A couple of months ago I made a major breakthrough with my music learning. The progress was barely discernible at the time. If anything, the turning point felt excruciatingly frustrating but a turning point it most definitely was.
I have been learning the violin on and off for years but it’s only in the last two that I really committed the time and practice I needed to tackle this challenging instrument properly. (Trust me to pick an instrument that was both keyless and fretless!) A recurring shoulder injury didn’t help matters. Neither did changing tutors several time to find one who was a good fit. The biggest blockage, however, was me.
It was not that I was reluctant to practice. If anything, I practiced too much for the snail-paced progress I was making. I grasped the physics of how to get a certain tone out of a particular finger position; I understood how I was supposed to hold the bow; and, apparently, my left wrist was unusually good for a beginner… yet something still wasn’t working.
When tutors went over music theory I was fine. My mathematical brain understood the different lengths of notes, helped by having learnt their names in a language that refers to them as fractions rather than by random names. Between my schoolgirl recorder classes and choir days I had learnt enough key signatures to know those in a beginner’s repertoire; and I could read dots on the stave well enough to know where my fingers had to go. But for all this technical understanding and theoretical knowledge I was still making painstakingly slow process.
Then one afternoon, rather despondent with how it was going, I tried something new. I took a 16-bar tune that I had been practicing for some time. I turned my back to the music stand and tried to play it from memory. It was painful and I felt… ancient! As I child I would absorb songs and poems like a sponge and regurgitate them with ease after only a couple of readings. Three and a bit decades on, with a short-term memory shot to bits from chronic sleep deprivation, it was all I could do to string two bars together. But after some frustrating bowing and finger movements, two bars became four and four became eight…
The next time I returned to the tune, my fingers sort of knew where they were going. Okay, I had to remind myself here and there but many segments had stuck. And without the brain having to process the data flow between my eyes and fingers, there seem to be more computing power to direct to relaxing my bowing hand and focus on the rhythm. Suddenly, the latter was no longer just a time signature and dots of different length but it was alive in the tune. My brain, or was it my fingers or even my body, were internalising beats and pulses.
Having noticed an improvement in this one short tune, I tried to learn another in the same way, and another and yet another… It seemed to work. Letting go of my analytical side, the one that clung to the music score for dear life, was terrifying and initially frustrating but it seemed to unlock something. It allowed me to discover patterns in another way, by hearing and feeling them.
Once I relinquished the safety blanket of sheet music a little, I started to enjoy my fiddle classes a lot more. I am getting better at learning by ear; am more able to pick up a tune again when I get lost in class; and my timing and tone have improved vastly. With my fingers internalising the patterns of the music rather than slavishly following the page, I have found I can actually reproduce songs learnt on the violin on other instruments without too much thought. I have even found myself playing short pieces in a different key so I can practice them in a way that is less offensive to the neighbours.
In trusting myself to learn the way children pick up music (or languages for that matter), I have made more progress in a couple of months than in years. And best of all, I’m enjoying playing the violin so much more now, especially in group, which is of course why I took up the instrument in the first place!