Sep 9, 2007

the challenge of playing the violin

I was having a conversation with a friend about music nearly a month ago, and it's stuck in my head ever since.

We were talking about how classical music is such an inaccessible activity, in that it takes so long to learn how to do it, or in some cases even to learn to appreciate it. [Not to mention the fact that most people find it full of social and economic barriers.] Normally, in such a case, one would immediately suggest (and in fact my friend did suggest) that we should make it easier to play and appreciate classical music. Why should instruments be expensive? Why should lessons be expensive? Why can't we have free online videos showing you everything you need to know? Why do we need to use instruments that are incredibly difficult to play? (Violin is a hell of a challenge, but there are computer programs that, with only the mobility of your mouse hand, you can use to create melodies, harmonies, counterpoint - a whole symphony.) Actually, what's so great about playing an instrument at all? Isn't the goal to *make music*? If you can make beautiful music on a simple machine that's easy to learn and operate, does that accomplish the same thing?

It amazed me how stodgy I immediately felt when my friend suggested that a big advance in the world of music would be easy-to-learn, easy-to-play ergonomic instruments. I mean, I'm no stranger to the fact that violin is not ergonomic - I have an S-curve in my spine because I've been playing virtually every day for the last 17 years of my life. I've gotten tendinitis, and I've pinched nerves in my fingers. So what's so great about this awkward, expensive piece of wood I play with all the time?

I have to ask myself if I'm only defending it because I'm used to it, and I would feel annoyed if suddenly the next generation of musicians attained a level of music-making after months that I only reached after years of hard technical work needed to even be able to approach serious music. And on some level I think that *is* the case - working very hard to be come even a passable violinist feels something like a badge of honor to me, and I like the challenge. I do concede that more ergonomic instruments probably wouldn't be a bad idea. But that's not the whole story.

Starting from the top, I feel there IS an intrinsic value in learning to play an instrument, as opposed to having a computer or other electronic device play the music you compose (whether in real-time or not). The connection between instrument and musician is, after a while, almost seamless, and the instrument becomes practically an extension of your body. Sure, it's awkward, but so are bodies to a large extent - we just get used to them. The important point is that instruments are unintelligent and unsuspecting (despite being crafted with incredible skill), and have no preconceptions about what music is. They are tools that become virtually attached to you, and like hands, with enough skill, they can do practically anything. Personally, it seems especially beautiful and poignant to struggle to eke out a beautiful noise from a 100-year-old piece of wood and a stick full of horse hair. With a computer, it's waiting for your input in a pre-determined form. It already knows what music is supposed to be. You can't fool around with it. And, although I suspect technology will fix these problems in the future, computers are not capable of producing even a fraction of the tonal variation of a violin (or anything else), are very difficult to improvise on, and don't let you spontaneously make music with other people. Yet.

Then there's the aspect of connection to all the others who struggle with the same instrument - and to the composers who first imagined the music we are struggling to play. How cool is it that some guy 300 years ago conjured up an entire concerto in his head, and these days we STILL struggle to bring that dream to life? It's such an intimate and meaningful experience to try to realize somebody else's dream, especially in the medium of music, where you infuse your own personality in to every single note. If we could all accomplish it at the touch of a button, would that diminish it? I feel like it would, but I'm not sure. Maybe it would simply mean that we would be incredibly fulfilled people. Or maybe we would find that only in the sincerity and hardship of trying to understand one another do we become fulfilled.

[Note to self: this is a seriously good question for debate. If we all understood each other perfectly, would we all be happy? In the past I have asserted that total understanding disallows hatred entirely - and I still believe it - but this assertion has also been based on my knowledge that we will never completely understand each other in every possible way. What if we all were in *perfect* understanding?]

Lastly, we get to the nitty-gritty stuff. Why are instruments and lessons (particularly when it comes to violins) so expensive? Why can't we learn from books, websites and online videos? This is the information age, after all! This I have more concrete answers for, and I think at least one of them is important. The less important part first: violins (good ones, not student ones) are expensive because they take about 200 hours each to build, and so far nobody has been able to factory-build a good quality violin. They just require a ton of personal attention. Lessons are expensive because playing the violin is an extremely complicated skill which takes (yet another) extremely complicated skill to convey. Good teachers are rare and therefore very valuable.

Now the important part: we can't learn from books, websites or online videos because as far as my experience goes (and also the experience of all the other serious violinists I know), it is *not possible* to accurately convey the concepts needed to play the violin without being physically in the same space. I say "violin" because I can't really speak for other instruments - but I suspect that the same goes for any instrument at a high level. Of course, it is possible to get *somewhere* by watching a video or reading a book. It's not that it's entirely impossible to figure out the instrument. But the violin is playable on many, many levels, and in order to become what my teacher calls "a real artist" (where people judge your playing by how much it moved them, not by how complicated it looked for you to do and how much you must have practiced), you really, really need somebody to move the angle of your wrist 5 degrees and tell you to stop twisting your left shoulder and maybe put down your left first finger a millimeter to the right. You need somebody to demonstrate for you, to fix your technique in real time, to show you how to use the violin in the most extraordinarily efficient way possible - and most of all, to push you to the absolute limits of your musical understanding. This type of guidance is not available through any medium other than plain old-fashioned sitting in a room together and trying stuff out. Even super-hi-res video conferencing doesn't work. You gotta have 3D. You gotta have somebody to actually place your fingers where they should be. It's a kinesthetic endeavor.

And that might just sum up what I love most about the violin, and what makes me so resistant to the idea of super-accessible music making. What else is there these days that actually requires you to meet with a master, one-on-one, and try to do the impossible? What else takes 40 years to get good at? What else connects you with a whole world of other questers who are desperately trying to awaken something that a guy centuries ago imagined?

And is there anything as magical as taking out a funny-shaped, hollow wooden box, drawing some sticky horse-hair across it with everything you've got, and finding, in the end, that somehow you *have* managed to communicate something meaningful to other people?


Anonymous said...

This is both passionate and wise. Can I use it at the BMC? Did your father teach you everything you know?

Cygnet said...

Sure, Daddy. You can use it at the BMC.

If you taught me everything I know, I sure have a lot of questions for you about theoretical optics and analog electronics design.

(You know you were supposed to be reading today's post entitled "oh. my. god.", right?)