Darker days can lead to darker thoughts. It’s usually this time of year that I start to see more of my students struggling with negative thoughts about their playing and progress and I wear the hat of the cheer leader and therapist a bit more often in lessons. I don’t mind the tough times actually. They often lead to greater possibilities and understanding if we can embrace them with an awareness and excitement for what they can show us.
I doubt anyone is immune to times when progress seems unbearably slow and thoughts of quitting begin to cloud our practice sessions, lessons, and rehearsals. If you find yourself in this place, first off, know that you are not alone in going through ups and downs. The path to becoming a musician lasts from this lifetime into the next, so to speak. Few other jobs or hobbies require such dedication to reach mastery. And really, we never will be a true master, especially on a violin family instrument! For me, that’s the beauty of this pursuit. There is always more to discover and work on. So, to expect only a steady, positive upward momentum and then a final moment of ultimate realization, is unrealistic. I go through down periods myself, and I’ve seen so many of my students and colleagues go through these times. Thankfully, most of us make it out the other side, or in the occasional case, we realize that there is something else we’d do well to pursue instead. If you find yourself in this place, I hope the following thoughts and ideas can give you that an extra boost.
Many times, a down time might come after a big push of new material, an audition that didn’t go quite as well as planned, or when life has been too hectic for too long for us to devote as much time to playing as we’d like and we notice our technique slipping. We thought our playing and conviction was much more secure than it feels like in these moments and it’s disheartening to realize that maybe the old quote is true: “Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices.”
From time to time, we all have thoughts such as: “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes?” “Have I been fooling myself all along?” “I really didn’t think I was signing up for this kind of work!” “I’ll never be as good as (insert favorite artist, or random 2 year old you’ve seen on YouTube who can play the piece you are trying to master).”
Rather than dwelling on these kinds of thoughts, which only lead to more negative thinking, it’s helpful to take a step back, be objective, and identify what string of events or thoughts led you to this dark place in which you find yourself. Surely, all you want is to play well and express yourself through music! How wonderful! That’s really what’d behind all these thoughts, even the negative ones! If you’ve been putting in the time on your instrument, then you really do owe it to yourself to figure out why, how, and when you got off track.
Have you been taking on a lot of difficult new material for a recital or exam, or focusing a lot on new technique lately, perhaps more subtle techniques, like bowing or vibrato? Or, maybe you haven’t had enough technical guidance lately and your pieces are floundering without the support needed to master the tough passages? Maybe you’ve needed to prepare orchestra music a bit beyond your ability for a concert coming up and there hasn’t been the time in private lessons or practice sessions for the methodical repertoire that used to make you feel like you were making good progress. These are all incredibly common situations that can unfortunately take us into a musical depression if we don’t catch the early signs.
As odd as it may seem, it’s especially when we are very dedicated to our playing and practice that we can unknowingly create a roller coaster that moves between excitement with our progress and near defeat with setbacks and burn outs. It always seems to be the students who practice the most and have the ability to make the most progress quickly, that at times I must call back from the brink of quitting.
Down times and technique: Let’s face it. The violin (or viola, or cello for that matter) doesn’t hand anything to you easily. We have to work for everything we get, including the tone and intonation that is a given on nearly every other instrument with the simple strike of a key, depression or lever, or strum on a fretted instrument. Sounding consistently in tune is a lifetime of careful listening, but in my opinion, actually one of the easier aspects of playing the violin. It’s fairly easy to learn to determine whether or not we’re in tune and to make the necessary adjustments. And, if we have a harder time hearing intonation and have not yet mastered the ability to determine whether we’re sharp or flat, there are countless devices and apps which can help show us.
Vibrato, and especially bowing (an umbrella under which we’d find tone, rhythm, phrasing, and articulation as well as at least a dozen different strokes) are much more subtle and complex. These are elements which have to be a dance. We have to get to the point where we feel it and hear it, beyond just think it.
Bowing and vibrato can be especially elusive, and they are primary differences between an okay sounding violinist and a great one. We want to express. We want our notes to sing. We try so hard. And yet, too often we’re forcing the motion of the left hand using muscle in the case of vibrato. Or in the case of bowing, we have issues in the bow hold or right arm mechanics which literally hold us back from ever realizing the articulations, strokes, and phrasing we are trying to create.
So, we all get to this place from time to time where it feels like we have to start over. Either we need to layer on new knowledge and ability, or we realize somewhere along the way we didn’t get something more basic quite right. As much as it might seem like a huge defeat and that all our past efforts were a waste, know that we never really go back to square one.
New elements required for advancing techniques often simply can’t come to light until we reach more difficult material which requires it. A good teacher will always be a few steps ahead, offering simple exercises in new bowing styles, shifting, etc. before our songs actually require them, but sometimes even the best of teachers are caught off guard by a youth orchestra or audition piece suddenly popping up which requires technical aspects outside our methodical guidance.
Perhaps, for example, we want to get over the speed hurdle in an Allegro Vivace movement. It’s not actually as simple as doing everything we’ve been doing, but faster. We have to look to more refined left hand movements and bowing mechanics. The “old ways” won’t work as much as we try to force them to, but it doesn’t mean we throw them out and believe everything prior was a waste. Shorter, faster notes simply require a different technique for bowing and a more choreographed flow in the left hand fingers, verses the note by note approach that worked fine for slower pieces. Mentally, we also have to rise to the challenge of processing and reading more notes at a time. This of course, takes practice.
In the process of learning a more advanced technique, subtle instrument, bow hold, and bowing adjustments might need to be made. It can feel like we’re going back, but really, we’re conditioning and refining for greater ability. If we wanted to run a marathon, but had never run more than a lap before, we might think, “oh, I can walk and run just fine, so I’ll just do more of that.” But likely, to build the stamina necessary for running 26 miles continuously while avoiding injury, we’d need consider the shoes that work for us, make adjustments in our movements, and learn to walk and run better, perhaps in an entirely new way. Though we’ve been breathing all our lives of course, we might have to learn how to breathe more effectively. We’ll have to build more mental stamina as well, so we have the conviction and focus to keep going and make it to the finish line. Anytime we advance in some way, we usually have to make some modifications of more basic factors, bringing them up to the new challenges. No one’s going to start playing violin and encounter fast runs of 16th notes on the first day! That would be an impossible and ridiculous approach. With the guidance of a good teacher, trust the progression, and if you are uncertain, ask questions.
Down times and more refined listening abilities: Also, recognize that as we advance, we hear more of what’s actually going on. Beginners can be fairly happy squeaking away, out of tune and out of time. They don’t know any different...yet. It’s just fun to be trying to play an instrument. We’re not playing music yet.
Then we advance and start to hear more, but it’s never just more of what we hope we’ll sound like. Whenever we are fine tuning our technique, particularly when bowing, vibrato, and shifting is involved, we also are automatically fine tuning our ears to sounds we might not have noticed before. It can be frustrating and disheartening to hear more of everything all of a sudden - extraneous bow noises, out of tune notes, noisy shifts, etc. As the analogy goes, we thought we’d climbed a mountain, but we reach the top only to see that there are many more mountains stretching out as far as we can see. These times are crucial in our path to artistry and often proceed a giant breakthrough as long as we take the chance and flip those thoughts around, learning to use our new ears instead of run away from them. We want to dive deep into the music we play, to become the music we play, so how wonderful then to arrive at this moment ripe for deeper listening and awareness, even if it’s not yet the sounds we were hoping for?
In the long run, hearing more of what’s always been going on can only help us be that much more able to fine tune and troubleshoot issues. About 10 years ago I really found myself in a pickle. I was preparing to record my bowing videos for Strings magazine and was exploring the strokes and bowing mechanics more thoroughly than I’d ever done before. I was researching various teaching protocols, interviewing people, practicing nailing excerpts featuring the bowing styles and even practicing making common bowing mistakes so I could demo them and then troubleshoot them in the video studio at the magazine office. Through all of this practice and experimentation I started hearing subtle things I hadn’t noticed before, some I enjoyed, but also quite a few which I didn’t like. At first, I felt like a total fake. I’d been commissioned to do this project, which was quite an honor, but I felt like maybe I didn’t deserve it. Thoughts like “who am I to even approach this” were running through my head. It was tough to put that aside at first, but if we can use these moments to fuel our new learning and conviction about what we’re doing instead of letting it defeat us, these experiences are part of the picture needed to help us get to the next level.
Down times, mental imagery, and acceptance: Finally, in times when we’re feeling down about our progress, we can think of valleys versus peaks, or the dreaded plateau, but what about a chrysalis? Whenever we are learning a new piece, style, or take on a new technique, especially ones like the aforementioned bowing and vibrato, at first, comes the excitement, and an intellectual understanding of what we must accomplish. We might try it a few times and our teacher says “yes, that’s it” a few times, and then “no, that not quite right” a few times, but we don’t really know for sure what was different about either attempt. We might get hints, but everything seems difficult to recreate at this point. In my analogy, this is like the caterpillar phase - we’re just continuing to eat away at all the leaves, preparing for something we don’t yet know or understand.
After a little while, we have some understanding and we’re getting closer to being able to recreate the motion, tone, or note, but maybe only in isolation. Maybe not consistently. We wonder how we can ever apply this to a piece?! Here we enter the chrysalis phase. We take in all the learning we can, then at some point we must to go into hibernation so to speak, trusting that it will all come together with regular, methodical, focused practice. It’s not that we stop practicing, but maybe we let the learning and all our serious, perfectionistic practicing simmer for a little while. Perhaps we spend some time revisiting old material and seeing how much easier it is to play now, perhaps even with glimmers of our new abilities creating even more fantastic tones and interpretations if we listen a bit more carefully between the notes...
Of course, we know what phase comes next! Good luck!