Go Tell Aunt Rhody That I Didn’t Do Suzuki Book One

When you start the violin at age 36, the first thing you think of is playing Twinkle at a recital where you are twice the size of everyone else. Most adults want to skip all that, and head straight to the fun stuff. That really wasn’t me. I wanted the whole shabang. I wanted a musical education, starting from the ground up. I wanted to learn the correct way. I didn’t want to be an adult starter statistic. I don’t know what the stats really are, but unless you have a group of adult starters on Facebook, chances are, you haven’t heard of anyone starting violin as an adult and getting anywhere decent in their playing. Everyone has their own goals, but most of the time, you can tell that the adult starter has serious gaps in their technique (myself included!). Whether they care about those gaps is another story. I’m not trying to become a professional, but I want to be able to play alongside them.

The fact is, it just takes forever to sound decent on the violin. Relatively. Most things are relative. But, with violin there are some absolutes. Technique, or the absence thereof, is an absolute. You can learn in many ways, very circular ways, but if you never attain the technique, you won’t progress. I’m talking classical here – but, I bet if you ask any old time Fiddler they’ll also have opinions on what you can’t skip.

She’s cute, but she’s got some work to do on that technique.

My first teacher wasn’t trained as a Suzuki learner or teacher. After some seriously hard-for-me pieces, I announced that I wanted to follow the Suzuki curriculum because I wanted a system that gradually increases the difficulty. I started in book 2, because by that time I had been playing for maybe a year. I honestly thought I didn’t need to play Twinkle. Oh, little did I know…

I had an email exchange with my current teacher when I was looking for a second teacher, and she sounded like what I absolutely needed. Someone who is engaging, and very technical, and who would really make sure that I had the gaps in my learning addressed. She’s a professional in our state symphony, and she is an actual Suzuki teacher. So she understands the technical point of each of the pieces. What is Twinkle trying to teach you? It turns out, a whole lot! The bummer was that she was about 20-25 minutes away, and I simply didn’t have an hour to add to a lesson during school hours. I reached out to her again when the second teacher didn’t work out, and thanks to Covid, she’s teaching online. I can see her at a time that I would normally be driving home. I jumped at the chance.

At our first Skype lesson I began to play for her one of the Book 4 pieces that I had been struggling with on my own. It wasn’t going well – I was nervous and sped through, making the sort of dumb mistakes that reveal all of the gaps in my technique. She got it immediately. By now I had long let go of the idea of impressing a teacher. I didn’t want to impress any longer. I wanted a teacher to take me seriously when I say I want to join an orchestra. She suggested going to Book 1, and was aghast when I said I never did it.

“But, the entire foundation of what you are doing in the rest of the books starts with the Twinkles!” It turns out that there are different rhythms that you use to play Twinkle, and being able to do those requires bow control and proper setup. Setup being more than just your shoulder rest. Who knew? All that nagging my first teacher did about swinging my upper arm didn’t do any good because we never slowed down to get it under control from the ground up. That just isn’t the Russian pedagogy – it hits the ground running. I had no ego about going through book 1, I just wanted to fill all of the gaps. Suddenly this seemed like a fresh pathway to actually be able to do the things my first teacher explained.

I could tell she didn’t want to offend me by using little kid-like terms, like having a “marshmallow” – a relaxed base of thumb without a grip. The muscle should feel squishy like a big marshmallow. She was brimming with these little memory tools, and it quickly created a shorthand for us. I was relieved to put the Vivaldi away for a while. I know we’ll meet again, but it will be so much easier the next time. I have developed a lot of trust in my new teacher and she also trusts that when I say I’m here to learn, I mean it. Go tell aunt Rhody that I’m not messing around.

My teacher said that by the time I get to the orchestra, I will not have gaps in my technique. I believe her. She’s delightfully picky, and after 4-6 weeks of rehauling my bow hold and restricting my movement to 3 inches of bow, or, the maximum length required to play one quarter note, my tone has improved dramatically. I’m having fun revealing all of my most vexing issues:

I have a terrible time playing with a metronome. As in, how the hell do you use it in reality? How do I deal with the adrenaline dump that happens during a lesson and makes my bow shake when I play for her? How do I know what I don’t know? How the heck do you tune your violin by ear? No one in the orchestra has a digital tuner on their stand! How do you hear the fifths when there are 100 other instruments tuning? What’s the proper way to play pizzicato? It’s not as simple as plucking the strings. How do people get used to playing sitting down when all you do in practice is stand up?

I am beyond grateful to have found this teacher, and I am trying to get everything I can from the lessons while they last. I’d love to be able to say that nothing will get in my way when life goes back to normal, and that I’ll make whatever sacrifices I need to in order to stay with her. All that I know is that we’ll both have the intention. And when the day comes for me to make the drive up to her studio to participate in a recital with a bunch of 6 year olds, I will be there with bells on!

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