How Designing Websites Prepared Me to Play the Violin
If you’ve read any of the articles here on my site, you know that I like to tell stories. Through those stories, I find lessons in the day to day situations of my life and apply them to my work as a web designer. Over the years I’ve found web design lessons in Halloween candy and Christmas presents, sushi, donuts, Star Wars, Batman, and more.
While life has taught me a lot about web design, web design has also taught me a thing or two about life. Such was the case when I recently decided to try my hand at playing an instrument, only to discover how designing websites had prepared me to start playing the violin.
Learn It Online
First, a little backstory - my decision to begin playing the violin started, strangely enough, by replacing a leak in my shower (trust me, there is a connection). The handle had been leaking for some time, and rather than call a plumber, I decided to take a shot at fixing it myself after watching a video of how to do so on YouTube. It went pretty well and I soon followed up this successful repair with one on our kitchen sink and then on the taillight in my wife’s van. In each case, I learned how to make the fix by watching online videos.
Emboldened by my video-powered, handyman successes, I wondered what else I could learn online. Throughout my entire web design career, the Web has served as my primary teacher– via blogs and articles, tutorials, or sites like Lynda.com. So with those experiences in mind, I decided to kick off a little online learning experiment.
I have long wanted to play the violin, so after finding a website that offered some excellent video lessons, I decided to that I would attempt to learn the violin as the subject of my little experiment.
Solve Pieces of the Problem
One of the first web design lessons that I applied to my new musical endeavor was to solve pieces of the problem instead of the whole problem. From pushing pixels in the design process to debugging CSS and browser inconsistencies – approaching the problem one piece at a time, and focusing on the small details along the way, has always been a helpful approach for me.
As I began my violin lessons and started trying to play songs, I found this “one piece at a time” approach incredibly helpful and relevant. I realized that, in almost every case, there were small pieces of each song that I could play rather well. Of course, there were other parts that I struggled with, but by focusing on the sections I was comfortable with and really working on those, I would have half the song mastered rather quickly. Once that was done, I could then move onto the problem areas of the song and tackle them once piece at a time, filling in the gaps until I was playing the entire song smoothly.
For a web design to really work, all its pieces need to be in perfect harmony. This means that the design’s typography, layout, tone, imagery, content and more all need to complement each other and work together to communicate the message, and meet the goals, of that design. If any one of those elements is off or out of place, the entire design is at risk.
With the violin, there are also a number of elements that must be in sync to achieve harmony with the music you make. My left hand must hit the correct notes on the instrument’s neck, which is made that much more difficult by the absence of frets to mark the proper location each note should be played at. With my right hand, I have to concentrate on my grip on the bow and on keeping it straight as I move it across the strings. I must also be mindful of my arm’s position to ensure I hit the correct strings. Finally, I must make sure I keep proper time throughout the entire song. If I falter with any one of these, the song begins to fall apart. Sometimes the slip is minor and the piece can be salvaged, while other times the song is ruined – in which case I lower the violin, take a deep breath, and then try again to find harmony in the song before me.
Whenever something is difficult, inventive individuals will find shortcuts and workarounds to help them accomplish the task at hand more easily. Oftentimes, they will then share these shortcuts with others to help them also meet the challenge. In web design, these shortcuts often take the form of templates, themes, or frameworks that allow you to build upon a foundation that has already been laid. When you use these shortcuts, you lose some control in exchange for getting a site up and running quickly. I personally have always avoided templates or existing frameworks, preferring to have total control over my markup and CSS, but for some, especially those new to the web industry, these shortcuts can be very helpful and can often be used as training tools.
As you would expect, shortcuts exist for violin too, and I have found myself using a few of them. One, called a bow-right, is a device that clips onto the front of the instrument to help you keep your bow straight. As I’ve mentioned previously, keeping the bow straight is one of the numerous things to be mindful of as you play the violin, so this shortcut helps me to eliminate one of those challenges to my playing – but there is a cost to doing so.
Any shortcut can become a crutch if you rely on it too heavily. While the bow-right allows me to eliminate one variable from my playing so I can concentrate on others, if I use it for too long, I will become dependent on it. To avoid this, I force myself to play without the bow-right once or twice a week.
Similarly, if you always start a web design with a template or a framework, you restrict yourself to the way those shortcuts do things. Use shortcuts as a stepping stone early on, but do your best to get away from them quickly and you will find your grasp of the skill will actually come much faster and be more complete.
Take It Offline
A big part of my violin playing experiment was to see if I could learn to play the instrument using online resources. I even bought my violin online (from the awesome Bluegrass Shack in Illinois). While the videos and other information I found online were very helpful, so was being able to actually talk to a real person about my experiences from time to time.
As a web professional, one of the most enriching educational experiences I have found is attending conferences and meeting others in the industry. Being able talk to fellow web designers and developers and share stories, ideas, and experiences is a valuable exercise – one that you will not get with purely online conversations and interactions.
The same holds true for online violin lessons. While the lessons themselves are teaching me the foundations of playing the instrument, I cannot interact with the instructor or share my experiences. Thankfully, I have found a great violin shop just down the street from my office – a shop owned and operated by a man who has been at this location for over half a century.
You can learn a lot from online lessons and videos, but you can’t learn everything. Taking the time to get offline for a while to have real, personal conversations with people like Mr. Portukalian at the violin shop, or your web design peers at a conference or meet-ups, is about as rewarding an experience as you will find.
Take a Break
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on how to debug website issues was to address the problem by stepping away from it for a while. The number of times I have struggled with an issue and walked away from it, only to solve the problem in minutes when I returned to it later, is a testament to the wisdom of this advice.
At a certain point, whether you are talking about debugging websites or playing violin, trying to muscle through an issue becomes counterproductive. By stepping away and either taking a break or working on something else for a while, you can then approach the problem with fresh eyes, or in the case of violin – fresh fingers, later on.
Making Great Music
I have just started playing the violin and I am a long way away from being comfortable with the instrument, but with these lessons I have learned from my experience as a web designer, and plenty of practice, am confident that I well on my way to making great music.