I got sidetracked. I haven’t stopped playing (though my performance in the orchestra’s summer concert wasn’t my finest hour) but the summer’s events did shove the blog aside for a long time. But now that the customary surge of September enthusiasm has kicked in I’m back in the saddle. Years back, a new uniform and sharpened pencils brought with them the hope of homework completed and submitted on time, and of being a bit less bad at sport. The aspirations have changed but I haven’t lost that annual burst of energy and drive. And I do love a goal. So, at the grand old age of 34, I’m thinking of working towards my Grade 8 viola.
I have absolutely no idea how long this will take or how far off that level I am (I took my grade 7 a staggering 19 years ago). And I’ve been variously told that music exams are ‘for children’, ‘pointless unless you’re at school’ and ‘stressful’. It’s true that no future employer or institution that I apply to will give a monkeys what instrument I play. I may curse myself months hence when I’m sat in a dingy school hall sick with nerves and surrounded by jittery teenagers. But the prospect of playing alone in front of an examiner, and the potential shame of admitting to failing a music exam as an adult might be just what I need to ratchet things up a notch.
What I would love to know is, does anyone else do this? A quick google search turned up a few brief references to over-18s being able to enter themselves in these exams but otherwise nada. Have you taken a music exam as an adult? Or considered working towards one? If so, I’d love to hear from you.
Back in the dim and distant past, I carried out the first half of an experiment that I’ve thus far failed to complete. Depressed about my apparent lack of progress, I recorded myself playing a piece and promised to record the same piece a month later, compare the two, and report back. For six months I failed to do this because:
(a) I was afraid I wouldn’t have improved
(b) Listening to a recording of yourself playing an instrument is almost as bad as listening to a recording of yourself speaking, and
(c) I’m not very good at following things up
Then moment of truth finally came last night when I did the second recording, then listened to both in quick succession.
The original November recording was absurdly bad, like the audio from some awful St Trinian’s music lesson sketch: terrible tuning, erratic timing, no redeeming features whatsoever. Tonight’s attempt was only slightly less bad, I did notice a significant difference in tone and vibrato but the tuning with still really off in places. So, there has been improvement but rather less than I’d hoped for. Thank goodness I dithered for six months, the results after one month would have been crushing.
Moral of the story: listening to a recording of yourself, however painful, is a useful exercise, – it’s been a timely reminder that my tuning needs some work, and that if I want to make a better sound any time soon I’ll need to practice a bit more regularly and a bit more efficiently (more on that soon).
I recently read that Toni Morrison didn’t started writing novels until she was in her late 30s, a single mother with two boys. She got up at 4am every morning to write before work. I find stories like that very inspiring for about 30 seconds or as long as it takes me to remember that I can’t even sacrifice an episode of Homeland to do something life-transforming, let alone two or three hours sleep. Take the past week, I have plenty to do but none of it has imminent deadlines attached, with the result that I spend any available time writing detailed to-do lists and researching things I will never ever need to know about (tips on running a marathon in the rain anyone?), obsessing about how to decorate the spare room in a house in a small rural town that I will never move to, and reading about the life of Joe Strummer (born in Ankara, bet you didn’t know that).
The Easter break was a good opportunity to do some of that practice that I’m always complaining I don’t have time to do. But I had important imaginary house buying to do. Consequently, when I had my first lesson in a number of weeks it was a bit painful. We were looking at Sibelius Symphony Number 1, which I’ll be playing with the orchestra this term. It’s not, on the whole, technically difficult but there were four slightly tricky runs in the section we worked on:
I fluffed them, the teacher and I laughed, we played them very slowly together, I wrote in a couple of fingerings and then I tried to play them back, and that’s when my fingers stopped doing what they were told. I must have tried more than 20 times. At home, alone, I’d probably have sworn a bit, had some leftover Easter egg and come back to it later. Not an option here and by my 10th failed attempt my teacher had run out of encouraging things to say. I don’t know to describe how excruciating it is getting the same thing wrong 20 times in a row while someone is watching you. But imagine someone is standing two metres away and throwing a beach ball at you and you just keep on dropping it – funny the first couple of times. Still, I wonder if the memory will be enough to motivate me to practice it properly before next time but I guess it depends on how much good TV is coming up over the next couple of weeks.
These days I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about the same things: schools, homes (and their value), country vs city, stay-at-home vs working (mums), career advancement vs work-life balance. I explore these issues mostly with the same sorts of people in the same sorts of environments. This is fine, most of the time, but one of the things that I’m starting to love about playing in an orchestra is that is, once a week, my social interactions become significantly more colourful and varied.
At last week’s rehearsal I was sitting within a foot or so of: a chirpy 20-something trombone player who works in the music industry, lives with his parents and has played in a plethora of ensembles and bands; a sweet, solemn Greek music student, quietly heartbroken about the economic collapse of his homeland; a Swiss banker in his 40s, licking the orchestra’s admin into shape with good-humoured efficiency; a quiet, warm stay-at-home mum to six children, starting to make time for her own interests after 30 years of child-rearing; a male cellist wearing one of a seemingly endless collection of glorious, flamboyant dresses. There are photographers, chemists, lawyers, singers, writers, publicists. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all humanity is there – the vibe is unmistakably middle class – but I can’t think of many other places where you would find so many different ages, nationalities and professions collaborating so enthusiastically. And, having stuck around for a quick pint after last week’s rehearsal, I’m confident it’ll make for some interesting pub trips too.
I’m nearing the end of my first full term of a new orchestra. The concert looms, but that’s another story. On the whole it’s been great, both new and familiar. Some things never change – not practising enough, swearing to yourself at each rehearsal that you’ll never come unprepared again and then still not practising enough, not looking at the conductor as often as you should despite constant reminders – but a few things have definitely moved on. The kit has improved significantly for a start.
Take music stands: I remember spindly, unstable metal affairs that toppled over if you breathed near them, and had fiendish screws that lacerated your fingers. These days stands are lighter and yet more stable, they fold up more easily and slide neatly into compact little bags with handles, the screws are either made of plastic or encased in it (altogether more finger-friendly) and, rather charmingly, they come in all the colours of the rainbow.
The cases have changed too. Anyone who has played their instrument regularly in the past decade or so has, very sensibly, invested in something a bit like this:
(with thanks to Caswells Strings)
i.e. something relatively weather-proof, padded and with a strap that can be slung over your shoulder leaving your hands free (and a handy pouch for music). If you enter ‘viola cases’ into google images these days, you have to scroll down quite far before you come across anything that looks like mine, and scanning the orchestra last week, my case was definitely in a class of its own (not in a good way). A fellow viola reassured me that mine was endearingly retro, but quaintness might have to give way to practicality before long, if only so that I can pick up more than one bag of shopping on my way back from rehearsals.
I know dozens and dozens of people who played an instrument as a child, but I can count on one hand those who’ve kept it up in adulthood. It seems such a shame that all those years of work should go to waste. Over the past month, I’ve received lots of enthusiastic feedback from people who used to play an instrument and would like to get back to it but never have. I’ve also heard a fair few poignant stories from parents whose children used to play well but have given up and can’t be persuaded to get back to it. And I’d love to hear more from you about this.
A few things contributed to the gradual fizzling out of my playing, including: leaving home and wanting on some level to establish my independence by not doing anything I didn’t ‘have’ to do (rather shot myself in the foot there), being distracted by university life and a bundle of other, new commitments, getting to know ‘proper’ musicians and realising I’d never be one of those. Mostly though, for me, it was just laziness. Others have cited embarrassment, uninspiring teachers, and, most commonly, lack of time.
What made you give up and what, if anything, would encourage you to pick it up again? And if you or your child has come back to music what was the catalyst?
At the time, I thought I was fairly realistic about what it would be like to start playing the viola again. But, looking back, I was mostly skipping mentally to the part when I could play fluently and melodically. I imagined myself welcomed into the bosom of a friendly, enthusiastic string quartet. What I didn’t think about was how long I would spend being quite bad at something; lonely hours of practise making the same mistakes 20 times in a row before finally getting it right.
It’s the same with most things you take up as an adult. There’s often a gaping chasm between the aspiration and the reality. You take up running and dream of cutting lithely through the air, people cheering you in a race; you anticipate your newly toned physique and increased energy levels. You don’t think about the days when you will drag your carcass around a field for 20 minutes with a stitch, and feel utterly shattered afterwards.
Apparently this is as it should be, the official term is ‘creative visualisation’ and it’s what motivates us to succeed. But, it does mean that when the dreary reality of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration hits home, you have to be very dedicated to stick with it. And it’s all rather humbling: as a child you’re used to getting it wrong a lot, it’s accepted that you haven’t yet learnt how to do most things properly; but once you reach adulthood, you tend to stick to activities that you know you can do competently.
Daunting as it feels to step outside the comfort zone, it’s reassuring to know that it is actually good for our brains (and probably our souls too, but that’s another post). The view used to be that our cognitive powers peaked in our mid-twenties but then we learnt of neuroplasticity – the ability of the adult brain to rewire itself, changing its physical structure and function through experience, thought and behaviour. So, we have the power to change our own brains by learning a new skill – something to bear in mind when you’re starting to feel you’ve had enough of your own faltering playing.
Over the past week I’ve found myself adding ‘viola practice’ to my ‘to do’ list. This is no bad thing in some ways as I’m still at the habit-forming stage. But, with some of the enthusiasm of the first few weeks having ebbed away, I had a creeping sense that the viola was becoming a chore, which is absolutely the last thing it should be. One of the joys of learning or returning to an instrument as an adult, is that you can come to it without any feelings of bondage: you’re playing because you want to, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to switch off from everything else and do something that gives you pleasure. It is, for want of a better expression, you-time.
So if you do start to dread practising, my advice is to get your instrument out, choose something, anything that is completely un-taxing – music that you know can play without really having to think about it at all – and just enjoy the tune and the fact that you’re able to make music. For me it was jigs and carols, and before I knew it, I’d been there an hour.
One of the few disadvantages to learning to play an instrument as an adult is that you’re likely to be more self-conscious. It’s a subject close to my heart because tomorrow I’m due to have a viola lesson. My last lesson was almost half a lifetime ago, and I could play a lot better then. The teacher reassured me that he wasn’t expecting any Paganini Caprices, but still, the prospect of standing in front of a stranger, scraping through a study or two is a bit daunting, especially when you know what it’s meant to sound like, and how far you are falling short.
It’s a point that sound engineer Ethan Winer touches on in this essay, about his decision to take up the cello at the age of 43. He also offers some practical, analytical advice for string players about how to improve your technique.
Ethan has since become a very accomplished player and something of a YouTube star thanks to his terrific Cello Rondo (in which he plays 37 separate cello parts). It’s innovative, quirky and full of joy – not to be missed.