Beginning Violin: On the Joy of Opting in to Failure
This year, at the age of twenty-seven, I started violin lessons. I have spent much of my twenty-seven years strategically avoiding activities for which I lack natural talent. Learning the violin has allowed me to opt in to failure, and in so doing, the joy of humility and small, hard-earned beginnings.
Every Tuesday evening at 7:45, I walk six blocks to Irene’s home, where I scratch out basic melodies for thirty minutes. Like most things worth doing, it is a both a joyful and bitterly frustrating experience. Learning as an adult brings distinct challenges: neuroplasticity, patience, and practice time are in short supply. Arriving at one of my first lessons, I burst into tears because my violin had not seen the light of day since the previous Tuesday. A Washington workweek defies even the most resolute novice. “Please let me keep coming,” I asked, despite a guarantee of glacial progress. Irene is as gracious as the day is long. She gave me a hug. “This will just be a practice week.” No doubt one of many to come.
Growing up, I always wanted to learn the violin, but the opportunity never arose. A piano teacher lived next door, so piano it was. Fair to say, it didn’t take. After eight halfhearted years on ivory, culminating in a calamitous recital of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, I made the case to quit. First-born, type-A, and high-strung, I did not enjoy the sensation of failing at anything. I assumed that if piano did not come naturally, I was doomed. There was no use practicing to overcome it.
Columnist Megan McArdle uncovers the root of this assumption in her February 2014 Atlantic article about “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”:
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A's in English class…. At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks…. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent.
Natural talent is a competitive advantage, but success is more often the fruit of hard work and persistence. My father struggled with dyslexia as a child, long before educators were trained to recognize it. He operated on the basic assumption that school would always require effort. So he put his head down, worked hard, and eventually made it through college, medical school, and residency. I sometimes wonder if he would have become a surgeon if his childhood challenges had not instilled such fortitude. In his recent book The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks tells the story of the legendary General George C. Marshall, whose early academic disappointments embarrassed his family, propelling him with fervor on that long, oft-treacherous “road to character.” Brooks writes, “Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.”
To a great extent, adulthood allows us to opt out of the cycle of attempt and failure. Indeed, McArdle writes in her book, The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Because failure doesn't feel good, we spend an enormous amount of time trying to engineer failure out of our lives.” She is addressing the broader issue of a bubble-wrapped society, but risk avoidance also happens naturally as we age. As young people, we try out different skill sets and, through a process of elimination, settle into estuaries of expertise. Math and music. Business and ballet. Writing and running. We may explore neighboring skill sets, we may struggle some, but rarely do we start over in a foreign ecosystem. This is a matter of sheer necessity. As adults, we have more to risk and more to lose. Time and resources to learn new skills are scarce. Even our brains must economize by pruning away unused neural circuits. This is why it is harder to learn something new as an adult: once-plastic pathways must be reformed.
The violin has forced me out of my cubicle into a world without muscle memory or transferable skills. Everything is a battle. My hand cramps holding the bow. C sharp never sounds quite the same in the second measure as in the first. I can’t tune without my teacher’s trained ear. It is humbling to arrive on Irene’s doorstep having made no progress from the previous Tuesday. The opportunities for me to fail on the violin are daily and infinite.
Yet I have enjoyed learning the violin more than a dozen easier attained skills. I love the resonance I hear when I play the four open strings properly tuned. I love the satisfaction of one decently executed scale. I love the way the rosin dust hangs in the air. I even love the snapped strings, the calloused fingertips, the double stops, the trips to the luthier, and every halting arpeggio. Perhaps I love it because, unlike most of life in Washington, I feel no pressure to perform or be the best by any measure. I can rejoice in every minute and every mistake, knowing my only audience is the One to whom I offer my simple melodies as an act of worship.
* * *
It’s an otherwise ordinary Thursday evening. I am standing in Irene’s living room in front of half a dozen mothers and children. Twelve years after the Mozart recital, the time has come to redeem my fraught relationship with music lessons. My piece is “Lightly Row” — a misnomer when you think about the effort required for a beginner to play this piece, but undoubtedly a better reflection of my soul than the last recital. I play, I screech a bit, but I finish. A few minutes later, Irene leads all three recitalists in a group performance of “Lightly Row.” We bow. The evening concludes with sparkling grape juice.
It is a small beginning, for which the joy is far greater.