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Pauline Lerner

Adult beginners, aging bodies

February 11, 2009 at 9:01 PM

I suspect that many of my readers are people who have not come out of the closet yet: adult beginners. It's tough being an adult beginner. There is virtually no support network for you. Many people, including some violin teachers, say that only children should begin to learn to play the violin. You've probably heard people say that kids learn better and faster than adults, that adults don't have the time or motivation to stick with it, or other disparaging statements. Many of my students are adult beginners, and I can see their difficulties and triumphs first hand. I plan to explore some of their issues in this and subsequent blogs. I would be happy to get feedback from adult beginners and their teachers, including suggestions for other topics to discuss.

As we get older, our bodies age in normal ways. There are other changes, however, which are not "normal" or universal, changes which stem from from illnesses, behaviors, or injuries. Sometimes these changes have no noticeable effects on every day life, but they affect the posture and movements necessary for playing the violin. The challenge is for the student and the teacher to discover the sources of the problems and to find ways to overcome or work around them.

One of my adult beginners, a woman in her late fifties, seemed the very picture of robust health. She frequently did challenging hiking, backpacking, and physical conditioning so that she could do more. However, when she started learning how to use the bow, she ran into a glitch. She had had rotator cuff surgery on her right shoulder years ago, and moving the bow gave her shoulder pain. She did not want to give up. She loved folk music and wanted to play it. I told her that whenever she noticed shoulder pain beginning, she should stop playing and rest, stretch, or massage her shoulder until the pain went away. Only then should she resume playing. At first this regimen was very frustrating because she could only play for a few minutes at a time. Gradually, however, her periods of uninterrupted playing got longer, and the shoulder pain no longer cut short her playing time. Then there was the issue of playing on each string. Like many beginners, she found it easiest to play on the A and D strings, but like most adult beginners, she was impatient and wanted to play songs on all four strings. We agreed that she would limit herself to the A and D strings for a while, and I transposed some tunes that would enable her to do that. Eventually, she was able to play on the E and G strings, although the G string was a bit more difficult for her. Like most beginners, she found that it was easiest to play using short bowstrokes near the middle of the bow. However, lengthening her bowstrokes was more difficult for her than for most beginners. Since she had stopped using her injured shoulder and arm for certain movements, she had lost muscle tone. She needed more muscle strength to use more of her bow. Only sensible practice, increasing the length of her bow strokes incrementally, would work. This woman was amazingly persistent. I had given her sets of scales with bowing variations to practice. For two weeks, she played nothing but scales, gradually using more of her bow, until she could use the entire bow correctly. In this case, learning to play the violin was physical therapy, giving her increased range of motion. I was very impressed with her.

Another adult student who came to me had a very serious case of myofacial pain. I know about this ailment because I have a fairly bad case of it, too. In myofacial pain, the muscles around the face, head, neck, shoulders, and upper back become extremely tense and, for some people, horribly painful. During this student's very first lesson, when I showed her how to hold the violin, I saw that the muscles on both of her arms were very stiff. I had her put her violin down and asked her about her muscle tension. She said that it was nothing to worry about because she was always like that. One time, when her neck muscles were unusually tight, they actually pushed a small bone out of place. Her latest difficulties were related to using the mouse with her computer. She gripped the mouse so tightly that all the muscles from her hand to her shoulder became so stiff that they were immobilized. She got some relief from her chiropractor, the health care provider who took care of her myofacial pain syndrome. She was going to have her computer set up differently. She now had her computer, keyboard, and mouse on her desk with her mouse to the right of the keyboard. She was going to get a desk with a shelf which rolled out from underneath, and she would put her keyboard and mouse there. She seemed confident that this would solve the problem. I saw an ethical concern here for me, the teacher. Should I accept as a student someone whose health, I believed, would get worse from playing the violin? I quickly decided that this decision should be made by a health care practitioner, not by me. I told my potential student that I had concerns about her playing the violin for health reasons, and I asked for her cooperation in two ways. First, she would have to put her violin down and stretch or relax her muscles as soon as she felt increased muscle tension in her hand or arm. I taught her my standard repetoire of stretches which I teach to all beginners. Second, I wanted her to consult with her chiropractor and get his OK before starting violin lessons. I suggested that she bring photos of a violinist in action to show to her chiropractor. She seemed to agree and said that she would contact me shortly to set up a time to begin lessons. After about six weeks, she sent me a brief email saying that she did not want to take violin lessons from me. I don't know why. Perhaps she really decided not to take violin lessons after all. Perhaps she found another violin teacher who didn't express the concerns I did.

For an extremely good discussion by an adult beginner of the effects of multiple sclerosis and drug treatment on playing the violin, I refer you to Laurie Trlak's blog of January 23, 2009. She and her commentors explored the topic in a very full and interesting way.

All of these stories emphasize the importance of having an instructor who looks and listens for possible health issues and the necessity of good communication between teacher and student.

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