I’ve given myself one year to master the violin.

As an adult beginner, I should be playing Twinkle Twinkle; instead, I'm playing Paganini's 24th caprice.

A couple of notes

Note 1: I feel like a real violin student!  I’ve had four lessons with my *new* teacher and they both have been great!  We scheduled a time, I practiced beforehand, we had the lesson, and I worked on the stuff we just did afterwards. She came in, gave the lesson, and left. Professional. We’re on the schedule of two 30-40 minute lessons a week, which I really like. With my teaching schedule this semester, Thursdays and Saturdays work fairly well and they seem to work for her also.

Now I’m not saying I play particularly well during the lessons because, well, I don’t.  It’s surprising how nervous I get when someone else comes in.  I’m no Heifetz, but by myself I can get into a nice groove – nice sound, tempo, etc.  When someone else comes in and the pressure’s on, it doesn’t even feel like I’m doing the same thing.  The violin feels strange and foreign as my left hand gets weak and my right hand leads the bow over all the wrong strings, causing the violin to whine and squeak.  Of course, the violin whines and squeaks a little when I’m alone, but with someone else, it’s magnified.  It shows how valuable having someone else to play with really is.  It also shows how valuable listening to recordings can be to get used to the sound of two violins – not just one.  Also playing with a metronome is helpful to have something else making noise while playing, causing chaos.  Basically, anything to throw me off during practice is a good thing since performing is such a stressful situation.  I teach math in college and tell my students all the time to make their studying as stressful as possible, setting up exam conditions as much as they can, and that way during the exam, hopefully some of the inherent stress will be relieved.  It took me a little while to take my own advice.

So, let me introduce my new teacher.  Several weeks ago, one of Mr. Lipsett’s students, Evin Blomberg, asked Danielle her advice on how to get students since she was interested in teaching.  Getting a violin studio isn’t easy, after all.  This gave Danielle the idea of working with me and five lessons later, here we are.  Evin caused quite a commotion around Colburn when she showed up a few years ago.  I work as an RA and we got word that Mr. Lipsett had just accepted a 15 year old who had already graduated high school into the conservatory!  At the time it was unheard of for a student that young to live in the dorms with college kids, but we were assured that Evin was mature for her age and would get along fine.  That was two and a half years ago, and she’s still doing great.  As you can imagine, she’s a little bit of a genius, which can be extra scary, but I’m used to being around virtuosos so that’s a plus.

Here’s a video we took two days ago from our fourth lesson.  We played it together quite a few times, but I couldn’t focus and get through it.  We took a break, learned some of the new stuff, and then at the very end, right before she had to go, we gave it one more try running through as much as we could:

I like this video almost more for the parts where I mess up (which I do a few times) than the parts I don’t.  I’m getting better at pushing through the mess ups and just keep playing when I’m performing.  Not great, you understand, but better.

The second thing I want to point out from the video is how hard we’re both working.  Does it seem like, compared to Evin, I’m working a bit too hard?  It reminds me of a story when I went to the Air Force Academy, when I was a glider instructor pilot.  If you’re not familiar with a glider, it’s essentially a small plane with really long wings and no engine, so it just sort of glides along.  It has similar flight characteristics to a small airplane like a Cessna, and in the pattern (the pattern is the “setup” for a landing) the characteristics are almost identical, as you throttle down to let the Cessna come down on its own.  Going up, though, we tied the glider to a tow plane with a 200 foot long rope, let it tow us up, and then released from it when we were high enough.  One of the most difficult things for students to get was staying behind the tow plane; as you can probably imagine, getting out of position too high, low, to the side, etc could be dangerous for everyone.  I remember a point I used to make with a student who was miserably out of position – I would take the plane, get it back into position, then thrust my hands toward the front of the plane (the instructor sits behind the student, so the student couldn’t really see the instructor when they were in the air) and say “You see my hands?  We’re still in position.  Stop messing it up!”  That’s one of the things she pointed out in this early going – I move my elbow probably a little too much to change strings, which can cause playing on the wrong string.  Moving around while playing can be great, but I think I’m a little out of control.

Note 2:  Danielle’s benefit concert last weekend was superb!  Lynn Harrell was the guest artist and Alan Chapman from KUSC was the MC.  Her students played and they also played the Center Stage Strings 15-minute documentary.  All of the music was incredible, but the last piece – Danielle and Lynn played Handel-Halvorsen – was something extra special.  They are both such amazing musicians, and really looked like they were having a lot of fun.  We have video of that, so hopefully I’ll be able to put it up soon.

During the reception afterwards, Danielle came up to me and asked if I had talked to the guy who came for me.  I said, “whaaaat?”  Apparently someone read about the benefit concert on the blog and ended up coming.  I’m not sure if he came to see me (which is the way Danielle put it) or if he just came because I had advertised it, but either way I didn’t get to talk to him.  I felt bad about that, as I would have liked to say hello.  If you’re out there, thanks for coming!  Leave a comment and tell me how you liked the benefit!

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7 Comments on “A couple of notes”

  1. sing4joy says:

    Hey Ryan, I was just reacquainted with your blog thanks to an email from Danielle about her upcoming recital, made me wonder how the Paganini project was coming along, so I emailed Danielle to ask about it and she gave me the link again… I haven’t logged in for nearly a year, and I have to say, you have really made some great progress! I am so impressed! And your writing is so engaging and encouraging too! I am recommending your blog to some of my students and colleaguea….Also nice to see Evin in action. Looking forward to checking in more often….. wish I could be at the concert on Sunday. (Melinda ~from Luzerne a couple of years ago)

    • rrvaughn says:

      Hey Melinda!
      Thanks for the note! We missed you last summer at the camp. I wasn’t officially working it again, as I was only there for three weeks, but it was good seeing a lot of the Luzerne Crew. I played Nate’s viola during the summer and was surprised at how darn big those things are! I’m a big guy, but I have to say, I much prefer the daintier violin. Maybe I’m just used to it.
      Thanks again for posting, and keep in touch.

  2. jludeke says:

    Thank you for your blog. I began my own journey with the violin one year ago. I just turned 55 and and I keep wondering if I am too old or too lacking in talent to have taken on such a difficult challenge. When I get discouraged I go to your blog and find you are wrestling with some of the same challenges this instrument presents, like playing with someone present. I have been working on the gavotte by martini (suzuki book 3) for months now, can sometimes nail it at with no one around but give me an audience and I butcher it. Frustrating! I may never get ‘good, but I have learned so much about myself and the value of regular practice and perseverance. p.s. I love the Bach duet, impressive!

    • rrvaughn says:

      Hi Jeanne,
      Thanks for the kind words. I have some advice: embrace the struggle. This whole little experiment has been such an up and down experience, but some of my greatest pleasures with this contraption have been nailing things repeatedly that I never could get before. Of course, some of the most frustrating things have been messing up continually things I always got before. Slowly but surely though, I get better.
      Are you taking lessons?

      • jludeke says:

        Yes I am taking lessons and I have a wonderful teacher. She pushes me hard and has very high expectations. She grew up and was trained in Central America so she is teaching me how she was taught. She has me doing a mishmash of etudes, scales and bowing exercises…only use the suzuki books for an occasional practice piece. I try to practice one to two hours a day, but it’s funny how after a really good week of practice I can go into a lesson and she would have every reason to believe I had never touched the violin. Add endless patience to the list of virtues a violin teacher must possess!
        Thanks again for your inspiration and your wise advise!

      • rrvaughn says:

        Hi Jeanne,
        What made you want to take up the violin in the first place? Did you play at all when you were younger?

  3. jludeke says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I so wish I had started the violin when I was younger. Actually my best friend growing up played the violin for a while when we were in grade school. Once when I stayed overnight at her house I tried her violin. It made such an awful noise; it just reinforced my perception that I had no musical talent and would never be able to play the violin. I was always quite good at drawing, amazing the teachers and so on, so I thought that was how music was too. You had it or you didn’t. Teaching art for 11years at a high school changed my way of thinking about talent. I could never predict from the freshman who would end up as the ‘stars’ as seniors. It really depended on how hard they worked. I am completely convinced that given the proper instruction, hard work, and perseverance anyone can draw/paint well. Talent helps some things come easier and it is very hard to rise to the very top without it, but students I had that were of ‘just average ability’ did amazing things. That change in perception combined with meeting someone my age who had recently begun playing the violin triggered the thought that maybe I could do this. I found your blog in my search to find SOMEONE who started as an adult and had some success. I’m not talking about a solo career, maybe finishing a masters in performance or something. I suppose it’s like knowing that breaking the 4 minute mile is humanly possible…would just be nice to know. 🙂


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