The development of musical ability

The interior of a violin showing a bright image of a curved F hole
Capture by Apple Boutique on Flickr

Over the last two weeks I have been working on relearning the violin, an instrument I haven’t played in decades and one with a notoriously tough learning curve which probably means there is no possible route to mastery in my lifetime. I knew it was going to be this way and worked on lowering my expectations on m progress beforehand. With eight hours of practice in, I started thinking about the way people learn things like this in an organized way and wanted to set down my ideas.

Picking up my violin for the first time, what I knew was missing is a lot of the motor memory that tell my arms and fingers what they’re expected to do and it’s all supposed to feel like. I don’t remember how long it took me originally to pick up how to make a note I was after, how many scales I had to play till they came naturally, and a lot of the kinds of habits a violinist has to take on. I had a teacher then and don’t have one now, but I never had individual instruction and always had to provide my own feedback to try to get better. It took a few years then, practicing my instrument sporadically, at the end of which I felt like I wasn’t completely out of place in a student orchestra, somewhere in the middle of the group.

Compared to that time, I have an advantage over a brand new student in that I already know something about music, from having learned the piano and violin as a kid and from choir singing for years and years. So I know how to read musical notation, understand the basics of rhythm in the Western tradition and have opinions about what music is supposed to sound like. I had some of this before because I learned the piano at a young age, with a modest degree of accomplishment. On the other hand, the brain is more plastic when young, and is a lot slower at my current age, so I figured that would basically just offset these built-in skills. How much effort will it take to reach the same level I remember from before?

This is what the last fourteen days has reminded me. The progression of musical ability is on a logarithmic scale:

  1. Intentional sound-making
  2. Sounds recognizable as human music
  3. Sounds recognizable as music within a preferred genre
  4. Conveys detectable emotion
  5. Self-correcting musician making continual improvement
  6. Sounds well alone or with others
  7. A dependable, trained musician is here
  8. Detectable creative spark
  9. Fluent improvisation or compositional skill
  10. Participant in the musical conversation

It’s like the sound pressure scale in decibels or the seismic Richter scale, where each step is a multiple beyond the preceding one and below the next. Innate talent will get you so far, persistence will help push that limit, and intelligence may provide a cheat code to allow a person to jump up in a surprising way beyond either of these. If you stop working on your technique for some time you will drop down to a lower level, in my case, all the way down to 1 or 2 over many years. The musicians who live on the highest levels are hard to account for with their prodigious amount of musicality that ordinary folk can only witness, sensing no clear way to access this on their own.

There are other aspects to being a well-rounded musician. Being a multi-instrumentalist (which includes the voice as an instrument), having a talent for navigating the music business, being able to teach others about music, having the ability to combine disparate genres to create new ones are all abilities orthogonal to this line of progression and valuable in themselves. A person who goes far in any of these in addition to their musical ability will stand out even more strikingly than their peers who stick to the path of musicianship.

I think I’m somewhere around 3, with occasional excursions to 4. I’ll keep on practicing and see what it looks like over months and years.

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