beginners—both private teachers and community music schools provide instruction for adults. Teaching an adult is quite different from teaching children. Adults have unique needs—scheduling flexibility, physical abilities—and sometimes balk at learning difficult techniques, challenging a teacher in a manner that even the most brazen child would never consider. So you need a teacher who can handle recalcitrant moods, but is empathetic. Also, adults sometimes have ergonomic issues and a teacher that is skilled at identifying those can help navigate physical challenges or health-related issues. “Grown-up beginners tend to tense up a lot,” Ihou-Brouwe says. “This, combined with a crooked posture, is a recipe for disaster. First, make sure your body posture is good and everything feels relaxed. Accept that the violin will feel weird at first, not painful, but weird. Take a lot of breaks in between your practice session, do some stretching and keep checking that you’re not lifting your bow-arm shoulder or squeezing your left hand, for instance. Spend time finding a good shoulder rest and chinrest, but also know 80 percent of technique is your posture and hold.”
What about online lessons? Lieberman suggests that you take advantage of the vast number of free violin lessons available online, but that you use these to supplement private lessons. “I often see misleading advice on social media when a beginner posts a question,” she says. “Try to gather a range of answers if you turn to social media for advice and use common sense to determine the best path to follow. It’s important to keep in mind that there are a number of approaches to how the bow-hold and every other aspect of technique are taught for this instrument. It’s useful to ask any private teacher you work with to explain how they were trained and why they have adhered to their particular teaching techniques. If their approach has yielded injury, discomfort, or a substandard sound, this might not be the best person for you to work with.”
Connect with Some Kindred Spirits
For many, the best way to learn a stringed instrument is in an ensemble—that’s why middle schools and high schools have orchestral programs. There is a network of adult community orchestras and amateur chamber groups across the nation that can provide experience, moral support, and an opportunity to have fun with a stand partner. Since an audition often is required, joining a community orchestra can provide motivation to practice. Community orchestras sometimes are affiliated with a symphony or may receive limited public funding through a local hotel tax. You can find information about community orchestras in your area online, through Facebook groups or such apps as Meetup. And be sure to look into one of the excellent music camps catering to adult string players.
Protect Your Body While You Play Violin
The old adage “no pain, no gain” has no place in the adult beginner’s life. “The belief that you should ignore discomfort and/or pain to master this instrument is still prevalent,” says Lieberman, the author of the healthy-playing book You Are Your Instrument: The Definitive Musician’s Guide to Practice and Performance.
“This is particularly dangerous for older beginners. If your teacher disregards physical aches and pains when mentioned to him or her, find a new teacher. It’s extremely important to work with someone who has taken the time to learn about natural joint and muscle function, who has an arsenal of ideas designed to attend to your specific body type and physical needs, and who listens to you without invalidating what you’re experiencing.”
Prioritize Joy While You Play
Learning the violin can be daunting. Remember that Anne-Sophie Mutter video that moved you to pursue this pastime in the first place? It was the artistry, the joy, the promise of fun, and a love for the violin that drew you to this instrument. Stick with it—even a modest effort will pay off. “Momentum is the key to mastery,” Lieberman says. “To build momentum, you need consistency far more than mega-hours spent practicing. A few minutes each day is far more useful than an hour followed by a few days without practicing, then a couple of minutes, another break, and so on. We all lead extremely busy lives, so even one minute a day will provide you with enough forward motion needed to make progress as long as you pay careful attention to all the details required by whatever you are working on.”
Further Resources on Learning Violin at Any Age