I like to make noise.
I’ve been playing the piano since I was a kid, and picked up the guitar in college, but trying to learn the violin over the past decade has been a different beast entirely.
When I last lived in Nashville (2012-2015), at the age of 30, I decided to try learning the violin. And after about a year, I had moved from “god awful” into “quite bad.”
But after moving to New York in 2016, as I took on new hobbies and responsibilities, my violin started to collect dust. Even after moving back to Nashville in 2020, it rarely got plucked off my Wall of Sound:
With each day of silence, more and more of my knowledge faded, my muscle memory atrophied, and that poor violin was dangerously close to ending up a permanent wall ornament.
Then my wife Alex, a brave and amazing woman, got me violin lessons for my birthday.
For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been playing the violin again.
I still suck.
But I’m getting less sucky by the day.
Which is why I was so delighted to find this National Geographic article on Albert Einstein and the violin:
Music was far more than a sideline to Einstein’s work; it was central to everything he thought and did.
“Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories,” said Elsa, who became his second wife in 1919. “He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”
“Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” [Einstein] declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music.”
Music has played a major role in my life for decades, so picturing Einstein moving back and forth between a chalk board and a piano warms my soul.
The Proximity Rule
In those pre-iTunes days, Einstein took pains to carry his music with him in physical form. He rarely went anywhere without his battered violin case.
When Alex and I were redesigning my office, my musical instruments were taken off the wall and put away safely in their cases.
Unsurprisingly, I played very little music in that time.
It wasn’t until the office was finished and the instruments were hung up on the wall that I started to find myself playing more and more.
I call this the “Proximity Rule:” if you want to get better at something, keep it as close as you can, for as long as you can, as often as you can, and then let time take over:
- Prioritize time in a gym, near a pull-up bar, or near a barbell/kettlebell if you want to get stronger and build muscle.
- Spend time in rooms with people smarter than you if you want to be intellectually stimulated.
- Having your musical instruments within arms reach will result in more practice, more frequently, and thus faster improvement.
The fewer steps (figuratively and literally) between you and your target behavior, the more likely that behavior will get performed. Over time, those gains compound.
Who cares if you suck?
Here’s an interesting part of the story that we’ll never get an answer to:
Because there are no authenticated recordings of Einstein’s playing, a lively debate continues to rage about how good he was.
One photograph shows him exhibiting terrible form, with his violin sagging downward, his bow crossing the strings at an angle instead of being perpendicular—all the faults that make violin teachers cringe.
Einstein was also notorious for not staying in sync. Legend has it that when he missed yet another entrance while playing in a quartet with Fritz Kreisler, the great violin virtuoso turned to him and asked, “What’s the matter, professor? Can’t you count?”
Here’s what I took away from this anecdote: who cares!
A friend [of Einstein’s] wrote that “there are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling.”
As a non-religious dude, music is about as close as I come to connecting to infinity and feeling beyond what science can rationally explain.
Certain songs have changed my life.
I could name half a dozen concerts that have brought me to tears.
Nothing makes me happier than playing along to my favorite songs, even if I’m awful. Playing a fun song and having others sing along is absolute nirvana.
Specific moments in movies will always give me goosebumps, and it’s the music that is doing the heavy lifting. (Spoiler warning for each movie below, obviously):
Music is an amazing way to challenge our brains, to unwind, to reset, to think, to celebrate. It requires us to be present with our thoughts and focused on the task in front of us.
And it’s something that we can do purely for the joy of it, without any aspiration or goal.
We can just…pick up an instrument and play it.
Especially if we’re bad at it.
Shout out to everybody who picks up an instrument today, whether or not you’re a theoretical physicist, and whether or not you suck at it.
My current favorite violin videos
I’ve been spending a lot of time on YouTube finding old folk songs I can learn the basic versions of, and eventually dress up as my skill improves.
These are the videos I keep coming back to:
- “Shenandoah” performed by Mairead Nesbitt: an old American folk song, with an Irish twist.
- “Ashokan Farewell,” performed by Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band: a song you might recognize from Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary.
- “The Parting Glass,” performed by Taryn Harbridge: I fell in love with this song when it was used at the end of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and often find myself singing it to myself around the house.
- “Concerning Hobbits,” performed by 2daysapart: duh. I once played this on a whistle in Ireland, but it sounds better on the violin.
Eventually, I hope to be able to play Promentory, the song from the end of Last of the Mohicans, but I’m going to get good at the four songs above first!
In conclusion: the violin rules, and I hope to get less sucky at it. But even if that takes another decade, that’s okay. Because playing it makes me happy.
Your task: pick up an instrument (or just sing) and make some bad music today.
Let me know how it goes!