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.

Beware of the burnout

My mom calls my dad an obsessive personality.  He’ll wrap his mind around some activity and then completely absorb himself in it for the next week or so.  This, of course, annoys the heck out of my mom and I can’t tell you how many times I can recall my dad sitting in his chair on his laptop working on his puzzle (he designed a game on the android called gatemaze), ignoring the world around him as my mom calls out from another part of the house:  “you’re obsessed, Eldon.”

Naturally, this brings me to my next point:  yes, my dad’s name is Eldon.  It’s rare you meet someone with a name you’ve never heard anyone else have.  I’ve never met another Eldon, but apparently it’s an actual name.  My dad once looked up on the internet to find every Eldon Vaughn in the country and believe it or not there are something like 7 of them.  Also believe it or not, there’s someone named “Eldon Eldon” and this person lives in Eldon, Iowa.  I am not kidding.  I don’t know anything about Eldon, Iowa, like if they have electricity, running water, or are still on the barter system, but if these people are ruled by a king, this guy has to be it.  It’s as the old saying goes:  “In the land of Eldon, Eldon Eldon is king.”

So I’m sorry to tell you this, mom, but I think I have a bit in common with Dad.  I don’t know if I obsess over things like he does, but I’m certainly an obsessive personality to some degree.  There are good and bad things about being this way.  The good:  during the obsessive period, tremendous amounts of work can be done completing whatever task is being obsessed over.  The bad:  once this period ends, it’s like pulling teeth to actually pay it attention ever again.  At one point in this project I was obsessed with the violin, but alas, that period has since passed and I’m in caught on a long, difficult road—a plateau that seems nearly impossible to conquer as the difference between one day’s playing to the next is transparent, and almost half the time, it seems worse.  It’s like trying to watch a child grow; day-to-day growth is impossible to measure, but if you haven’t seen the child in a year, the added inches are incredibly obvious.

This is where I am in this project, stuck in the harsh reality that I am doomed to violinistic plateau unless I push with all my might to bust through it.  And busting through a plateau is hard.  Really, really freaking hard.

But what do I do?  I can’t quit.  I just can’t.  Do you know how much time I’ve put in here?  Quitting would be foolish at best and downright tragic at worst.  There’s a poker concept that “spent money is spent” meaning when deciding whether or not to stay in the hand, don’t stay in with a losing hand simply because of the money you’ve already spent.  If you have a losing hand, that money is gone regardless.  Maybe I do have a losing hand here, but then again, maybe old mister violin is bluffing.  Maybe he doesn’t really have those four queens he claims and I really can beat him.  Who knows, but I certainly can’t just up and quit.  A year from now (and more) all I’ll think is “what if I had kept playing…”  It’s a common theme, but one that occupies me every day.

So maybe I’m burned out.  Or maybe these are just the early warning signs indicating a possible future burnout.  Either way, sometimes it’s really, really hard to practice.  To be quite honest, without this blog I certainly would have quit long ago, and whenever I have a particularly bad practice day (like this morning) coming on and writing about it makes it a little better.  Like a cool band-aid with a GI-Joe print on it.  It’s also like being able to rise above and look at the situation with a bird’s eye view, something in life that could come in handy with any number of activities.

When I say a bad practice I don’t really mean necessarily playing badly, although that’s possible.  This morning I just didn’t want to play.  I would play a little and then, spookily, my bow would come off the violin and I would just stand there, staring straight ahead wanting nothing more than to put the violin in its case and run in the opposite direction.  But I promise I’m not totally burned out.  Yesterday I had a very good practice day.  I played through the entire piece by myself with the metronome on 120 bpm 1/8th notes.  I didn’t play it perfectly (surprised?) but I didn’t stop, which is rare with the metronome; when I get off the beat, I usually have to wait to get on perfectly, but this time I just sort of slowed down for a second or so or sped up or if I messed up then simply melded back into the rhythm.  It was very encouraging.

Danielle has New West symphony this week and her rehearsal last night was in Santa Monica.  She got home around 10:30 and she suggested we watch TV, but I suggested we play.  She was happy to oblige, but she had a different definition of play.  I just wanted to play together, see if we could get through it after my success earlier.  She wanted to have a lesson, something I wasn’t mentally prepared for, and after a long, tiring day to then have a lesson, well, let’s just say that it didn’t go well.  I didn’t storm out after two minutes, but after she pounded a lesson into me for a half hour, I wasn’t mentally strong enough to play through the piece.  I couldn’t concentrate, and my fingers would get boggled.  She said that those are the times I need to push through and play it anyway.  Perhaps, but I didn’t.

Did I wimp out?  Should I have toughened up and stuck it out?  Yes and no (in my humble opinion).  In a pure, getting-better-at-the-violin sort of way, then of course I should have.  Those are the times to get better and wasting that opportunity wasn’t ideal.  But then again, getting totally burned out and then never picking up the violin again isn’t ideal either.  That’s probably drastic, but I felt FRIED.  Like I wanted nothing to do with the violin ever again.  That sentiment carried into this morning as I tinkered around and then had to put it away.  I felt bad about it until my drive down to Fullerton where I thought about the violin and had a small desire to play again.  I guess it’s a good thing I put it down for one morning.  Maybe next time I will press through the pain and take a small step out of this possibly bounded plateau.  Maybe sometimes I do need to just play and actually enjoy playing once in a while.  Maybe I simply need to look to improve whenever possible, but at the same time, beware of the burnout.


24 Comments on “Beware of the burnout”

  1. JRV says:

    “Like a cool band-aid with a GI-Joe print on it.” That’s an awesome simile, Ryan. Wear it with pride. Remember that you have two performances on the horizon: your dueting with Danielle in 3R w/ CSS and at St. A’s on your obsessive father’s b’day. He showed a good obsessive side today when he catered to my obsessive side and changed some cabinet door hinges from brass to white (I just could not abide that brass any longer). Now I feel better. Sigh. Do they still make G.I.Joe? He’s the type that hangs in there and goes with the flow, even when it is choppy and smells foul — he’s the one that knows how to tread water — for eons — and while treading, for fun learns how to push from the bottom of the cold and raging river to shoot upwards, emerging into the sunlight where it’s terrifically warm, where illumination tells him he’s not only building upon his Joe-Guy skills, but adding layer upon layer to his budding and beautiful heart, body, mind, and spirit.

    Your OCD self will figure it out.


    • rrvaughn says:

      As Yogi Berra once said about GI-Joe playing the violin: knowing is half the battle. The other 90% is just slugging it out day after day after day.

  2. Joy says:

    Gosh sounds like you need a vacation and a vacation that is a ‘Violin Free Zone’ so no taking violins or going anywhere violin related! The big picture is that because your wife plays professionally you are sort of bombarded with the whole violin hoopla – it’s everywhere in your life. Maybe have a break for a week or two from playing/practicing, and do this every so often. It would be a shame to give up after all your effort. After a break you may start enjoying playing again and not feel like it has become a chore. Hope this helps and send us a postcard on your blog from your non violin vacation, and do not mention the ‘V’ (violin) word. HaHa.

    • rrvaughn says:

      Donald Weilerstein has said that he believes violinists should put the violin down for one day a week. A sweet, 24 hour period without playing to sort of “reset yourself.” I think I should start doing this. I don’t know about a whole week though 🙂

  3. B.Rajkumar says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Beware! never give up. The path to violin virtuosity is fraught with this sort of occasional despair. But if you quit now, the ghost will haunt you “Had I kept playing, I would have …………………………………………”.
    Best wishes

    • rrvaughn says:

      Don’t worry, Biju, I won’t give up. The time for giving up has long since passed, and the time to simply grind it out is here. So I’m in that precarious situation where I know that I can’t quit. Sometimes, though, I wish I hadn’t started… just kidding. (sort of).

  4. stay strong! sometimes when I am distraught with violin I just have to say to myself that I wont quit no matter what, even if I suck for the rest of my life. This then is helpful because I know that no specific problem can derail me.

    • rrvaughn says:

      I had the same mentality at the Air Force Academy. That first year was pretty tough and until I actually got it behind me, I was always a little worried I wouldn’t make it. Unfortunately now, there is no getting through it in the perfect sense. Even if Danielle and I play the piece and it goes great, tear, the whole thing, am I done? I think that’s only the beginning…

  5. jludeke says:

    Hey Ryan,

    I understand! I was so frustrated last week having the SAME stuff to practice every week and never seeing improvement..always too slow, and always sharp, and always swinging my elbow, and always ‘pressing’ too hard/too light. And then…my teacher started me on vibrato and gave me a new etude of double stops that I LOVE. It’s exciting all over again.

    Hang in there!

    • rrvaughn says:

      After reading your comment, Danielle has introduced me to another piece: Polish Dance by Edmund Severn. I’m not focusing on it, but something to break up the Bach-ness. It is fun – I feel like I felt when Danielle first introduced me to Bach from Paganini!

  6. Hey Ryan,

    My name is May and I started my violin journey back in October 2010 at the age 23. I have watched most of your videos and played most of the pieces you have played, and therefore I can totally understand where you are coming from.

    Fact: I totally spent 3 and a half months on the Bach Double, and I almost want to shoot myself in the face.

    The way I look at it is that you have to genuinely enjoy the instrument and the sound you are making. There is something gratifying about pulling the bow on the strings for me that nothing else gives me the same satisfaction, nor let me express myself in the same way.

    I was really goal oriented at the beginning in terms of progression, but some where along the line I stopped being so obsessive about how fast I can learn and how fast I can play certain pieces, instead I started enjoying the instrument. For me, everything is starting to become intuitive enough for me that I feel like I can use it as a form of expression, instead of just playing what it says on the music. Like, I am still playing the same thing, but it all at a sudden makes sense to me now so that I am hitting the right rhythm and doing all the marteles without having to think too much about it.

    I guess what I am trying to say is, it is important to enjoy music. Do you play other instruments? Sometimes I mess around with the keyboard and the guitar just to make sounds. You should mess around with the violin too sometimes. Loosen up a little.

    I also think life gets better when you get to Suzuki 5. I am on the Vivaldi Concerto in Gm now in book 5, and I realized that I am picking up this piece a whoooooooooooole lot faster than Bach Double. I guess it was from spending what seems like an eternity on the Bach I finally know how to play this thing. At least that’s what it feels like anyways. I am sure I still sound terrible, but it is getting easier.

    Anyways, take it easy. Have fun, and don’t give up!


    • rrvaughn says:

      Hi May,

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t play other instruments and wasn’t a musician growing up. You’re right as far as loosening up. There’s a fine line to walk, as you don’t want to take the violin too seriously (and especially start to place personal value on the quality of playing – you’d be surprised how many people do that), yet you also don’t want to be too cavalier, as you always have to strive to get better. Not getting better might be the worst thing of all, as violin goes from frustrating to frustrating AND boring. Once that happens: done.

      What made you take up the violin at such a ripe old age?

  7. ubusu says:

    you can it better 😉 than Alexander Markov

    • rrvaughn says:

      Thanks for the video. I don’t think I can play it like that guy, especially moving around like he does. He’s a good example of someone who PLAYS the instrument; the instrument does not play him!

  8. sviolin1 says:

    You are so talented and it’s easy to forget how far you have come in one year. Your progress is truly remarkable. Think where you will be in five years-priceless! Perhaps the secret to learning to play a musical instrument is “just don’t quit”.

  9. Christiaan says:

    “This is where I am in this project, stuck in the harsh reality that I am doomed to violinistic plateau unless I push with all my might to bust through it. And busting through a plateau is hard. Really, really freaking hard.”

    No, not true. No plateaus exist at your level. The only thing you have to worry about is to keep going. Not even with all your might – just keep going. That’s the only difficult part. To keep studying an instrument year in year out through unproductive times.

    • rrvaughn says:

      Yeah, I agree. When playing in front of the middle schoolers they asked what the toughest thing was and I said having a great practice day, feeling great, musical, whatever. Then having to do it all over the next day. And the next. And the next…

      • Christiaan says:

        I think everyone has these problems. What really helps in my case is going back to the reason I play violin in the first place. Which is that I love the instrument and it’s possibility of expressing sensitively. Sometimes you do not want to study all the time, but just playing some easy piece, because the playing itself can be enjoyable. Then the next practice session is something you actively desire… Same goes for me with painting (which I do also). I like the act of painting itself, that’s basically why I paint (not because I might paint some masterpiece of worldfame in the future)!

      • rrvaughn says:

        This is a great point. I really really like this idea. One day really work hard at the technical side of the violin. Really make it a workout, but the next day, maybe I’ll again be in the mood to work on the technical aspects, but maybe not. Maybe I’ll want to play something lyrical and really work on making a beautiful sound. The same options present themselves the next day and the next. Over the course of time, as long as the most important thing happens–the violin is actually played everyday–each aspect of the violin will be worked on and overall improvement will take place. Not to mention be a much more enjoyable experience overall.

        Do you have a website showing your paintings?

      • Christiaan says:

        Yeah I do actually! Violin is more for fun even though I can be pretty serious at it sometimes! Painting is my primary subject. I study it at a dutch art academy in Groningen (Klassieke Academie). http://christiaanveltkamp.webs.com

      • Christiaan says:

        maybe you like this documentairy about (maybe Hollands best..) violinist Janine Jansen: http://www.hollanddoc.nl/kijk-luister/documentaire/j/janine.html

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