What my violin taught me

Every Monday, I will bid goodnight to my violin teacher JJ and hurriedly pack my books, violin and bow so I can get home. On the way down the escalator, I’m either feeling pleased over a good lesson, or miserable over a not-so-good performance. Inevitably, the question will bubble to the surface: “Ian, why are you still doing this?”

It’s been ten years since I started my violin classes. In the beginning, I was fueled by curiosity and fascination. Could an adult like me pick up an instrument at 25 and do well at it? Could I fulfill a lifelong dream to read and play music? And how good could a violin sound in my hands?

Over the past decade, the key goals haven’t really changed, but I see it so differently now.

1. There’s a long way to go in improving myself.

The technical difficulties of the violin, coupled with a working and family life, means that it takes me much longer than a child to learn and play new violin pieces. And every time my teacher demonstrates how to play a piece, I feel so embarrassed because it’s a reminder of how poorly I still play after all these years. But while there is momentary discouragement, there is hope, that perhaps one day I can play as well as my teacher.

The violin epitomizes the ACS motto: The Best Is Yet To Be.

2. I have bad habits I cannot see, and they take a long time to remove

My teacher will sometimes teach me techniques to overcome my bad habits (eg. too much bow strength at the end, rather than the beginning of a bar). These habits are so ingrained in me, they take a really long time to abolish. The worst thing is that when the piece is difficult, these habits come back immediately and I don’t even realize it.

Thankfully, my teacher has infinite patience and continues to help me along, and I’m very grateful for it. The same also applies to the way I live my life at work and home – I have bad habits that have become so much a part of me, I need others to tell me and help me change for the better. It’s never nice to take honest and brutal feedback, but it’s even worse to continue on the wrong path.

3. Technical excellence is possible in anything, just practise, practise and practise.

I’m a pretty good photographer, because I spent so much time on it during my younger days. I devoured books, shot off hundreds of rolls of film, spent countless hours on Photoshop and in my home darkroom, and received continual feedback from my seniors in TNP’s Photo Desk. I wish I spent that much time on my violin, because technical excellence remains within grasp, but I just don’t practise enough.

The difference is that I desired so greatly back then to become a pro photog, but I am fearful that I will never be anything more than a lousy violinist. There are two very different motivations here, and I’m still trying to motivate myself to overcome my fears, and plunge myself into music like I did with photography.

And truth be told, music is far more difficult than photography, and requires several magnitudes more of commitment to excise the errors and to be able to emote the tunes with flair. It is always humbling to attend classes with young kids and see them play so well because they have, voluntarily or not, put in the hours needed to create the muscle memory in their fingers.

My teacher told me this gem: “Don’t practise till you get it right. Practise till you don’t get it wrong.”

4. Life is about enjoying the moment and letting go

I know I need to relax in order to play faster, but I still get too tensed up and I mess up the semiquavers. It’s such a paradox that you need to unwind more to play more difficult pieces, but it’s true. Once in a long while, I might enter the zone and play with a relaxed mind, but most of the time, I’m worrying to much.

That has taught me that in life, when the going gets really tough, you really need to let go and let the practice kick in. Everything else is up to God.


2 Replies to “What my violin taught me”

  1. Hi Tan!


    Me too. An adult beginner to learn violin 🙂 in late 30s. Been learning almost 2 months. Problems = my eccentric rhythm and put too much on pressure on bow while drawing on strings. Of course, other bad habits, like holding the bow etc.

    Good luck on learning 🙂 who knows, one day you can play beautifully as your teacher 🙂

    1. Heya, thanks for your kind words. Trust me, after 10 years of lessons I still have some bad bowing techniques I can’t seem to remove!

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