Here is a letter I wrote to one of my students last year but never sent. If you’re having second thoughts (or hundredth) about continuing with violin, or have that “constantly disorganized feeling, this letter might help reassure you that you’re not the only person in the world who has had issues with their instrument or their teacher:
Dear Absolute Favorite Student of Mine:
When your mom told me you broke your bow, I had to laugh. Not because it was funny or because it was either laugh or cry. I laughed because I am constantly amazed at how much you remind me of me when I was your age. I have a couple of stories for you, stories that I hope you’ll take to heart and learn from. They are offered as bits of wisdom that come from experience, and from wanting intensely for you to be the best person you can be.
Let me tell you how I acquired my violin. In 2000, I was getting ready for my junior honors recital in college. I worked really hard, but for several weeks, nothing was really clicking in the practice room. My teacher was frustrated, because it seemed to him that I wasn’t working hard enough. He was more critical than usual and I felt like I couldn’t play anything right, not even Twinkle. I was having definite issues getting my recital pieces ready to head into rehearsals with my accompanist. I didn’t have time to take a few days off because I was under a deadline. One day, I became so angry and frustrated that I laid my violin in the case a little too forcefully. It bounced back out and hit my bow which was lying across the stand. Bow and violin continued their downward trajectory and all I could do was watch while they fell in slow motion. Their fall was broken first by the piano, then the wall and then the bottom of the music stand. When all was said and done, the violin was a total loss; the neck had cracked across the grain and not on a seam. My repair guy was able to save the bow, which had broken at the thinnest, weakest point of the stick. One of my fabulous fraternity sisters had a violin sitting unused in her attic. I put strings on it and within a few hours, knew that it was “The One.” It fit me perfectly and the sound was exceptional. I ended up buying it from her and have played on it for the past ten years.
Story number two: My mom wasn’t a Suzuki mom. From day one of lessons, I practiced by myself. I heard the occasional, “Have you practiced yet?” but I usually did my practicing as soon as Speed Racer was over after school. When I was in high school, I decided that I didn’t need to practice as much, meaning at all. I went from two hours a day to basically nothing for almost two years. The only reason I kept playing was to go on orchestra trips and to get out of the house for youth symphony. I dreaded lessons, because the way I perceived it at the time, my teacher had it in for me. She was extremely critical, perhaps overly so, especially of my bowing skills. I simply could not do the bow hold that she wanted, no matter how much I worked or tried, and I always felt like I could never play well enough. I felt like she gave up on me at some point. The perfectionist in me said “what’s the point of practicing if my teacher will never be happy with it?” So I didn’t practice, or did the bare minimum to sound like I had done something between lessons. Fast forward to senior year in high school. I started noticing my some of my fellow students advancing faster than I did. Not only that, they played better than I did — more musical, better memory, better reading, etc. What I learned way too late was that my teachers’ — all of them, not just these specific teachers — criticism was not directed at me personally. They were trying to help me play better, to my potential, to a level they could see, even if I couldn’t.
I told you these stories because I think I have a pretty good angle on what you’re going through musically, and maybe even emotionally. Every single one of my students has the potential to play the Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos. I can’t say whether I’m the teacher who will get you there, but if I give you a solid technical foundation, you can do anything you put your mind to, provided you’re willing to put in a little effort. Because that’s what this is all about — teaching you to be a better person by helping you reach heights you never thought possible. I know it’s hard sometimes. I know some things you’re supposed to practice seem pointless. I have the advantage here because I’ve been down the road you’re on and I can see the big picture — the potholes and exit ramps, gas stations and rest areas, why those things are important and what they’ll allow you to play in the future if you do them now.
Violinists who are attached to their instruments have a pretty complicated relationship with themselves and with music. I hope you’ve figured out over the past two years that I expect you to argue with me. I expect you to question what I ask you to do. There is nothing sadder and more discouraging than a student who blindly follows instructions, who cannot or will not think for himself. You are bright enough that you have the ability to think and discover solutions to violin problems yourself. I am so lucky and blessed that you and your mom chose to let me help you to learn to hear yourself as others hear you, and to have you as a student!