Becoming an Adult Novice Violinist

... or "How an otherwise rational adult became obsessed with learning to play the violin at the ripe old age of 43, despite lots of good advice to the contrary"


When I was eight, I took a summer-school violin class.  It was an emotional disaster.  The stern, perfectionistic teacher made sure I understood just how much better his "good" students were than I was.  He also liked to remind me just how much valuable class time my pathetic sight-reading ability was wasting.  It was with a huge sense of relief that I turned in my rental instrument at class's end, vowing never to pick up another violin in my whole life.

But then, a mere 35 years later ...


On May 2, 2000, my wife's elderly uncle moved from San Diego to Miami, Florida.

  He packed up the things that were important to him: his books, his philosophical writings, his poetry, and various material goods with particular meaning.  The rest, he left behind for his niece to dispose of as she saw fit.

One thing left behind was his 75-year-old violin.

As a young man, he'd received it as a gift from his violin teacher.  I'd heard him play several times.  His vibrato was wonderful, and if he wasn't always perfectly in tune, you can't have everything!  We couldn't believe he had left it behind intentionally, so we called him up and offered to ship it to him.  To our surprise, he declined.  "Keep it!" he said.  "I don't play any more, and it's a piece of junk anyway."

So of course, I had to try it out.  I succeeded in scratching out a simple tune that didn't sound too horrible  ("Mary Had a Little Lamb", I think).  That tiny success gave me a disproportionate feeling of satisfaction.  I was well on my way to being "hooked".

I took the instrument to a local music store to find out what we had, and the violin guy was quite complimentary.  I nearly fell over when he gave an off-the-cuff estimate of $4,000.  His boss, though, was much more interested in the case -- or rather what was in the case.  It was infested with carpet beetles, and he was very anxious for me to get it the heck out of his store.

After dealing with the carpet beetles, I took it in for repairs ($400) and a formal appraisal, which came in considerably below $4,000, but still well above what I'd call a "piece of junk".  I then began trying to teach myself in earnest.  I couldn't remember anything good from that class 35 years before, so I picked up a video (not very helpful), then just tried to "guts" out some more tunes.  But eventually, I decided I really needed a teacher.


This shouldn't be too hard, I thought.  I want to give someone money in exchange for them spending some time trying to teach me a skill.  I'm willing for them to tell me what they think is a fair rate.  Shouldn't be too difficult, right?  Especially since this is what they do for a living.

I first talked to an excellent young violinist, a friend of my daughter's harp teacher.  He highly recommended his own first teacher.  When I called her, there was this uncomfortable silence, then she said, "Mr. Garstang, I don't take such ... mature ... students."  I bit my tongue and did not say, "I can be as immature as you'd like!"

Next, I talked to our congregation's choir director, who also directs a local junior college orchestra.  I asked if he could recommend a violin teacher for a 43-year-old novice.  He looked me in the eye and said, "Dave, the violin is a very ... difficult instrument.  Perhaps you should try ... something else."  Once again, I clamped down on my tongue, this time not saying, "Well, I've already mastered the auto-harp and ukulele, and am ready for a bigger challenge."

A friend who teaches guitar wasn't entirely discouraging, but he did mention that he'd rather take a 14 year old beginner than a 40 year old, because the 14 year old has a more "pliant brain".

But I can be just plain stubborn sometimes.  I finally found a friendly music store owner down at Ozzie's Music in Poway, and she recommended Paula, a wonderful lady who believes that even us old fogies deserve a little musical happiness in our declining years.  Paula has indeed been wonderful, and three and a half years later, I'm more in love with the violin than ever.

My Grandfather's Surprising History

So there I was, standing in front of my mom's mobile home, telling her about Uncle Lou's violin and my growing obsession with it, when my grandmother drove up.  It was shortly before my first lesson with Paula.  I brought Grandma up to date, and then noticed that her eyes had filled with tears.  She then told me of the first time she'd seen my grandfather -- on stage, with a violin in his hand.  "He was so handsome!  I fell in love with him on the spot!"  She then told me to wait for her, got back in her car, and drove off.

A short time later, Grandma returned, pulling not one, but TWO, violin cases from her trunk.  She showed them to me, and pointed out the very instrument that Grandpa had been playing that night when she first noticed him and fell in love.  She thrust them into my hands.  "Here!  I want you to have them.  HE would want you to have them!  All I ask is that I get to hear you play this one, when you're ready."


To the left is a picture, taken in late 1989, that captures my memories of my grandpa.  He still had hopes of turning me into a decent golfer, and we were off to the driving range.  (In case you're wondering about the attire, this IS Southern California ...)

Unbeknownst to me, the violin on the right was sitting in his storage shed, having been put away some 30 years previously.

Wow!  What a shock!  When I was growing up, Grandpa was "Mr. Sports".  We had many wonderful times together, tossing footballs, hitting baseballs or golf balls, fishing, or going to a Dodger's game.  But Grandma was the musical one.  She taught organ and sang, and was always the musical leader at family gatherings.  So I was floored to learn that my very own "Grampa" had been a semi-professional violin player, and I was saddened to learn that he had given it up when I was about two years old because he could no longer play up to his own satisfaction.

But in the course of a few weeks, I'd gone from owning no (zero) violins to owning THREE!  I figured somewhere, somehow, someone must be trying to tell me something ...

To be continued:
  • Struggling to improve, to master the mechanics so I can achieve my dream to make real music on the violin.




Observations on STRAIGHT BOWING