Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Hello everyone,

First time poster, long time lurker here! I am a 27 year old fiddle player, who picked up the instrument approx 5 years ago. For the first two years I didn’t take practicing too seriously as I did an undergrad degree, then masters with part time work so time to practice was very very scarce. I have been playing faithfully for the last few years, and though I love the instrument dearly I’ve found myself very exasperated the last few months.

I’m not sure whether its a combination of lack of sessions and motivation, but I feel I have hit a proper brick wall with progression and sounding better. I thought I sounded okay, but have recently started an instagram account where I strive to post a recording of my practice a day (be that tunes, scales, sight reading) and reader…I was shocked by what I heard! All I heard was bad tone and saw poor bow movement. My musician friends tell me this is good, as its likely my ear is far more critical than it was a few years ago but I find it extremely discouraging and feel I should be at a much higher level given the amount of time I have had the fiddle.

I know realistically, that I am probably getting better ( I am working towards my grade 4 classical in the next few months), but part of me is wondering whether I am just bad at the instrument and should give up entirely. I wish (like many) I had started as a child, and am wondering if I am a bit of a lost cause. The phrase "you cant teach an old dog new tricks" springs to mind.

Sorry about the paragraph of pessimistic content! I am wondering whether anyone else has experienced my current rut, and if so, what did they do to get out of it?

Thanks very much,
Philippa

Fiddle frustration: My longest post….

Dear Philippa,

I know just how you feel. I have been playing for over fifty years. I have a few tules I set for myself. They might be relevant.

1. Play daily. Even if for only a few minutes or for just one tune.
2. There is no such thing as practice. It is all about playing. It should always sound pretty.
3. Scales, etudes, finger exercises are all about making music. Not drudge work.
4. Try to remember that you choose to play. You never have to play. Learn to look forward to the time that you can say "Now I get to play." Rather than "Now I have to practice."
5. The music you hear in your head is always better than the music that you can actually produce. This is true of every good musician I have known. If this were not true there would be nothing to reach for. At the same time as we learn to love what we do we want to do more. This gives us hope.
6. Most important: Never, ever, record your playing if it takes the joy out of it for you. Many great players - among them Paddy Cronin - refused to listen to their own recordings.

Sorry for preaching. Play on. And very best wishes.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

This isn’t a brick wall, it’s a plateau, and a well documented occurrence. The thing is, you have to stick with it to get past it. Anyone who is better at (pretty much) anything has stuck with it beyond the point of discouragement and despair. So you are at a choice point: to continue or not to continue. If you continue to work at it, you will again start to progress. If you don’t, you won’t. And even if you keep working, and start getting better again, you WILL hit another plateau. If a door is shut in your face you can give up, find a different door, or kick that sucker open. Five years isn’t much compared to what you have left. Let’s talk again in another five.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

You’re "working towards Grade 4" - do you have a teacher, or "teacher" in the widest sense of someone who can help you?

(Terrific post David, really good.)

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Hi TomB-R,

Not sure how to reply to you directly or include your comment so I hope you see this. I have a teacher who is a classical player, who I see semi-regularly (every month or so). It’s great for scales and intonation, but fiddle is my first love and what sort of music I prefer to play.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

The old "I wish I had started when I was a kid" thing is something that pretty much anyone who started as an adult has thought from time to time. But the flip side is that you might have hit a plateau as a child and given up forever. I didn’t start playing until I was in my mid 30s, so I had a lot of wishing I had started younger, but to be honest, my younger self wouldn’t have been into it. So there are only two paths here, quit, or keep going.

For me, I was acutely aware of every plateau I hit, and I was always upset by them. I remember a point in time where I had a recording of a session I was playing in from a few years before, and I was convinced that my playing had actually gotten worse since that recording. I played the recording for a well respected player that I considered to be my mentor (he didn’t consider himself that, btw). He listened to the recording and then to me playing the same tune, and he was quick to point out things that I was doing now that I wasn’t doing in the recording. I was putting some expression into the music (but I wasn’t very good at it yet) and it made the music sound sloppy to me. He pointed out that it was a step in the right direction, because I was starting to make music instead of just belting out a string of notes. It was that conversation that made me take a step back and realize just how far I had come.

But when you’re in the thick of it, you only feel the plateau, and not the overall progress. What helped keep me going was taking pride in little accomplishments. The fact that I could learn tunes much easier than before, and the fact that I would spontaneously put in ornaments that I had never done before, etc. And then, over the course of a few years, taking note of the little victories really led to a better appreciation for just how much better I was actually getting. I felt like I was losing most of the battles but winning the war.

David’s list above is a really good one! The only thing I would add to it is that 5 years may feel like a long time, but this is a lifelong journey, so 5 years isn’t a long time in that context. This is not a competition, and this journey has no "destination" where you will say "I have finally arrived". The journey is ultimately one of growth, enrichment, and social interaction. The love we have for the music can help calm the inner critic that is making you feel your current frustration. So take both the positives and negatives in stride, and try to enjoy the journey! We don’t "work" music, we "play" it, and play is fun!

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

To echo what the good Reverend said, the thing that happy musicians realise sooner or later is that the road is the destination. The great thing about learning an instrument as an adult is that the only requirements we have to meet are those we choose to.

On motivation, I think the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and wants to play is the exception, not the rule. We play for fun, and daily routines and items on a checklist are the opposite of that. So not being motivated to play doesn’t mean that you don’t like the instrument or want to play it, it just means motivation is…low. It’s OK to say, do I feel like playing just now? and the answer to be: nah, not really.

More practically, if you are running out of ways to practice, can I recommend Simon Fischer’s book Basics? Enough to keep you improving for a lifetime in there. And, of course, do your slow bows. Everyone under-rates their importance, including me.

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Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

I’ve been a fiddle beginner for 30 years now! When I get it right it sounds ok (I think!) and when I get it wrong it sounds horrible (for certain!)
When I feel that I’m getting nowhere I go back to the first few tunes I learned years ago and have a run through them. Gets me back on course. Roddy Macorley, Spanish Lady, Siege of Limerick. And then I say to myself "I still can’t believe that I can play stuff on a fiddle!"
When I heard Bob Dylan singing Desolation Row in the 60s, the line "he was famous long ago, for playing the electric violin, on Desolation Row" I would have laughed at anyone who would have told me that one day I’d be playing one on stage!
Don’t get disheartened, everyone hits a plateau - play through it! And as others have said, it’s fun. We do it for enjoyment. Be happy that you can get a tune out of the fiddle, you are gifted with a talent. Thousands aren’t!

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

I read a really helpful book which added lots of great stuff to how I practice which I will recommend whenever I get the chance:

Burton Kaplan - Practicing for Artistic Success.

Psychologically, I’ve found it helps when I feel down about progress to switch focus entirely on to the next small step of improvement, the fixable problems in front of me, and that will generally get me back in the enjoying-it-zone.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Wow! Thank you for all the responses thus far, everyone. These are all very helpful, and very reassuring to know that this is a common issue. I certainly won’t be throwing the fiddle in the bit quite yet, but rather will be focusing on small victories and set realistic goals.

funnily enough, I played for an hour tonight in a spacious room, with no mute and had a very good practice. My scales sounded good and I felt a lot less wooden than I have done recently!

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Good bow, good strings, good rosin will give you a good sound. May be a fiddle that has a serious overhaul by a qualified luthier as well. Even a Skylark can be made to sound better. Squeeze a couple of squash balls to limber up fingers.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

David and Alex have said it, just what I would say. I’ve been playing since 1976, and I still sometimes cringe when friends record my playing and post it on Youtube. But I love the fiddle and just keep striving for tone and intonation. When I think of what I used to sound like, and people praised me up back then. Remember, too that the fiddle is right up by your ear, so you hear every squeak and squawk, while across the room it sounds fine.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Please forgive a quick outing for a hobby horse…

Rhythm is king for fiddling. Tone and intonation are good things but rhythm is what people respond to and rhythm is what makes it possible to play with other people. Let other things go hang and just play with joyful rhythm and spirit (at least sometimes!)

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

All of it is important. It just takes a lifetime.

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Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Yes, I’m also at 5 years and would have agreed very much with you 6 months ago but I’ve had a couple of online lessons and I think I’m turning a corner.

My suggestion would be to go back to rhythmic bowing basics. I was far too focused on other things like speed and ornamentation. Just practice reel and jig bowing every day, emphasizing first beat, for a few weeks and the difference is amazing.

Also I started using a lot less bow length and all of the bow right to the frog.

Also, record yourself (sounds like you are anyway) and get the feedback on where you’re going wrong. A lot of beginners including myself think they sound better than they do when playing.

Above all else I would say get a couple of lessons from decent players. online is fine. Those little snippets of information they give can change an awful lot to your sound.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Bear in mind that it will take you about 10 years to sound like you’ve been playing for a decade.

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

I remember reading a similar post here a few years ago. Someone replied to it by advising the OP to swap over the bow and the fiddle. That’s where you were five years ago!

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Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

“Bear in mind that it will take you about 10 years to sound like you’ve been playing for a decade.” Thanks, Cheeky Elf. Love it! (From Betty, a five-year fiddler!)

Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

This is a facebook group that I’m finding very helpful and encouraging - Adult Starters - Violin/Fiddle - Here’s a description, as copied from their site. "A group for amateurs who started (or are starting) to play violin / fiddle after reaching adulthood (older than university age)
Players of other bowed strings, including viola, cello, double bass, and viola da gamba, who began to play as adults are also welcome. So are amateurs who played as children or teenagers, then took a prolonged break from the instrument before returning.
People who are professional string players or string teachers when they apply are not eligible for membership.
Join us for mutual support, information, and advice from other people who were adults before they started playing this amazing instrument." I’m posting link in case you would like to check it out. https://www.facebook.com/groups/119127121451810/about

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Re: Fiddle frustration: 5 years of playing fiddle, hit the dreaded brick wall.

Thanks for all the comments here! Gayle thanks so much for the FB site you suggested! 👍