Nature vs. Nurture

Reconciling Fear and Hope as an Adult Starter Violinist

Coming to my first lesson without my son with me was both exciting and sad. I still had deep regret that my son didn’t stick with the violin and I let him cut the cord. I had spent two and half months focusing on supporting him with practice charts and rewards and conjoint practice sessions. It felt like Simon & Garfunkel had broken up and one of us was going solo. Not that I’m Paul Simon in this – I definitely felt like the Garfunkel to be honest (I love him though). I also felt guilty for indulging myself in lessons.

We have hour long lessons because I’m carving into my workday and want to make it worthwhile. I’m excited to really dig in and be molded! My teacher asks me to sit and talk for a minute about what we are doing. His first question to me is, “What are your goals with the violin?” I had no clue how to articulate what was in my head as a goal. I didn’t really even have goals yet, to be honest. I wasn’t going to talk about how my fantasy life as an adult starter began when I was a child. I also couldn’t tell him that the goal was to simply have no musical regrets in life. I wondered if “Be the best that I can possibly be” was a goal. Or, was that a given? I assumed that everyone had that goal. I would later learn that wasn’t true – this journey looks different in many ways for different people. But, in my head I was struggling to put into words what felt simultaneously inexplicable and self-explanatory all at once. And it was another vulnerable thing to share.

I remember vividly that the burning question in my mind wasn’t so much about nature (talent) vs. nurture (practice), but about child starter vs. adult starter. This, in itself, is a nature vs. nurture debate. What kind of goal should an adult have? What kind of goal could an adult even have? Are adult goals OK to have? Should the goal for an adult be something like: “Not waste a lot of time and money and end in failure, confirming my doubts and scaring me for life.” Or, perhaps a more hopeful: “To play well enough that people can stand to listen to the whole thing, and not make invalidating comments to my face.” Goals are a roundabout way of saying what you think you are capable of, which was a loaded question for me as a new adult beginner.

The Violin is such a mythical creature. According to folklore, it is the hardest instrument in the whole wide world. The instrument that requires perfect pitch. The instrument that has to be really old or expensive to be worthwhile. The “So when are we going to see you on stage?” and “Can you play Devil Went Down to Georgia yet?” instrument. And most important of all, it is the one instrument that everyone knows you have to learn as a child. And, if you want to be the first person ever to learn how to play the violin after the ripe old age of six, you better be really, really talented.

Furthermore, legend has it that children don’t need talent. The child’s body and brain will grow and shape itself to the violin, and the child will evolve into a violin-child hybrid, like a cyborg with violin hardware. If the child happens to have talent as well then they get to be elite, and we can feel both jealous and sorry for their Tiger Mother upbringing. Otherwise, you are out of luck if you didn’t grow up adapting to the violin like a vine growing around a fence.

But, what about the adult starter’s talent? I did wonder if the window of opportunity to unlock my potential had closed. Could I still unlock talent? Or had it withered on the vine long ago? And, if it hadn’t yet withered completely, how much of my adult-learner baggage is burying it? Baggage such as adult learner expectations, fears, physical constraints, older brain, time scarcity, and general doubt to name but a few.

I mostly tried not to really think about this. Occasionally, something would jog my memory that this was a Fool’s Quest, and fear would just flood in for a moment. Such as when my teacher asked me what my goals were. Pondering that more deeply, I started to ask myself, “What level do I really think I can get to? At what point will I hit a wall and attribute it to lack of talent, or being an adult?” Even though my logical brain knew that these were unanswerable questions, it felt like without answers I would be in danger of going to two extremes. One extreme would be where my playing collapses under the weight of the fatalistic view that it’s hopeless to be an adult starter. The other extreme would be that my playing crashes to the Earth like Icarus, thanks to the naivety of believing that I can do anything with hard work. In either case, it felt like my playing suffered from a terminal illness; a dormant virus waiting to strike me down.

As a person, I’m not that into being courageous. Courage is facing something scary with strength. The real possibility of failure with the violin is certainly scary to me. I do difficult and scary things all the time, but I don’t look for things that have a realistic probability of failure (what a shocker). I may know it’s possible to fail, but I believe in and rely on my resilience. And, quite frankly, I enjoy the privilege of being an educated, young enough, middle class, able-bodied, White American. I don’t have to climb far to have a decent chance in life. Perhaps playing violin is my version of flirting with disaster to feel alive. In other words, it’s new to me to be scared and actually have to muster courage.

I look at my teacher while doing my best impression of someone who is saying something that they totally believe, and say, “I’d eventually like to play with others, perhaps a… audition for a community orchestra.” I cringe, waiting for whatever his reaction will be. I tell myself it will be something that tempers my enthusiasm – for my own good. I’ve been coming for 2.5 months, getting 15 minutes at the end of my son’s lesson to check in on some basics. Even though we haven’t gotten far, he’s seen enough of my playing and his response will be based on what he has seen from me, and not just his general opinions about the potential of an adult learner. I’m expecting him to encourage me to “find fulfillment without expectations.”

“Oh,” he says, with a bit of a twisted face, “you can definitely do that. I could see you being ready to audition in 2-3 years, maybe 5, it really depends on how you practice. That part is up to you.” And, just like that, I had a goal. A real one, that someone actually signed off on. Suddenly, everything felt simple. I could see myself working toward something that was realistic, at least to us. There is something powerful about having the support of someone who should know better. He hasn’t taken a magic wand and bestowed a prophesy of greatness upon me. But, in that moment it would have been hard to tell the difference.

Leaving that lesson, I felt a weight lifted off of me that I hadn’t fully known was there. There was no longer a looming sense that this was a fool’s quest, or that my playing had something terminal about it. I wasn’t worried about talent any longer, or being an adult starter. I no longer needed to muster courage, I was just excited to practice.

I have no idea if I’m musically gifted. My talents may lay more in how the heck I’ve managed to get 45-60 minutes of practice in, 5+ days a week, with two small kids and a business, for two years. My resilience and drive to build a solid foundation are probably going to be the two most useful “talents” that I could have at this point.

It doesn’t matter if I’m not talented because I’m going to work so hard you won’t notice.

8 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture

  1. My teacher and I had a similar conversation. I told him I wanted to play just like him. I scared the begeebees (sp?) out of him because years later he told me he did not know how he was going to do it…lol. Love your blog. As adult learners we have lofty dreams.

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    1. Ha! How great that he was able to tell you that years later. I often wonder just how adept at teaching adults teachers tend to be. How many adult students do they end up having for an extended period of time, long enough to make it to that point? And some of us do have lofty dreams!!! 🙂

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      1. He enjoys his adult students. He currently has two and we are both around 70. The problem with older students is that we tend to become calcified. Little aches and pains, arthritis, etc. Playing helps keep me young :-).

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  2. A nice read. My answer would be something along the lines of “to prove I can do it” or “to keep my brain active”. I wonder what my granddaughter’s answer would be. Probably “to take the next trip with my friends in the orchestra”.

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    1. Nan’s here! Thanks for stopping by! That made me laugh out loud, it’s exactly what my kids’ goals would be related to if they were in it right now. I love your goals, I think proving it to myself is pretty high on the list for me as well.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. As a 63 y/o adult beginner in my third month, my goal is to “learn some and have fun”. Oh sure, I have a dream of fiddling up a storm, but if I can learn some of my favorite tunes enough to make them recognizable to others, I think I’ll be content. So far, I am learning some and having fun. Of course, some days are better than others. It’s been an exciting ride so far.

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