Why at the age of 36, I enjoy playing the violin badly
A new hobby doesn't need to be yet another hyphen on our social media bios.
I’m really bad at playing the violin. I mean, really bad. Sometimes, if I’m playing quickly, I have to make snap judgments about whether to get my finger in the right place in time or get my bow on the right string. Last year, during the lockdown, I learned ‘Memories’ from Cats and it sounded like it was being performed by actual cats. I’m rubbish, but it really doesn’t matter: it’s such a liberating feeling.
I started violin classes five years ago. I signed up on the way home from a work party where I’d consumed just enough courage to do it. I’d liked the idea of learning an instrument for a while and have always thought the violin sounded beautiful, but it took a colleague convincing me that it was a good idea to go for it.
The official line in my family is that we are not artistic or musical. We have many skills – my mum was an excellent nurse, my dad was an excellent doctor – but when it comes to things like art, it’s understood that it’s not our area. The question of whether I was musical never came up; I had other priorities. My father was not subtle in communicating his belief that excelling academically was the key to success in life. He could still remember where he came in the ranking of medical school exam results in his province in Pakistan.
“I’m rubbish, but it really doesn’t matter: it’s such a liberating feeling”
I assumed he must be right. It was disappointing, therefore, to arrive at university, and discover that there’s a whole separate social code according to which having good grades is only part of the battle. It was there that I understood the true meaning of being ‘well-rounded’. Playing a musical instrument seemed to be key – as in: ‘this is Amy, she came top of her year in English, and plays jazz piano’, or ‘this is Tom, he’s studying astrophysics and plays in a string quartet at the weekend’. I don’t think anyone told my socially mobile father that as well as extolling the virtues of hard work and a career in the medical sciences, he should also have stuck a flute in my hand.
I am so glad, though, that I didn’t start to learn the violin at a time when it would have been just another thing to use to try and make me sound impressive in a personal statement. There is no good reason for me to play the violin aside from the fact that I love it. (Indeed, I’m sure there are people – my neighbours mainly – who would advocate against it.) It took me a long time to realise that not every new skill or pastime has to be useful or make you more marketable. I am not a multi-hyphenate, and if I were, ‘violinist’ would not feature. It turns out that it’s fun, choosing enjoyment over achievement sometimes.
“It took me a long time to realise that not every new skill or pastime has to be useful or make you more marketable”
A friend once suggested that I enjoy it so much because it’s a very ‘bodily practice’, and while I’m not sure I know exactly what that means, I know where she’s coming from. I spend so much time sitting at a desk that occasionally I forget I’m not just a brain that tries to think up new ways to say ‘I’m sorry for the delay in replying to your email’. When I play the violin, my head has to tell my limbs to move in a certain way, and if there’s a disconnect, you hear it pretty quickly. There’s something so satisfying about using your whole body to make music: you can play sad songs when you’re sad, upbeat songs when you’re happy, the chorus from ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ when you’re feeling especially emo.
I lack the neuroplasticity of a child, so I find reading music difficult. The happy result of this is that I can’t worry about anything else at the same time. It’s wonderful. I don’t think I’ve had that experience before; it’s like taking a holiday from my thoughts.
Taking up a new hobby as an adult teaches you that your sense of who you are and what you can do doesn’t freeze at the age of 18, never to be altered. I never thought of myself as a musical person; I used to walk past music shops in London and wonder who you had to be to belong there – serious, artistic, not the kind of person who has to Google ‘why does my violin make no noise?’, I assumed. It turns out they let anyone in, and they’ll even loan you an instrument.
“I lack the neuroplasticity of a child, so I find reading music difficult. The happy result of this is that I can’t worry about anything else at the same time.”
I may not have seen my family as creative growing up, but today I understand that our creativity is expressed in different ways. Sure, they’re not artists or musicians, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love music: my mum loves The Monkees and The Eagles, saw Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival, The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. My dad used to simultaneously translate the lyrics of the songs he played in the car, whistled compulsively, and rumour has it once owned an ABBA album.
When I moaned that I was too old to start learning the violin at that work party, an older colleague said that he had thought the same at my age, but now realises he would have been playing for 20 years had he started back then. What I’m saying is, why not start now? You’re only a couple of years away from being able to play most of the score of Cats.
I’ve accepted that I’ll never be first chair in the London Philharmonic Orchestra because no one gave me a violin when I was five, but I can live with that. I don’t like formal wear anyway.