October 2015

Compare and Despair

October 23, 2015 18:56

swirling violins

Comparison is human nature, and the temptation to compare ourselves to others is particularly strong in Violin World. A lot of people play the violin. A lot of people play the violin really, really well. And learning to cope with this fact is something that every violinist has to confront at some point in their career.

Ignatian spirituality has a saying: "Compare and despair." When we compare ourselves to someone else, we will inevitably end up depressed. Because the thing is, we're not comparing ourselves to the other person. We're comparing ourselves to our idealized image of that other person. And that's something that no one can live up to.

I've seen this in my violin studio over the last few months. I've seen students terrified to play out because they hear other students who they think are better than them. I've seen parents who are discouraged because another child is playing better than theirs.

And it breaks my heart.

I adore all my students, for exactly who they are. Whenever someone says to me, "So-and-So plays SO AMAZINGLY IN TUNE, it seems so easy for them!" I realize that yes, they saw So-and-So play at the recital, and yes, So-and-So had wonderful intonation. What they didn't see was the previous two years of lessons with me, where I changed everything about their violin technique, made them play hours and hours of scales, and insisted that they do it over and over again. "Tall violin. Do it again. Check your Magic X. Do it again. No, that's a 4th finger. Do it again." Two years of that resulted in So-and-So being able to play their advanced piece really well in tune. Believe me, no one is born with perfect intonation. We ALL work on it. For those for whom intonation is a little more intuitive, they have their own share of challenges (AHEM, bow hold, anyone?)

I've had beginning students look at other students their own age and feel despondent because they didn't start younger. It's unfair to compare a violinist who has been playing six months to a violinist who has been playing for four years. As someone who started at the age of 9 in my public school orchestra, I think I spent at least the first 10 years of life as a violinist upset because I didn't start as a 4-year-old prodigy. As a teacher, I see that beginners of every age have their own advantages and challenges. Violin isn't easy, for anyone.

I am not immune to comparison, as much as I might wish to be. Two months ago, a friend of mine and I took the same orchestra audition. She got in. I didn't. I spiraled into a pretty dark place in my mind. I cried for two straight days. I lamented the fact that she had a better tone, seemed like a nicer person who I was sure everyone liked more than me, and was even better-dressed. I wallowed in imagined inferiority for longer than I wanted to, and have slowly been pulling myself out of it.

One of the things I realized is this: I cannot be anyone but myself. I cannot play like anyone but myself. And any time I spend saying "Why is this person so much better than me?" rather than saying, "How can I make this sound the way I want it to?" is wasted. So I chose a new recital program. I went to my violin teacher and asked her how I could improve the weaknesses in my playing. And I went to the practice room, every day, and I worked on those weaknesses. I did not blindly play through repertoire and hope that it would magically get better. I worked slowly, and carefully, and with great awareness of how I was doing everything I was doing. I have the hope that when I am completely immersed in my own sound and am able to make my playing an authentic representation of who I am, I won't fall into the pit of comparing and despairing, because I will be so in love with music that I don't care what else is going on.

I've had people say to me that it seems like I have it all together. I have a beautiful website (Weebly has AMAZING templates, you guys. I can't code to save my life.), a thriving studio, and lots of creative ideas. This is true. I've worked hard to get to where I am. And most of the time, I don't post on Facebook or on my blog when I have a bad day. The truth is yes, I'm at a place right now where I am the most put-together that I have been in about a decade. You didn't see the years I spent in therapy trying to cope with my crippling perfectionism, the tendonitis that left me unable to play my violin for the first year of music school, or the year I spent in graduate school rebuilding my technique from the ground up. You don't see the moments where I am so overwhelmed by everything everyone expects of me that I have to sit and cry before I can move forward. You may not know that despite everything I have going for me in my professional life, I miss my father (who died five and a half years ago) every single day and would give just about anything to see him again, even for five minutes. These are just some of the things I have been through. I work hard to focus on what I am grateful for in my life (which is a lot!), and on feeling confident in who I have become. But it's hard. And I have a feeling that the people who say "Claire has it all together, I want to be her!" might not feel that way if they knew the full price of being me.

You don't know the full story of whoever it is you are comparing yourself to. And chances are that if you did, you would choose your own, rather than being them. It's hard enough to be yourself. Don't waste time lamenting that you're not someone else.

For my students reading this: I am here for you. I am here to walk with you on your violin journey. I want to help you learn to love your sound and to have true confidence in your playing. I love you, and I promise that I NEVER spend your lessons thinking, "I wish I was teaching Other Student" right now. When I teach, I am totally focused on you and how I can help you in the moment.

To everyone: Be kind to yourself. Seek to be authentic, rather than unique. Focus on what YOU can do, and love yourself as yourself. Because you are worthy of all the love in the world, and we need you exactly as you are.

Originally posted on my website

14 replies

Music & Words

October 13, 2015 06:59

I have a rule in my studio: You must sing your new piece before I will teach it to you on the violin. With words you wrote (one syllable per note). From memory.

It's no wonder my students think I'm a little nuts.

kids singing

This is a learning strategy I acquired from my teacher, Burton Kaplan. Writing words to your piece opens up a new way to engage with it. Having to write words and SING them forces students to listen to the song differently - and probably to listen to it more times than they would. You listen to the inflections of the notes, and engage with the rhythm in a different way.

The beginning stages of learning the violin can be very challenging. There are a lot of details to remember, and I insist on a very high level of technique from my students at every level. The violin must be held right, the left hand framed beautifully, the fingers landing just so on the strings. The bow hold must have every finger in the right place, yet the arm and hand must be relaxed. The direction of the bows and the amount of bow used must follow precise directions.

All of this, while incredibly important, can get dry and mechanical. Having my students write their own creative words and sing them ensures that before we dive into the technical details of the piece, they have internalized their own musical image of what the piece is. And, should we get too lost in the bowings and fingerings, I can always have them sing a phrase and then try to imitate their voices.

I'm sharing some of my students' original words and the Suzuki songs they go to. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

May Song

In a little hive there's a bee, make sure you don't sting me.
If you do you'll be very sad, if you do you'll be very sad.
In a little hive there's a bee, make sure you don't sting me.

-Bailey, age 7

Minuet 1 - The Hermione Song

Hermione and her friends, Harry Potter and
Ron Weasley, Neville and Luna Lovegood all go to Hogwarts.

Hermione and her friends, Harry Potter and
Ron Weasley, Neville and Luna Lovegood all go to Hogwarts.

They ride Hogwarts Express all the way up to the castle.
Laughing with friends and chocolate frogs will make time go fast.

McGonagall and Dumbledore teach them their spells.
Snape does the potions. We don't quite trust him. He's kind of creepy.

Quidditch is their big sport. Harry plays Seeker, yes he does.
Griffindor will win. Draco is angry. He lost the snitch.

He who shall not be named is there, lurking around.
Hermione and her friends won't let him get Harry Potter!

Minuet 3- My Busted Arm

I do not like my busted arm. It's very hard to do some stuff.
Like eating with a fork, playing violin and holding a pencil.

I fell off of the zip line and landed on my right arm. Boo hoo!
We went to the doctor, then to the x-ray, then to the ER.

The ER was so fun. They gave me an ipad when I first got to my bed.
I played Hair Salon the whole time and loved it so much.

Then Cinderella came to visit and to take some pictures, too.
Then the nurse gave me a splint and we went back home at 9.

- Lindsey, age 7

Minuet 2 - MOWnuet

Tulips come up in the spring (in spring)
They’re a gardener’s favorite thing (in spring)
Poppies and petunias, don’t forget tiny crocuses,
Parsley, rosemary and thyme (and thyme)
Roses bloom and start to climb (and climb)
Shovels or maybe trowels or maybe
Flowerpots for your plants.

Flower gardens get the glory, and
Vegetables are always useful, so
Why is it that so much space goes to
Raising up boring grass? Don’t you think
Digging around with shovels and trowels
Might be more fun than mowing the lawn?
Raking the leaves is another nice weekend gone.

Plant some fruit trees in a row (a row)
Plant them deep and watch them grow (and grow)
Make me a flower border with cosmos,
Daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace.

-Grace, age 9

Originally posted on my website.

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