Monday, May 6, 2013

Viola one year update

I've been playing my viola for a year now. I had the idea of learning a new instrument when Andrew and I first started thinking about moving to Cairns. It was kind of my happy thought. My initial plan was to start learning when we moved up here. Something to help fill in the long empty days. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to start learning straight away. A friend offered me her viola, I bought a bow and started learning just after Easter last year.

Here are a few observations about being an adult viola student.

1. String instruments are really technical. Before I had any lessons, I taught myself to play a few songs. I shouldn't have. It took the first month of lessons to undo my mistakes. I was holding the bow completely wrongly and I'm not sure I was doing anything right with my left hand. Tamsyn, my fabulous Brisbane teacher, worked very hard on my bow hold and by the time I arrived in Cairns it was  reasonably 'secure'. That was after 9 months! My new teacher spent the first three months of this year getting my left hand working decently - and it's not like I didn't do any left hand stuff in Brisbane! So basically I've spent a whole year learning to hold the instrument. If I had known there was so much to even the basics, I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough to start. But I'm glad I did.

2. My progress has been slower than I imagined it would be (I'll be doing a grade one exam mid year) but I've had to learn to trust the teacher with this. She is all for not cutting corners. There's no value in rushing ahead and playing difficult pieces badly. But I am progressing and while I'm only doing a grade one exam, I'm sounding much better than I imagined I would.

3. As an adult learner I know how to work hard. Intrinsic motivation has come with age. I know that the more I practice, the better I will play.

4. The viola is a big and heavy instrument. And mine is only 15.5 inches - medium sized, as violas go! My left hand knuckles feel different now. They can stretch quite a bit further a part and ache a little. If I was a kid, I think it would hurt less.

5. The alto clef is still a dog. If I was younger, I think I would have internalised it better. I can play it fine, but don't ask me to name the notes. I just know that a note on the middle line means 3 fingers down on the g string.

6. I'm really glad that I spent a lot of money on my viola and bow. Hearing it's rich dark tone is such a motivation. If it was a flute or clarinet, a beginner model would have been fine. But with string instruments, quality really matters - especially for adults. I love my viola. I love my bow. When I decided to learn, I had no idea how much more expensive violas were than violins. I'm glad I didn't!

7. I love technical exercises because they work! Throw some sevcik at me! I don't care how boring it is - it's like eating vegetables. I know that it's good.

8. Sometimes I question why I'm learning viola. Is it selfish? Is it a waste of money? I can already play other instruments. Should I be doing something for other people instead? Clearly, I'm not going to make a career out of viola playing... Then I decide that learning music because I want to learn music is a good thing. My kids probably won't make a career out of their instruments either, but I insist that they play because I know that it's good. It's fun. It's satisfying. It brings joy. Not everything needs to have a 'purpose'. (But I am looking forward to being good enough to play in an orchestra and in church. Not too far away, I hope!)

9. String players need to be a lot more perfectionistic than brass / woodwind players. Every little thing makes a difference. I'm a big picture person but I'm learning about details. I think this is good for me.

10. I love learning viola. I'm so glad I started. I'm thankful for my teachers (Tamsyn and Amy) who are brilliant players and so motivating.


  1. 8a) Having a stringed instrument in a church band is a brilliant thing. It adds 'something'. (We've scored a cellist/trumpeter - I know, who'd have thought they existed? - and it's beautiful)

  2. On point 9 - people scrapbook - need I say more?

    1. Jenny, that is brilliant. I feel complete justified.

  3. Living in a household of instrument players who like to think they can get away with "near enough is good enough" (me included) I think I can safely say that violins and violas are not the instruments for us :)

    One of my cousins plays both violin and viola professionally and teaches in Brisbane. I was looking at his website recently and thinking it sounded like an incredibly demanding instrument to learn!

  4. On point 5 - maybe this is a good thing. I haven't quiet internalised that a blob on line X means keys LMNOPQ and should sound like Y; there's an extra step of blob on line A means letter Z which then translates to keys LMNOPQ and, yeah that sounds kind of right (I don't have perfect pitch).

  5. I kind of wish I still played violin (and piano.. and...) Keep at it!