The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle #5 …or… How long is this going to take anyway?


As I mentioned in  an earlier post on this topic, I’ve been a bit discouraged lately about my apparent lack of progress at learning the fiddle.  I’ve been at it for 12 months now and I still can’t play Orange Blossom Special or Turkey in the Straw.  So I decided I would do a bit of research to find out if it is just me, or whether this is typical.  What I found is that a lot of people do this sort of research before they decide to take up the fiddle.  Given what I found – I’m actually glad I didn’t think to do that.

For example, I did a search on the questions: How long does it take to learn to play the fiddle? and Am I too old to start?  I found the best answers at this link – here’s a smattering of the responses.

“The first year is unavoidably grim.” (I actually found this encouraging to hear.)

“I started to learn fiddle from scratch at age 53, I’m still learning it at age 66…”  (This worried me – I mean, 13 years?)

I’ve been at it for 50 years and it’s still a little b****r!!”  (This really had me worried.)

“It involves a long period of sounding like a dying cat, but if you can get through that then you’ve got it made.”  (I ‘ll vouch for that first bit – as will my family!)

“It’s a lot like trying to play golf…there are so many variables and ways to screw up…”  (OMG – I suck at golf!)

That was all a bit too discouraging so I tried this question.  Are their stages in learning to play the fiddle?  I got some good answers at this link.

“I think the phases are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.”

“Frustration and despair fit in there somewhere.”

“…joyful self-delusion, dream-like wakefulness, grim reality, determined perseverance, and utter madness. But then I’ve been at it for only 30 years, so maybe there’s something after utter madness…”

“I think I’m entering the Carboniferous phase, but I’m probably being optimistic.”

Personally, I like the last one – I agree that geological time scales are the most relevant.  Unfortunately, I am still in the Precambrian stage myself.

Although entertaining, none of this helped me to determine whether I was ‘fiddle challenged’ or on par with my peers in terms of progress to date.  Then, finally, I came across a site that put things in very practical terms.  Apparently it depends on how many hours of practice you put in – who would have thought?  After investigating many students, researchers have made two important observations – first it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an elite virtuoso and second, they found no evidence of anyone becoming such an elite expert with less than 10,000 hours of practice.  In other words, stars are made, not born, and there are no shortcuts.  Of course I’m not trying to get to Carnegie Hall – but the premise is valid – practice, practice, practice.  This same site mentioned that those who had practiced 4000 hours were sufficiently good to teach beginners and those with 8000 hours on the practice odometer were good enough to entertain professionally.

Armed with this info, I did what any engineer would do – I put together a little spreadsheet (including a graph of course!) to see where I’m at now and how long it would take me to reach these lofty heights under various scenarios.  The results were pretty shocking.  For starters, I’ve been averaging about 3 hours of practice per week over the past year, which adds up to a whopping 156 hours since I started.  I didn’t find any particular threshold of achievement associated with that number – but I can tell you that it pretty much takes you to the point of being (relatively) comfortable holding the fiddle and bow (which is a big deal – believe me!), being able to play a few novice tunes Like Oh Susanna, Short Bow Jig (very slowly) and Faded Love, and you can find the right notes as long as you have someone else to play along with, but only if they play sloooowwwly.

No wonder I haven’t gotten far yet – I’m barely registering on the experience scale!  No point showing you my graph – 156 hours doesn’t even show up.  Suffice to say that, at my current rate of practice, I will not be teaching beginners until I’m 80 and I’ll need a miracle of modern medicine to get to the virtuoso stage, because I’ll be 118 years old when I’ve racked up my 10,000 hours.  Armed with this information, I did some hypothetical calculations and came up with the graph below – which helped me to determine two important things.  First, it is realistic to attempt to get to 4000 hours – not that I’ll ever want to teach the fiddle – but I figure I should be having a lot of fun with it by then.  And second, it’s going to take me about 8 years to get there if I can step up my practice intensity to about 10 hours per week.

So, I’m no longer discouraged about my lack of progress – it makes sense, given the actual hours I’ve put in so far.   And I’m actually excited to have a plan.

One last piece of wisdom I found – apparently, people who practice every day – even if only for 30 minutes – progress faster than those who do a couple of longer sessions per week totalling the same amount of time (which has been my general approach to date).   So, I’d best get at it – I’ve only got 7.5 h logged since Sunday!

About Faye Hicks

I am a professor emeritus, civil engineer, animal lover and writer.
This entry was posted in Fiddlin' Around and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle #5 …or… How long is this going to take anyway?

  1. Leave it to you to figure all this out using math and graphs! LOL If only we could use that method to determine when we’ll be successful writers!

  2. The Naf says:

    Bill Eddins of the ESO said today on The Sunday Edition that he once met the great concert pianist Rudolph Serkin and he said “I’m still learning” – the man had been a prodigy for like 70 years!!!

  3. Lisa says:

    Thanks SO MUCH for this post! As a fiddle student of almost a year, I thought it was just me!

  4. Jean says:

    Thank you for your blog. I have just started leaning the fiddle 6 weeks ago at age 56 and I can relate! My greyhound runs out of the room most days as soon as I pick it up, when I’m having a “good day” she will come back. My JRT is mostly deaf so I sound good to him.

    I also can relate to that I can play what sounds like music at home and then I get to the lesson…but what fun this is to learn!

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Thanks Jean – it’s so great to hear about someone else going through the same thing! It is a wonderful instrument – yet at the same time enormously frustrating. A real challenge, but worth it!
      Thanks so much for visiting my blog and commenting. 🙂

  5. markbodah says:

    heh, this is enlightening, discouraging, and encouraging. Love the chart! I also picked up the fiddle about 6 weeks ago, and I’m learning that I should stop trying to play tunes any more complicated than “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and that I’d better get my bow hold and form in shape. And to learn to bloody well relax! If that takes me half a year it’ll be worth it to at least have a smoothly paved road ahead, since I’ll need to be on it for a loooong time! Thanks for the post! mark

  6. Matt says:

    Great post! Thank you! I have played guitar for 17 years and just picked up the fiddle and had my first lesson yesterday. I feel like a baby deer on ice! This will help me tough it through the dying cat stage. Good luck and have fun!!

    • Faye Hicks says:

      So sorry for the delay responding – I’m so glad to hear you liked the post. Hope you are enjoying your lessons – it’s such a fun (and frustrating) instrument!

  7. bernie says:

    I started playing at 56 after I retired so I could teach kids . After several years of lessons I started giving lessons at the Jr High school as a volunteer. I am only an average player and have yet to make vibrato sound like something other than a sick calf but still my students love challenging themselves and I am having so much fun teaching them.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Wow that is awesome! Such a great idea to volunteer at the school. I too am struggling with the vibrato – but I still find it lots of fun to try! Good luck with it!

  8. Edgar Norris says:

    I also am a beginner after about 13 years.
    There is a story of a man of the world who attended a one man show given by a well known virtuoso and the man, being of such standing, had an oppertunity to go back stage and visit with the master. Upon greeting him, the man said,”I’d give my whole life to play like that.”
    The aged violinest said,”I did”.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Hahaha – I can totally relate to that.
      And I feel better hearing that you too still feel like a beginner after 13 years – I sometimes feel that I’ll always be a beginner!
      Thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂

  9. bryan mcwilliams says:

    my daughter gave me a cheap fiddle for my Christmas. what else can you get me now that i am in the mid 70,s. i definitely sound like cats or even worse. however i practice every morning before the wife gets up and can see a small but significant improvement after 3 months. some days not bad , some days real rough. i enjoy the challenge and will persevere till next Christmas and see what that brings. could be worse , could be Bagpipes !!

    • Faye Hicks says:

      It’s so nice to hear about someone else learning the fiddle as an adult – sounds like you are progressing really well! Thanks for sharing your experiences with it and good luck!

  10. Mehtab says:

    Please don’t be discouraged by the calculations above!

    IF you have some familiarity with another instrument, AND/OR some basic knowledge of music theory, AND/OR you are blessed with a good ear, the curve can be much shorter. This includes many of us, yes? Practice regularly, but be an optimist and call this the worst-case scenario 😉

    Some small things that have helped me over the first grim, caterwauling stage:
    * Find someone to help get your posture right. Awkward at first, but immense benefit later
    * Find simple fiddle tunes on-line (YouTube). Have fun with them! No drudgery in practicing
    * There is a small, inexpensive rubber mute that fits over the bridge that will spare your loved ones from the full effects of your initial efforts.

    Very best wishes to you all, especially to those of us “too old” to learn to fiddle. 😉
    M

  11. Shady Grove says:

    Faye,

    Being 60 with about a year-and-a-half of fiddle experience, and very limited music background far in my past, my story is similar to yours.

    What has helped my fiddling the most is regularly attending a beginner jam session (we have an outstanding beginner jam here in SW Idaho). I had a few months of fiddle experience and the fiddle books that I use strongly encourage jam sessions.

    I was very, very, intimidated at my first session and basically sat against the wall holding my fiddle and thinking my situation was hopeless. After the jam, one welcoming player said to me, “Just learn one tune that you can call at the jam.” I went back to the jam the next week, still very anxious, and I have gone nearly every week since for the past year or so (we do take the summers off). The first few weeks at the jam were difficult, but now I can play basic melody breaks as well as back up most of the songs that we play at the jam.

    The jam sessions have greatly helped me improve my tone and timing and my musical understanding. Most of all, I contribute to the jam. Some moments have been truly magical. If anyone had told me in the fall of 2013 when I took the fiddle out of the closet that, within a year, I would be playing in a jam session and sometimes singing lead, I would have been incredulous.

    So, my recommendation to all fiddlers — young and old, beginner to accomplished — find an appropriate jam session and join with others — experience the magic.

    Best Regards,
    Shady Grove

  12. Hi Faye! I loved this. I started fiddle a year ago at age 43. I was also feeling a little discouraged at my progress. It’s interesting how learning a new skill as an adult is so different than how we learned things as children. How is it going? I am lucky to live in the Maritime province of Prince Edward Island Canada where there is a huge culture of fiddle music. I am able to get out once a week and play with other musicians. I only hit every 2nd or third note, but I’m slowly getting better.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      So glad you liked it – it’s good to know I’m not the only one feeling this way. 🙂 I’ve been at it 4 years now and I still feel like a raw beginner – however, up until now I’ve not had much time to put into it because of work and other commitments. I recently retired and moved back to New Brunswick – I have found an amazing fiddle teacher and I feel like this is the year that I will really start to ‘play’ the fiddle. PEI sounds wonderful! Who knows – maybe we will meet up at a fiddle workshop sometime! 🙂

  13. jess says:

    my daughter Iona is enjoying learning the fiddle and learnt to play twinkle twinkle in her first lesson in one hour:) she asked me to write this as she is so pleased about this:)

  14. So? Still going strong?

    I’m just starting to fiddle around — at 51. Like seriously, picked up a used instrument today. Wish me luck!

    • Faye Hicks says:

      That’s great! Good luck!
      I am still at it – it’s coming but very slowly. It’s definitely much harder than any other instrument I have ever tried to learn, but I’m sticking it out! 🙂

  15. kmogradycpa@gmail.com says:

    Hi Faye,

    I started playing the fiddle two years ago at age 52. We have a weekly session going where musicians with all instruments meet to learn a tune. We learn and play for over two hours. I can play a few reels, polkas, waltzes and marches. It is truly magical at the moment. Learning first was very difficult, getting the co-ordination correct and tapping the foot! I still have a long way to go, but at this stage, I love the fiddle with every bone in my body. I always completed a night course in wintertime, flower arranging, knitting, crochet, etc. Nothing comes even close to learning the fiddle. I am now at the stage where I pick up tunes faster, and learning is so very enjoyable. When I get to play the full tune at the weekly session with the others, it is like reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you want to play the fiddle, go for it. The amount of pleasure it will bring is enormous.

    Kathleen in Galway, ireland

  16. gettin' ready says:

    Hahahah, I’m 68 and will be starting fiddle next month!

  17. Sandi Hudson says:

    My husband bought me a fiddle for Christmas this last year. Wow I want this more than anything. The practices seem to go ok at home then I get to the lesson and just bomb them! It’s crazy!! I am 61 and thought I was too old to start – this blog has been very encouraging!

  18. Amy says:

    First of all, I love this blog topic… especially the graph and the quotes! 🙂 I picked up the fiddle a few months ago after a long hiatus (and I was never very good to begin with), and I totally agree that playing along with recordings is INCREDIBLE for learning proper finger placement. I also highly recommend it for learning to play in “less traditional” fiddle keys… I was playing along with an album yesterday and suddenly realized I was playing a tune in B flat!

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