It’s a story I’ve heard so many times: “I used to play (insert instrument here), but I stopped after high school and I really wish I hadn’t.”
I’ve got good news: it’s never too late to pick up your instrument again. If you played as a kid (or even in college and beyond) but then walked away from playing for many years, it’s not a death sentence for your musical life. If you miss playing and often wonder what it would be like if you still played, you don’t have to wonder any more! Why deny yourself the joy and discovery of playing an instrument any longer when you don’t have to? Musicians walk all sorts of paths, and for some people, that means taking a break and then coming back. Life happens. What really matters is that folks find their way back to the music that brings them joy.
To encourage you second-time players who are considering a return to music, we’re featuring the stories of two awesome returning fiddlers who walked away from the instrument for many years and then came back to it. First you’ll hear from Lisa Harper, a Fiddle Schooler, Mastery program participant, and budding multi-instrumentalist. She’s learning guitar accompaniment and has quite the talent for learning by ear. Here’s what Lisa had to say about playing the violin again after a long break:
I started playing violin in the 4th grade. From that point, I played in school orchestras and shows and until about 21 when I graduated from college. My social life was built around music, and my favorite events in University were with Gilbert and Sullivan theater productions when I played in the pit orchestra.
After college, I was commissioned in the Air Force and served several tours overseas. Back in the late 80s / early 90s, there was no Internet as today, and there was little opportunity to continue playing without community. After that, I went on to graduate school and then got caught up in a demanding career.
A couple years ago (and about 35 years later), I started to think about easing off career and transitioning mental energy to personal pursuits. When I thought about what I could add, that added a sense of purpose and community, music was the obvious choice. I didn’t want to go back to playing in a formal setting, but imagined porches and friends’ houses, and maybe some day, jams or local community events.
What’s changed is the immense access to music learning online and the many varieties of folk fiddle! Given the choice, I wanted to play music that I loved — and after much searching finally discovered Fiddle School. I love early jazz and swing and hope to slowly build knowledge and skill in this space. Turns out I now really enjoy Texas fiddle tunes, too!
The hardest part about coming back to the violin is the expectation that I should already be skilled or gain competency fast after growing up playing this instrument. The reality is that much of what I am learning is new. Playing by ear, memorization, improv, style, and even playing solos are new. I’ve had to adopt a beginner’s mind to find peace in this. And I don’t learn as quickly as I used to. That’s hard.
But… at the same time I hear and feel subtle variations in tone, rhythm, and intonation that I didn’t a year ago. My brain is re-awakening old neural pathways and making new ones. I’m learning faster than a year ago. And despite how much harder this is as an adult, the progress is tangible.
The biggest advice I can give for someone returning to violin is to try and let go of ego and see the world as a beginner. When you are an adult and accustomed to being an expert at things in life, this is harder than it sounds. I still struggle with fear of failure. But I am slowly gaining confidence and letting go of guilt and worry. My Gen X perspective is that you own your journey and you determine the pace and direction that works for you.
I started with Mastery 1 in Fiddle School because I needed accountability and a clean slate for learning. It is often hard to practice after commuting from a long day at work. I’m really glad I did this since it relieved me of the burden of making decisions about what to practice and how. (This is the hardest part, no?) In fact, I’ve finally learned how to practice well — which is something I had never learned earlier in life.
Learning and playing music demands intense focus in the moment. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed this. Nor how much I’d missed learning and sharing music with others in common pursuit. I’m so happy to find a diverse community of friends that love the kind of music I also love! It feels like there is limitless opportunity for discovery and growth.
Lisa’s story is such a beautiful example of all the benefits that come with playing music, especially the community elements of it. We’re lucky to have her in our community along with the second returning fiddler we’re featuring here, Kevin Aldrich. A Fiddle Schooler and Mastery participant, Kevin is not only a talented musician with a seasoned sound but also a violin maker. Here’s what Kevin shared with us:
I started on fiddle in college. I was about 24. I was mostly self-taught but I kept at it for about 20 years. I think I stopped playing because I was not playing with anyone. I never thought I was good enough, and eventually something else came along that interested me more: piano.
The next 15 years was my piano period. I became a piano tuner and rebuilder, had a store in Troy, NY and was president of my local chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild. I was so much into pianos that I even passed up a chance to see Stéphane Grappelli in concert. That’s something I regret now.
Finally there came a day when I was done with pianos, and I quit the business completely. About the same time I was getting more interested in performing with others, first with accordion, then singing, then with bass and guitar. My band was doing old swing tunes, inspired by Fats Waller and Leon Redbone, and I was looking for a certain sound, trying different instruments: banjo, ukulele. Then one day I remembered I used to play violin, so I decided to see if I could play anything that sounded like jazz. To my surprise I discovered that I could still play violin, I had not lost the basic skills. I just needed to learn what to play. So I learned to play a few simple jazz solos.
The nice thing about returning to playing is you don’t have to start over from square one. It’s like riding a bicycle. You never really forget how, though you might be a bit rusty at first. The fear I had about returning to playing was whether I could play well enough to play with others, or did I just think I could play. But I just tried it and I found that people seemed to like my playing. I was surprised I could still play!
I would say, just try it. You will be surprised how much you remember. I even found that the first fiddle tunes I learned years before were still in my fingers.
Fiddle School has been a wonderfully nurturing environment for building confidence and for getting the instruction to really improve.
Playing music has always been an important part of my life. I think it is a creative outlet, a form of self expression that I need for self fulfillment. If I couldn’t play I would just sing.
I love Kevin’s emphasis on the importance of playing with others. Without a sense of community, it’s tough to keep playing. And I love the simple love of music that brought him back to the fiddle.
It brings me so much joy to listen to Kevin and Lisa play. They’re wonderful fiddlers and beloved members of our musical community, and I’m so happy that both of them made their way back to the instrument. If you resonate with their stories and find yourself thinking about pulling out the old fiddle and bow in your closet, now might just be the time.
Not sure where to start? Send us an email at learn at fiddleschool dot com and we’ll help you get going. If you’ve got an instrument and you’re ready to jump back in, consider becoming a Fiddle School member for access to lessons, community, and tons of support. You can do this (and we’ve got your back)!