Learning the violin at 33.


It has become impossible to go to a concert without having a guilty conscience. As soon as I see a violin, I think of mine. Don’t get me wrong, she is a magnificent instrument, to whom I have given the unimaginative nickname Vio. She’s in a padded box, she’s comfortable, she can’t complain. Vio, that sounds a bit capricious, diva-like, and that’s how they are, violins. If you don’t touch them right, they sound weird. You have to tune and maintain it all the time, and above all: play it.

Actually, the violin is the instrument, but with Vio and me it’s the other way around. I am their instrument and I am completely inadequate. Our relationship of domination is upside down. I wanted to spend hours of leisure with Vio, instead I am now supposed to practice the correct bow stroke every day.

It is as if the violin has a consciousness that you can feel very close to you, like when someone breathes softly in the darkness. I can hear Vio reproachfully breathing very softly and murmuring: practice! Practice!

The story of learning the violin is the story of practicing. I didn’t realize that, otherwise – at 33 – I might not have started at all. I thought you have talent or you just don’t have it. You go to class once a week, like any good fourth grader does, and then you’re fine. How wrong can one be!

The other day I met an acquaintance, he has been playing the violin for twenty years. Every day he practices two hours. If someone did two hours of exercise every day, you would look at him askance and think he has a sports addiction, he is compensating for something. When someone practices the violin for two hours a day, even though he doesn’t play in an orchestra, not even an amateur orchestra, it’s considered normal.

The question is, after all, what you practice when you practice. The nine-year-old who has his violin lesson before me practices complex melodies, he masters the first position of the left hand. I practice the correct bow grip and bowing by pulling the bow through a roll of kitchen paper.

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My goal was once the Joy theme, possibly also the first theme from Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Can you relearn an instrument as an adult? I would like to leave the question open. I don’t know what I do when my violin teacher, let’s call her Ms. Fuerst, so when Ms. Fuerst asks me to use my left hand sometimes too. Cause I can’t imagine that at all. There are also beautiful pieces for four tones!

Theme special "Of people and violins" – 26 violinists in portrait.

It all started two years ago in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Berlin. I was not feeling so well that day, I wanted to distract myself and, motivated, I looked at a series of elegant harpsichords. In a small do-it-yourself area there was a violin. I picked them up and somehow jammed them between my collarbone and chin. There was also a bow. As I know today, I did not touch the bow properly at that time. Hand position or not, I somehow managed to produce four notes on the empty strings. Despite everything, the notes sounded so beautiful that my eyes got a little moist and I thought: I want to learn that.

One then waits two years, because in such cases an abyss opens up between dream and reality. What if I will not be able to do it so well? In the abyss I sit now. I watch a lot of Youtube down there. Which time signatures are there, how do I count correctly?? How do I tune my violin? What Chinese prodigy plays Paganini at five?? Every now and then I rummage through scores: How many notes would I have to know for the joy theme?? And for Silent Night? At least the family should be happy at Christmas.

When friends visit me they say: play something. I can Bunny in the pit and All my ducklings. To Hansel and Gretel I practice. I find it really hard to change strings between the upstroke and the downstroke. Mrs. Furst says I even have to be able to do this blindly! She calls herself a movement analyst. I was afraid at first that I had fallen into the Waldorf branch of violin playing, but I tempered myself. I wanted to learn. In the first lesson, she told me to hold – and drop – a plastic cup with my right hand. The pressure of the fingers just before dropping, that’s about the pressure I have to hold the bow with, Ms. Fuerst said. She put each of my fingers in the right position. I was allowed to bow the empty strings, as an encore there was spiccato. It sounded passable, I felt great. Mrs. Furst said: You are a natural talent.

So in this exuberance I rented Vio from a violin maker in Berlin-Tempelhof. At the meeting he said that I should test Vio before I bring her into my house. I said something about tendonitis so that I wouldn’t have to make a fool of myself in front of the professional.

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Children have a clear advantage when learning the violin; paradoxically, children have a longer thread of patience. I learned to play tennis at the age of six, and I never complained about having to practice the complicated movement of a rich and beautiful forehand thousands of times until it worked reliably. It was just like that.

This policy of small steps is something that adults now have to get used to again. Fortunately there is a catalyst: the lessons themselves. In principle, I arrive there every week slightly dejected, because I’m afraid of failing. But then we rehearse these wonderful children’s exercises, the "Flieger" and the "Regenbogen" – and I can already see myself sitting in the school orchestra among loud eight-year-olds and playing the violin to Brother Jakob. The other day, a special highlight followed in the further course of the lesson. We have practiced flageolet. For me it sounded unearthly beautiful, the finger just hovered over the string, it felt professional and in my mind I flew to the Lohengrin prelude, which also had to be heard immediately afterwards.

Life with instrument as an adult beginner is very ambivalent. You are happy that something works at all, on the other hand you have already heard so much music that you know what is possible. And how far away you are. One also sits in the expression trap. I assume that everyone who learns an instrument in adulthood wants to express, feel, amplify and process his feelings. But how can you do that if you can’t even reach the G-string with your little finger?? That is perhaps the most difficult thing as a beginner – to want to communicate something, and it does not go. Just don’t have the technical means.

This chasm, I realize, can only be bridged by practicing. I would like to be small and have parents who tell me every day at 6 p.m.: Practice the violin for one hour! But it is not so. For the time being, the anxious worry of Mrs. Furst will have to suffice if I don’t make the change between upstroke and downstroke in the correct order at Little Hans do.

"That’s maybe the hardest thing as a beginner – wanting to communicate something, and it doesn’t work out."Christina Rietz on learning the violin as an adult in @vanmusik.

Hillary Hahn has already proclaimed "100 days of practice" several times on Instagram (on Instagram everyone practices all the time, Instagram produces one hundred percent of a guilty conscience). Practice for 100 days without a day’s break. I know this from a friend who is training for the Ironman, she holds it the same way. I would like to join Hillary Hahn. Maybe it will work out with the Freuden theme then. When I start? Well tomorrow.

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Christina Rietz

. Works as an editor at the ZEIT religion supplement, Christ& World. Trained at the Henri Nannen School. If it doesn’t work out with the violin, she wants to switch to the oboe. More from Christina Rietz

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