Is there a single standard?

October 13, 2016 at 01:48 PM · As a "Very Late Starter" (I was 30 - that was 39 years ago) I wanted to learn how to play the violin as it had been a fascination since seventh grade. Once I realized I could learn I realized that the "Concerto Path" wasn't for me. I wanted to play in community orchestras and do the occasional solo in church. Modest ambitions and I did enjoy learning a lot about technique and theory.

Now I'm volunteering with a youth orchestra because I'm teaching a local young musician who cannot afford lessons (a version of me in seventh grade). I'm noticing that there seems to be a single standard being applied to all the young musicians. While they are a bit young to know what portions of their lives music will play in their future they all seem to be moving in lockstep towards solo playing of the concertos with almost no acknowledgement that simply playing in a community orchestra, college orchestra, or neighborhood chamber group can be just as satisfying and sustainable.

Since most participants on this forum are professional musicians and teachers I have to ask: Is there a single standard and if so, why?

Replies (29)

October 13, 2016 at 01:59 PM · I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "moving in lockstep." Are all the kids you coach studying with the same teacher and playing the same repertoire? Are they all in a Suzuki program?

If you simply mean that they all study concerti, then I'd say it's fairly common. Concerti tend to be the gravitational center of pedagogy until conservatory (when they start to build sonata repertoire) for many reasons. For one thing, there are so many great ones, and kids tend to get fired up about them. They have a lots of technical and musical challenges, and help build endurance.

So I'm not sure what "single standard" really means beyond the development of solid skills and musicality.

October 13, 2016 at 04:22 PM · At the student stage, the goal is to develop technique and musicality. Concertos are an excellent, efficient, and enjoyable way to do so. Once the student has the necessary technique to play reasonably well, many options are available.

October 13, 2016 at 08:31 PM · I do not think that there is a "single standard" in place, but rather a common goal to teach as much as possible, as timely as possible, keeping in mind student's age and individual differences.

There is nothing wrong in playing in a community orchestra as a goal, but I wonder why it automatically implies less quality?

Why not strive for more?

I guess it narrows down to music at the recreational level. If you go to any sport club, resources are paid and limited.

Offering services for free is noble, but it does not give you license to lower the bar.

2 Canadian cents

October 13, 2016 at 09:25 PM · Scott, Mary, Rocky, et al.,

Interesting responses.

By "lockstep" I'm referring more to what I hear and observe from the parents. They are obsessed with which concerto their children are playing as opposed to your children as if there were some kind of competition to be won. I don't get the sense that the young musicians are always in synch with their parents.

I understand the lessons that concerto's can teach but there is a lot of music in the orchestral and chamber category that teach the same lessons.

Lowering the bar? No. I have more compliments at the progress of my student from the professional musicians who actually run the youth orchestra. My student, in two years, went from not even holding the instrument correctly to an excellent presentation of the Rieding Op.35 (he heard Pearlman's CD and wanted to learn it so I learned it and taught him) according to the professional jury for annual auditions. As a result he moved up in chair position and orchestra leaving many of the young musicians he started with in the primary orchestra. Also, he's having fun and really likes duets as well as the orchestral music. How is it that not playing a fancy concerto is lower quality if that is what the musician aspires to?

FWIW: I'm already assisting his family in finding the next teacher. At his rate of progress, he will surpass my skills, just as it should be.

October 13, 2016 at 10:52 PM · George,

I'd expect the parents of serious lesson-taking parents to be competitive, just as if their kids were on the soccer field or in a spelling bee. They tend to be professionals from the upper middle classes, educated and usually musically cultured.

Of course they are obsessed with how their kids stack up against the other kids. Most parents know more about the concerto literature-- like most concert goers, they are likely to know and love Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos more than Beethoven sonatas or Kreisler showpieces.

October 13, 2016 at 11:42 PM · What an unhealthy attitude! The competitive side is vital to get recognition, or assisted tuition, or an a well-paid posting, but this has nothing to do with the value of music as such. And our children are not our playthings.

October 14, 2016 at 02:17 AM · For classical violin, the path is moderately narrow. In the US, we don't have the prescriptive repertoire lists and structured examinations of Canada's RCM or the UK's ABRSM, so there's no single standard. Lots of kids begin with Suzuki, which also provides an ordered progression, but because there are no exams with juries that judge on reasonably-consistent criteria, there's no "grade level" equivalent to RCM / ABRSM.

By the time kids are playing real concertos, though -- Bruch and beyond -- the order doesn't matter anywhere nearly as much. The player's real level is not just a function of raw difficulty but also the artistry with which they play the work.

Before that point, student concertos -- from Seitz to Viotti, maybe even to Vieuxtemps -- tend to be taught in a certain rough order, and therefore what repertoire the student is playing is a pretty good guide to the technical level that they are at least attempting. However, at this intermediate level, a ton of short works are normally taught as well (although the sonata repertoire, with the exception of the Handel sonatas, and the Dvorak Sonatina, typically isn't taught to kids at all).

Parents are competitive. They like to know how their kid is stacking up to other kids. So of course they compare. They do it in sports and practically everything else, too. It's not the teaching system that's broken, but parental attitudes.

I disagree, however, that students are normally pushed along a solo path. Rather, there are works that make for a solid pedagogical study, and that many students enjoy playing, and therefore those works are taught over and over and over again. Neither orchestra nor chamber music really offer the same instructional content, and in any event, those require a group to play with.

Kids will usually get exposed to orchestra in school or via a youth symphony, and many organized music "schools" (as opposed to individual private teachers out on their own) have formal chamber music programs too. So kids are encouraged to get their orchestra and chamber-music skills down, but technique and interpretation are taught through playing works written for solo violin (or violin + piano accompaniment).

You build the technique and musicality required to be a good orchestral and chamber musician by learning how to play the solo repertoire. The normal assumption is that almost no one goes on to be a soloist.

October 14, 2016 at 04:33 AM · "I understand the lessons that concerto's can teach but there is a lot of music in the orchestral and chamber category that teach the same lessons."

Not quite. First violin parts of most famous quartets and many violin sonatas are technically easier than most standard Romantic concertos (though not musically easier). By teaching only those pieces, you'd be setting a ceiling to what a student can learn, in technique. More technique gives you the tools for style and control.

Example: a lot of kids in the U.S. study from the Suzuki books. The Suzuki books include a few chamber pieces. There's an arrangement of a Boccherini quartet movement in Book 2, and Book 7 has the third movement of the Mozart D minor quartet. The typical Suzuki intermediate student might be able to hit all the notes of the Mozart movement, but someone who can play a Vieuxtemps concerto has a lot more versatility in making the Mozart sound good.

Chamber music is great for teaching interpretation in ways beyond what you might get from studying a concerto, but you do need technique to carry out those ideas.

October 14, 2016 at 08:02 AM · Fair enough, but there some fiendishly difficult first violin pars in many Haydn quatets.

October 14, 2016 at 08:07 AM · Beethoven and Mendelssohn quartets have some difficult concerto-like first violin parts.

October 14, 2016 at 09:42 AM · And in chamber music, we are effectively a team of soloists, quite different from blending in to an orchestral section. Challenging and rewarding.

October 14, 2016 at 12:44 PM · Beethoven and Mendelssohn first violin quartet parts are difficult but they are not comparable to the difficulty in romantic concertos such as Mendelssohn. Even a student work like DeBeriot contains technique not typically found in a quartet part. Plus a first violin part requires the other three players to not sound silly while a concerto can be performed with only a piano accompaniment.

October 14, 2016 at 01:33 PM · Mary Ellen gets it exactly. There are times when quartet music is arranged for solo violin with piano -- the aforementioned Suzuki book 7 movement from Mozart K217, for instance, and I remember that as a kid I learned a movement of the Mozart D-major Divertimento arranged for solo violin and piano -- but even if the 1st violin part doesn't really change, in doing this you miss out on actually learning to play chamber music. Short focused Mozart movements, or perhaps Haydn movements, might be useful for teaching certain classical-area technique, but by and large the solo literature has better pedagogical works.

October 14, 2016 at 01:58 PM · When my daughter took up the violin I just wanted her to finding a way to love the instrument and the music.

I find it frustrating that almost everything in the kids world has to be competitive. In school sports and arts are competitive, no freedom to be creative and just to have fun.

Sure, if someone wants to become a professional musician you have to start early and it is a damn hard road ahead of you. But if it is obvious that it shall be just for the love of doing it from my perspective competition is not useful.

In business I expect everybody to strive for projects to be successful, competitive team members not focusing on the team results but instead on their status gain can become stressful. I am an engineer heading a quite big team.

October 14, 2016 at 02:22 PM · Corporate cultures vary. Some promote a great deal of internal competition, and others are more cooperative. Where you thrive probably depends on your personality. And there are professions that are inherently competitive -- Sales tends to be, for instance.

The kids who are just in it for the fun are already probably not on the competitive track. Their parents are probably less invested, though -- they are likely not sending their kids to the best teachers, buying expensive equipment, pushing them to practice diligently and well, or insisting that they continue music when it's no longer "fun" (i.e., not pushing them to stick with it when it gets harder).

These kids are probably not subject to any competition other than the occasional seating audition. There's implicit competition in the sense that kids stack-rank other kids in their heads -- you can no more avoid it than noticing which kids run faster than other kids. But that's not a function of the training system per se.

You can turn out a player who's in it for fun a whole lot more easily than you can turn out someone who has the potential to play professionally.

There's also a very different dynamic in youth symphonies than community orchestras because of the nature of each player's evolution. A kid is still very much learning, and every semester they are going to be improving audibly, if they are getting any sort of decent teaching. An adult amateur in a community orchestra or playing chamber music for fun tends to get better at a pretty glacial pace -- their playing level is their playing level, and unless they are very consciously trying to uplevel, it is what it is. So you have a sense of how well the other people around you are playing, but there's none of the angst that goes with not knowing how well you're doing compared to other people. (Human beings, I think, like to know their level of competence vis a vis others.)

October 14, 2016 at 02:24 PM · Thank you Eva, on behalf of all those who play music to share its beauty, not to prove something.

October 14, 2016 at 02:40 PM · @Adrian: The Haydn quartets have hard first violin parts and the first violin part is more technically demanding than the other three parts, but they are not technically difficult compared to most concertos.

I agree that Haydn quartets are very difficult in interpretation, and are arguably harder to interpret than most concertos. That is partly because they require a deep understanding of Classical style and very precise technique and control together with three other players.

But to get to the point where you can actually work on those things, control is necessary, and that requires more advanced technique than whatever you're playing. Four students who play advanced concertos may start off with an awful Haydn, but they have the technique to make it sound good after a semester of coaching and rehearsal. The same cannot be said about four students who have studied only up to the DeBeriot level, or who have been studying only quartet parts.

October 14, 2016 at 02:44 PM · The vast majority of students are not in it to become professionals, regardless of what their parents might think. That being said, a certain amount of competition can be useful as a motivator to get kids to practice. More practice results in better playing; better playing is more enjoyable.

When my students have a competitive audition coming up, I tell them not to invest any emotional energy in the outcome because the outcome is affected by three factors, only one of which they control. The three factors are: (1) how well they play; (2) how well the other students play; (3) what the judges think. Only the first of those is under the student's control. So, I tell my students, if they can walk out of the audition and honestly say that that is the best they could possibly have played under those circumstances, then they won.

October 14, 2016 at 02:44 PM · I think another reason for studying concertos is that they are often more musically satisfying to practice without accompaniment than other music (how most of us realistically spend most of our time) and are thus more intrinsically motivating. Concertos are also easier to to perform unaccompanied for orchestra auditions. Much of the sonata repertoire has very integral piano parts and it can be difficult to really understand or play them musically when you don't play it with a pianist Chamber and orchestra music is even less satisfying to work on without the other parts. I personally think it is much more fun for most students to learn technique through concertos/solo Bach/showpieces/etudes and then be able to spend less time practicing orchestra music for technique purposes and to focus on the ensemble aspects of orchestra.

October 14, 2016 at 03:13 PM · For me, I think chamber music and sonatas are the most fun, but only with other good, committed players.

The big issue with working on violin sonatas is the availability of a pianist. With concertos, you can get away with a less committed or less skilled pianist who meets with you a few times before for a quick run-through. But with sonatas, you need to be rehearsing with a good collaborative pianist regularly. The skills needed to play piano at the violin sonata level exceed the skills needed on the violin. You'd need a really good pianist in your family or your parents would have to be willing to pay the fees to work with a musician of that caliber.

October 14, 2016 at 03:24 PM · There's also the issue that pianists of that caliber don't really want to work with children on a sonata. They're looking for violinists for whom the sonata is well within their technical command, and where there can be good collaborative musicianship. Merely accompanying a sonata being played not-so-well by a student is something you can pay someone to do, but it's not really the same experience as actually playing a sonata at a more mature level.

October 14, 2016 at 09:16 PM · Thank you everyone and keep the discussion moving. I'm learning a lot about how the teaching is working today. As my wife and I are Child-Free much of this is a bit bewildering as we haven't had to deal with agenda driven parents.

What I find interesting is that my old-school use of Doflien seems to be very different in that on every double page there is at least one (if not more) duet for student and teacher. (Many of them written by well known 20th century composers.) I found this to be fun when I was learning and my student (let's use his name - Brian) seems to enjoy it as much as I do. Perhaps the duet playing has helped him in the orchestral setting where he is playing different music than the other section and that throws off some young musicians.

As an adult assistant with the primary orchestra I get to both watch the young musicians as well as know and listen to the parents. Some of the parents have grand ambitions while their young musician is struggling just to do all the basics.

Brian is a very good young musician but his real love is science. Oh, he loves music to the point where some pieces will actually make him tear-up. In the long term I hope that Brian makes music and playing a part of a larger life which could go in many directions - medicine, engineering, research, who knows?

I have also learned that he will need to learn some concertos to move along with the other musicians. Particularly if he wants to add playing with a college orchestra to his qualifications for scholarships. Guess I'll have to learn them or find him an affordable teacher who can teach him later on.

After he moves along we might become a regular duet without the student-teacher role - just two musicians making music. That is, after all, what it is all about - making music.

October 14, 2016 at 09:52 PM · My teacher used the Doflein duets to teach me sight-reading when I was a kid in Suzuki book 4 or so. Some people teach the Bartok duets also. But this is typically when a kid is a beginner or maybe an intermediate-level player.

Also, it's not unusual for a violin-teacher to play the piano accompaniment (on the violin) while the kid is playing his piece. Luckier kids might even get actual piano accompaniment during their lessons. In other words, learning solo literature doesn't mean that you don't learn to play together with other people.

The Rieding-to-Bruch concerto path, so to speak, is a very long one. Many kids won't make it all the way, and that's fine.

October 15, 2016 at 11:33 AM · I would draw a distinction between professional and personal goals. On a personal level, a student of the violin or tennis or anything else ought to want to learn to do it well - in fact as well as reasonably possible, given the constraints of degree of talent, amount of time put into practicing, etc. After some time, that overall goal should include (but not be limited to) concertos for reasons others have already explained well. The study of and exposure to all kinds of things, from concertos to sonatas to show-pieces, to chamber music, orchestral and chamber repertoire, opera and even shows has a mutually beneficial effect.

As far as "a single standard" goes, that can be interpreted in different ways. As a teacher, I emphasize to all students, good form and posture, good sound and good intonation - and within reason, all of these things almost from the get-go. If a student told me "my goal is to play in a community orchestra one day - maybe even in an amateur quartet" I'd be very pleased. I actually hope that something like that would be the goal of most students. But in that case should I be lax in emphasizing the basics I mentioned or not to include concertos in the student's course of study when ready? Hardly! In that sense perhaps, I apply a single basic standard.

But what if a student said to me (and this has happened) "I know that it's very hard to try to make a living as a professional but I'd be very unhappy doing anything else", first I"d say "I feel sorry for you; I'm the same way". Then if I thought they had the potential and they promised me to develop a Plan B to make them employable in something else that doesn't necessitate putting their violin in moth balls in a closet while they attend medical school or law school (unless that's what they want), say an education degree, web-design etc. etc. I'd give them my blessing but of course would intensify my expectations for practicing and producing results.

Going back to basics as well as concertos, I cannot stress too strongly that HOW we play is a thousand times more important than WHAT we play. I've seen and heard students playing(?) - perhaps I should say mangling - concertos by Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart with form, sound, and intonation that suggest to me that they are not even ready for a first position Seitz concerto! Is this inherent misguidance on the teacher's part? Parental pressure? I'm not sure. My way, building up a solid foundation, seems slower, but my 'tortoises' will eventually overtake those 'hairs'. Years ago when I taught at a certain music school, after some time my boss said to me "only your students all play with good sound, good intonation - and that professional look!" It takes more work on my part and the student's - but it's worth it!

October 16, 2016 at 06:38 PM · Raphael, et al.,

"I cannot stress too strongly that HOW we play is a thousand times more important than WHAT we play."

I think that we're basically on the same page. My questioning isn't an indictment of the drive towards playing concertos, it was because I have had a very different path to becoming a violinist. I started as an adult and my teacher and I decided early on to work on skill and technique but to focus on the skills required to play well in a community orchestra.

Working with the Youth Orchestra I notice a lot of young musicians with poor skills who are making their parents smile playing poor renditions of the concerto literature while they aren't holding the instrument or bow properly and their intonation is off.

However, I also realize that I have to introduce Brian to the literature even if his goals are to have fun, get a small music scholarship as part of his college process, and hopefully be a musician for the rest of his life while a professional at something other than music. I also have a few teachers telling me that they want to take Brian off my hands because they see his skill level - unfortunately his family cannot afford the rates they charge.

I agree that it isn't easy to work on posture, position, intonation, bowing and all the basic skills when there is pressure to play a lot of the fancy stuff before you are ready.

October 16, 2016 at 09:48 PM · I used to have a student who, until she was a high school senior, would be driven to me by her mother or father, who would stay at the lesson.

Once, her father, a doctor who was actually a relative of Leonard Bernstein, said to me that years ago he had an idea of taking up the violin. "But all I wanted to do was be able to scratch out a tune somehow", he said. "Then", I replied, "I guess you wouldn't have been interested in the kind of torture I offer!" Before he could answer the girl piped up: "I have to admit that a lot of good has come out of this torture!"

October 16, 2016 at 10:31 PM · My violin teacher, a graduate of Suzuki in Japan, told me at the very beginning that the thing that grabs an audience's attention most of all is quality of tone - same with singers and speakers. That is what she addressed throughout the several years I was her pupil.

I found on the way to getting a good tone that good posture, intonation, phrasing, and, most importantly, learning to listen to and analyze one's playing, come with the package.

October 17, 2016 at 12:25 AM · George, I think there's an important point you're missing here: The issue is not the concerto repertoire that's being used to teach students. The issue, based on the way you describe it, is that kids are being pushed to play repertoire that they're not technically ready for. That could occur regardless of what they're playing -- concertos or not -- but some teachers certainly do have a tendency to push their students into repertoire they're not ready to play.

When I was a kid, I was in a large Suzuki program with many teachers. Each of those teachers had a different philosophy about how quickly to move students along. It was pretty apparent to parents that didn't have tin ears, though, that the teachers who zipped students along at impressive paces had kids who were just technically all over the place -- and eventually their students fell behind (or stopped playing out of frustration) even if they were seemingly books ahead early on. A good foundation is vital, and the kids who get good foundations eventually hit a point where they can just zip through learning repertoire because all the fundamentals are there.

October 17, 2016 at 01:07 AM · "simply playing in a community orchestra, college orchestra, or neighborhood chamber group can be just as satisfying and sustainable"

As Raphael said, we should be very pleased if the students achieved that. The fact is that not only will the vast majority of students never play professionally, they will not continue to play as amateurs either, regardless of how well they played and for how long.

What I gained however from my childhood experiences in learning to play an instrument (which I stopped afterwards) was a lifelong appreciation for music which I share to some extent and have revitalised in myself when sharing it with my son.

The parents and teachers who see competition as the gauge of their own or their children's success are really missing the point, and perhaps only raising the point at which they eventually fail, but every lesson in which a musical point is learned and not only technical ones is a success in this view.

I struggle to see playing concertos we love as a bad thing, almost regardless of how badly they're butchered. In part, due to an appreciation of the difficulties we all have -- I recently heard the Sibelius being played professionally, and it wasn't entirely in tune -- but mostly because if one learns to appreciate something good as good, and strives towards that, something good is being achieved.


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