Fiddling through Grad School

My experiences learning the violin as a grad student
OCT 2018
Akshay
A.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

“Do you want to get lunch this weekend?”

“Can we get dinner instead? I have a violin class in the afternoon.”

You can do that as a grad student? Wow.

As a first-year graduate student, I had not yet realized the degree of independence I now had in the choices I made in my life. Having gone to college in the same city where my parents lived, I had never fully developed a life outside of my family. I had vague notions of learning an instrument, and had always liked listening to the violin, but never seriously considered taking it up. However, within a week of this conversation, I had found a teacher, rented a violin, and started weekly lessons.

It was a wonderful new world of scales, arpeggios, and bow strokes. I had a new toy to play with and a great teacher to learn from. I’d carefully clean my violin after each practice session, and despair over any accidental bumps or scratches. And, though I started out with zero experience, I got better! After a couple of months of practice, the violin felt comfortable in my hands. After one more, I could draw my bow straight across the strings! I was playing a 300-year-old piece by Bach!

Gradually, I realized that I was less disturbed by a bad day at work than I would have been before. Even if my research seemed to be going nowhere, I had violin practice to look forward to. During late-night sessions in the office, I’d carefully check to see if I was alone, and break out the piece I was working on. No one could know my little secret; I wanted my violin sessions to be completely mine.

Unfortunately, my ear developed much quicker than my skills, and within a few months I became very aware of how bad I actually was, and how much I’d have to improve to just sound acceptable. I could no longer hear the two notes I had played in tune, but the ten that I had not were deafening. I’d see videos of little kids on YouTube playing the same pieces I was learning, and they sounded orders of magnitude better than I did a year in. I began dreading my classes. I’d start a practice session hopeful and end in tears. I didn’t deserve to learn this instrument. I wasn’t actually a student violinist; I was a fraud who would soon be exposed. I had violin imposter syndrome. Why wasn’t I getting better?

It took me many months to realize that, actually, I was. The improvements were subtler now – after a month of working over the same few notes, I could play them the way my teacher wanted me to. If I moved my bow a little faster here, I’d have more time for the notes there. I began taking pride in all those little improvements. Remember when your hands would shake when playing that line? Look how steady they are now! I realized that I was capable of consistently working on something even if it wasn’t immediately rewarding. It was still frustrating; I would still cry sometimes. There were periods when I would hate playing so much that I wouldn’t pick up my violin for weeks. However, I realized that this had become too important to me to give up.

It has now been more than three years since I started. It hasn’t been the road of linear improvement I had hoped it would be at the start. I don’t know if I will ever re-capture the feeling of innocent joy I had for the first few months. I don’t practice every day like I used to – some days it feels too overwhelming.  Nonetheless, I am proud of what I have accomplished. Overcoming some of my self-doubts with the violin has also helped me deal with the feelings of not being good enough for MIT. At the end of a tiring session of practicing the other night, I suddenly realized that I had made it through four years of grad school, and for the first time felt that I belonged here. I’m currently in the process of putting together my thesis proposal, and frankly, I’m a bit lost. However, the messiness of my experience with learning the violin gives me hope that I will find a way to navigate the remainder of grad school.

Someday, before graduating, I’d like to play for my advisor and colleagues in my lab. I’d like to show everyone that over the past three years, I’ve been both a graduate student and an amateur violinist.