Reality check, please.

March 12, 2018, 8:28 AM · Reality check, please. I'm 20, in University for a non-music degree, and I've been playing since I was about 10. I started out playing Irish fiddle music, which is predominantly what I've played, and only recently switched to classical about 9 months ago. I'm currently working on the 1st movement of the Vivaldi A minor. So here's my question. If I practice diligently, how good can I get? Obviously, I have no professional aspirations as a classical violinist. But is it possible for me to get as good in the next 10 years as I could be now if I'd started with Classical at age 10? I know that I have a good sense of relative pitch (my teacher thinks I have perfect pitch for intervals, but not absolute perfect pitch), a basically decent decent bow arm, and a good sense of rhythm and phrasing. I definitely have lots of other technique issues, but my goal is to play real pieces well, with solid technique, in a way that is both enjoyable to play and to listen to. But is that realistic?

Replies (33)

March 12, 2018, 9:23 AM · Ari,
Your question is too vague to answer. Of course you can improve and learn more advanced repertoire. There's no reason you can't if you practice and continue to take lessons. The only question is what career path you'll follow on graduation. Will it lead to a job, or graduate school? How busy will you be?

Experience tells me that the relationship between progress and practice is not straight line: each additional increment demands a proportionately higher amount of time. In other words, you can say that the average person can fulfill 80% of their talent with 1 hour a day, 90% with 3 hours, 95% with 5 hours, and 98% with 6-7 hours. We all face diminishing returns and marginal gains.

The question "how good can I get" isn't really a meaningful question, so there is no meaningful, quantifiable answer.

March 12, 2018, 9:31 AM · If you study with a reputable violin teacher and practice for a couple hours every day, you should be able to get quite good. Starting with a new teacher might mean they want to rebuild some technical areas where you have problems, but the advantage of playing as a hobby is you don't have the time pressure of getting to a certain level by a certain age. So you can rebuild some areas and set yourself up for success.

In 10 years, if you practice every day and practice thoughtfully, you could be playing Tchaikovsky, and certainly lots of stuff a step below that.

March 12, 2018, 10:06 AM · To answer your question, I would say "maybe". Depending on your schedule, teacher's teaching ability, the curriculum you follow, and mentality/study skills, you might be able to reach your goals. I cannot give you a straightforward answer.
Edited: March 12, 2018, 6:20 PM · We haven't seen you, but you have been playing the violin for 10 years, so I will assume you can handle basic left and right-hand things in a natural way. This puts you way ahead!

You will need to learn to shift positions, and probably a few bowing techniques you have not had to worry about. I don't know if you can read music (at a reasonable speed) - but learning to do that with instantaneous translation to your hands will become increasingly important.

And practice, sensible practice.

March 12, 2018, 10:44 AM · I don't think there's a limit, even if you have a busy non-music career. The important thing is learning how to practice. As little as 30-45 minutes of focused practice each day will get you a lot farther than just playing for 5 hours a day.

Your goal is definitely reachable, with daily focused practice. Your current level is about where I was when I was 18. I've been on busy non-music career paths, so have averaged under an hour a day of viola practice for most of the time I've played. I started learning advanced-level solo repertoire around 26-27 (8-9 years later) and top-tier solo repertoire within the last year at 34-35 (16-17 years later). If you have more time to practice, and can do it methodically, top-tier concerto repertoire within 10 years is not out of the question.

March 12, 2018, 12:13 PM · Reality-- You will improve. You will not become a full-time professional classical violinist because you would be competing with all those kids who started at seven, did continuous lessons, practiced a lot, won auditions and contests and went to major conservatories. But, my experience has been that fiddlers that do a non-classical genre (I include myself!) frequently have superior velocity, left hand dexterity, and bow control, and can do well as section second violins in amateur, community, music theater pit,early music ensembles (like your Vivaldi piece) and low-budget professional orchestras. The first violin parts emphasize technique on the second half of the E string. Don't drop the Irish tunes! jq
March 12, 2018, 2:31 PM · Reality check:

YOU ARE ONLY TWENTY YEARS OLD FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Barely out of your teens. You have your ENTIRE life ahead of you.

March 12, 2018, 2:37 PM · Agree with all of the above. If you really want to accomplish something, you'll generally be motivated to try your absolute best to achieve it.
Edited: March 12, 2018, 3:03 PM · My guess is that you could probably get to the "Bruch level" in 3-4 years of diligent practice under the guidance of an expert teacher.

But you asked how good can you get, and my answer is, good enough to enjoy yourself tremendously.

March 12, 2018, 5:03 PM · Well said, Paul.
March 12, 2018, 5:53 PM · I agree with Jason. Tchaikovsky Is certainly possible in 10 years with effective practice and a “good” teacher.
March 12, 2018, 6:08 PM · It all depends how many good habits do you have under your belt
how many bad habits did you put under the carpet!

If the basics are setup correctly, the sky is your limit. If not, you would have to aim for the top of the mountain.

March 12, 2018, 7:34 PM · the only difference in you starting at 20 vs starting at 10 is that you have a lot more trouble making time to practice and no one is forcing you to practice so you have to find motivation even on those days when you feel like the worst violinist ever. That’s the biggest issue I’ve faced, keeping the motivation through the plateaus.
Edited: March 12, 2018, 8:04 PM · I am really with Paul and Rocky.

Also I will change your question. It doesn't matter how good you'll be 10 years from now. The question is will you get as good as you could get? And maybe, if you enjoy yourself, the answer does not really matter. :)

Oh and make sure you enjoy the ride till you get to Tchaikovsky or Bruch. Use the violin to make these 10 years that follow more enjoyable :)

March 12, 2018, 8:11 PM · My violin teacher says that anyone who actually tries can always get to a certain level that is excellent
March 13, 2018, 10:32 AM · "My violin teacher says that anyone who actually tries can always get to a certain level that is excellent"

That's an unrealistic statement, and one that uniquely reflects the American self-improvement philosophy, but in a bad way because the implication is, should one fail to achieve "excellent," one has only one's self to blame. You just didn't try hard enough.

The reality of the violin is that only a very tiny percentage of people have the dexterity, intellect, triainability, self-awareness, or emotional makeup to reach the level of "excellent."

I have no lack of students that try really hard. But they will never be "excellent" and have no chance of being able to play through the first movement of Tchaikovsky at tempo without simply crashing repeatedly.
Few can, and not for lack of trying.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 10:44 AM · I find Scott's perspective to be just a little harsh here. I think that "dexterity, intellect, trainability, self-awareness, [and] emotional makeup" are really important, but those traits have to be cross-indexed with time. The less a player has those traits, the more work they have to put in, and the better teaching they need, to reach a certain level. That curve can be immense, so much so that for a given student and realistic timeframes, excellence is never achieved. (Scott mentioned "diminishing returns and marginal gains", which is basically what's involved here.)

No small number of professional violinists are merely good, rather than excellent, and many of them will never manage a credible Tchaikovsky. They'll be neighborhood violin teachers, and play weddings and such, and have perfectly good lives, though.

All you have to do is to go to YouTube and search master's violin recitals, to instantly have an impression that violin performance degrees that aren't from first-tier schools (and maybe some second-tier schools) are basically a giant tuition scam.

Going back to the OP's question, late starters who put in the work can turn into decent intermediate-level players. There's a ton of intermediate-level literature, and it's a perfectly fine level for community orchestras and amateur chamber-music. You can go play in a retirement home at that level and make old people happy. The key is to focus on tone quality, musicianship, and intonation, not virtuosity.

Most of the amateurs I know play around the same level that they did in high school (or college, if they took lessons through that point). Maybe a little better in some ways, probably a little less technically securely, though. I think I'm a better musician than I was in high school, and I do a handful of things better than I used to, but in sheer technical adeptness, I played better in high school. Youngsters, practice while you can!

March 13, 2018, 12:22 PM · "A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist" - Oscar Wilde.
March 13, 2018, 12:25 PM ·
Much Irish Fiddle music is fairly technical and I would think a good foundation to begin classical music with. To have had 10 years and be only 20 is no small thing. Jigs,Slip Jigs, Polkas, hornpipes, airs and such played at the tempos they require is no small thing and probably on par with any Suzuki method in terms of the technical chops needed.
My teacher is similar to you in experience and about your age. I just went to one of her recitals and she killed it! You should do very well in classical music. In many cases it isn't a step up it's only a lateral move into a different genre.
March 13, 2018, 1:43 PM · Ari Rose,

What is your definition of: "good"? If your definition is playing with a community orchestra, perhaps an amateur chamber group, that kind of thing - then it is likely that you can be successful in the "classical" world. You can perhaps have a place in both genres.

In the end it is about making music and whatever part of making music that you enjoy the most. As long as you set, and occasionally reset, realistic goals you can, and will, accomplish them. This advice from an over 70 violinist who started at the age of 30. In 40 years I've exceeded my initial dreams many times over.

March 13, 2018, 2:31 PM · I wonder if Scott teaches a lot of adult beginners. I've found that during the stages of my life where I taught the greatest number of those, I felt the most hopeless about the potential progress of all students in general. As I've shifted into having a greater number of kids, proportionally, my attitude has shifted back into "anyone can play ____ if they try hard enough."

With that said, it's not that adult beginners can't get good; it's that they're so burdened by the constant distractions of adult life that they're less likely to make it as far as kids, who not only have more free time but have a generally less crowded mental space.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 3:03 PM · It's hard - I have a sloppy Wieniawski 3rd movement I just performed, but at least that clarifies all the stuff my teacher has been telling me. If you really enjoy it, I think you suspend expectations and just put in the work. If you are banking on some outcome or being a pro, then there are probably better ways to spend your time and energy. I'm still counting on improving, and I will see how my Wieniawski sounds a couple of performances from now. At the very least, my memory held up (I've never really performed from memory) - Now to get it in-tune, more relaxed and faster...

It's not always apparent, but I've made some decent strides in the last few years.

March 13, 2018, 3:20 PM · What do you want from the violin? You say you have no professional aspirations, so you're free to do whatever you want. I took up violin at age 59 (although I've played other instruments before that). Now, less than 10 years later, I'm playing viola in a community orchestra, and bluegrass fiddle at local jams. There's always room for improvement, of course, but the way I'm playing now makes me happy - and that's what it's all about.
March 13, 2018, 4:07 PM · "My goal is to play real pieces well, with solid technique, in a way that is both enjoyable to play and to listen to. But is that realistic?"

Well that's my goal too, and I am much older and far less experienced than you. And I expect to continue to be satisfied (most days) with my progress as I go. I think much of the original spirit of music is ruined by recordings, which preserve and broadly distribute "perfect" performances that most of us could never replicate, and so now most of us will never be any "good." Playing music, in my opinion, should not be reserved only for the super-talented and should be something virtually anybody with enthusiasm and love of music should be able to do with others in their family, friends or local community, at a level eventually good enough for an audience to enjoy without critiquing it to the point of finding flaws because not "perfect like the record." Electricity has taken music away from us to the extent that we forget it was common for families and neighbors to make it together and the joy was not in the perfection but rather in the sharing and the union of self with the music.

March 13, 2018, 4:11 PM · >That's an unrealistic statement, and one that uniquely reflects the American self-improvement philosophy, but in a bad way because the implication is, should one fail to achieve "excellent," one has only one's self to blame. You just didn't try hard enough.

>The reality of the violin is that only a very tiny percentage of people have the dexterity, intellect, triainability, self-awareness, or emotional makeup to reach the level of "excellent."

"Excellent" is only meaningful in the sense people makes use of the word, thus very much context dependent. I would certainly use the word differently to describe a soloist, an amateur, and a folk violinist.

The use of "excellent" you seem to consider is restricted to professional playing, and thus applied to people considering their possibilities of making a career playing violin. Most people don't have that intentions, and neither OP.

I also dislike the original question. "How good can I get?" Does it matter? It's just a hobby. There isn't any need to stress over it.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 4:44 PM · Menuhin's best recordings were done in his teens, in my view, and for many other violin heroes the earliest recordings are as good or better than anything which followed. I wonder why?

Naming major soloists whose recorded legacy shows a marked improvement would be far tougher than naming those who declined, I think, though it would be nice to be proved wrong. It is a depressing thought, especially for someone three times your age.

You say, Ari, you have "a basically decent decent bow arm." So you have a good sound. That is something which many professional violinists never reach. You might find that a shocking statement, so watch and listen carefully and form your own view. Enjoy the fascinating journey. Of course you can play in a way you and others enjoy.

Edited: March 14, 2018, 5:37 AM · “In other words, you can say that the average person can fulfill 80% of their talent with 1 hour a day, 90% with 3 hours, 95% with 5 hours, and 98% with 6-7 hours.”

I agree. Assuming you have a *good* teacher, it is a matter how much and how well you practice.

To an average adult, the diminishing performing level of soloists and professionals may not apply. My personal experience has been that I am making more progress per year now than when I was a teenager. The difference being I didn’t want to practice then and now I try to get to my violin whenever I have a chance.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 8:14 PM · Same with me, David. Beats golfing too, or other frivolous “adult” hobbies.

And certainly in an alternate universe if we had practiced as kids we could have peaked at a higher level, but the standards of a diminished professional soloist were never in reach anyway, so it seems irrelevant. Playing as a diminished second rate or worse professional is still pretty good, and historically better than most violinists of the past were anyway, so the diminishing ceiling of the possible brought on by aging seems like it may not matter.

Of course, it sounds like nearly all of us adult students chiming in on this thread were intermediate as teenagers, or better, including OP. Erik, how many of your adult students were restarters like that as opposed to beginners as adults? Having overcome the initial threshold of tone which makes starting the violin so daunting certainly may help motivate adults who are more self aware than children. Also, we’re all pretty unusual people with a huge selection bias skewing the sample here. OP may be of that unusual cohort too, since he did post.

Also I wonder if a higher than normal for a violinist intelligence level might help compensate for a higher age? It certainly seems to be the case for several of us here in the adult restarter cohort, but again small sample size. I can say though that the work which leads to improvement is mentally the most challenging and stimulating thing I do currently—the constant intense learning just doesm’t seem to apply to most other activities. Even professional skills don’t have the same intensity for the years of duration required for advanced violin playing. It seems like the effort is in bringing back some of the childlike learning capacity, which is possible and I can feel it when it’s happening, but it’s much, much harder than before.

But finding the time for the single minded focus requires to make progress in advanced repertoire is very tough. I just lost a few months of progress compared to my preceding pace of advancement due to child #2 being born in the fall and the lack of sleep made memorizing very tough. I’m only now in the last few weeks getting back the ability to memorize and finishing up commiting the Preludio and Lalo to my memory. Memorizing is pretty essential for me to polish a piece for performance, so i’ve been plateaud at sloppy during this lul (although i’ve still raised my baseline facility in the meantime, but both this pieces are above that level so it doesn’t show as much in either). But, I have the sense that a 12 year old me would have made more progress over this same amount of time.

OP you’ve got fifteen years or more edge on us. If you focus, you can go far still. Take advantage of the free time in your twenties that comes after college, you’ll never have that again:)

I would also recommend using some of the few advantages of being an adult student and read from the masters. I’d start with Galamian’s book and Simon Fischer’s The Violin Lesson. I was able to improve my technique every day I read those books. I need to get back to both of them and reap some more returns.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 11:28 PM · "Of course, it sounds like nearly all of us adult students chiming in on this thread were intermediate as teenagers, or better, including OP."

For me, that's true only if you count the end of the teen years. I started at 16 and would probably have been considered "intermediate" from around 18 to 26, with a long plateau in the upper intermediate range from about 20 to 25 (some improvement during that time in tone quality and general musicianship but not much else) before starting to improve rapidly again.

Also, I think technical adeptness can continue improving for a long time beyond high school age, especially for those who started later. My agility improved significantly after age 25. I'm finding I have the technical chops to learn the Walton viola concerto at 35, and definitely didn't at 30.

Soloists who have continued improving: I'd say Hilary Hahn is far better now than she was at 20, though I'd concede that her technical chops are about the same.

March 14, 2018, 12:53 AM · Jason, a very small percentage of the adult beginners I've had over the years had actually played at all previously. Of those, even fewer had had private lessons, as opposed to just playing in band or something.

In fact, quite a few of my adult students not only had never played violin before, but also had never played any form of music, whether percussion, singing, or piano, etc....

I tend to address adults who had played as children or teens as "adult restarters" rather than adult beginners.

March 14, 2018, 9:28 AM · Erik, thanks for the clarification and correcting my conflating of the those two distinct categories. With that in mind, did you notice a difference with any of your adult re-starter students that would provide the OP more hope/anticipation of what can be done (back to his original question)?
March 14, 2018, 10:10 AM · No matter how hard we work, practice, take lessons, many of us will not achieve the highest technical level. I know I hit a physical and technical wall around age 28. I will not ever be able to play prokofiev or paganini concertos, or 1st violin parts of Wagner and Richard Strauss operas. But I have been able to improve in musicianship, experience, repertoire. And, even though starting late, I have been able to make technical progress at other music skills; conducting, vocal, percussion, arranging...
Edited: March 14, 2018, 7:37 PM · For an amateur like the OP, it is unlikely he will ever reach the professional level (in much the same way it is unlikely that most professionals will ever reach the level of the young Menuhin), I think the OP noted that from the get go.

It does not mean he cannot reach a much higher technical level from where he is. With sound practice and instruction, who is to say he cannot get to a pre-conservatory level, ie “ Romantic concertos, solo Bach, and some Paganini”? The fact that most soloists and professionals cannot improve beyond the technical level reached in their 20s is irrelevant.

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