I’m often asked how I decided to learn to play the violin. The truth is that I didn’t make the decision at first! My parents both played the flute, and they wanted me to start an instrument once I was old enough to hold one. Violin is one of the rare instruments that you can learn at a very young age, because they make very small student versions, and so at the age of 4 I began to learn to play violin. You may have heard of the Suzuki Method, started by Shinichi Suzuki in the mid-20th century. For some reason, many of the American teachers that he taught settled in the Midwest. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and there was already a strong group of Suzuki teachers and students there by the time I picked up my first violin.
Learning violin was a lot of fun for me because of the great teachers in Lexington, and because my parents knew that I needed to stay interested in order to keep progressing. Following the traditional Suzuki path, I started with group violin lessons rather than individual violin lessons.
I didn’t even start with a real violin; we all had Cracker Jack boxes that were wrapped in brown paper! A ruler was taped to the end of the box to simulate a fingerboard, and our “bow” was the cardboard tube from a clothes hanger. Therefore, my first lessons on how to play violin were actually about how to stand, how to hold the instrument, and how to make the proper movements in unison with the teacher and the other kids. So it was not learning to “play” violin in the sense of making sound, but for us, it was definitely playing, which is always the best kind of learning.
It didn’t take long for me to earn the privilege of unwrapping my Cracker Jack box and receiving a real (student) violin. And soon my violin lessons, along with daily practice with one of my parents, became part of the family routine. Now it certainly didn’t hurt that my parents were musicians. But their most important contribution was their commitment to my progress. I believe that anyone can learn to play violin at any age, but children need their parents’ support, and I was lucky to have that at all times.
At around age 10, I wanted to keep learning violin for my own reasons. It was around that time that I got my first Walkman (that's like the proto iPod for you younger readers!) and was able to take violin recordings with me on the long bus rides to school. Day after day, listening to Itzhak Perlman play the Mozart violin concertos, I decided that I wanted to sound like that and would do whatever it took to learn to play violin like he did. Of course, I had no idea what that might involve, but that’s when I knew that I would be a violinist. You can imagine how lucky I feel when I get to share the stage with him now as a professional.
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I know now that in order to learn to play violin, you need to be drawn to the sound of the violin. You’re going to be hearing that sound a lot, so it's very important to have some connection there from the start! You need someone who can show you proper setup at the beginning, because there are so many dead ends and blind alleys related to posture and positioning that are very hard to overcome without help. And you need someone around you (a teacher, parents, friends, an online community) that can motivate you and keep you accountable on a regular basis. It’s best if one of those people is a violin teacher, someone who can assess your progress regularly and show you how to take the next step. Beyond that, there’s not much more you need!
That’s why people of all ages, all over the world, are learning to play the violin every day. You don’t need a great instrument, although it should be in good shape. You don’t need a lot of expensive books or accessories either. The most tried-and-true violin learning materials are decades or centuries old and can be found for practically pennies. You don’t need a “music room” either, since the violin is so small. In fact, many of the greatest violinists prefer to practice in a small, “dead” room so that their sound isn’t getting any help from the room’s acoustics. Then, when they go into a concert hall, their tone blooms wonderfully. And you don’t have to be a little kid either. There are certain physical patterns and combinations that are easiest to master when you’re young, but anyone can experience the joy of playing the violin and progressing week after week.
And why learn to play violin instead of another instrument? Because the violin is so versatile! You can play alone, choosing from hundreds of years’ worth of solo repertoire from composers as diverse as Bach, Paganini, Bartok and John Adams. You can play with one friend who has a piano, or with three in a string quartet. You can play in a string orchestra or a full orchestra. And there are many more community orchestras than professional ones, so that anybody who wants to play in a group has a chance.
And who says that you have to play only classical violin? Cultures all over the world use the violin because of its versatility. That’s why we have so many styles of fiddling in America and Europe, why the Roma people have a “gypsy” style all their own, and why the violin is so important in Indian music. The same discipline and love of the violin sound will take you where you want to go. If you’ve been thinking about learning to play violin, don’t wait any longer! Find a violin, get it a check-up, and get someone to show you the basics. Then don’t let anything stand in your way.
Nathan Cole is the First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and teaches online violin lessons at ArtistWorks.
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