Started at 12 years old and nearly 16 now, what level could I eventually get up to?

August 27, 2016 at 02:23 PM · If I could go back and time and have started the Violin at five years old, I would have...but I didn't, and I have to accept that. Had I, and been extremely talented, the Violin could have possibly been my career.

But I do not want it to be my career. And it won't be. However, by the time I am 25 or 30, I want to be able to play pieces like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Paganini's Caprices really well. Like if, even though it won't be my career, I went on a stage, I could play the most advanced repertoire and people'd be pretty impressed.

I want to be very good, but it won't be my career.

Is that possible?

Replies (47)

August 27, 2016 at 02:39 PM · Is it possible? Theoretically, of course it is possible. Will it happen for you? Only time will tell, it depends on what else you find yourself doing in the interim. Will people be impressed? Probably. And they will be inspired by your level of commitment. If you enjoy studying the violin, just do it! These questions about the future are impossible to answer, especially by people on the internet who don't know you or your rate of learning.

August 27, 2016 at 03:02 PM · I don't see why you shouldn't.

I think it is possible that this may sound harsh. But I wonder if sometimes people attribute their lack of success to the fact that they are late starters without considering their personal ability. A person who starts in their 30s will simply not have enough time; young players have reached a decent level after 20 or more years of playing, and if we account to this the fact that people have much more time to practice before their mid-twenties than after 30, it is unlikely that a person who started in his thirties will reach a high level in 30 or 40 years, with a life that is most probably not centered around playing the violin and a body that already entered a 'decaying state' and is hardly accustomed to some movements. But when people that are 10 or 12 years old, ask themselves what would have been of them had they started 4 or 5 years earlier, I find it hard to believe that the gap could not be covered later in life, to be, at the very least, decent players.

That said, I don't see how anyone could answer your question, you never said at what level you're playing right now. I remember my first (Suzuki) teacher had one student that was still playing the second book during his fourth year, and another who started the fifth just when finishing his second year. Those examples may be extreme opposites, but they are meant to show that "I have played for 4 years" is ambiguous enough to make it hard to give an answer to that.

August 27, 2016 at 03:12 PM · I don't think this is about starting age so much as it's about commitment, high-quality teaching, and efficient practicing. There may be an element of natural talent involved as well. It's hard to say why some students reach a high level of skill and others plateau at lower levels.

Most of the players who start at 5 and spend their childhoods playing never reach the level where they can do what the OP has asked about, after all.

August 27, 2016 at 03:22 PM ·

August 27, 2016 at 03:26 PM · I agree with Lydia. As for me, I'm never going to reach that level and I'm okay with it. Paganini caprices don't interest me at all. I'm working on Mozart 5, and I'd like to be able to play Bruch and Mendelssohn, and I believe I could reach that level, although I likely won't play them brilliantly. My goal is to translate the skill I gain by working toward those goals (and by my consistent attention to scales, studies, and the like, which I enjoy) into a reasonable level of chamber music playing.

August 27, 2016 at 03:36 PM · The answer to your question is absolutely, if you put the work in, and it sounds like you are willing to do that. I agree with Lydia above as well, heed her advice.

August 27, 2016 at 04:04 PM · I agree - absolutely. Back in 1973 I participated in a summer-time masterclass run by Heifetz's USC assistant, Claire Hodgkins. A number of the other participants were current students in the Heifetz USC masterclass (HUSCMC). One of these was an 18 year old young woman who had started violin at age 13. After running through the Heifetz "warmup" of 3-octave scales in various combos including octaves, fingered octaves and tenths, and a couple of Paganini caprices, she did a marvelous rendition of the Bruch Concerto with the accompanying pianist. And she had the slimmest hands, barely half the width of mine.

While there was no hope for me to ever achieve that level of playing - I was 38 at the time - YOU could consider that an inspiration to press forward toward your goal.

I'm one of those from Lydia's last paragraph above, except that I started at 4. I could probably sight read better than those HUSCMC guys (we also played together in an orchestra at night under Herbert Blomstedt), but that advantage was gone by the 2nd read through.

August 27, 2016 at 09:39 PM · Hi Nick,

what is your current working piece?

Most violin students who started at age 6 or younger cannot play the Tchaikovsky VC or Paganini Caprices well enough (if at all) to pull off at the senior high school graduation recital. More common pieces are Praeludium and Allegro or one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Even a respectable Bruch is a rarity.

Things may be different for those who are conservatory bound, but that is not the case for those who have no career aspirations in professional music-making. I bet you belong to the second category so the odds are against you to achieve your goal by 25 or 30 years old.

You can enjoy the lifetime of playing violin without having to be able to play the most advanced pieces. That's one enormous advantage of being an amateur.

August 28, 2016 at 01:23 AM · Should have posted my pieces.

Currently focused on Kreutzer etudes, but I am looking to pick up a concerto. Switching teachers so my repertoire is going to change.

August 28, 2016 at 03:10 AM · What repertoire have you played? (I assume you are being taught something more than just etudes.)

August 28, 2016 at 05:20 AM · That is why I am switching teachers. We just did Etudes. Last lesson was a few days ago. Will be with new teacher next weekend.

Then we are going to find a piece that I can *really* delve into.

August 28, 2016 at 06:48 AM · I was once long ago in a similar situation to you.

I think you may be more interested in career in music than you let on, but this is just a guess.

I think the problem of focus on age is twofold.

First, if some of you who were late starters will remember back to when you were fourteen or fifteen or seventeen, is that teachers and other students will repeatedly ask about when you started violin and focus on that, so that it becomes a part of your self identity that you were a late starter.

Second, there is definitely a yardstick that is pulled out in your late junior year/senior year because at that point you are expected to be working on an audition. All are measured by the same yardstick, although some might have started late and need three more years to measure up, but no allowance is made for that regarding music schools, those students are already discounted.

I think it is a shame that our culture and possibly our world is so fixated on that age 16 to 18 moment in time that the potential of many (and not just in violin by any means) is thrown away if they aren't prodigies/masterful at violin, or tennis, or swimming, or public speaking, or whatever their skill may be.

At some point in the far future civilizations will look back on the viewpoint of those of our primitive 20th and 21st century cultures and shudder at the rigidity and stupidity of the people of that bygone era to define the potential of individuals by such specific numbers of years.

August 28, 2016 at 07:37 AM · Well, had I started three or four years earlier, and had been pretty good by now, I think a career in music would have been a real possibility.

I just can't get to that point in the years I have left in high school, I believe (and I think rightly so).

August 28, 2016 at 04:28 PM · You've been taught by someone who NEVER gave you ANY pieces? That's amazing. Especially since Kreutzer is an intermediate-level etude book. (Yet another reason students don't make it to the advanced level: Inadequate teaching.)

I think we're focused on the end of the high-school years as a litmus-test for anything fundamentally competitive in its rank-order nature -- classical-music instruments, sports, but not, by the way, public speaking -- because we go from deciding if someone is competitive at the high-school level to deciding whether they are competitive at the collegiate level. The funnel narrows.

Clearly, if you look at Olympians, there are older ones, even "late beginners" and not just ones who have continued past the usual prime years, but you can see the way that they've sacrificed their young-adulthoods to their sports.

Once you're past the collegiate level, there's usually a reversion to an amateur/pro distinction. There's a very tiny number of pros, so the funnel narrows again.

Everything before the pro level is basically a series of filters. If the age at which you are doing something falls outside the normal age-range for that skill, you either don't get into the funnel, or you fail to pass the filter.

As a society, we expect that a young person will, at the age of 18, enter either college or a vocation. We expect that once they finish their education, they will become independent people (the number of Millennials living at home notwithstanding). If your pre-professional preparation pushes you outside of this age range, your dependence on your parents is extended, which neither you nor your parents might be pleased with, or, for that matter, be able to afford. It's not a coincidence that late-starters who end up successful in their chosen fields almost always have parents who can support them while they train.

Public speaking, since you mentioned it, is an interesting contrast to sports and music. While there are debate teams through the college years, there are no debate pros. It's a means to an end in some other career. There are people who speak publicly for a living, but normally they are hired to talk about something they're expert in; they are generally not champion debaters. Because there's no tournament circuit that leads to a career, it's a skill that people can get at any age, and indeed, many people who primarily make their money from speaking are folks who go on the lecture circuit after having retired from some other career.

Conservatories already have a way to deal with late starters who need a few more years to catch up, by the way. Those students attend lesser music schools. Then they audition for a master's program. If they really have caught up, they should be fully-competitive against the rest of the pool of students. If they still need more time, once they finish their master's they can go do a DMA, which is another audition. If by that point they're still not competitive, they can hope that the additional DMA years will take them to a point where they're good enough to make a living in music, whatever form that ends up taking for them.

There are other ways into the funnel, as well, that don't involve the conservatory route. You can career-switch if you can bring your playing level up to snuff. The potential is by no means thrown away, but it requires the individual to persist through the years.

We probably throw away vastly more talent because many talented kids can't afford lessons from good teachers (or they live somewhere that those opportunities just don't exist), than we do because a late starter doesn't immediately enter a top-notch conservatory.

August 28, 2016 at 04:40 PM · Thank you for your response.

I'm sorry, I should have explained. I have done the Viola for three years and was working on Kreutzer when I took up the Violin about two months ago. Hence Kreutzer is the only thing I have done on the *Violin*...because I have only done it for two months.

But on the Viola, I got through Suzuki book 4, but I have progressed rapidly in the past eight months (which is how long I have been doing private lessons).

August 28, 2016 at 04:53 PM · Oh, I see.

I think that at this stage in your playing, it's impossible to predict how far you'll go or how fast. That's especially true because you'll find that your life changes in college, and depending on what course of study you choose to pursue then (and how much time you want to reserve for other extracurriculars and just enjoying your college experience), your available practice-time and energy may be limited. And then it'll change again post-college as you start a job and establish yourself as an adult.

I think you have to commit yourself to working hard at it without knowing what you'll end up achieving. Most people never reach the point where they can play the Tchaikovsky. Many students finish performance degrees without ever being able to play a Paganini Caprice, much less do so impressively. You need to love the instrument sufficiently that you feel that the investment of time is worthwhile even if you never reach that level.

August 28, 2016 at 05:03 PM · To me the Violin is like climbing Mt. Everest. Most people will never attempt to climb it all all, nevermind reach the summit.

I am 15 years old, and I listen to classical music for *hours and hours* everyday (listening to the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 as I type this). I think that it is the most beautiful art form ever created. So it is not like I have a lack of passion. In the end, it will probably come down to time.

August 28, 2016 at 09:00 PM · I've asked this question many times, myself. I am 24 and beginning the violin. You will have people tell you that it's not possible, you will have people tell you "maybe", and you will have people tell you "of course you can do anything", but none of these answers are absolute truths. It all depends on you. One thing is certain, you have to put in the hours and have a good teacher, but that goes for anything in life. I've decided to just go as far as I can. In my short years I've learned that people will tell you something is impossible simply because they don't want anyone to achieve something they've had to work hard for, and I've also learned that people will try to fill your head with worthless platitudes of endearment telling you that you can make all your dreams come true. The best advice anyone should give you is this: If you enjoy the violin, work as hard as you can to achieve your goal. Whether you get there or not is irrelevant. It's also important to be ok with possibly not reaching those goals. If you can't swallow the fact that you might not be able to reach your goal, then you probably don't have the passion to make it there in the first place. I've learned that the hard way.

August 28, 2016 at 11:09 PM · If you want to play for the sake of enjoyment, then simply enjoy it. Why focus on how old you were when you started? I was 40-something when I started. I thoroughly enjoy playing. Whether or not anybody enjoys listening may be another story.....

12 years old, 16 years may not realize it now but, God willing, you have many years ahead of you. Take lessons, practice, love it, enjoy it.

August 29, 2016 at 04:46 PM · Yes, that is true. It just upsets me that I will never be a Jascha Heifetz. Of course, that does not mean I cannot or will not enjoy every minute of it.

August 29, 2016 at 04:55 PM · Well, you're in good company. None of us will ever be Heifetz. :-)

August 30, 2016 at 02:30 PM · Starting at 12 you have one year over me starting at 13 (and a half!!).

Music is a wide field. Don't get trapped into the classical idea that it's top orchestral soloist or nothing. We all have something to say in our music and there are many places to say it.

August 30, 2016 at 03:27 PM · "I think it is a shame that our culture and possibly our world is so fixated on that age 16 to 18 moment in time that the potential of many (and not just in violin by any means) is thrown away if they aren't prodigies/masterful at violin, or tennis, or swimming, or public speaking, or whatever their skill may be."

The age range of 16-18 is practical: it's when career decisions begin to coalesce. College is expensive, so aiming for a career in an area for which one is ill-suited or uncompetitive can ripple financially throughout a lifetime. Sure, you can go to a music school and then retool and head for a career in medicine if it doesn't work out, but that's a very expensive detour.

The 16-18 expiration doesn't apply equally for all skills, and certainly not "public speaking or whatever their skill is." For example, it's been shown that if a mathematician is going to make a meaningful contribution to the field it will come before age 30. After 30, for whatever reason, it becomes less likely. It's well known that opera singers and distance athletes mature later.

But one can still ask: if someone has striven in a field, and reaches 18 and has no running endurance, can't sing in tune, can't do math, or has no vibrato, is it prudent to continue on that career path at the expense of other possible career paths? There is evidence to suggest that the human brain begins to peak in crucial ways in the early 20s. So it does make sense to make decisions at some point before then in order to take advantage of this. It may sound like a cultural bias, but it has more to do with biology. After this inflection point we tend to get wiser, but our ability to master raw skills, especially physical ones, diminishes.

August 30, 2016 at 03:37 PM · Detouring off the path from music into something else actually isn't that expensive. For doctors and lawyers, who can pretty much do a generic undergrad (albeit with requisite science and math classes for the pre-meds), they can go on to their professional schools after music school and not really suffer a financial penalty, and they'll be roughly the same age as their classmates. Ditto for entering any graduate program that does not have really specific undergrad requirements.

However, doing the opposite -- going from something else into music -- is potentially really expensive. That's the scenario that's being contemplated by the post-college late-starters.

I've seen people do the latter -- get a non-music undergrad degree, and then go into a master's of music performance program at a top conservatory, so no significant waste of time or money -- but anyone who does this successfully has already spent their high-school years becoming exceptionally good. It's not so much that they've gone from something else into music, as they've taken a little side-trip in their music career.

August 30, 2016 at 03:43 PM · For example, it's been shown that if a mathematician is going to make a meaningful contribution to the field it will come before age 30. After 30, for whatever reason, it becomes less likely.

Do you have a source for that?

Because it is proved wrong by the many contributions past that age, and it sounds like the popular phrase "mathematics is a young man's game" given by hardy in a mathematician's apology. It is regarded a way of thinking regarded as cancerous by the whole mathematical community, because of the many counter-examples, and because of the lack of any academic study about that matter.

August 30, 2016 at 08:42 PM · I think he meant 40, not 30. The Fields Medal is only given to those under 40 for the reason stated above, and even when Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, he was barely over forty at the time (and spent almost a decade previously working on it, so in most respects, he holds to the pattern).

August 30, 2016 at 09:06 PM · The reason the Field Medal is only given to those under 40 (36 in fact) is to avoid making of it a lifetime achievement, as there are already several prizes that are give for that reason.

There are more notorious examples than Wiles, see

August 30, 2016 at 10:30 PM · "Detouring off the path from music into something else actually isn't that expensive. "

Of course it's expensive. Four (or more years) years of your life is four years of time AND income AND possibly loans. And if you want to switch to medicine and don't have the coursework that's another year.

Yes, I did mean 30 with respect to mathematics. You can quibble, but it doesn't matter. I was answering the statement that somehow it's unfair to judge musical career ability by age 16-18.

The fact is, many careers have a "best if used by" date for good reason.

August 30, 2016 at 11:17 PM · Scott, my point was that the undergrad in music isn't necessarily wasted time or money as long as what you do next will accept a generic undergraduate degree. If you're going to law school, for instance, there's no real difference in having done a bachelor's in music or a bachelor's in history. If you're going to medical school, you might need to go do night courses if you didn't take any science/math in your undergrad, but that's only a slight detour, and you're not any worse off than the history major (and because medical schools actually like musicians, you might actually be better off than a biology major in some ways in terms of odds of being accepted).

At least around me, I've met numerous people with undergrad degrees in performance (including from very good schools, studying with well-known teachers), who went to grad school in something else, generally without much delay in their life. Call it a detour of a year or two.

August 30, 2016 at 11:17 PM · (no idea how the double post happened)

August 31, 2016 at 01:52 AM · But by "meaningful contribution" to the field, you mean a get-your-name-in-the-textbooks style breakthrough, correct? That's pretty rare for anyone, period, in any field. There's a lot of ground between "can't do math" and "will end up as the next Pythagoras." I'm sure plenty of people go back to school after 30 and become successful accountants or whatnot.

It speaks to the overall caliber of poster on that we all seem to forget sometimes that it's okay to just make decent money and have a nice life. Virtually everyone on Earth will be forgotten within a generation or two after their deaths, but I don't think that means they didn't contribute. I mean, I understand what you're saying, and I've heard that too about mathematics. But still, the bar is for success is pretty high around these parts--as would be expected from a bunch of violinists. :)

August 31, 2016 at 10:53 AM · I had heard that age related thing (major contributions came from those under 30) was in the field of astrophysics, not math?

I remember hearing that on some PBS show.

August 31, 2016 at 08:07 PM · It's sometimes even okay to make relatively little money but have a happy life. :-)

It's worth remembering that these things all have an opportunity cost. It would not be unrealistic to say that a violinist might easily invest 5,000 hours in practice before being able to attempt Tchaikovsky and the Paganini Caprices, and it might easily be 10,000 hours before they're able to perform them in a way that would impress an audience, as the OP wants.

That's 10,000 hours that are not being invested in a primary profession, or other hobbies, or friends, or family, or even a part-time job just to make some extra money. You're working your way up to professional-level mastery without actually making it a profession.

Making that investment during childhood is one thing. Making it during the college years and adulthood is another matter entirely. And that kind of playing level takes diligent work to maintain, too, so it's not like you're investing 10,000 hours and now you have that skill forever.

September 1, 2016 at 01:43 AM · Haha, agreed, Lydia! :)

I think the difference with wanting to learn Tchaikovsky at some point without wanting a career in music is that you have your whole life to do it. Without the pressure of auditions, who cares if it takes 40 years to learn Tchaikovsky? Of course, you may also never even get there (in fact, I would go so far as to say probably not), but if you truly enjoy the journey, then I don't see any harm in trying.

I actually think it's a little crazier to make the investment in childhood, in terms of opportunity cost. Childhood is a very short time in ones life. If you've already invested 10,000 hours by the time you leave it behind, then you haven't done much living otherwise. I know that's how prodigies are made, but is it truly worth it? A question without easy answers.

September 1, 2016 at 02:48 PM · "I know that's how prodigies are made, but is it truly worth it?'

Well, if classical musicians didn't start their training in early childhood then the world would likely not the great orchestras and chamber ensembles.

We don't just learn notes and concertos in our youth. There are other subtle skills we need for performance, such as the ability to focus for long stretches of time, the development of lightning-quick reflexes needed for fine ensemble playing, and the ability to deal with nerves. These skills, easy to take for granted by those that have them after years of training, take time to acquire. Very few have them naturally.

I really wish this whole thing about 10,000 hours would just go away.

September 1, 2016 at 04:12 PM · Some of those skills are non-specific, though. You can learn concentration through a variety of means that are not necessarily musical. Ditto dealing with nerves (and many child starters never learn to deal well with nerves anyway). The reflexes, and perhaps more importantly, listening and reacting, could potentially be developed by learning another instrument. Many late-starter violinists are pretty accomplished on some other instrument.

A kid who practices 30 minutes a day from age 5 through 10, 1 hour a day from 10 through 13, and then 2 hours a day through age 18, will have accumulated more than 3,500 hours of practice by the time they go off to college. And that kid is probably not playing Tchaikovsky at that point. Add in 4 hours of practice a day during their 4 years of undergrad, and they've added nearly 6,000 additional hours of practicing. 10,000 hours is pretty realistic for their time in the practice room, regardless of any notion of a magic number.

September 1, 2016 at 04:33 PM · Several thousand hours of a child's life is much better spent on practicing musical instruments than on playing video games or watching random clips off on YouTube, I think. Besides, there are scientific evidences that support the neurological development in the brain for musicians.

September 1, 2016 at 07:01 PM · I'm not going to argue against your claim because I agree, but I think there is some scientific evidence of video games improving at least motor coordination.

September 2, 2016 at 04:11 AM · it about hours played or when you start? As in, if you started at 12 (like me) and got 10000 hours in by the time I am 22-23, then I would be equal to someone who started at 5 or 7 or 9?

September 2, 2016 at 05:28 AM · It depends on the quality of the hours, as well as how quickly you learn when quality hours are spent. And of course, quality hours are not just a matter of focus and intent, but also of guidance by quality teachers, and to an extent performance and ensemble playing.

September 2, 2016 at 05:44 AM · Nick,

I believe the 10,000 hours figure is from the Ericsson study that compared three groups of German conservatory students: the soloist level players, the pretty good players, and the music education students. By the time they were in conservatory, the soloists had put in about 10,000 and the others had practiced much less.

I interpreted it to say: of the students currently attending the conservatory, the people who had logged more practice hours were probably more advanced.

I think the media is overstating the study's findings. The actual study does not say, put in 10,000 and you're guaranteed to sound like all the people in the soloist group. It also doesn't definitively say anything about how age matters or doesn't matter.

Keep in mind that the study only observes the players who were already good enough to get accepted into the conservatory. There could be others who practiced just as much (as any of the 3 groups) but they weren't as advanced and got rejected.

So the answer to your question is, who knows. It depends. maybe. maybe not.

September 2, 2016 at 12:43 PM · I believe the 10,000 hours figure is from the Ericsson study that compared three groups of German conservatory students: the soloist level players, the pretty good players, and the music education students. By the time they were in conservatory, the soloists had put in about 10,000 and the others had practiced much less.

I think the media is overstating the study's findings. The actual study does not say, put in 10,000 and you're guaranteed to sound like all the people in the soloist group. It also doesn't definitively say anything about how age matters or doesn't matter.

The 10.000-hours myth is not from a scientific source but from the book Outliers by M. Gladwell. It's pop-psychology, and there is nothing remotely scientific about it.

September 2, 2016 at 02:29 PM · Here's the original paper. It's very clear on the point that there are a lot more factors that lead to success beyond time, and the factors that have more impact early on in the learning process are different from the factors that have more impact on mastery.

My point was not about a magic number, however. It was about the fact that as a matter of course, a student normally practices a certain minimum amount of time to get to an expert level. It requires much more than a raw accumulation of hours, though, especially since the theory goes that it typically takes a violinist 30 minutes a day just to maintain their skills -- some of it purely in the physical sense of maintaining musculature, some of it in the mental aspects -- and that practice efficiency begins to diminish after 2 hours a day, with a sharper decline in stuff-learned-per-hour after 4 hours. So diffuse your practice time over too many years and it's less efficient, and conversely, compress it over too short a time and it's less efficient.

My sister spent most of her childhood sitting with the same stand partner in various orchestras -- they just tended to have very similar audition results. My sister hated practicing and rarely put in more than 2 hours over the course of a whole week. Her stand partner wanted to be a pro and diligently practiced 4 hours a day. They both ended high school at Mendelssohn concerto level. Passion and time sometimes just isn't enough. (Her stand partner did go on to be a pro, and while never a great player, today is a very successful Suzuki teacher and program administrator.)

September 2, 2016 at 03:04 PM · "I think there is some scientific evidence of video games improving at least motor coordination..."

Sure, for video games...

September 2, 2016 at 03:22 PM · How good can I get if I play 10,000 hours of Pokemon GO?

Would I be able to "catch them all"?


September 2, 2016 at 03:31 PM · Not to derail too much Scott, and I hear what you are saying. I guess it may have been memory that was tested rather than coordination. I haven't read the study itself, which is here, but I happened across an article that describes the effects as being much broader than just getting better than the game. I'm aware that most brain-training research gives pretty weak results, but I guess we'll see if more comes of this. Here's a write-up of the study.

September 3, 2016 at 12:59 AM · If you want to work on memory or coordination, then do the activity that requires it. Don't waste time shooting things or whatever. Do the thing you need to work on--like the instrument itself. Video games are a big fat waste of time. Didn't that company Lumosity have to back off its silly claims? I understand the utility of a simulator, like you have to build flight hours so you can fly a 747 and it's totally impractical to borrow or rent one. But rationalizing the value of typical video games? I don't buy it.

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