Future of classical music?

May 22, 2017, 1:47 PM · Hi everybody,

I sense several trends affecting classical music (in which violins play a major role), that I would like to share and ask for your opinion.

1.) Changing environment for the children:

Learning an instrument competes with more short-term rewarding activities, like sports or even worse, playing online games, internet etc. There are studies, indicating that the attention span of children decreased and they focus more on other, short-term rewarding, high attraction and fun leisure activities. Children are not willing to practice over years and regular time, often conflicting with increasing school pressure. Additionally, those who did not learn any instrument might also not encourage their children, as parents, to learn an instrument and devote time and effort, leading to a downward spiral.

In schools, music (and other art) lessons are often cut (whilst companies complain about missing creativity and innovation of their employees)

2) Changing environment of music business (solists, orchestras, opera etc.):

Globalization and "industrialization" have not stopped with culture. There is no doubt, that the classical music industry works like a factory with professional management producing CDs, creating pop-star like musicians and conductors similar to commercial brands, playing what is popular and therefore possible to sell. The commercialization has also led to budget cuts for orchestras with mergers.. hundreds of talented musicians applying for one orchestra position, with international competition etc.

Additionally, the classical music business is still upholding traditional and conservative formats (confrontative, higher stage, less interactive… evening dress, when to clap or not to clap etc.…), which may prevent people to join this experience and give it a try.
The majority of the audience is older people (demografic issue) mainly from the upper middle and higher social class.
It is a bit similar to religion or church. How much keeping the traditions and how much openness is required to be still relevant and attractive for the next generation. In this context classical music might also not be explained well enough. More pre-concert introductions (building the „bridge“ between todays individual issues and the meaning of the historic piece) or the ability for the audience to sit next to players, would be an amazing experience especially for children.
Or to say it with design: form has to follow function. What function should classical music or making music have in these days?

3) Rising attraction in asian countries (positive)

Whilst in the "western" hemisphere (and cradle of classical music) there is a decrease in attention, classical music is on the rise in asian countries (like Korea, Japan, China). Orchestras are celebrated like pop-stars, parents encourage their children and support them financially and emotionally. They consider classical music as part of a holistic human education, like it was in previous times in western history beside arts, architecture, literature etc. More and more asian students study in Europe or US and join more and more orchestras, succed in competitions etc.
Will Asia have the role to "safe" classical music?

What do you think? Will classical music become a small "niche"? Is this part of a broader decrease in culture, in the sense of a early warning indicator or peak of the (culture)iceberg? Or what has to change for classical music to be present and relevant for society as a whole and its individuals?


Replies (61)

May 22, 2017, 1:58 PM · With the exception of some main markets, as Germany, perhaps classical music was never a big market, good art was never a popular thing. But, yes, popular taste was much more refined in the past.

In Asia classical music is incredibly popular. The lates viola I made was sent to Hong Kong, they represent a very good market for instruments now.

May 22, 2017, 2:05 PM · If you have ever seen the Violin Channel 20 questions interviews on youtube, you will notice the interviewee is almost always asked what the future of classical music will be. I have only seen one musician give a negative answer to that.

And I agree. I think that classical music has a very bright future, despite obstacles. I agree with your first bullet point about changing environment for children, but I think there are still enough children out there that are being raised to value hard work. Also, I think more and more schools are realizing the values of arts and being more hesitant to cut arts programs. But keep in mind when a school has to make a budget cut, anything they cut is going to be bad.

Your second point: I think that the "fanciness" of classical music is what makes it special. However, people need to start treating classical music like they treat visual art. People who aren't musically trained or do not particularly like classical music won't just go to a concert and they are afraid to criticize classical music. But plenty people of people who do not necessarily like visual art will go to a museum with friends or family just for fun and they aren't afraid to say something like "Why is that even considered art?"

About your third point, I don't think Asia will have the role of "saving" classical music. But I think that for classical music to be more successful, it is worth it to adopt Asian cultural values such as respect for authority and importance of self-improvement to change the changing environment for children you wrote about.

This is a very important topic. Thank you for bringing it up.

May 22, 2017, 2:31 PM · Has never gone away, and never will; but let's help more people get access to it without dumbing it down, and support music degrees everywhere, even if many in society deems them "useless" (including many musicians themselves.) Performing arts have always been a niche, and some decades more popular than others, but that's not necessarily bad.
May 22, 2017, 3:29 PM · I completely agree with Julia and Helen on their first points. More and more children spend hours per day playing video games. Learning an instrument, particularly piano and violin, is becoming extremely common among people from China, Japan and Korea, more so than in North America, I think, because of their highly academic culture.
Edited: May 22, 2017, 4:50 PM · There is a solution to children spending hours per day playing video games: Their parents. It's one thing to force a child to study the violin if they're truly miserable doing it. But neither do you need to wait until they ask you for lessons at the age of 16 after discovering Lindsey Stirling. It can simply be family policy that music lessons are part of your education. That's what I grew up with, and now I'm paying it forward. Lots of folks would say they'd never force a child to learn violin, but they have no problem forcing their kids to take language classes (especially in their own first language if it's not English) or to go to Sunday school or to sit for SAT tutoring.
May 22, 2017, 7:21 PM · Arguably today kids are massively overscheduled. The same sorts of kids who are learning violin are also taking piano, playing at least one sport year-round, in Scouts or other youth clubs, taking a foreign language class or other tutoring outside of school, volunteering, and doing something that pretty much occupies them round the clock save for half a dozen hours of sleep.

If they play video games in the few paltry bits of time they have to themselves, who can blame them? Only children are now expected to be productive in every waking hour. Adults who work an 8-hour-a-day job generally expect to do a few chores (if that) and vegetate in front of the TV. It's beyond me why we assume that children don't need downtime.

May 22, 2017, 8:59 PM · I disagree that kids are overscheduled. If I were a parent, I would make my kids study piano, and I say specifically piano because it's the foundation of all instruments in my book. If a kid really hates playing piano (not practicing, though hating playing can lead to hating practicing), I would let them do something else.
Edited: May 22, 2017, 9:02 PM · Good words, Ms. Leong. Kids are not meant to be miniaturized adults in training on a semi "professional" schedule. They can have a bright future without this busy life. Games are the least of a parent's worries, unless it's quite extreme (as always, disagreeing is fine-no offense is meant.)

That said, instruments like violin do require discipline and lots of careful work, so I wouldn't blame a parent for wanting his/her kid to spend reasonable time practicing, as long as he/she is not living self-vicariously through his/her child.

May 22, 2017, 10:16 PM · There's been plenty written about overscheduled kids, but start with this NYT article for a good summary of the topic: LINK
May 23, 2017, 12:46 AM · I spent my childhood roaming the streets and fields with my dog. I totally ignored all schoolwork. I was going to become another normal kid who didn't do anything much and would end up in a boring job. My parents thought I should be an accountant! I would have preferred death to that! But I got into music at 13 years old - rather late really. After that there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Kids are forced into becoming high flyers these days, with the ambition (usually of their parents) to become lawyers, doctors, or any job that has big money and kudos.

So music and playing an instrument just become one of those "other" things they might do. I know of many kids who are quite good and some very good on instruments, but most of them will not go into music as a profession. Hopefully they might keep their playing up, and get great pleasure from it in later life, and of course, be the future concert goers and CD purchasers.

May 23, 2017, 2:18 AM · Ha!

@Ella---"...If I were a parent, I would make my kids study piano.."

That's a mighty big IF!

As a parent myself, I can say that my children often have their very own ideas about what they will and will not do, despite our best intentions.And kids are certainly booked up for time. It;s pretty nuts actually.

I was more of the kid that Peter was (without the part about becoming a musician, I ended up an engineer), out in the woods and swamps, sharpening sticks, making slingshots, etc.

Yet, I will say that the fact that my two kids took up violin (and since, also piano)is the reason I took up violin/viola.

I myself have truly discovered the beauty of classical music through my early learning of the instrument. I hope my kids gain a similar appreciation, or more so.

Edited: May 23, 2017, 5:01 AM · Appreciation of classical music is one of the enduring, positive experiences that parents can provide their children. It is certainly an acquired taste, and early intervention is crucial. If 87% of children could inherit their parents' musical taste, the future of classical music is not dim at all.
May 23, 2017, 11:51 AM · I have no fears for the future of classical music, however, I often feel that the vast majority of classical music repertoire remains focused on past "great" composers, which must be frustrating for modern classical composers who remain in their shadows and that of mainstream low quality pop music. Unless modern classical music is played in the background of a popular movie, we don't hear much anything else composed in the last 3 decades it seems.
May 23, 2017, 12:28 PM · There will always be people who are interested in high level musicianship and period music. A few points on my background: I play obscure chamber works with ex-Cobbett Society members who try to play and revive neglected chamber music, I have a B.A. in composition focusing on both classical and jazz, I worked as an assistant to a commercial music producer whose works were performed by the Chicago Symphony, I play in several community orchestras in an area that has over 90 such groups competing for audience.
That said, IMHO classical music will remain part of a liberal arts education and will continue to attract people who appreciate its beauty. Over the centuries, what we now call classical music has been for aficionados, often of the upper class, often in geographical niches, not for the worldwide masses.
I grew up at the end of the last century believing that, like professional sports, there were very few slots for a large pool of talented composers and musicians. It is the same now. It was the same centuries ago-just look at the select few whose works have survived.

I see this as nothing new. What is new is the overwhelming amount of stimulus coming at people, the noise of competing interests 24-7, and the same factors that limit the number of people who are even capable of lasting through tomes the length of War and Peace.

Fortunately, much of classical music is tied to peoples' sense of nationality, and as such will remain preserved as cultural artifacts revered for their beauty and colored by emotions and cultural pride.

Edited: May 23, 2017, 1:08 PM · I'll agree that some kids are overscheduled. Some bring it upon themselves. They do need downtime, but not every way of spending that downtime is equally wholesome. Video games and television, in particular, have negative effects if one consumed too much of it.

Lydia's comment about parents vegetating in front of the TV in the evening while their kids are expected to be doing "educational" stuff caught my eye. On the other hand generally adults do carry more responsibility in their day jobs, which is more taxing than going to public school where, in my kids' experience, at most only half the classes are at all challenging (and our district is considered to have good schools).

Certainly there is a segment of classical music that will be all about Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. But, by and by, we are hearing works that have been composed more recently. It just takes time for any culture to absorb and acclimate to new music.

As an amateur violinist, one problem that I personally have is that much of the newer music is just too hard for me technically. One of my favorite things to do is read through the first-violin part of a string quartet a few times, maybe mark in a few key fingerings and bowings, work out a few of the harder bits, and then play it through with a recording (from YouTube or Spotify). I can do that with a lot of Mozart, Haydn, and even a few of the easier Beethoven movements. Okay, maybe I'm not playing it a professional level, but I'm basically playing it. With Janacek, Bartok, and the like, I have very little chance. The parts are just too hard. And one more thing: If music is still new enough to be protected by copyright then you cannot get it for free on IMSLP. I don't mind buying stuff I'm going to study for a while, but I can't feed my hobby of reading through quartets that way.

May 23, 2017, 3:09 PM · Is Orchestral music dead? No, orchestral music is alive and well and found all over the place. To be sure we all honor the "Greats" but the reality is that there is a lot of really excellent orchestral music being written and performed today. However, it isn't only performed at formal concerts with all the trappings.

As to the development of young musicians: the reality is that the prodigies still are, and always have been, an almost microscopic part of the population. The problem with getting young musicians to "practice" is that we teachers often make sure that they put their instrument in the same mental closet as homework, chores, and tests - all of the stuff that simply isn't fun and is drudgery at best.

The reality is that almost none of the young musicians who are "studying" today will grow up to be professional musicians or music teachers. However, with the right approach they will be avid amateurs who play with community orchestras and chamber groups while making their living at something unrelated to professional music.

For I time I worked in Bell Laboratories and discovered a lot of musicians who were the top scientists and engineers in the world. They, like me, aren't concert level musicians, but loved to play in various groups, had subscriptions to professional performances and music rounded out their lives.

That is where I see "Classical" music going - back to the people with a number of paid professionals working at various levels in the music industry. Oh yes, the professional orchestras have to change their style and outward snobbery and more than a few professional orchestras are already doing that. Remember that Beethoven once was distraught that the audience did not applaud following a movement of one of his early symphonies. Applauding between movements wasn't frowned on back then, it shouldn't be now.

Personally, I really love some of the amateur orchestras in my area - what they lack in musical perfection they more than make up for with their enthusiasm and love of music and that communicates with the audience who happily applauds between movements.

When music stops being fun, then it is dead.

Edited: May 24, 2017, 6:30 AM · Was there ever a generation that wasn't called lazy, distracted, and apathetic as children? Wasn't that a Shakespearean bit about a kid named Harry? What were the masses of kids doing while Bailot, Joachim, Ysaye and Menuhin were practicing?
Were parents worried about their kids not playing Corelli trios at the turn of the nineteenth century?
What about those madrigal crazy high-school kids?
If anything, youtube and future media will preserve and re-popularize classical music for future generations ad-infinitum.
May 24, 2017, 8:20 AM · Edward, you nailed it.
Edited: May 24, 2017, 10:25 AM · There are 2 sides of this story:
1. active interest in music, such as studying an instrument
2. music appreciation in the role of a listener

regarding 1, there seems to be a steady flow of music students
regarding 2;
From my personal observation, the age of an average attendee at classical (and baroque) concert music in Toronto is well above 60 - all you can see is a sea of grey hair Despite all discounts for people younger than 30, young people are minority when it comes to attending classical music. I do not have data about sales of CDs and other media, but CD departments for classical music have been shrinking in past 10 years. This might be a sign of migration from CD to mp3 of flac media format and buying online, but my hunches are telling me that in the long run, this is not sustainable. Lastly, opera tickets are so expansive that visiting opera has become a privilege of rich.

In conclusion, the interest might still be out there, but business rationale as a form of entertainment is declining.

May 24, 2017, 11:21 AM · Concerts are expensive. I went to concerts regularly as a college student on cheap student tickets. But as an adult, it's decidedly not a cheap night out. Even many of the local community orchestras are $20+ a ticket.

The Baltimore Symphony has started offering discounted season subscriptions to patrons under the age of 40, and as far as I know, that's pretty successful.

May 24, 2017, 2:40 PM · Support concerts. Just go partial view balcony or something. I have a cheapo package for next year at CH, Dress Circle Rear (cheapest non-discounted tickets.)

I admit, the supposedly "good" seats are overpriced, but in NYC someone usually still pays the price, and even higher. For me, the live experience is irreplaceable, and it's worth the monetary sacrifice. Plus you don't really need the higher priced seats to enjoy the musical interpretation. Grab the cheap seats, let others pay for the "good seats", and just enjoy the Concert.

May 24, 2017, 9:31 PM · Classical music is arguably dead already -- in this view we're mostly preserving a steadily declining version of it for historical reasons, 'entertainment' and inertia. Anything which isn't creative, and classical music for the most part isn't, as we've lost the practice of improvisation and don't have an environment which cultivates and sustains composers such as once lived, doesn't have the energy and spirit which makes it live and thrive.

Orchestras in major metropolitan centers are already stooping to pop and movie fusion in addition to the continual begging for money such that it's hard to justify them in simple economic terms, and that in turn is not enough to support even a small fraction of those who would be such musicians. This is not in itself an economic issue, but rather a reflection of the weakness of the segment and audience demand to support it.

If there is to be any redemption, it's not going to be on the basis of Classical music as it's been, a historical preservation of past glories which aren't refreshed, of countless recordings of the same material by every new musician. How many recordings of the major concertos do we need or want? How many recordings and performances of the Bach 'Sei Solo'? Even if the record companies successfully entice us to re-buy the catalog every few decades, there's a rational limit to the value of that continued rehashing.

But that's for classical music as such. Music itself is far from dead, and part of the revitalization of classical music is to see itself as such, not necessarily distinct from other sorts of music, but to the contrary the same, and distinguished, as the others, only in terms of quality and expression. In other words, it's not classical music as a historical record which could be safe or saved, but good, great music, and our appetite for such, and its cultivation, which demands that it continue to be created and moreover reflect and accompany a greatness in the spirit of the time and growth of humanity.

Edited: May 25, 2017, 6:10 AM · I find this topic quite funny. A lot of professional musicians I've met (violinists, pianists, music theory teachers...) are "really worried" about the future of classical music, orchestras, etc... They constantly say they must find different ways to attract the general public to come to the concerts.

And then you see that to get into a serious music school/conservatoire you need to be like 12 years old and play like Paganini. You need to be that kid whose parents put a violin in his hands when he was 4 years old. If you are not that kid, say goodbye to any kind of opportunity.

What is the alternative?

The alternative is "funny" music schools that are meant for "musicians" that only take it as a hobby, and almost no one there really wants to be a very good musician. By hobby I mean they don't take it seriously, they don't care at all about progressing, most of them. Don't misunderstand me and think that all violinists should go professional all the way.

Just look at some posts here, "I am 20 years old, is it too late?". That really explains the philosophy and ideas that prestigious music schools and conservatoires spread. Classical music is only for "the chosen ones", by that I mean kids that are playing violin basically because of their parents. This applies to any "important" soloist instrument.

Well, then don't act shocked when you start to see conservatoires and concert halls empty. Many, many, many people start to find their thing in their late teens.

What happens when you have 17 years old and want to play the violin?

You go to a conservatoire to gather information and you face the regular violin teacher that notices you're not a 10 years old kid and says:
- I'm going to be honest, my oldest student is 17 years old and is finishing this year. At your age, students leave this conservatoire. Good luck.

This is not right, talent is not anymore what counts, enthusiasm doesn't matter anymore, what matters is if you're a little kid that can win a lot of international competitions, a little robot that never really chose to play the violin.

And don't get me wrong, what I've said has nothing to do with admitting bad violinists. What I say is that if you are 15 years old or older, you practically need to forget about any classical music training by a prestigious music school. You don't even have a chance. Sure you can apply to audition, just get ready to be compared to a 10 years old kid that plays like you, if not better. But they play better than you because they've been playing the violin since age 3-4, 6 or 7 years, and you are 17 and have been playing for 2 years. You want to take it seriously, but the system of admitting? to conservatoires and the philosophy of all the classical atmosphere will reject you instantly.

If you reject almost all the late teens and early twenties not because lack of talent, not because they don't play well, but because their age, then don't expect to be popular. Deal with it.

May 25, 2017, 6:43 AM · Ingraining a good music education into children will keep the fire burning. Even if the child isn't musically gifted a steady diet of good music early will leave a positive mark on them. If it isn't their main interest later in life they will have an appreciation for the music.

Musicians have always been a percentage of the population. Musicians are probably the most concerned. The general public at large is much less concerned. I recently wrote a blog on Music and culture. As I see it, culture is the rudder that steers music.

The acknowledgement that classical music is a solid basis for the best music education is the accepted criteria in most educational institutions and rightly so. I work at the largest state university in my state with 17,000 students. Although I'm not actively involved in the music education end of things, I can tell you that classical music here is alive and well. We have a dedicated Steinway Music building and graduate
hundreds of music majors every year. All with classical music as the basis for much of their education.

One trend I've noticed is families following the same tracks. Dad was a music teacher, son follows. I married into a family of teachers and it seems the baton is passed there in the same way. And why not? It's probably one of the best ways to make a decent living in music. The problem is we likely graduate too many music majors compared to the positions out there. I wonder how many of them will land decent jobs.

For those who have zero exposure to the fine arts and music, the only point of connection to anything remotely resembling classical music is probably the music they hear composed with orchestra samples in movies and video games. Ironic that many schools now play movie theme music in their repertoire.

Who needs an orchestra? Just pick up one of these sample libraries.I say this tongue in cheek, although there has been a metamorphosis of the traditional orchestra/symphony


My local orchestra usually sells out shows. These are both young and older attendees.

Edited: May 25, 2017, 12:29 PM · Classical performance will continue to live for the foreseeable future, although it will probably continue to shrink as an economically viable way to live because demand is decreasing for paid live performance. Demand is decreasing in part because of recorded sound, and in part because those with a taste for classical music are a decreasing population.

Now, why is the population with a taste for classical music decreasing? To answer that question in part, we have to ask which cultural factors lead to the rise of instrumental music which we call "classical" or probably should be better called western concert music--that's what Robert Greenberg calls it.

I'm no musical historian, so I would mostly just regurgitate what I've learned from reading, although my wife and I listened to the following lecture series so she could learn more about what I do for two hours every night, and I found the discussions in the first fourth of the course regarding what lead to the rise of instrumental music out of church vocal music and later opera to be well done:


(Pro tip--Great Courses lectures are available on Audible for one credit, so that works out to ten dollars for a whole series of 20-40 hours; a good deal in my book)

I won't repeat the cultural factors in detail here (unless someone wants to take that long discussion up!), but it seems obvious that most of them are dead or rapidly declining, and things like concert music that relied on them will subsequently wither as well. Living in a declining civilization is a bummer for sure, as the Romans could tell us were they still around. On the bright side, in the distant future great music will probably arise again in some form.

In the meantime, we few can keep the flame of civilization burning so that it can be spread again one day later. It is great music, and one day there may be the cultural impetus again for more people to appreciate it (or even learn about it, as many are completely ignorant of anything that's not in popular media due the complete failure of "education" nowadays) over the electronic noise that superficially sates their desire for music (just like Facebook superficially provides the illusion of friendship); but, for that to happen a lot of other cultural forces need to be reinvigorated.

May 25, 2017, 12:57 PM · The problem is much wider than classical music. We have a shrinking middle class and our disposable income is increasingly consumed by telecom fees (cell phone, internet service, cable TV, etc.) that we are expected to absorb just to basically participate in society. Those of us who love and support classical music "from the inside" are also paying for lessons, instruments, sheet music, accessories, and so on. It adds up.

J Ray wrote, "Orchestras in major metropolitan centers are already stooping to pop and movie fusion." I think that's fine actually. I vote with my feet. When the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra performs with Boz Skaggs, I stay home. If they have a violinist performing a concerto, I go, especially if it's at the Moss Center, to which I can walk in half an hour. For others the pop stuff is an introduction to the capabilities of a modern regional symphony. They go and maybe they realize it was more fun or interesting than they expected.

May 25, 2017, 2:08 PM · Regarding the "standard etiquette" of performance goers, WQXR posted the answer that you can read via this link: http://www.wqxr.org/story/why-dont-we-clap-between-movements-classical-concerts/

The last thing music needs are SNOBS who look down at people who are enjoying themselves at a concert. After all, this is classical music, it is "good for you" and you need only put up with it to get the benefit.

May 25, 2017, 10:33 PM · Yeah, I think concert etiquette is pretty silly since the modern concert form only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that things were much more casual, with people even talking during concerts; while I wouldn't advise that, I think finding more casual, less stuffy venues for performing the great works would help more people learn to appreciate the music--since we can't expect the education system to teach people the only real way to maintain an audience is to evangelize!
May 26, 2017, 4:10 AM · Mark S.'s response made me pause. It is a little bit sad that it becomes harder for people to go pro if they start past age 13. But it is certainly not impossible. It just takes a ton of work, more than most can probably handle. But I think the effect that you describe, Mark, has benefits because having children start so young gives us the quality of classical music that we have, which I think is excellent.
Edited: May 26, 2017, 5:10 AM · Helen Smit wrote that it's "not impossible" to go pro if you start past the age of 13. That's true, but the odds are so low that telling a youngster that it's a reasonable career objective -- without a really solid Plan B -- would be imprudent to say the least. All the engineers I know started studying math at an early age too.
May 26, 2017, 6:24 AM · I agree, Paul. Like I said, it is more work than most people can probably handle. I know someone personally who started violin at 13 and is now a professional violist, but it is hard to do and most people can not do it. Another thing is that math, science, English, etc. are always started early in public schools. But my district, like most, did not start instruments until 5th grade. With no effort outside of the home, I argue it is easier to wind up with a career in STEM than a career in arts.
Edited: May 26, 2017, 7:17 AM · Well, I must say I also sense this kind of "kids only" thing in professional music schools, and I think it's quite unfair. At least I sense it in "important soloist" instruments such as violin, piano, cello...

Age definitely is the very first thing that counts here, don't fool yourselves. Where I live if you have 13-14 years old you literally can't start from the beginning because of the age. If that's not unfair, I don't know what it is.

The very first year of a conservatoire or professional music school only admits 7-10 years old kids. Theses kids don't know nothing about music, so they are at the same level of a 17-24-30 years old that has never studied music but wants to start now. I know that they let you audition to enter 5th grade if you are a teenager/twentysomething/thirty... But again, you are competing against those kids that entered when they were 7-10 years old, so it's a 17/25/30 years old vs 10-13 years old that have been trained in that music school for 4 years. Again, age plays the most important role here, as I don't know literally any violinist that is older than 18 years old and is studding at a conservatoire.

Is that because in the audition, all the 12-14 years old kids played better than all of the 17, twenties, thirties...?
No, that would be impossible.

About comparing this to a science degree in a college or something. At least where I live, colleges select students based on their note, which they got in the tests they made weeks or months ago. So what only counts here is knowledge, not matter if you are 17 years old or 13 years old or 35 years old. You get an A, you enter, period. In conservatoires this is not at all how it works, and in my opinion and many of my private teachers too, this is veeeeery wrong. Age should not be a factor at all, what matters here is your violin level, how well you play the violin, your theoretical music knowledge and may be a little interview to know your enthusiasm about studding violin there.

Helen, it's not that it is easier, not at all, the knowledge you got to have to make it to an engineering/maths/science degree is quite high. The level to enter to a conservatoire (year zero) is none, you simply have to be younger than 10 years old, medium/decent music skills and you're in. And of course, a mother and a father wanted you to go there. I yet haven't met any 7 years old kid that tells his parents "Mom, I want to study at Juilliard". Some may want a violin at 7 years old, but mostly to have fun, not to study it in a conservatoire at all.

Of course, if you want to start playing the violin at 17 years old, you need like 4-5 years to get to the level of auditioning for 5th grade, and you face 12-14 years old, you are 22 years old. Yeah, now it's harder to get into the Conservatoire than getting into MIT or something because you're simply against the rules: age.

I hope this changes over time, I hope kids are treated as equal and not glorified. Also, and many of my violin teachers agree with me, I often find cringeworthy when a 13 years old is playing the Bruch/Brahms... violin concerto perfectly, sometimes it doesn't feels just right. It's like a kid writing adult novels describing erotic scenes perfectly, I don't know, it's like something does not fit.

May 26, 2017, 7:17 AM · Several thoughts:

1) I distinctly remember having this same conversation in music school (with essentially the same arguments). That was almost 40 years ago, and it ain't dead yet.

2) Society and social customs evolve. Music education in public schools is waning (as it has been for decades), yet it seems even more kids than ever take private lessons in an attempt to improve their college application CV. Few of these kids are going to stick with the instrument throughout their lives; however, most will develop an appreciation for music.

3) Price and age of concert attendees has always been a worry. Putting 100 musicians on stage costs money, so tickets have always been relatively expensive. When you're in your 20s, you're broke, can't afford tickets, and are mostly interested in more social activities. When you're in your 40s, you have a family with kids that devour your time and money, and while you'd like to attend concerts, you'd like to do a lot of things. Hopefully by your 50s you reach that stage in life where the kids have left the nest, the house is paid off, and you have the time and money to get a subscription to the symphony, or travel to some place and take in a concert as part of your visit.

4)J Ray wrote "don't have an environment which cultivates and sustains composers such as once lived". As someone with a M Mus in Composition that had to turn to another field of employment, I resemble that remark. But I've been reading Jan Swofford's excellent biography of Brahms, where it was pointed out that in his day, it was unheard of to make a living as a composer. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, etc. all made their livings primarily as performers or conductors performing their own music rather than from royalties. Also, even by Brahms' day, orchestras were starting to favor established works from Mozart and Beethoven while shunning "modern" works (hence Brahms' trepidation of composing his first symphony).

5) Mark S' observation about the age of successful musicians is more or less correct. I rubbed elbows with a few musicians that made it to major orchestras - they were already good when they arrived at school and were there more for contacts and experience than to learn something new. I was a brass player. The tuba player from our brass quintet left school at 20 for a gig in Vienna. My trombone teacher (Norman Bolter) left NEC at age 19 to play in the Boston Symphony. Students can still go to music school and get jobs in lesser orchestras, or free lance, or teach, etc., but I think teachers need to give their students more realistic expectations.

May 26, 2017, 8:55 AM · Tim, I did not mean to diminish the effort it takes to have a career in a science field. Let me rephrase: Science an math are emphasized much more than music in most schools. Should a student graduate not having done any studies in any subject outside of school, they will be more equipped to study science or math in college than they would be if they intended to study music.

About public schools - keep in mind that any budget cut for any subject, music related or not, will be a bad budget cut because it has the effect of worsening a child's education. Cuts to music are bad; so are cuts to math.

Edited: May 26, 2017, 10:00 AM · I remember when I was a kid, you can get tickets (that were not sold) to the Baltimore Symphony about 10-15 minutes before each concert for almost free. You may end up in a very bad seat, but you are in!

The classical music establishment should not water down repertoire and etiquette to cater to the young; it should make it economically accessible!

May 26, 2017, 10:08 AM · Seriously studying the violin is a life-long endeavor, and beyond a mere "career". You basically marry your violin for life. As long as someone fully understands this and is OK with possibly never "making it" (whatever that may mean), I would not discourage a late starter into this challenging but life-enriching path.

IF all the possible late-starting student wants is getting into the Berlin, being the world's foremost violinist, earn riches and renown, then I would advice against serious musical study. After all, many seriously good players who did start "early" are not necessarily in a big orchestra or are any sort of "big time" soloist. Play because it is your passion-violin playing always carries the "risk" economic factor, even at a high level.

Edited: May 26, 2017, 2:05 PM · Tim Ripond, The “fixation” on age in violin playing is not entirely without merit. I am of the view that learning to play the violin is similar to acquiring a language. There is a window within which one, if she puts in enough effort, could attain proficiency and fluency. Once the window is missed, it is almost impossible.
Edited: May 26, 2017, 2:38 PM · Oh, Helen, I didn't understand what you think I did, I know you did not mean that learning violin is harder than studying Mechanical Engineering for example. It depends on what you take into account, a mechanical engineer can perfectly say that yeah, you may got the degree but you are not at all a good mechanical engineer, that you need to work in major projects to become a "real" mechanical engineer. A violinist can say something like that as well. I mean, this is incredibly subjective because it's imposible to be objective about what's really a violinist or an engineer or a physician.

About your rephrase: you're right, yeah, I agree with you that the average science student is way more capable of get into MIT for example. But that's not at all my point and what I argue about. It's easier for him to get into the MIT because he has been studying maths, chemistry, physics and technology for more than a decade. He's been studying music ZERO years. So, well, surprise, he knows a lot more about science that about music. That's clear.

What I'm talking about is that when you are 15 or older, you have NO CHANCE, it's like almost a law, to enter into a conservatoire at the zero level, where nobody knows nothing about music, no matter if you are 7, 10 or 25. Instead of looking for musical skills (hearing, intonation with voice, rhythm, enthusiasm...) they literally reject all the candidates older than 12-13 years old and then select the best ones, I guess. First 4 years are denied to teenagers (13...). You have a chance to audition for 5th grade or later courses, so after 4 years with private teachers you give it a try. Now you are 17 or older, probably older, and you face those students that are 12 and have been in the conservatoire for 4 years already. Unless you play incredibly amazing, chances are you don't have a chance at all, you're too old. Why age matters in such a young age (yeah, 12 is a young age, so is 17 or 25 when talking about learning) I don't and will never understand.

About the glorification of kids, they are like sponges, they learn much faster, etc... Well, that's way too easy, ANY career or college can totally take that posture, any.

What do you think, that you can't take 7 years old kids and teach them all the secrets about motors, how to assemble them, how to disassemble them, intensive maths, etc...?

Same goes with chemistry, and pretty much any career. Any college can adopt that position and say that "in their view, kids are way more capable of becoming great engineers, so from now on, only 7 years old will get into their colleges and will be taught for 16 years all the concepts". And I'm 100% positive that at 24 they would totally own any actual engineer that gets its major degree at 24. No comparison at all.

Why this does not happen?

Well, first the education system let's you choose and discover what you are passionate about for 18 years. After all those years, you finish high school and choose a career/job. That's a nice respectful way of thinking. Academies of music don't let you that, they only are meant for parents that want their kids to become a violinist or pianist.

So if you start loving classical music at 15 and decide to become a violinist 2 years later, fatal error, already too late, you won't be accepted at the beginning level of any academy of music because of your age, try 4-5 years later after a lot of hard work to audition for 5th grade, whoops, you're now in your early twenties, candidates for 5th grade are 12-13, double age denial, blame your parents. What a joke.

The music education should not be that elitist, it's like monarchies. Monarchies tend to disappear. Why? Because they normally consider the blood, and the time one son doesn't get married, one monarchy that disappears.
How a 7 years old kid ends up in a conservatoire?
Chances are their parents are musicians. The time one of the dynasty chooses another path, one family less. And that's a big portion of why in my opinion classical music is disappearing. Also that's wrong, it's elitist, they don't let people develop their musical taste, the rest of careers and degrees give you 18 years.

Edited: May 26, 2017, 2:34 PM · A 7- year old can acquire a second language almost effortlessly in a matter of months. It is much harder for a 17- year old who will never be able to shred her accent even if fluency is attained.
May 26, 2017, 8:50 PM · Ben Zander believes that all people can come to love classical music.
Here his TED talk:

I think it opens people's eyes and ears.
As does: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/06/how-to-listen-to-classical-music-and-enjoy-it/57867/

May 26, 2017, 9:27 PM · The issue I see as a K-12 educator is that many students have been set on a false path to accumulate as much activity as possible, an attempt to have extreme breadth without any depth.

I see it both in music, and in computer science (I teach both subjects at the high school level). A number of students want to dive into complex things like coding apps and using the Unity game engine before they've put in the time to learn basic things like how machines communicate, or how to deal with input and output. I tell students that they have to practice programming every day, just like an instrument...but this message doesn't always get through.

May 28, 2017, 7:22 AM · In Benjamin Zander's talk, he asks the audience a question which I think should be asked of those who would make the argument that classical music is great by definition - "Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you feel sleepy in classical music is not because of you but because of us?" - at around the 8 minute mark: https://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion

Contrary to my own argument in this thread that classical music is already dead, it is not dead when it is energized by the voice of the performer, giving life to the original idea and feeling and communicating that to the listener. Expecting that the greatness is there in the notes and will necessarily be apparent to the listener however is not enough, and the audience's disinterest is to a large part a natural consequence.

Edited: May 28, 2017, 9:01 AM · J Ray, you're basically saying that classical music is not great by itself, but needs the art of a master musician to achieve that level of greatness.

Duh, I'm shocked, unbelievable truth discovered right now...

None would appreciate the Sibelius, Bruch, etc... if it's played by a mediocre soloist. Great pieces require astonishing performers.

May 28, 2017, 1:08 PM · "you're basically saying that classical music is not great by itself, but needs the art of a master musician to achieve that level of greatness."

No, I wouldn't say that. I'd say that not all classical music is great, and not all professional performances, regardless of apparent status are great. The difficulty of the music is another dimension that doesn't make or not make music great either. Music written to showcase technical virtuosity has a different purpose. But I agree, this is obvious and dull; the proof is in the performance and the listening, and that not everybody is enjoying it is an indication.

May 28, 2017, 1:08 PM · I'm guessing that Tim is talking about some specific locale's music education system... the UK, I presume?

The US does not have "grades" and examinations and a formal pre-college music sequence, in the way that the UK has the ABRSM or the Canadians have the RCM.

In the US, some pros are late starters, but they generally stay at the lower tiers of the profession.

May 28, 2017, 1:23 PM · J Ray,

Classical is not dead, and "disinterested" masses in it have always been a common phenomena. Every few years one or two soloists pop up, then disappear. Even some violinists that a few in this forum would regard as "superstars" are rarely heard of outside the Classical niche circle. That it should be better known and appreciated is something I can believe in, but its failure to reach absolute prominence in this Society may not be a totally bad thing.

Wholly diaagree on the old "virtuosity for its own sake" variation of the argument stated above. To each their own. I actually wish difficult showpieces were perfomed more often-the modern Classical concert program tends to be a bit too serious for me at times.

May 30, 2017, 10:02 AM · Classical music is still here two days later and counting.

I'll keep checking and keep you posted.

Powdered wigs and knickers are optional.

I'll be Bach.

May 30, 2017, 5:46 PM · Orchestral music certainly had a bubble, a big swelling in popularity, for a few decades, and, in my view, the size of audiences now is smaller, the number of orchestras fewer, and the frequency of concerts for each orchestra is less, than, say, 70 years ago.

But, musicians, generally, have also had a bubble in expectations, and it has popped, too.

While the standards of players continues to spiral upward, and the number of excellent players available to fill jobs appears to continue to increase, the demand for their skills is much reduced.

As I toured in USA in the mid 1970s, I caught the end of the era when every city of a million or so people had a full time orchestra, or so it seemed. Not now, I suggest.

I have known a large number of degree trained musicians who became music teachers (rarely performing), sales people, even retrained as lawyers, pharmacists, etc.

It remains immensely rewarding to play an instrument well, and to play with other people, but, for most of us, it is not a good career choice (economically).

You must know yourself very well before you decide to make performing music your life's work.

This has probably been true in all times, even in the early decades of the C20th, when the bubble grew most.

Edited: May 30, 2017, 7:26 PM · There is one (terminal) subway station in Toronto, where classical music is played all day long over low-quality PA system as a deterrent (people repellent). It is an eerie feeling... so many people, from the composer, musicians, conductors, recording engineers.... spent their whole life to produce that music, only to end up being used as a mean to prevent people from gathering there.
If that is not a sign of crisis, I do not know what is.
May 30, 2017, 7:55 PM · Didn't large cities used to have a single significant symphony? Now such cities support a dozen or more ensembles -- one primary symphony, a whole bunch of regional per-service orchestras, community orchestras... plus little chamber orchestras, quartets, and whatnot. Funding has gotten diffused.
Edited: May 30, 2017, 9:44 PM · In my locality there has been a steady increase in the range and quality of classical music available over the last 20 years, and in the frequency of concerts and recitals. It's a university town in an otherwise relatively low-income, rural area, but I would have to retire and win the lottery to see everything that's offered.
May 31, 2017, 11:18 AM · Rocky, the problem must be the low quality PA system. Or maybe the selections?

In Toronto maybe they favor the French composers? I guess that might more likely be Quebec.

If I only casually listened to classical as background fill it all starts to sound the same. This could probably be said of any genre of music though.

Maybe this is human nature kicking in. If you force feed music, chances are they won't like it. If you charge for it they tend to place more importance on it.

Or maybe the painful truth is some of this music makes babies cry, kills bacteria and scares crows away. I don't think so personally. I have a lot of faith in classical music, although I enjoy other genres.

June 2, 2017, 7:14 AM · To some earlier comments-I can see the unfairness if you compare degrees in music as possible careers-the way most people, I believe, see them (I don't.) It is entirely outrageous in that context that it's "wrong" to pursue a "professional" path at 15 or 18 when many other degrees don't have such strict rulings.

That said, I must disagree with the accent/language comparison (no offense, Mr. Zhang-it's OK to disagree), as an adult who works hard can ay least in theory surpass any kid that started at 4, and these young ones are neither guaranteed "violin fluency without accent" by virtue of starting so early. The road to violin mastery is difficult and/or complicated for both adult and child alike. We just have a much smaller sample size of "successful" adults, but starting late by itself is not the insurmountable disadvantage many in the music world make it to be.

Cheers to Mr. Fischer for acknowledging as much in his "The Violin Lesson" book. I was wholly surprised thay a modern high level teeacher would be open to such ideas, and wish more teachers take his fine example.

Edited: June 2, 2017, 3:54 PM · Adalberto, can you name one person who started playing the violin as an adult ( say 20 or later) and went on to become a professional violinist in any full time classical orchestra that pays at least $30 k a year?

ONE data point may go a long way to support your theory. As far as I can see, the sample size of "successful violinists " for those who started as adults is zero.

Edited: June 2, 2017, 2:56 PM · David, hahaha, don't make me talk. It's the system the one that makes that happen, it's the elitism of classical music, by elitism I mean "kids only", the reason why there are no late starters. As I've said, if you're 15 or so, you won't be accepted as a "level zero" student. You can only audition to 5th grade. In 5th grade you face those kids that entered when they were 7-10 years, and now they are 11-13 and have been trained in the music school for 4 years. You are, at least, 19 years old. Surprise, 19yo vs 12yo, who wins?

So please, don't ask such a senseless question, cause it's the teachers (or the classical educational system) the ones that won't take any adult as a student in a Conservatoire/Music School. If in 10th grade, all the violinists are under 18 BECAUSE the educational system wants it that way, then it's quite obvious why you see no top tier classical violinists that started playing at 20. Late starters (late teens-twenties) have no chance to study at a "high" level Conservatoire, no matter how talented they are, so it's quite obvious the answer of your question.

June 2, 2017, 3:32 PM · I am 100% there ARE thoae types of "successful" players, but even if I had a specific name, you would probably find another con to his/her career, so let's better leave it at that. You seemed convinced by "lack of evidence" that it's not just possible. I AM convinced because there are some late starters that do play at a high level, and some of that small number may be whatevwr you call "successful."

The question I would pose is, how are you so sure that in this whole world there isn't a single late starter, even from 20, that cannot be "successful" BECAUSE of his/her age? I wouldn't bet on this as much as you would.

(I do find it objectionable to see violin playing as an all or naught career affair, as I hinted at earlier. It is a life path, more than an strictly money making venture. Otherwise why study it since there are many other "safer" ways to make money? If you earn a good living, very happy for you, but I bet there are many good players that don't make as much, regardless starting age).

The system doesn't help, as Mr. Ripond alluded to, but I still won't bet on adults being "successful" as a wholly "impossible" proposition. Unlikely at most.

June 4, 2017, 5:07 AM · One problem with late starters is that they age out of competitions and conservatories.
Edited: June 4, 2017, 5:08 AM · Double post sorry.
June 4, 2017, 7:18 PM · I believe one of the posters here, Daniel Kurganov, started very late -- 19? I believe he eventually got a performance master's and is doing well for himself as a performer (though I don't think he chose an orchestral route).
June 4, 2017, 10:50 PM · Thanks for pointing this out. I am sure it could be argued "but 19, not 20!"-however, for some even something like 16 is "impossible".


I doubt he's the lone "successful", "too old" player in the world. Something not being expected or likely doesn't make it impossible. Some players can rise up to the challenge.

Even young kids need a lot of good things going well for them in order to be "successful", though generally they have a more open, less obstacle-laden road ahead of themselves. Many young players fail to "make it" as well.

On topic, we should cheer on both the 4 year old and the 20 year old, as serious musicians of any starting age are crucial for the "future" of Classical music. Age-ism doesn't even have a logical reason to exist (which of course is not saying that violin learning will be a cakewalk for the older player.)

June 5, 2017, 2:48 AM · When you hear that the New York Philharmonic is under financial threat because of diminishing audiences and problems with MD's leaving then we should be very concerned.


The situation looks bad everywhere and gone is the golden period between 1945 and 1985.

I would not take up music as a living now and in the way I did.

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