Thursday, December 08, 2005

Starting Late

I have always been a late starter. I played the violin when I was a child and stopped within a few years for various reasons. When I needed to play an instrument as a teenager (needed meant that I needed to find a way to express myself), I started playing the flute. I was 13. Most of the flutists around me had been playing for several years, so I had to make up for lost time. I practiced every day for at least three hours. I listened to flute recordings, and I copied the attributes of the flutists I liked (there were only a handful in the 1970s). I practiced until midnight and woke up at 5:00 a.m. to practice so that I never had more than five hours between practice sessions. I practiced during school whenever I had free periods. I practiced scales and etudes all the time. I auditioned for Juilliard when I was 16, and I got accepted. I still felt like I was years behind everyone else--that I got in by a fluke, and that somehow I had fooled everyone.

When I started playing the recorder at the age of 22, it was easy to do. I just followed the pattern I used to learn to play the flute. When I started to play baroque flute at the age of 24, it came pretty quickly because I was used to starting things late. When I started playing violin for real at 32, it was a bit different. Things didn't go as quickly. It takes about five years to understand the left hand of the violin, and about ten to understand the right hand. It is a life-long process, but I'm happy that now, at 46 I have the same struggles with the violin and the viola that most string players have. I am beginning to understand the left hand and the right hand. Now that I have played violin and viola for thirteen years, I no longer feel like I am fooling anyone. I can play with confidence among my peers. I still practice every day.

I started writing music seriously at the age of 40. I had written music before I turned 40, but at 40 I decided to study composition, which meant that I had a person who I could show my pieces to. I wrote piece after piece. It was almost as if I had a backlog of pieces "under construction" floating around in the back of my mind that just needed to be written down.

I think that for me the pattern of starting late and making up for lost time has wonderful advantages. It helps you to understand the value of time spent building something. Starting late has made me a better teacher. When an adult beginner comes to me for lessons, I can distinctly remember how difficult it was to learn certain physical aspects of learning to play, and can also distinctly remember the process of transcending those difficulties.

Fourteen years ago I didn't play the violin, and I couldn't have imagined myself either playing the violin or daring to call myself a composer. Those fourteen years have passed at the same rate they would have if I didn't feel compelled to learn to play the instrument or compose; but since I have filled those years with doing what I love best, they have been the best years of my life.

Other late-starter-related posts here, here, and here (this one is about a string quartet project with adult quartet novices).


Bharath said...

Those were words of hope to me. I have a deep burning desire of playing Classical Carnatic music on Violin and I am already 25. I am determined to pursue it diligently and put in lots of hardwork to come upto reasonable competence.

Elaine Fine said...

I think that 25 is a perfect age to begin playing the violin. Make sure that you find a really good teacher, preferably one who can make sure that you develop a technique for playing both Western and Carnatic music because the scale systems and the notation systems are quite different from one another.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this article. I did vocal Carnatic music for all my life (since 8y), and at 31, I had my first violin class. I felt almost heartbroken hearing other views online, but yours gives me some little hope that I don't have to put my violin down :) (Not expecting to be world class, but play enough to join a local club band and make people happy! And compose.)

Ria said...

This gives me hope, Elaine. I've only just begun playing, and I'm 29. I don't really want to believe I can never be a professional player, though almost everyone I speak to or every other article I read seems to be aimed at discouraging late starters. More power to your tribe, and deep gratitude and respect for setting the finest example.

Elaine Fine said...

And most power to you, Ria! It does take a longer time to learn things physically when you are older, but there is NO REASON that, given dedication, patience, good teaching, and an instrument that is in good playing shape, you won't be a professional-level player in your later adulthood.