Foundational Ideas of FiddleQuest

How a popular activity dies

When I was 20, I was offered a job to study why windsurfing was losing popularity. For an avid windsurfer in need of summer work, it was a lucky break.

Strangely enough, the lessons I learned about the sport’s rise and fall are transferable to violin education.

In the early days of windsurfing, boards were easy to sail and the gear was affordable. The sport was accessible. A novice was able to buy a rig for less than $500 and be skimming across the water in a matter of hours.

If the wind blew 5 mph or more, new sailors (like me) would be on the water in droves racing each other, showing off new tricks, going back and forth until our arms ached. We’d return to the shore, laugh, rest and go back out. All day long.

The sport was on fire and everyone was getting involved (or so it felt!).

Pretty soon, people started spending more money on better gear. Smaller boards, carbon fiber masts, harnesses. The sails alone now cost more than our entire packages when we started.

But the biggest change was on shore. What was once a relaxed atmosphere became a charged, tense, competitive scene. A steady 5 mph wind use to get everyone on the water whooping and hollering. Now, it was cursed. Faster, lighter boards only work in higher winds.

The convivial atmosphere that drew so many onlookers into the sport became an exclusive enclave of people that needed high winds and expensive gear to go faster and faster.

And that is how the sport has declined. There are a few of us that still love going out, but we are like dinosaurs on the water.

There was a sweet spot in the sport’s life-cycle when it was accessible and fun. Now the sport is known for something entirely different. Speed, challenge, risk.

The story is similar for the violin. There is a sweet spot in music where the instrument is accessible and fun. People see musicians sitting together smiling and making music and think I want to do that.

Yet, there is tremendous pressure to make the violin an activity that takes greater and greater investment of time and effort. More and more people identify the violin with elite levels of playing. And only a few people play the violin for recreation.

My study of windsurfing’s decline showed that it didn’t die because people learned to sail fast and jump huge waves in Hawaii.

Windsurfing lost appeal because there was no longer enough people who enjoyed sailing in light winds with their friends all day long at the local lake.