Thursday, June 10, 2010

Frustration and Practicing the Violin

As far as taking on a new instrument goes, violin is no walk in the park. The complexity of its sound is equally matched by the complexity of learning to play it. Those of us who have dedicated hours and years of our life working to pull beauty from of a piece of wood, know that playing the violin can be synonymous with frustration, which, is a frequent topic for discussion as well as commiseration at Violin Lab.

The belief that adult beginning violinists have a harder time learning violin than kids, in my opinion, is untrue. The learning curve is steep for any age group. The majority of children (there are those amazing exceptions, of course) learn violin at a very slow pace. It takes many years for most kids to reach a level of competency and a good many years after that to become seasoned players. It has taken my oldest daughter 7 years to reach the end of Suzuki book 4, and if I could bottle up all the tears she shed and frustration she felt over those years I could have something potent to sell to the military.

For kids, frustration is the enemy. It is why my youngest daughter, refused to go to her piano lesson the other day, because the night before she kept stumbling at the same place in one of her piano pieces and couldn’t work through it in time for her lesson. A good friend’s daughter quit the violin after years of lessons because, and I quote, “it was too much of a struggle”.

Most kids (yes, most) eventually stop playing. Other extra-curricular activities and heavier homework demands in high school account for a hefty percentage of the attrition. But how many quit because “it isn’t fun”, or as my daughter has said many times, “it’s boring”? It’s my guess that the biggest difference between them and us, is that we embrace new and challenging. My gym instructor shouted with great enthusiasm this morning, “It’s fun to struggle” as she had us rolling a large ball back and forth with one leg while doing lunges with the other leg. It was true. It was fun, and in my ripe middle age I find the more I have to apply myself to something, the more thrilling it is to do. And the greater the challenge it is, the more gratifying the accomplishment. For me, boring is staying in my comfort zone, doing what I already know how to do. (e.g. I’ve never blogged before now)

Einstein’s definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over expecting different results. If that’s true then surely all kids are insane. I watch my own children and young students stumble at the same measures, backtracking to make another perfunctory pass, stumble again, never really fixing the problem with thought and patience. This of course breeds frustration, and once a kid reaches that point, they either go on to something else or stop practicing altogether. Kids are incredibly imaginative beings, but not at practicing. And that’s where we adults excel. We have at our disposal years of imaginative problem solving tools. We continually work out relationship issues with friends, family and colleagues. We have skills sets that can magically “make things happen”: we throw odds and ends together to make a dinner, a school project, or a Halloween costume. Kids have the advantage of rapidly developing synapses, but we know how to access the complex synaptic pathways that have been webbing over decades to create a resourceful and impressive toolbox.

After a lifetime of playing the violin, frustration has an entirely different meaning for me than it did in my youth. Now it is the motivational trigger to figure out why something is not working. When I have one of those days when everything sounds slightly out of tune and scratchy, even when the day before it felt “like butter”, I utter a few choice words, then, I turn my game on. At that point I have a mission and it is my job to figure out the missing piece of the mental puzzle. Although I would prefer to play perfectly, never missing a single note, I am honestly intrigued by the challenge of discovery. I continually have the thought that there is some buried mental construct I have yet to unearth. I love the charge I get when a new notion passes through my brain, a perfect analogy or mental picture that sheds light on the connection between mind and body. Now that never happened when I was a kid.

Frustration is evolutions way of keeping us from a life of complacency, to keep searching for better ways and solutions. If “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, then frustration is the nagging sister. Would we be vacationing in the Cayman Islands if Orville and Wilbur hadn’t felt “frustrated” at the limitations of their man operated gliders?

So although I’m not the least bit pleased with my presbyopia, stiff neck, or short term memory challenges, I am happy that the maturation process is making me more clever and inventive in the areas of my life that are meaningful.

And for those less meaningful times in life, well, frustration has a way of knocking me down. Really, how many more times in my life do I need to bang my toe into a chair leg, miss my exit off the highway because I was “lost in thought”, or burn yet another unattended pot on the stove? And why does the intense frustration I feel each time not motivate me to “search and discover” some new remedial system to make things better? I would love for someone to blog about that.

--Beth Blackerby
creator of


  1. Wow. Very poetic and a true and concise description of "frustration". I call it the spark that ignites life changes. In a similar manner, I try to work it out instead of complain about the nuances that challenges our daily lives. In the end I try not to let it get the best of me and see it as a way to challenge myself to go past it while trying to learn something from it. Life is simply too short to give up to frustration. ;-)

  2. My days always start off on a great note....I wake up breathing...that's GOOD ! It can only get better from there, but even if it doesn't....tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to get it right !

    Wonderful blog Beth ! I had to laugh when you mentioned leaving pots burning on the stove...I tend to do that if I try to pick up the violin whilst cooking. "Gee, it'll take those potatoes a bit of time before I have to turn them...I'll just twittle a little while I wait..." oO(now what is that smel...DOH!)

  3. i am a kid myself and this would work i know it i struggled through many tears to get songs right and then i quit with my original teacher and now i have a tenager helping me

  4. its hard my first lesson with her is tonight and im really unready i havnt played in ,like,3 months

  5. Thank you! This is just what I needed to read. As an adult re-learning the violin having just been knocked down at a frustrating and really demoralizing violin lesson this week, I'm motivated to persevere. I came here via the google search "should I quit the violin". Thank you, and thanks to my google therapist ;)

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