Fighting Violin

In an earlier post I described beginning to learn to play violin. The difficulty of that process was compounded by my disposition as young boy: Give a boy a stick and his instinct is to grab it and wield it like a sword to whack things into submission. But the fragile wooden bow must be held gingerly. The violin is a singing instrument, and the bow is its breath. The foundation of playing a violin is delicacy and finesse. Everything about an energetic boy is bold and tense. I was given what felt like a weapon and told to, “Relax!” (Even now this is a Sisyphean struggle.)

All I wanted to do was to play loud and fast. At age 12 we went shopping for the full-size instrument I play to this day. I picked a violin with a relatively “bright” and unsophisticated timbre. Then I spent an afternoon in a luthier’s shop looking for a bow, which is the component that determines a player’s range of technical expression. For reference I played some bows priced in the $50,000 range and I could not imagine why professionals would want to use such flimsy sticks. I chose a bow that was so exceptionally rigid that, the luthier joked, it must have been made of titanium. (It’s actually Pernambuco wood, like most fine bows.)

Strength and size offer no advantage on the violin. Search for “violin prodigy” and you will find an endless parade of pre-teen Korean girls who can perform the most difficult violin pieces with robotic precision. Skilled musicians do not wrestle with their instruments no matter how loud or fast the music. Contrast that with this video of me muscling through a “warm-up” exercise at age 17:

Beginning Violin

When I was four years old my parents asked me if I wanted to learn to play the violin. I didn’t have a lot going on at the time so I said yes.

I was accepted as a student by Mrs. Primrose, a Japanese teacher of the Suzuki violin method (and wife of famous violist William Primrose). I discovered that the violin is a difficult and awkward instrument. Learning it requires patient practice, and patience was not one of my early character traits. (A fellow student was Jenny Oaks, who has made a career as a violinist. Mrs. Primrose would often chastise me, “David: Why don’t you practice more, like Jenny?”)

What I lacked in patience I abounded with in obstinance. I was first born and my poor mother did not realize what a constant and pitched battle it would be to get me to practice. She was gifted with perseverance that somehow kept me on the violin for the years until I reached a level at which it became interesting enough for me to continue studying with minimal goading. (She did, however, learn from the process: My younger siblings were started on musical instruments at increasingly later ages, and the last three got to start with piano, which has an easier learning curve. You’re welcome guys.)

Beginning the Suzuki violin method is excruciating for a young western boy. The first few weeks consist of nothing but finger exercises with a pencil, before ever touching the bow. Then there were what seemed like months of bowing “taca-taca stop-stop” on open strings before I was allowed to try placing fingers on taped marks to play other notes. There is no “Karate Kid” moment when the student discovers that all of the detached exercises have laid the foundation for a rewarding performance. Just months of tedious practice and virtually nothing to show for it. That’s what learning the violin felt like.

Violin practice at age 6