By Ben Levy | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I had a dilemma. On the one hand, I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with myself when practicing the violin because it sounded like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. On the other hand, how was I to progress if I wasn’t in the same room with myself playing every day? This all started when I retired from my job and finally had the time to pursue my lifelong dream of learning to play the violin.
I knew what beautiful music sounded like. I grew up in a home built around the sound system. Classical music was played throughout the day. I had taken piano lessons from age four through high school and played the sousaphone in the school band from grades 7–12. I gave piano recitals. Our band competed in state competitions and I competed in solo competitions. Music was an important part of my life from the very beginning.
I considered majoring in music in college, but decided instead to take coursework to become a doctor. I would save music for fun. But what I didn’t know, when I made that decision, was that I would not have the time or the energy for music for almost 50 years. Between pre-med courses and running track in college, then the rigors of medical school and working as a physician, raising three boys, and working a farm, I was either too tired or too busy to take lessons.
Not that I didn’t try.
I worked 120 hours a week during my medical residency and still managed to take guitar lessons once a week. However, I often fell asleep during the lesson and my teacher would send me home before it was over. Years later, when working as a physician in a clinic, I paid a month in advance for violin lessons—a lifelong dream. The lessons started at 5:00 pm, allowing me to get home by 6:15, but more often than not, I couldn’t get out of work in time to make the lesson and therefore couldn’t justify the expense.
Finally, at age 65, I was able to dive into music in earnest! But I quickly discovered two road blocks. First I found that the “classical way” of holding a violin was not ergonomically favorable to my aging body. So, I learned various physical therapy exercises that I continue to this day to keep the pain away. The other thing I had to deal with was the aforementioned horrible squeaky sound coming out of my violin. (I only wish I had known about noise-
cancelling headphones back then. I would have gotten a pair for my wife.)
Fortunately, I had a patient teacher who suggested playing just a single open string with a whole bow. “Bend your knees. Breathe. Open your hand with a bent pinky. Relax your arm and let your bow feel its weight. Pay attention to the height of your elbow. Use more bow. Play with a straight bow. Find the sweet spot between the bridge and fingerboard. Look out the window and imagine playing to the hills in the distance to project the sound.” So many things to think about at the same time!
I practiced one at a time until each was second nature. It took many months, but finally I was making lovely full sounds with open strings. I actually enjoyed this experience (it was meditative), and soon I was on my way to achieving a lovely tone when reading music.
Then, the next dilemma. I was interested in classical, klezmer, Irish, and bluegrass music—but I discovered that the approach to learning classical music is different from the approach to learning folk music. This observation lent credence to the saying that it is best to master one genre of music and then, someday, learn others (a jack of all trades is master of none).
At age 76, now into my eleventh year of playing the violin, I am by no means a master of any one genre. In first position, I still work at getting my second and third fingers high enough or low enough; I can usually get to third position reasonably accurately on the A and E strings, though I am less consistent on the G and D strings. I am just starting to play way above fifth position, but have to get over the feeling that I am about to drop my violin. Vibrato is finally happening, but not yet consistently with my third and fourth fingers, etc. Even with these and other shortcomings, I can now enjoy being in the room with myself when I play.
Classical music means, to me, reading music and executing what I read in fine detail. For example, I actually like Wohlfahrt. If I practice Pleyel right after Wohlfahrt, I can immediately use the bow distribution that I just learned. And, if I practice a slow four-and-a-half beat whole-bow crescendo on an open string (no easy task), I can then play the opening of Bach’s Air in D major. I thoroughly enjoy playing classical duets and quartets. All very satisfying!
Yet all along I couldn’t help but to dabble with klezmer, Irish, and bluegrass music. However, unlike classical music, the written notes in these genres don’t accurately represent what you play. More specifically, the printed page cannot reflect the rhythms of Irish and klezmer music. It is better, in these genres, to learn tunes by ear.
Also, this is dance music, after all. And since some dances last five or ten minutes or more, you might repeat the tune that you are playing several times. To make it interesting, you want to play it differently each time. Sheet music, usually written as one version of a tune, does not reflect how to do this. For example, with bluegrass, it is a good idea to mix up bowing techniques throughout the tune, and when you repeat the tune it is more interesting to bow it differently each time as well as to vary the notes you play.
I now play classical duets and quartets and am also in a klezmer band and a bluegrass band. I have lots of fun and have accepted the reality of slow progress in several genres rather than faster progress in one. It took a while, but I even enjoy playing in public. Playing never fails to boost my mood and energy. It is my life’s tonic. It was no small matter that after my wife died, suddenly and unexpectedly a few years ago, playing music helped me get by.
At age 76, I manage to fit music into every day, even in the summer months when I am still farming. During the winter months, I can—and often do—practice all day (as long as I also practice those helpful PT exercises). In the winter I also have time to listen to recorded music. (My teachers are always saying, Listen! Listen! Listen!) I’ve learned how to use Sibelius for arranging and composing. Last winter I transcribed from a YouTube recording one of Bach’s concertos for bluegrass instruments. I am reviewing several classical pieces in search of one to transcribe or arrange for bluegrass instrumentation this coming winter. The days are getting shorter and colder as I write this. Soon I’ll be in seventh heaven.