One of my violin students shared this inspirational message with me today. Though the day to day activities of an aviation technician are obviously quite different from a violinist, it spoke to both of us with regard to music learning.
What strikes me most in the video is the idea of loving the process, even when it’s difficult. For someone passionate about planes, seeing Earth from 35,000 feet is a relatively small piece of the whole picture, just as the act of performing beautiful music is a very small slice of a musician’s life.
A main difference I imagine between an aviation technician and a violinist might be the content of their inner dialogue when a problem arises. I don’t know for sure, but based on stories I hear from friends who enjoy fixing cars and other mechanical inventions, when one is trying to fix a plane she probably isn’t beating herself up when she encounters an issue as much as just trying again, or running more tests, analyzing the results, looking deeper for clues, trying something different, and if all else fails, asking for advice? The mechanics I’ve known seem to get just as much pleasure out of trying to fix something as knowing that it’s working. In some sense, the enjoyment is actually in the striving for perfection. While the moment of realized perfection is rewarding, it’s kind of boring once the initial excitement of completion fades... The job is done. On to the next challenge!
One of my favorite quotes is by the 19th century Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate (his Introduction et Tarantelle and Zapateado are two of my personal favorite violin pieces, as well as the famous Zigeunerweisen): “For 37 years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!"
Unfortunately, many beginning students don’t realize that so much dedication and perseverance will be required to play an instrument (artists performing at a high level make it look so easy!), so many can fall into the trap of assuming everyone else is progressing faster, with more ease and of course, more enjoyment. After all, until a few years ago when Hilary Hahn and a few other famous violinists started posting videos of their practice (mistakes and all), we only saw people performing perfectly. As musicians, we’re in the business of expressing ourselves, a composer, and/or a mood, but we must first wrestle with our chosen instrument to the point where it becomes one with our bodies, minds, and hearts. It’s a competitive field so when our practice isn’t going well we often take it quite personally. A musician’s “inner critic” can be downright abusive.
In reality, no one wakes up one day and becomes a talented violinist, violist, or cellist, able to play any piece flawlessly as if the physicality involved in playing the instrument didn’t exist. It takes countless hours of squeaks, tests and trials, refining and reframing to be able to perform flawlessly most of the time (emphasis on “most”). We must continually condition the mind, body, and ears to hear and produce the sounds we want at any level of ability. We’re really no different from these technicians - we spend most of our days encountering problems, often related to physics, motion, weight and speed, and we spend a lot of time trying to fix them to the point where we’re confident an issue will never return. Unfortunately, perfection is never truly possible, and just as parts of planes wear out, issues do come back, though often in increasingly subtle ways.
If we shudder at the thought of practicing, yet truly desire to improve, a first step may be to spend some time figuring out why mistakes make us so stressed and depressed. Is it a fear we’ll never be good enough, that we’re wasting our time, that we’ll be judged or laughed at, or that we’ll think we’ve fixed a passage only to see all the same issues come back tomorrow? We need to separate facts from fears and reframe our orientation to practicing, embracing a love of tinkering, the act of figuring out how to fix problems, and a joy in taking things apart and putting them back together, just as much as the dream of eventually being able to perform convincingly and joyously. We hold ourselves back from years spent enjoying our progress, if we transfix on an imagined future moment when we’ll finally be awarded a stamp of approval saying we are now a certified violinist. Music is ephemeral. Our playing day to day is never quite the same. The only true constant is the process.
The fact is, mistakes stimulate the brain to learn and refine its process. Without challenges we would have nothing to strive for and would likely move on to some other pursuit that provides opportunities to grow. Please check out this episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, one of my favorite recent podcast finds, and particularly “The Reality of Skill Learning & the 10,000 Hours Myth” portion starting around 27 minutes for a scientific understanding of the mechanisms involved in skill learning and the importance of making mistakes.
When we let our passion for the violin extend into the actual process of learning, welcoming even our out-of-tune notes, missed shifts, and bad tones as opportunities to find and fix problems, like any great mechanic, we position ourselves for a lifetime of music making. We can’t know where our music making will take us, but we can rely on the fact that no one gets to higher ability levels on an instrument, or launches a plane into the sky, without making many mistakes.