This summer, while the world was falling apart, I relearned how to play the violin.
I have been playing the violin for about eleven years. When I say “relearn,” I don’t mean that I left the instrument in its case for several months and had to retrain my fingers how to play. Rather, Chicago’s stay-at-home order gave me time to reconsider my emotional relationship with music and to reevaluate the goals that I had come to take for granted. In short, I had to learn how to step back and slow down.
I started playing the violin in fourth grade. When I joined the Chicago Youth Symphony in high school, I discovered that many other violinists in youth and university orchestras, including those at Princeton, began learning the instrument as young as three or four years old. Although we were all in the same ensemble, I often felt that I had to “catch up,” that I had to cram seven years of missing instruction into my daily practice. I pushed myself constantly, and, as a result, I improved quickly, tackling new pieces and new techniques to earn the warm satisfaction of hearing my lesson teacher say, “Wow! You’ve improved so much!”
In the orchestra, I learned a great deal through watching more advanced players and imitating their posture and technique. However, I never fully dissociated my gaze from the implicit act of comparison. Violinists are an especially competitive species of musician, and seasonal squabbles over section seating is only one arena in which this competitive spirit comes to the surface. Before rehearsals, players would commonly warm up not with scales or arpeggios but with concertos. I often felt surrounded by a sonic cloud of curiosity mixed with judgement. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else was playing and, from that, infer how much more or less “advanced” they were themselves.
Part of this atmosphere stems from the way concertos are worked into modern violin pedagogy. There is a common sequence of pieces that goes something like this: first the Haydn G Major concerto, then Mozart G Major, then Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and so on. Other works in this sequence, like the Vieuxtemps or Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, are commonly described as “student pieces” and thus seen as less challenging or less virtuosic, even though they are beautiful compositions that are performed by professional soloists just as often as the Beethoven concerto.
Learning music in such a sequence made me feel that I always had to be moving forward, always talking on more advanced pieces. My lesson teacher, a genuinely kind and caring person, believed in my ability to do so and told me that I had a lot of potential. I felt that I owed it to someone, whether to him or to an imagined version of myself, to realize that potential. This pedagogical structure, and the pressures that I had internalized from it completely shattered when I came to college.
All at once, I piled on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, a Bach fugue, Dont etudes––a workload entirely normal and even expected at a music conservatory. It took me many lessons and many frustrations to realize that the level of practice and constant advancement that I had grown accustomed to in high school was no longer possible, as I was now a college student with a college workload. While rethinking my academic major about six times, I also began rethinking my musical goals. Perhaps I no longer wanted to be a violinist in the professional sense of the term.
I struggled to entertain these thoughts, as I felt that it would mean letting myself down and negating the years of effort that I had poured into my instrument. I also struggled to adjust to my new lesson teacher. She emphasized a more relaxed way of playing, eliminating tension and rebuilding foundational techniques in the interest of physical sustainability. As I had always striven to improve as quickly as possible, in the spirit of making up for what I perceived to be lost time, I would not allow myself to slow down.
After Princeton’s announcement that sent us home in the middle of last spring, I asked my teacher if I could learn Bach’s Chaconne. The Chaconne is a monumental, 15-minute movement from the composer’s Partita Number 2 in D Minor. It was the first time I had chosen a work that I genuinely loved and that I actively wanted to play, instead of just following the next step in the sequence of concertos. However, during the first few weeks with the new piece, I realized that I needed to relearn how to play the violin.
The Chaconne requires an entirely different approach from that which I had instinctually applied to other pieces. I learned how to get to know each chord slowly, prioritizing the physical comfort of my hand rather than forcing my way through the notes. I spent hours studying my bow in the Zoom self-view to practice fluid movements without straining my fingers. My teacher encouraged me to think of my bow as my breath, a phrase that I had heard before but had never understood. Relearning how to bow is like relearning how to speak a language. I experimented with consonants, vowels, inflections, phrases, and different combinations thereof. I learned how to isolate individual lines within the chords and listen attentively to the words that they try to speak before joining their voices together.
This semester, I am studying baroque violin, an instrument that requires an even slower and more deliberate approach than what I had begun to learn for the Chaconne. In the simple act of placing the instrument on my shoulder, it already felt so much more comfortable than my modern violin. Perhaps the space between the wood and my skin is not charged with the same internalized anxieties, pressures of comparison, and fear of unrealized potential.
Being a beginner removes the high stakes imposed by years of experience and exertion. I do not feel like I am learning to play the “violin,” a word that carries this history of very personal connotations. It feels like an entirely different instrument and a different way of making music––music that, despite any frustrations, I never for a moment stopped loving with every fragment of myself.
So yes, I am relearning, and this process certainly comes with its own setbacks and relapses. But I am relearning slowly, navigating the viscosity of time in this pandemic by playing music, one note at a time.