Is there any instrument that sounds more unpleasant in the hands of a beginner than the violin? Consider the piano. No matter where you hit the keys, you‘re guaranteed to be in tune, whereas if you’re off by just a millimetre on the violin, everyone will know. The guitar has frets that help delineate finger positions, while violins have nothing but a long, terrifying, featureless expanse. The cello? The strings are longer and the pitch is lower, so you have more room for error.
If it’s not your finger positioning, then it’s your bowing. And if it’s not your bowing, it’s too much — or too little — rosin. And so on.
Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a child learning it, it‘s rare indeed to encounter the torturous sounds of a poorly-played violin. It’s for that reason alone, I think, that parents encourage their children to take up lessons. If they knew they‘d be exposed to hundreds of hours of frustrated, repetitive scratchings before hearing a hint of the heavenly tones that they hear on the radio or Spotify, they’d have bought a piano or guitar instead.
Yes, I learned the violin. How could you tell?
I do my best work when I solve my own problems. When I was at school, I spent a year in a ‘Young Enterprise’ scheme creating CD-ROM textbooks for biology, chemistry and physics exams because I found revising unbelievably boring (the company, of which I was Managing Director, instantly began in-fighting the moment a software publisher offered to buy the CDs).
More recently, Zombies, Run! — a fitness game for smartphones that makes running fun — was partly borne out of the months of pain and tedium that accompanied my learning how to run at university.
Learning the violin? That’s a special kind of pain, and it requires a special kind of solution. But it’d be worth it, because if you can make it through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard graft, you just might have a few moments of pure grace.
As with a lot of funny-but-mildly-offensive memes, High Expectations Asian Father has a kernel of truth to it. I saw a variation: “You can learn whatever musical instrument you want: Violin or Piano.”
I learned both.
I don’t know where these stereotypes come from, but the best origin story I’ve heard says that immigrants have always suffered from prejudice, and the Asian response was to pursue professions in which advancement depended purely on objective criteria. Becoming a journalist or an artist requires connections and is subject to people’s opinions, whereas becoming a doctor can be accomplished through aceing exams, whose results no-one can dispute.
The violin and piano, of course, both require a high degree of technical mastery, and they both are dominated by classical music — that is, music one can objectively decide whether it’s being played ‘properly’ or not, as opposed to all this modern pop or rap music, which changes so quickly it’s hard to trust your own opinions.
I was never a good violinist. After more than eight years of practice, I attained Grade 8 more out of sheer grit rather than natural aptitude; I may have produced a tolerable sound, but never one that was good.
Except for when I was playing in an orchestra. You might think that the only thing worse than hearing a beginner violinist is hearing twenty beginners play, but in truth, differences in pitch (“intonation,” my teacher would cry, “intonation!”) are evened out the more players you have. The tempo would still be all over the place, but even amateur orchestras could sound mostly OK with a bit of practice.
It was also much more fun to play in an orchestra. Unlike the terrifying, solitary experience of playing alone, you could lean on your desk-mate and the people in front of you (and, as a last resort, look at the conductor) to know when you were supposed to ‘come in’ after several bars of silence. It was really quite exciting, when you weren’t bored from repeating the same section a dozen times.
At most school and youth orchestras, you begin at the bottom of the second violins, then gradually advance up to the first desk position, and then graduate into the first violins; the second violins get all the dull harmonies that don’t sound like anything at all, whereas the first violins get the heroic melodies.
In my orchestra, no matter how terrible they sounded, violinists were typically promoted into the first violins in their last year, as a reward for their long service. As it happened, I was born early in the school year, meaning the conductors didn’t realise I was in my last year until too late, so I never played in the first violins. Instead, I spent a whole year as the leader of the second violins.
I don’t know that anyone enjoys being leader of the second violins, especially in a youth orchestra. You get the occasional heroic solo, but for the most part you’re looking after your younger charges — making sure they have their music ready, showing them when we’re supposed to come in with our harmony by exaggeratedly lifting your violin a couple of bars early, that sort of thing. It’s a responsibility without much reward, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise the orchestra stops working. For me, it was an instructive experience.
I also learned the piano for several years, but that was much more fun.
Perhaps learning the violin is not meant to be fun. Lots of things in life are not fun, but they are character building.
But this is absurd! It’s possible to take a skill that require thousands of hours of practice to fully master, and make it fun. It might take a lot of effort and time and entire new fields of technology like chess computers or virtual reality, but it is possible.
And I think it’s now possible for learning the violin. Continue reading “Violin Hero: The Game”