"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.
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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