What is more important than talent?

May 4, 2016, 3:08 PM · "So you have to be really talented to play the violin, don't you?"

This was a question posed to me last week by an adult who is returning to the violin after a long absence, having played just a little bit as a child.

If you asked me that question when I first started teaching, some 25 years ago, I probably would have said, "You really do. There are certain things you just can't teach."

But my answer today is completely different. "It's actually not the most important thing," I told him.

violins

What is talent, anyway? People have written doctoral dissertations and books on the topic, but I'll define talent in music as the ability to match pitches, perform rhythms, hear tone quality -- and when it comes to the violin, possessing small-muscle physical agility. To this end, teachers of old used to administer tests to potential students to check if they could match pitches and rhythms. They even checked students' hands for whether they seem shaped correctly for the instrument.

This was a notoriously bad predictor of success. Take the case of the Chinese violinist Ning Feng, who was at first denied violin lessons due to a short pinkie, who then went on to learn the instrument at the highest virtuoso level and decorate his resume with prizes from multiple international violin competitions. Or Daniel Heifetz, who found out only after a successful career that he'd had a physical handicap all along.

And the success cases do not have to involve big-name musicians. I am moved by the success of Amanda Ransom, born with Down's syndrome, who learned violin through the Suzuki Method and now plays in her family's bluegrass trio, The Ransom Notes. I'm impressed with the students who make incremental progress, week-by-week, then suddenly find themselves quite competent and advanced.

Yes, "talent" can help -- but tenacity makes a musician. Even in the cases where we perceive pure, God-given genius -- such as Mozart -- countless hours of arduous and focused work went into his agility on numerous instruments, his fully-versed knowledge of theory, and his overall musical fluency.

When it comes to violin, what is more important than talent? Here are a few things:

What would you add to the list?

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Replies

May 4, 2016 at 10:53 PM · Thank you, as a returnie myself and now a violin teacher as well, I am constantly amazed at the dedication and devotion my 2 students, a mother and a daughter, have for the instrument! They teach me!

May 4, 2016 at 11:00 PM · I actually think that talent can get in the way. If learning is too easy early on due to some innate musicality, you don't learn the needed practice techniques and habits to succeed later on.

May 4, 2016 at 11:25 PM · Hello Im from Panama and started to learn the violin a year and a half ago. Im almost 40 and is a dream come true. My teacher is 20 years younger than me and it Has been an amazing experience. I may not have an amazing talent but i do have tenacity and love for the instrument. Maybe i would never play pagannini but this fills my heart with joy

May 4, 2016 at 11:27 PM · So true, Steve!

May 4, 2016 at 11:52 PM · Very simple answer. "What is more important than talent?"

THE BOW.

No Tomato Stakes!

May 4, 2016 at 11:58 PM · I couldn't play more than Bach a minor for years, but since I've got an italian violin, Mozart 5, Bruch.

May 5, 2016 at 12:18 AM · I started playing the violin at the age of 39....with 'no' previous music experience with anything. After about 14 years of dedicated practice and some good teaching I now play in a local string ensemble in the 1st violin section....as well as in one of the praise teams at my church. I'll never be a professional soloist...or even a "professional"....but I do enjoy what I do and continue to improve as I sit under the teaching of the first chair of a local symphony orchestra. I'd have to agree with everything you've got on your list there Laurie...but I would add at least one more.....a "passion" to learn.

May 5, 2016 at 02:06 AM · I have been playing the violin for the last 10 years. Last week I gave my first violin class and I say to my student ..."you need the 4 P's":

1.- Practice

2.- Patience

3.- Perseverance

4.- and maybe the more important PASSION, without passion you are just wasting you time.

May 5, 2016 at 04:36 AM · You do need to be able to hear, & not be what used to be called tone deaf (I'd not call either of those 'talent', would you?)

May 5, 2016 at 05:23 AM · Another thing that is often overlooked is whether a person's broader community accepts Western classical music, which would affect instruction and performance opportunities. In the case of high-level classical music activities, such as professional orchestras, or competitions, the participating musicians always seem to come from the same 20 or so countries, which signals an access issue for lots of those potentially interested. For instance, a Saudi child with sufficient innate abilities may have an interest in the violin with familial support and financial resources for an instrument, but since music education is pretty much illegal at all levels, the interest would go unnourished, unless the family could travel regularly or emigrate, which would be difficult since an exit visa is required. On the other hand, if this child lived in, say, France, instruction could be found without much effort. Perhaps there should be more focus on finding solutions to the access issues in various communities, especially where money is only the tip of the iceberg.

May 5, 2016 at 11:58 AM · I have to echo the comment about having a quality bow. I trained for years using a starter now and couldn't figure out why I had trouble advancing to a certain point. None of my mentors ever mentioned the benefits of a quality bow. Since I got a good composite bow, my playing has soared to the next level, even despite having a not-so-quality violin.

May 5, 2016 at 04:21 PM · As a new violin maker, and cellist the only thing that I can say is learn on a violin that is at the same level as you are. Once you feel that you can't get anything else from the instrument get a better one. Everyone tries to get strad but trust me a good setup on a 1000.00 violin can yield great results. Always buy carbon bows in your first two years. Steady and predictable. Coda gx is my bow of choice.

May 5, 2016 at 04:47 PM · I will add PLEASURE, even when I have sore fingers!

Thanks for this article

Samm Delyon, France

May 5, 2016 at 05:32 PM · You are right Laurie.......having a talent it's better, but the other things are more important and can produce a good musician.

I started to study violin at the age of 53, with a previous and far knowledge of music. I am very involved in studying this very difficult instrument and thanks to my teacher and my passion I am reaching some results...

I am 57 years old now and, if God will, I hope in the next years to learn more......Greetings from Rome.

May 5, 2016 at 06:36 PM · Laurie, this is probably the finest list of req for violin playing.

I like to think simply it is the bow that plays the violin, everthing the violinist does is to support that.

Talent is not what plays the violin, it's the ralisation of your potential, talent u may think of the speed you can bringbout the potential. Potential (P), time (you need to make it happen giving the best teaching/learning), Pxt = S. S=skill level. Higher "talent" require less time.

My most talented two student are at the lowest levrls because theie parents thought they are going to be great violinists simply because they are so talented, and neither give me the time or support to them to make any progress. One is developing all thw worst habits as the school orchestra did not twach her how to play, only require her to play cwrtain pieces.

Playing the violin is not the same as playing music, but a degree of skill is prerequisite to musicality.

May 5, 2016 at 06:42 PM · My typo sucks :-)

May 5, 2016 at 06:46 PM · We neee to have a national party for this, for once EVERYBODY AGREED the same!!!!!!!

Laurie, lets do the party! Serious! :-)

May 5, 2016 at 07:40 PM · This was a wonderful post! I was told that I had so much "talent" growing up that it stunted my growth as a musician. I thought that since I was "talented" I did not have to work as hard as everyone else. I didn't come from a musical family, so the fact that I played anything was a "talent". It wasn't until college that I realized that I needed to work hard to play the repertoire I wanted to play or else I'll never get there.

Now I preach to my students that anyone can play the violin, it just takes time, practice, and patience. Everyone must do the work to grow, no matter where they start.

May 5, 2016 at 08:18 PM · I started learning a couple of months ago, at 52.

When I began, I knew it would be not just a sideline hobby, but an integral part of my life. I didn't play as a child or anything like that. But I knew that if I wanted any level of success, then I needed to begin with a great teacher, with whom so resonated, and that was the best decision ever.

I couldn't say if I would be any good at violin, but I knew that I could be an excellent student. As a result, apparently I am doing rather well. This article is great. But I also want to take a moment to thank those wonderful people who teach and accept adult students. You make all the difference, and should be mentioned here. Thankyou, music teachers.

May 5, 2016 at 09:14 PM · The book 'bounce' uncovers the myth of talent. Lots and lots of practice is the key.

May 6, 2016 at 12:53 AM · I am increasingly convinced that the most important foundational skill for a violinist is pitch discrimination. Any pedagogy that places an early focus on the ear will have payoff in spades down the road. I don't think that I am any less agile then some friends who are serious virtuosos but I can say that they are more effective learners because they hear pitch issues instantaneously. They are even past correction. They do it right the first time 99.99% of the time. It helps with everything. They sight read better because they hear it well before they play it. They master challenging technical passages because they are not fishing around for the pitch in any degree. Example: try learning tenths if you cannot hear the intervals super well.

May 6, 2016 at 04:30 AM · Good point Corwin, how do I do a tenth? From a synthesizer? Sorry I spaced out? Is there an app for that?

May 6, 2016 at 07:02 AM · Well...I hope to see one more point..."Listen to your Eyes, which means 'Look must match the sound'".

Making music is depended opon public's eyes, instead of pure classic itself.

Business OK

....but talents can be wasted.

May 6, 2016 at 11:55 AM · Well I'm 65 and went back to the violin last year after a 45 year break (I had learnt for about 5 years as a teenager). I understand things so much better now and have a wonderful teacher. I think the list provided is very good but I would add "passion" to the list as well as targeted practice and listening and improving pitch. I really enjoy my practice but I do it so much differently now and I am far more sensitive in my approach to planning. Maybe maturity should be added to the list - it's not quite the right word but...

May 6, 2016 at 04:11 PM · Except that tenacity, patience, attention to detail, and courage are all talents as well. By that I mean that these characteristics are to some degree inborn and unequally distributed across the population. Sure, they are like muscles that can be strengthened with practice; and I think people can and should do so. I just think it's wrongheaded and even cruel to insist that the only thing that holds people back is themselves. That's what these discussions of the value of talent tend to devolve into these days.

May 6, 2016 at 06:14 PM · Actually Laurie, I understand that the incredible list of factors in learning violining u compiled would not seem complete without the "success" and "failure" thing, but I do not believe the idea of failure or success should even be in a violinist's mind. I believe one's ability is a degree, and getting to the level one wishes to b is a process, during which the goal is not yet achieved, which some people see as failure. Even if pne achieves the original goal, one will slways find that is thr brginning of doing better at the same, or a stepping stone to something more challenging. I would put it: forget success and failure, learning violining is a life long process.

I m not correcting you or asking you to change it, just sharing my approach. There is no one size fits all! :-)

I think your article, at least the list should be in the beginning of every manual!

I would add:-

The way you learn (repeating/practicing) same mistakes is not learning.

Always check your foundations to every move, stop run b4 u walk!

Chose your reportore wisely. Not simply what the program hands to you.

May 6, 2016 at 09:50 PM · I would like to add love for the violin, become one with your violin and feel it as an important part of your body and play with your heart.

May 7, 2016 at 12:05 AM · I would say it this way. You must be talented to be a professional violinist. You do not have to be talented to play the violin. I have no doubt I can learn to play the violin. With the right teacher, practice, persistence, etc. I currently do not play.

May 7, 2016 at 12:27 AM · Hi all..... It is, indeed, a joy to peruse this website. Kudos to Laurie and to all who would enjoy perfection with the Violin.

But, for the sake of discussion about the things that could be more important than talent, I would play a bit of the devil's advocate on one of Laurie's points, that of "Quality instrument". Although we all would like to play a Strad.... there are just not enough of them to go around. The 1% professional violin soloists and the collectors have them. The 10% after that who play in professional orchestras, etc., have the second tier instruments. For the rest of us, get the best you can reasonably afford. But, do not worry about it. In my experience, a good violinist can make even a boxwood fiddle sing! Make what you have sing, first. Then, that will tell you if you really need much more. A few will. Most won't.

Thoughts from an ancient lesser itinerant fiddler who has played a bit over six decades....and, yes, I often do play a boxwood fiddle in a tavern in the woods or a re-enactors encampment, to a crowd of music "lovers" in an 18th Century mode... The passion never goes away.....even when you are an "Olde Geezer".....

May 7, 2016 at 01:20 AM · I Agree with Robert Keys except for the distribution of fine instruments. I can spesk from experience of having come across hundreds of instruments including Strads, but not Guarneries or Amanties, and many "below" you will b surprised that Strads are not for everyone, including the best of violinists, and not all Strads are that good. There are a lot of violins in circulztion that are better than those used by professional violinists esp. in orchestras. I can say for a fact they can be found, and i also know non professionals who are not rich have Strads.

There are hundreds of fine luthiers from the past and after a lull from WWII to about 2006, new good violins become available again, and especially and increadingly from "China", I could not believe what you can get for the money, and I feel the antique German and Italian ("3rd tier" violins) and these super Chinese violins have no problem in concert halls in good hands!

So plz don't b discouraged, the availability is actually peaking. But soon we will run out of fine natural tone wood.

May 7, 2016 at 02:08 AM · I've just re-read all the comments and the list above. What a wonderful list - targeted practice, passion, pitch (improvement if not too good). I'm an adult returnee to the violin and it's the most wonderful part of my life. Talent to me is a vague concept and there are so many other factors - but passion to play must be high on the list. Hello to all other adult learners - JT - Australia

May 8, 2016 at 03:26 PM · I'm sorry but I have an irrepressible need to express my bewilderment.

What exactly do you mean by 'more important'?

Is it possible that someone might play an instrument, reasonably well, without being particularly talented? Of course.

Is it possible that someone, however talented, might play an instrument without ever practicing it? Of course not.

But how can ever be determined which one of these two is the more important one? It certainly beats me.

After all, when was the last time that any of us has ever witnessed a really memorable rendition of music by someone without a shred of talent?

May 8, 2016 at 05:53 PM · Wonderful points, everyone!

I agree that it is possible to get a very nice-sounding violin that is not a Strad! Otherwise nearly all of us would be sunk! I see the difference that it makes for my students, when they upgrade in quality, which often happens when they literally grow out of their violins and get slightly larger ones. Overnight, the same student is playing a violin that gives him or her much stronger feedback and allows a greater range of technique, and this has a positive affect on motivation, inspiration, success, etc. It's mostly about getting the best quality for the price. In virtually every price range, there is a huge range of quality. So figuring out how to measure that quality and get the very best you can -- this is a big part of the equation!

May 9, 2016 at 04:10 PM · Oh I love this topic! I think there is SO much more to being successful than just Talent. Thanks for such a great list.

There is another great conversation about Talent vs. Hard work on this podcast. The 4 hosts are very insightful and funny. It's called The Per Service Podcast) and I think you'd enjoy it.

May 9, 2016 at 06:57 PM · First off: Great topic, as a beginner at 63 to violin, with quite some years behind me on piano, guitar and mandolin, I had been intimidated to even try violin as it's reputation as a very difficult instrument to learn.

My experience so far:

Got a fantastic teacher who advised me that a better instrument was in order, which I immediately did with a very good set up from a reputable luthier specialized in violins.

Bow change too, after playing my teachers great bow, I could immediately feel the difference. It is hard for a beginner to choose a good bow, help is needed on this.

Violin is the best instrument I have ever played for ear training. I can hear when it is proper tone and pitch and suffer when it is isn't, along with my patient wife.

I like the six P's (I added playing as playing is one of the greatest ways humans learn.)

1. Practice

2. Patience

3. Perseverance

4. Passion

5. Pleasure

6. Playing

I have already printed the original list and keep it within view where I sit as a reminder of the details of what I am developing as part of the recipe for my success, each step of the way.

I am simply praying now for the time to continue studying, practicing and playing going forward. At my age, violin is the most exciting endeavor I have taken on and it is my dream to play really well. Day by day, I am working towards that realization and enjoying each step, with all of it attendant frustrations, of not always sounding/feeling so great.

I am very appreciative of all the opinions and insight that people are sharing. I will be watching for future updates of this thread with great interest, as life long learning is my real passion. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful additions.

May 9, 2016 at 10:55 PM · Many parents would like to think their kids are especially talented. I see talent as facility, however. The violin is too hard for anyone to be a "natural violinist"-talent only makes the growing process easier. Our focus should be to nurture the aforementioned passion, rather than to pursue "mere" talent, either in ourselves or others.

To that effect, passionate hard work is a "talent" by itself, though the difference is that is not necessarily tied to the "ease" talent. It is learnable/can be developed in my view, and thus a different thing than what most people see as "talent."

I tend to disagree with the notion that the "hard work" talent can't be shared by most people. In short, in the nature vs nurture argument, most people are able to work with "nurture". Even people that have hard time focusing can develop a healthy practice living style that will help them play very well, properly guided and motivated of course.

(Which doesn't mean the "you are the only one holding yourself back!" argument be true for 100% of people-sometimes some individuals are unable to work on "nurturing" elements due to other factors as well. But most people can work hard and eventually learn how to intelligently practice, whether the results come easily or otherwise to them-so called "talent.")

I truly believe that passionate, intelligent hard work-as well as time and sometimes money, most unfortunately-will help many if not most individuals to attain a high level of violin playing.

May 10, 2016 at 03:19 AM · Another trait: Having people skills or a personality that is socially acceptable.

It's not that someone with an awkward personality can't learn the violin. It's that it makes it harder for them to find good teachers who are willing to work with them and other people who'd want to help them. Likability matters. Introverts or people who rarely smile are often misunderstood as having bad attitudes.

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