In January, as a New Year’s resolution, I decided I would finally do something self-improving that wasn’t working on a paper. I had bought a violin years ago and thought it might as well be that. A family member had been dramatically unwell, which is very focusing. I knew I had a big project ahead at work, with long working hours. I wanted a project I could squeeze in which would take me entirely away from it all— a project where, as we’re often told, 10 minutes a day will build to a big difference over time.
I also knew one of my neighbours is a professional violinist who occasionally takes on the odd student, so asked if she might take me on — with my target being Grade 1 by summer.
It’s now summer, and I have just taken Grade 1.
I’ve learned a lot from it. For one thing, I misunderestimated the challenge — even after reading about Armando Iannucci and Ed Balls finding it an ordeal. After all, I had a sense of which notes sit where on the fingerboard. I had taken the easy piano grades many years ago, and over the years I’ve taken a lot of other sorts of exams. I was good at exams.
But I had no idea that the right hand is where all the action takes place, or how difficult it is to get a lovely tone. My violin was cheap and the bow bounces like a flea. It’s been good to learn on, because it’s forced me to work harder on bow control — but I still haven’t got beyond a rusty machine gun sound.
I also rediscovered what it’s like to be really rubbish at something without being able to solve it quickly. Of course I’m rubbish at many things — so I actively avoid those things. The last time I felt this helpless in the face of effortless performance by everyone else was when I learned to drive in my late 20s.
There’s no secret to musical learning. It’s drummed into beginners that a few minutes of practice every day beats more occasional longer stints. But whenever I had a very busy week, it was the first thing to fall off the list.
I originally thought that I would just get the hang of bowing and then would be well on the way. But in real life, it turned out I wasn’t gifted. There were weeks when my performance at the weekly lesson was worse (much worse!) than the week before.
There were also weeks when I didn’t want to go, because I was ashamed at not having practised. It was stressful. This was meant to be the thing I did to escape other stresses, and it became just another thing to fail at.
As a teacher, I give lots of advice on hanging in there and not falling for the idea that excellence is effortless and reserved to a tiny few. So why was I struggling?
I eventually realised that my slow progress conflicts with my perception of myself as a quick learner who is reasonably musical. There is nowhere to hide when your failures are audible; you can’t cover them up with some clever writing.
What I also realised is that this must be how students feel when they turn up at seminars having only scanned the readings, when other students have prepared very thoroughly. They think of themselves as bright, because they are. But their perception of themselves is challenged when they’ve been distracted or had other priorities.
For some students, feeling less than excellent when you’re used to excellence is uncomfortable. Being told that just passing is good enough does not convince you, when you can see (and hear!) your own failures so clearly. It can make you doubt both your ability and motivation. Or you can go into denial mode — it’s not that you’re struggling; it’s the way it’s taught.
As teachers, we say, repeatedly, that it’s most important to just keep turning up — little and often beats longer occasional stints. That you mustn’t lose heart. We know that life is complicated, and that people peak at different times. Interests emerge at different points. Some people figure it all out just in time, after years of being puzzled. Others are slow burners and just get better and better, particularly those who are natural researchers.
Lecturers do like to see excellence, but we’re more concerned with excellence as a group phenomenon. Similarly, we don’t really care about students’ specific marks, but their overall and broader trajectory — whether they are learning to learn, and gearing up to becoming more of who they want to be. And we tend to prefer interesting work, and improving work, over the less effortful.
The proviso is that we can’t know this broader trajectory if we don’t know the student well — it’s hard to rely on name recognition alone. This means it’s really valuable for students to use their one-to-one sessions, when they are offered them. It really helps if they can communicate what it is they want from their time with us, so we get a sense of the bigger picture and how we can add support at the most useful points.
Returning to my experience of Grade 1: despite all my reassuring words about ‘individual journeys’ to my own students, I found the exam excruciating. The violin was difficult to tune and the other examinees were in school uniforms. I had found a musical friend’s friend who agreed to accompany — like my music teacher, stratospherically-talented, and similarly gifted at keeping a straight face.
We did our warm-up and I played the pieces through twice, reasonably well, so was encouraged at first.
I went into the exam room — a bright, modern rehearsal room in a converted Victorian church, with a grand piano, and an examiner with an iPad.
I warmed up again, and then launched into the easiest piece, which has a slurred staccato on an up-bow - something I only learned to do after learning it the wrong way first, so was apt to forget.
I forgot. So I had to scramble to get the bow strokes back to where they should be.
After that, my old, anxious hand tremble — something I’d found fatal when younger, the curse of many a conference talk — returned with a vengeance.
Each piece fell apart, like a lovely old vase smashed into by a clumsy toddler — first with a bang, then a shower of debris.
But. It didn’t matter! I kept repeating to myself: we don’t care about marks. We don’t care about marks.
And… I didn’t die. My scales, sight-reading and aural tests got done, and then I was free.
I had a surge of adrenaline. I had done a bad exam, and the sky hadn’t fallen in!
I laughed and then gave my age to the examiner, explaining I had needed to have a target just to make a start at all. The examiner replied that he had recently examined a ‘lady of 87’ who began piano during lockdown. I want to shake her by the hand.
Assuming I pass, I thankfully never have to play those pieces ever again. Bye bye, Drunken Sailor! And if I don’t pass, I’ll take it again. And again.
So what have I learned from all this?
First, once we’re beyond the formal education stage, we don’t often put ourselves in those sorts of situations: where we’re dependent on kindness and understanding from people who just know more than we’re ever going to know in their field.
Once we’re settled into our careers with our family lives set up — for better or worse — there will be many situations we find difficult. But they are generally the known unknowns that go along with adulthood. We don’t have that recurrent sense of being a complete newborn in a different world. I described it to the accompanist as ‘like ski-ing blindfolded’. We need to remember what this feels like, for the joy and humility of new experiences.
And secondly, even though I bombed in the exam, having a serious target works. I wouldn’t have focused my practice otherwise.
Not only that, it’s hard to justify time on ‘hobbies’ when you have work and family commitments. But people around us will be more accommodating if we take targets seriously ourselves.
I suspect that for university students it’s similarly important — not only for themselves in focusing attention, but also to push back on other demands. Otherwise, there’s a lot of pressure from peers, family members and employers to treat reading and coursework as non-urgent, since it can be deferred to tomorrow.
If I scratch a pass, I can move on to Grade 2. My bow hold is gradually improving, and I can play three classical pieces through with passable intonation, though can’t guarantee perfect tone — or that I get the slurred staccato right each time. I enjoy playing my scales, which I find therapeutic. And my younger daughter is now keen to learn too.
So I’m further along than where I was in January, which is enough for now.