Violin Diary - 2 months in.

Not sure what this will add up to- but I have been teaching myself violin for about two months and have not really been keeping any records, which is probably not healthy since it makes it harder to track my progress. And I suspect that in February, when my daughter is born, my time will be limited and I’ll need to look back on something to motivate myself to find/make the time.

Thus far it’s been pretty fantastic. I bought this violin a few years ago, and began taking bi monthly lessons in the summer. Turns out it was a busy summer of traveling to weddings, retreats and a residency overseas so that never amounted to much. And then my instrument languished.

The phone-call closet at my office has blue sound-proof padding. Makes for a cool photo. Yes I’m practicing at my office now.

The phone-call closet at my office has blue sound-proof padding. Makes for a cool photo. Yes I’m practicing at my office now.

This past summer a new protege of mine offered to give me lessons, which seemed like a great and inexpensive remedy until I realized timing was never going to work out due to her other commitments. So I took it upon myself to learn. I bought a few beginner books at her recommendation, some fingering tape and a beginning violin package on the website Udemy, which was probably the best thing, because when I got impatient I could just fast forward. I didn’t need the lessons on music, theory, note reading etc.

I started practicing properly August 1st. Not a lot, just regularly. About a half hour a day. The references my mentee gave me were actually far more useful than the video lessons, though I did take comfort knowing that the video lessons were there, since that was my only real authority figure. I’d learn from the books, and sometimes watch a video to see how the methodology differed. A few things I noticed:

  1. The video instructor referred to “high 2s” and “low 3s” which basically referred to fingering that deviated from what is essentially a diatonic scale. I don’t want to say accidentals, but that’s sort of what it felt like initially. Apparently “high 2” and “low 3” are not universal terms? No one else I’ve spoken to has used that phrasing.

  2. I learned how to hold the instrument incorrectly from the songbooks, but found the video teacher to be a lot more helpful.

  3. I still don’t hold the bow correctly, though my new friend B might help me with that. More on B later.

  4. There’s no formal introduction to the use of the fourth finger in the video (which is defined as beginner) yet by page 15 of my beginner book, it is all about that fourth finger.

This last point is where things started to get interesting. As soon as I noticed this discrepancy I texted a friend of mine, asking about the importance of the fourth finger. She makes her living on-stage not in a pit, but is often cast as a singer-musician. I didn’t want to hear from a professional pit musician, since that was not my ambition. To be good enough to play on stage though, that’s something I can wrap my head around even if I don’t actually want that. In brief, she said to try working it in as soon as I can, because it is the finger that is used least, but is no less crucial than the others.

I saw the merit in this. When I played piano- like a million years ago- there were many things I ignored that would come back to bite me on the ass. Not learning how to sight-read for one. Never running a lick in every key for another. (Why Tim? Why would you do that to yourself? Were you THAT lazy? Of course you were.)

So now, naturally, I only sometimes invoke the fourth finger but definitely not as much as I know I should.

A few weeks into the second month, I met B. B is a musician who loves theater and is new(ish) to town, and wanted to meet as many theater people as she could. A mutual friend introduced us and we went on a friend-date during which I discovered she was also a violinist. Since we both had the afternoon free, and our friend-date was not too far from my house, we walked to my house so I could show her how I was teaching myself.

By this time, I’d completely abandoned the video lessons in favor of youtube holes. My favorite channels belong to Nicola Benedetti, a woman named Julia, and The Tune Project.

What was interesting when B and I chatted was her facial expressions when I told her what my warm up was. By this time I’d realized that I didn’t want to follow someone else’s “Adult Beginner” curriculum because they rarely tailored them to “adult beginners who have known theory since grade school” or “who didn’t spend 40% of their week in front of Finale.” So, knowing that I seemed to progress well enough at a half hour a day, I opted for Julia’s warm up, from youtube. B would nod her head in approval, having a vastly deeper experience than mine. It was like getting to look into the future. “If I do this, I’m going to be able to accomplish whatever it is she’s thinking right now.” Or, in the case of watching my bow holding, would make a face like she was in pain just imagining the kind of wrist cramps I would be imposing upon myself. Then when I mentioned that I will sometimes practice my vibrato after the warm up eventhough I don’t expect to be able to apply it for a long time, she smiled. I took that as a good sign. (BTW, I can subdivide into eighths, but I totally get chomped up when I start subdividing into triplets. Something to work towards, I guess.)

She gave me a quick tutorial on how to hold a bow, and showed me a few motions that I’ve already forgotten, but remember understanding why they existed, and that they felt right. I look forward to rediscovering them on my own, now that I have my bow holding technique notes. She also said “it’s totally okay to pizz instead of bow if you’re still struggling with fingering.” Which is something only a teacher can tell you. I could never have given myself permission to do that. So, that was time well spent. She also told me “Don’t bend for the violin. Bring the violin to you.” Which I thought was some kind of metaphor, but apparently I slouch a lot. Got it.

The next day I realized that all good warm-ups need practical application. We didn’t spend forty minutes of our ninety minute ballet class warming up just so we could do exercises in front of a mirror. So I downloaded Julia’s free songbooks. (Thanks Julia!) This is what I learned:

  1. I have a strong distaste for Lightly Row. I think it triggers me from when we played recorders in 2nd grade.

  2. I have no investment in any of these songs, no offense. It’s a shame there isn’t like, a songbook that has all the songs I liked as a kid, but in a friendly key to someone at my skill level.

  3. Oh wait, I’m a Finale Power User, so I can actually just make this myself.

  4. Realizing this, I notated the following songs, modelling the notation after both my beginner songbook, the video teacher’s dry erase board, and Julia’s free download:

    • The Luckiest, Ben Folds (mine and my wife’s wedding song)

    • Verdi Cries (an old favorite by 10,000 Maniacs)

    • Hallelujah (because Hallelujah)

    • You’re Aging Well (by Dar Williams)

    • Chandelier (by Sia)


The only hard thing was notating fingering above each note. Getting the text tool to self-align in Finale is still a pain in the ass if you want to anchor them to each measure, which… if you don’t, you’re totally doing it wrong.

Eventually I abandoned trying to keep them level. And also, I don’t think I proofed them well. But by the end of five songs, I learned quickly how to read a stave from a violinists perspective. I will probably lose this if I don’t keep making sheets for myself because I’ve already started to rely too heavily on fingering numbers to read music.

Things I learned once I started playing these songs:

  1. It’s a lot easier to hear pitchiness when playing a familiar song. This over say, a song I don’t know or care about or even a basic scale. And it’s (thankfully) far less taxing on the ears than recording my own lessons and playing them back ad nauseum. (Emphasis on nauseum.)

  2. Forming callouses is not the same thing as muscle memory.

    • I’m getting great sound out of the strings now, and that’s encouraging. But it’s only because after two months of regular playing, my callouses have formed. I can’t yet rely on muscle memory to land finger placement.

  3. High 3s and Low 2s are diatonic. I need to pay more attention to actual key signatures. This is good to know. I never had to as a singer, and I never have to as a composer. As a player, this is… this is kiiiiiinda important.

  4. I hadn’t planned it this way, but there’s a slow progression of skill in these five songs. This will be good for me, in terms of setting goals. I am notorious for learning something and then sitting happy. Need to keep pushing forward.

  5. I made Chandelier SO accessible in my mind’s eye/ear. I am still so far from playing it well. I think I’ll put it aside for now and work towards it.

  6. My new goal in life is to be a still-living version of the dead father from Abominable, who played violin for his daughter which inspired her to go on all sorts of adventures with a Yeti.

And that brings us to today. Final thoughts for now: I’m starting to think more about playing violin than writing musicals. This is probably a good thing. Also, my brain is starting to offset this music-logic with lyrical ideas for actual song songs, which is very exciting to me.

That’s all for now.