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Terez Mertes

What drives the adult beginner?

January 18, 2006 at 10:02 PM

Why does an adult decide to learn to play the violin? I love hearing the reasons. Some people say it’s because it sounded fun, that they always wanted to try. Others did in their youth and wanted to pick it up again. As for me, I would have said it was because I’d decided to write a novel with a violinist in it and felt it would help my research. But is that really the whole story? I mean, why did I choose to write about a violinist in the first place? Why has this story been in my head for over a year now, refusing to go away? So off I went, in search of a deeper reason, to that uncomfortable place of the mind—where most people spend great sums to avoid visiting—to the boggy, dark terrain of the soul and psyche.

And here’s what I found. I’m seeking a replacement, because I’d lost something. Some precious gift from my youth had shattered and dispersed, and here I was, limping along the way adults tend to do, unaware of this loss. Until now, when I took the time to examine it. And you know what? It hurts. It stings like mad. Which is why, I suppose, smarter people stay away.

Humor me here while I stretch out on the leather couch and tell you my story. I was born different, you see. (Weren't we all?) When you grow up feeling different from the other kids, it helps to know there’s a reason for it all, that perhaps life has provided you with something special to make up for the alienation. For me, it was ballet. It soothed all the hurt from the ugly duckling years of my youth. It made the “you don’t belong” feeling bearable, because I knew that deep inside, I was special—I’d been chosen. Every time I’d go to the dance studio, place my leg on the barre and stretch over, hand around my calf, face against my shin, the outside world would retreat. I’d warm up with pliés, tendues and developés, feeling something deep inside me realign, remolding itself to the music. In this cloistered world of movement and music, I knew I’d always be safe.

Who would have thought that special place would close its doors to me one day? What happened? Well, life happened. Ballet, in truth, is a young person’s art. It’s not particularly accommodating in later years, although I pushed hard to sustain it, packing up a leotard and pink leather slippers alongside my skirts and shirts for my two year Peace Corps stint in Africa. I pushed through the career years afterwards, forcing myself to take a weekly ballet class, muttering to myself that it was my art, which I desperately needed after a grueling day as a sales representative. When expatriate travel, then writing, replaced the salaried work, I felt the desperate need subside. I found a laid-back dance class at my local gym, which suited my budget and my schedule nicely. When the teacher moved away four years later, I knew in my heart that my dance practice was coming to an end.

I was proud of myself for seeing it this way. Out with the old, in with the new. Time to put the dolls away and become a full-fledged adult. I had a child and a home to run, which instantly sucked me up into the daily grind we call life. Alongside my exercise regime and a few precious hours of writing, it gobbled up every free hour of my day. I told myself my weekly yoga class and kickboxing class were appeasing the pangs my body felt from losing dance. That I was fine.

Then came the hunger to write novels, to write one about a violinist and the impact of music in her life. But now, six months after I’ve begun, six months since I first picked up a violin, why is it that the hunger has grown and now feels more like starvation? Like something’s burning and I can’t put out the fire? That’s when I went looking inside myself. And I saw it there, the broken dreams of my former art. I’d long ago outgrown it—why, I wondered, did it still hurt so much? Maybe it’s because when you’re young and suffering, you comfort yourself with your gift, confident it will sustain you throughout your life. Except that it didn’t. Ballet was no longer mine.

But there’s still the music, a voice whispered to me, What on earth had I been thinking, that I needed to go without that as well? I’d been starving my soul without even realizing it. So I picked up that music muse, lying there among the bits, dusted it off and slipped it into my pocket.

That’s where I’m at now, this new realization in my mind and heart. I’m clumsy as anything on the violin. Who would have thought six months of lessons would have produced such humble results? The rage kicks up in me periodically. I’m used to being good at my art. Really good, like lead roles, solo curtain calls and other ego-gratifiers. But that was another life. Now, I’m just one more goofy-looking (and sounding) adult beginner. I’m inclined to think that this alone might stop a results-driven person from picking up the violin. You’re basically conscripting yourself to look like an idiot for the next eighteen months. (If my assessment is off here and the idiot phase extends further than this, there’s really no need to tell me. Really.) And yet, something here is working. I can feel it, deep, deep inside me, when I’m holding my violin. The first time I heard the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings ring out when I played the same notes elsewhere, it made my heart leap and my throat catch. Best of all, I like this little violin in a way I never liked my pointe shoes. I marvel at how pretty it is, delicate and vulnerable, like a baby. I feel like I owe it to the both of us to give it my all. If all I ever produce are childlike sounds, well, it’s still better than sitting there in the dark, grieving what I’d lost.

A long-winded way to answer the question of why this adult chose to pick up the violin. How about you others? The answers might surprise us. Then again, they might surprise you.

From Eric Stanfield
Posted on January 18, 2006 at 10:11 PM
A person should build within themselves an insatiable drive to achieve excellence in whatever they attempt. Any pursuit should aim to satisfy this drive alone, without regard for the accolades and acceptance of others. Kids should be taught this from the moment they can talk.

That alone is the reason I do anything. Violin, learning a new language, painting, writing, studying history, etc. These things grab my interest because of the challenges they present, the rewards they offer, and the outlet they give me for constantly wanting to excel in whatever I can.

Maybe I should see a shrink heh.

From Evil Linda
Posted on January 18, 2006 at 11:31 PM
I recommend my shrink. I'll send you his number. xD

The reason I fell in love with the violin was because it brought me great difficulty. Most things naturally come easy for me. I have always recieved straight A's without any effort and could do things with my eyes closed. Things rather dull. Until I met my faithful box of wood.*shiver* It was the first time I actually had to think and work hard. Heck, and I still suck. *shiver* Time to practice.
From Neil Cameron
Posted on January 19, 2006 at 1:34 AM
I'm going to have to think about this.

I'll get back to you. :)


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 19, 2006 at 6:53 AM
I am a teacher of beginners including adult beginners. I always ask them why they want to learn to play the violin. The answers are interesting. You can read some of them on my website.

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