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Double-attrition perfectionism and the violin

An interesting thing about violin is that the learning process seems nearly designed to produce 'tortured perfectionists' as its output.

The first decade of learning operates as a two-pronged selection process that attrits students at different times in their learning journey, requiring perfectionism at some times and tolerance at others. 

You could be boring and argue that it always requires both attention to detail and tolerance of imperfection, simultaneously. You could also argue that there's a fractal, scale invariant pattern of striving for perfection and then tolerating failure. You're boring and probably right, but I think there's actually a common, macro structure to that decade, that goes 'tolerance-perfectionism-tolerance-perfectionism.'


  • When you first start, you need to tolerate being terrible, especially in the first months, but really for several years. (Grade 1- Grade ~3)
    • You suck, it's horribly offensive to your ears and everyone else's too. You must simply ignore how bad you sound and force your body to learn the required movements.
    • Mistakes on violin are brutal, they almost hurt to hear.
  • Then for several more years you must suddenly become intolerant of these same deficiencies. (Grade ~3 to Grade ~6)
    • You must obsessively eliminate scratches and squawks, develop clear and even tone. Polish your 'beginner' skills. 
    • You must learn to play in tune, which requires intensive practice and polishing.
  • Then for several more years you must again stop worrying about sounding bad and start 'pushing the envelope' and playing more expressively. (Grade ~6 - Grade ~8)
    • Developing exciting and varied sounds means a lot of nasty failures that sound awful and make people wince and/or bang walls.
  • Then for several more years, you have to again polish and refine this expressiveness. (Associate diploma, Bachelor of Music.)
    • You have to learn to platy really in tune.
    • Like really really in tune.
    • Like unless you're lucky you probably lack the pitch resolution in your hearing to even notice the difference.
    • Like
      • More in tune than a well-tuned piano. Not strictly 'Just Intonation' but a compromise intonation system that allows the series of perfect 5ths G, D, A and E to remain fixed in all keys, but other notes to fall perfectly in tune with each other around these fixed points.
      • You're supposed to learn this system intuitively by just playing scales as in-tune as you can, often playing two notes at the same time (thirds, sixths, octaves, 11ths).
      • These changes correspond to fractions of a millimeter difference in position on the string.
      • Practice sessions now involve hours of obsessive, tiny intonation adjustments.

The result is that if someone plays violin at a professional level, they either have a very healthy relationship with their perfectionism and can adapt it to the needs of the moment (hahahahhhahahah), or they are a deeply disturbed individual who is somehow either able to pretend not to hate their playing for years, or able to force themselves to care about details that don't bother them in the slightest.

This is as far as I've gone (I'm on the final step, trying to reach professional level). If you go further and become a soloist, I don't know what that implies about your psychology. Soloists seem normal and occasionally seem well-adjusted, but perhaps we should learn to fear them.

Interesting observation.  It matches my impression of MANY skills, from software development to carpentry - the seeking of perfection on many dimensions, along with the tolerance (and SEEKING) of variance and uniqueness in pursuit of a somewhat illegible goal.

I keep thinking about this post! I've been trying to get back into playing violin on and off, and it does a good job of describing why I've found that so hard. I stopped early on in your fourth stage, and my ear is way ahead of my ability to play anything it actually wants to listen to.

I guess once I join an orchestra I'll enjoy that enough to get some momentum, but solo playing is pretty unrewarding right now.

Big +1 to playing with others, especially others around the same level or slightly better or worse.
Motivation is one thing, but it's also just... healthier. One's musical 'practice' can't be totally inward-looking, that's when perfectionism starts to bite. Orchestra forces you to compromise and actually learn and perform music, gets you out of the practice room, and generally turbocharges your learning by exposing you to a more varied set of demands on your playing and musicality.
Super hard mode is forming a string quartet with others, since your playing is super exposed and it forces you to stay in time and balance your sound with others.