Lessons from learning to play the violin

TL;DR:

Learning to play the violin introduced me to western classical music, amateur orchestras, and deliberate practice. Even though I will never seriously pursue music, it was well worth my time.

Some background

I have been taking violin lessons as an adult beginner from 2016 December till now. I have stopped my lessons temporarily since I will be moving to a different city soon. As of January 2019, I am at Suzuki book 3. The decision to pursue violin as an adult might have been influenced by the Carnatic violin lessons I took when I was eleven years old [see sunk cost fallacy].

Also, partly owing to my limited knowledge, I am going to collectively refer to baroque, renaissance and classical music as just “classical music”.


1. Classical music is cool!

I would often come home from a practice session and look up the music we learned that day on Youtube. Though it started as an exercise to get more familiar with the music, I found myself listening to music more actively rather than just letting it play “in the background”. This simple act of being more attentive to what I listen to helped a lot in letting me appreciate classical music.

I was never much interested in the classical genre – most of the pieces I had encountered earlier were simply too long for my short attention span. The lack of an obvious, simple, repeating “chorus” in the genre was something I found hard to come to terms with. However, listening attentively led to the realization that the sophistication and the “cleverness” in the music is something that I could enjoy. My first “aha!” moment was when I stumbled upon the Canon in D. I could see how nuanced the composition was (to my untrained ear), and how each of the violinists seemed to be playing something entirely different yet similar. This was brilliant.

Then I discovered Antonio Vivaldi. I was blown away.

Then there are compositions like the Moonlight” sonata, which I did not quite like the first time I heard it and now I cannot imagine how I could have not loved it all this while. There is clearly a method to the madness.

My favorite rendition of the Canon in D

2. It is better to progress slowly, but surely.

The vibrato is a technique that every budding violinist hopes to master one day. Six to seven months ago, my vibrato was barely audible – I had to strain my ears to recognize it. Even though I am still a long long way from a respectable vibrato, today I can do some vibrato. A shitty vibrato feels much better than no vibrato.

I did not have to practice particularly hard or long to achieve this. I learn the violin for leisure and is in accordance rather leisurely when it comes to practice. I am happy that though I do not play daily (not a good thing), the 40 minutes of practice I put in 3-4 times a week actually let me (slowly) progress in my lessons. This was new for me. I did not have to work hard to progress – I just had to work somewhat consistently. If I had applied this principle to other things in my life, such as contributing to an open source project or going to the gym, I would have had today a much more braggable resume and much less belly fat.

3. Short, deliberate practice is much better than long hours of unfocused practice

When learning new music, my teacher often tells me that once you learn to play the hardest part the rest becomes very easy. The developer in me resonates with this idea – there is no point in optimizing the rest of your code unless and until you address the bottlenecks. The bottleneck, in my violin lessons, is often fast sections of a composition or parts where I am required to use a new finger position. I would often try to avoid putting in the work and won’t practice the difficult parts separately, partly because playing just the difficult parts is just boring. It is much more pleasurable to attempt the music as a whole and enjoy playing at least a part of the composition, instead of tackling just the difficult parts and consequently sound like a cat being tortured. Inevitably, a few days later, I would realize that I am no closer to playing the music successfully because the difficult parts are holding me back. To make progress, I have always had to prioritize learning the difficult portions.

Some parallels that I can draw to software development include learning new programming paradigms or tackling problems outside your usual domain of expertise. I have recently started reading this wonderful book on mathematics even though I have covered most of the topics as part of my CS bachelors degree. Writing code for the exercises at the end of each chapter is sure to get me out of my comfort zone, and using rust to attempt those exercises will make things more interesting.

4. Use social commitments to your advantage

I performed on a stage for the very first time on October 29, 2018. Even though I played the relatively easier second violin part, the pieces that my teacher chose for the orchestra were beyond my skill level. I had four months to “get my shit together” and “man up” for the big day. Horror-struck by the idea of embarrassing myself in front of a crowd, I started pouring extra time into my practice sessions. Vivaldi’s Summer was a particular pain in the ass – it was simply too fast for me. Eventually, we stopped following the Suzuki books in my personal classes and focused only on being able to play the second violin part of Summer by October.

When the big day came, I was not even nearly ready for that performance. I played a lot of wrong notes and to make things worse, my music stand’s hinge broke and I had to try and read from a stand in the next row. I felt terrible at the end of the day. When I talked to my teacher about how disappointed I was with myself, this was his response:

It does not matter. Do you really think that I do not make mistakes? The final performance was not at all significant compared to what you learned in the months of preparation leading to it.

Raja Singh, The creative school of math and music, New Delhi

The final performance was just an excuse to get the students to punch above their weight class. I must say that it worked – I would not have put in the extra time and effort in the absence of a social commitment. The orchestra also taught me how to follow a conductor, and I could not help but chuckle when I realized that the conductor is just a glorified metronome. Something similar happened when I committed to writing something for my employer’s engineering blog. We were trying to create a brand around the culture we strove to build in the engineering team, and I did not want to do a sloppy job. While I usually invest only a couple of hours into a blog post, this particular one took an entire weekend and went through multiple iterations. The result was head and shoulders above anything I had written till date. Social commitments FTW!

Us performing Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. I’m the tall-ish guy at center-right last row who seems to be barely playing. I need to use more bow *sigh*.

5. It is okay to not like something

My opinion before my introduction to classical music:

Country/Acoustic/Pop > Rock > Hip Hop > Metal > Classical

What I thought my opinion would be after (a mere) 2 years of violin lessons:

Classical music > everything-else > Metal

Unfortunately, such PC master race > console peasantry type comparisons are useless in music. For example, I do not get why people love Chopin. I mean yeah this sounds nice, and I would very much like to claim that I listen to Chopin and thus validate my “superior” taste in music. But the truth is, I like Tarzan and Jane much more than I like Frédéric Chopin. To each his own.

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