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Jasmine Reese

Why are teens called late starters?

April 5, 2009 at 4:20 PM

After I interviewed concert soloist, Gareth Johnson--winner of the Sphinx Competition--many people could not understand why he was viewed as a late starter. 

 Of course, starting four years after Johnson, he started at 10 and I at 14, I could not understand why Gareth would be called a late starter as well.  However, after evaluating and analyzing my own musical education as a teen and then hearing other stories of musicians who started in their teens, I could see how it would be ideal to start earlier.

First off, we must not confuse the phrase “late starter” with “too late.”

The obligations that come with age will stack up.   So, starting earlier before time and physical/mental development become an issue would seem better.  Teen beginners face almost the same obstacles as an adult beginner.   Adult beginners past age 20 are constantly changing and facing the physical and mental realities of being human.  But aren’t teens as well?  Like a mid-life crisis, the teen years can be just as dramatic--puberty, awkwardness, peer-pressure, academic and domestic increase in responsibilities, the overwhelming question of what one will do with his or her life.  

For the passionate teen musician, things can get confusing.  At least an adult, for the most part, is settled down, not choosing a career.   I remember my goals were in line before I started violin.  I knew what I wanted to be.  But music took such a strong hold on my life—being a great stress reliever and a way to communicate with the world I felt did not understand me—my original laid out plan fell apart.  I could not imagine doing anything else but immersing myself in music for hours at a time, playing for audiences and talking to them through my instrument.

But, 18 was coming up fast.  I needed to start making decisions.  Could I go to music school?  Could I really compete with teens my age who started at 5 or even younger?  Was I playing violin for the right reasons?

Unfortunately, the glamorous lifestyle that the music world presents entraps all teens.  We all think at one point or another what it would feel like to be in a world-famous pop star’s or classical concert soloist’s shoes.  However, a teen can take this to the extreme, causing quite painful emotions and eventually, in some cases, the revelation that not everybody “gets there."  

I have known many teens who attempted suicide because their love of music and, more importantly, the glamorous lifestyle, was too much to bear possibly living without.

On the less extreme spectrum, many teens are inclined to quit because of peer-pressure distractions such as dating, social groups--some detrimental (my old violin teacher lost a student who chose to join a gang instead of continuing to play in youth orchestra).  Others will quit because of a lack of time (the same reason many adults will quit)—an overload of schoolwork, extracurricular activities and community service.  

So, this brings me to my other question.  How do music teachers help teens during the extreme emotional and physical morphing period of adolescence?  

I am not going to answer this question.  I do not even know if there is a wrong or right answer.  Each situation is individual and unique.  I will say, however, that a teacher should not only be prepared to teach, but also counsel. Imparting musical guidance should also be accompanied with an application of life lessons.  For example, it takes hard work to become excellent at an instrument just like it takes hard work to get what you desire most in life.  However, music, like the results of our work, should be seen as a gift meant to be enjoyed, whether we are professional or amateur musicians.

What do you guys think?


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 5, 2009 at 6:20 PM

So true! Everything you said has happened to me as a teen starter. Except two : wanting to have a glamorous life ( I mean I didn't even care about this one as a critera) and suicide. I am very impressed to never have even though of these two options since it was so difficult psychologically (I know, some things are worst but thinking about possibly loosing the true love of your life as a teen is terrible in its way... I know it's as unexplainable as Romeo and Juliet's love affair but it's like a kind of impossible (very often, not always) love story for teens with everything that comes with it!!!) About suicide, may I talk openly about why it didn't came through my mind: how can you know in your teen years that you will never play some things of the "interesting" repertoire!  It can maybe happen to an amateur at 50 + who knows? (I try to take into acount the very little progress during study years + the fact that it will be longer because doing more than 4 hours a day is almost impossible for a normal worker in a non musical field) I mean, if you are not living anymore, maybe you will have killed this slight chance of really have a nice musical futur one day (even if this day means when you will be 50.  50 is not the end of one's life, in general!)  If this Japanese lady that have started at 60 played Mendelshon at 87, imagine what maybe some of us, teen starters, could do one day...  (I'm not telling I will be in these lucky ones, I don't know it as not many of us can predict our futur!) I just want to be there in case!  It's hard to see it through this angle as a teen but this though is what saved me and I hope some very depressed musical teens will consider something similar before doing anything!   But yes, you are right that the teen years are a though time to begin and the interference between music and the famous (Gee, it's time to think about what will I do in life) is not easy to deal with!  But, cheer up teen starters, we have a little more years un front of us to try to achieve what we want the most in life!  And you know what? School will be over one day!  I am so anxious for getting out of it (shame on me for the opinion I give about school to the younger than me! I know some like school... lol!)

Have a nice day,


From Graham Clark
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 10:29 AM

I started violin at twelve. That is considerd a late starter.

By the age of twelve I had already listened to a pile of classical records, listened to popular radio, seen plenty of TV, and been exposed to a variety of musical genres. I had already developed a great ear, and had my own musical taste. By fourteen, I had discovered rock music, and after only two years on violin, I was improvising blues and rock, getting into psychedelia, and becoming the violinist that I am now.

If I had started at four, I don't think I would have been quite so self-determining. Even at seven, you are more receptive to training, rather than self-directed learning.  My musical environment would have been much more constructed for me, as opposed to me going out and finding what excited me.

You might say that the classical world lost a potentially good violinist because I started "late". I think this is the point: starting at the earlier age focuses the child on the orthodox route, the "traditional" steps up the ladder, through the etudes and pieces of music that are the developmental mainstay of the classical violinist. I didn't do that because I began at a time when I was already rebellious, and wanted to go my own way. I managed two and a half years of lessons, before I took to learning everythng by ear.

On the other hand, you could say that, because I started late, I chose my own way, and the jazz/improvising world gained a decent player. I don't think I would play the way I do had I started at four or seven. I am pretty sure that I would have become a more orthodox straight violinist. I have certainly done many more than my 10 000 hours, but on other kinds of music. If I had started when I was four, those hours would havbe been done on the classical training repertoire.

The earlier you get 'em, the more you can mould 'em. It is easier if the potential violinist  has been  fully trained BEFORE adolescence kicks in,  with all the distractions and upheavals that usually entails,




From Bethany Morris
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 11:26 AM

My definition of a "late start" is after the critical period where musical aptitude cannot be further developed, which around age eight.  But that's more of a science thing than a philosphical thing.

From al ku
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 11:39 AM

"How do music teachers help teens during the extreme emotional and physical morphing period of adolescence?  "

a great answer..."I do not even know if there is a wrong or right answer.  Each situation is individual and unique.  I will say, however, that a teacher should not only be prepared to teach, but also counsel. Imparting musical guidance should also be accompanied with an application of life lessons.  For example, it takes hard work to become excellent at an instrument just like it takes hard work to get what you desire most in life.  However, music, like the results of our work, should be seen as a gift meant to be enjoyed, whether we are professional or amateur musicians."  !!! :)

there are so many interesting careers out there that i think a music teacher owes to the budding musicians encouragement to explore life outside music.  unfortunately,  music teachers' expertise is music, not concertos of life.  therefore, to strike a balance, students may need help from all around, friends, mentors outside music, parents, classmates, and the most important person in their life,,,themselves, to develop a healthy, honest and realistic approach to career development.   it is very very difficult to be open minded.   it is  a fine line between mindful and doubtful.

imo, there are many more early starters fading into the crowd than later starters failing to go the distance.  opportunities lost and potential wasted applies to any age. and behind each and every success story is an unique path.  somehow, they have managed to successfully tackle the 10,000 hrs efficiently and wisely, with the "lucky" combo of inborn talent and hard work. 

the cruel thing about classical music, however,  is that only the top top seem to grab all the attention, not unlike sports.  further, with media exposure, there is also an element of whether the person has "got it".  people take one look at you and that is all it takes, something that is insane but out of your control.  if you are attracted to the scene nonetheless, you just have to deal with the reality.  jump into the torrent and see how you make out.  

meanwhile, with many other professions, being average is often good enough or even very good.  not trying to influence others because every situation is different, but for my kids, i strongly encourage them to pursue careers where being average is considered good enough and save music and sports as fun components of life.

From Graham Clark
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 3:06 PM

" musical aptitude cannot be further developed, which around age eight.  But that's more of a science thing"

What's the evidence for this, Bethany?


From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 3:58 PM

I started at 10. I got excited at 14 and was delusional for several years.  I came to my senses at around 17. 

Teachers have a tough set of interests. Many kids are motivated by their delusions (oops... dreams). If teachers told everyone the hard facts many would quit--to the detriment of: a happy and rewarding hobby, a tool for developing personal discipline, and yes a teacher's income. I am not unhappy that I was let down slowly. I am much better off for having had the dream than not ever having dreamed it.


From Jasmine Reese
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 9:49 PM

You all make excellent points. 

Bethany, I would not say aptitude can not be reached past the age of 8, since there are many cases which would disprove such thinking.  However, I think "late starter" just means you missed the period where it would have been easier to put so much time and energy into mastering you're craft.  That does not mean it is impossible, it just means as you get older, there are more sacrifices, in time and social responsibilities, that would need to be made in order to accomplish such a goal.

Corwin, I agree that a lot of teens who become obsessed with music are indeed delusional.  Teens are social, trying to find their place and identity in the world.  Teens like to be put on a pedestal.  The music world seems to offer the ultimate social standing.  So, indeed, the love of music for a teen is sometimes more delusional and controlled by the teens feelings of ego and popularity.   But when this wears off (the teen mentality), they come to their senses. And there are two things that could happen: One) they find what they truly want in life or (two) they truly do love music and even though they might not be able to be a concert soloist, they will have an open mind and try to find some place in the music world.

Number two is so important.  An open mind will equip anyone and shield them from disappointment.  Realizing that there are numerous opportunities in the music world besides "the top" will make anyone happy.  Look at Laurie Niles who has mixed her love of violin with journalism in the creation of this site.  What an open mind!!  Look at a countless number of people who change their community everyday by being the town musician, giving small recitals and starting musical initiatives in their schools.  There is so much to do.

If a "truly" passionate teen is open minded (and feels that they have to become a professional musician), then they can surely become successful and accomplish their dreams.  



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 10:26 PM

I agree with everything you say and I could add this, it is hard when you are a teen because teens think that if you have an incredible will, you will surely succed but having a very strong will, even if it is an essential tool, doesn't make you succed if you lack true talent or something like this.  You don't always get what you deserve in life and life is unfair...  School is subjective! I've just had a physic exams with my stupid tyranic teacher and the average failed, me included.  At least half of the class had between 40 and 50. Some others between 50 and 60 and about less than 5 above 60!  It's not normal, we are not all a buch of lazys! Do we deserve to always get exploited this way by some mad physics teachers (not all are mad I believe even if I have never seen a competent one, I guess it exists somewhere).  May it be in music or everything else, when your futur depens on some teachers who gives you grades, it can work independently of your work, will etc.   In arts, it is even more subjective!  Fritz Kreisler didn't get the job at the Vienna philarmonic and we all know his great talent.  I'm not saying to not try!  You have to try if you really want it because the viscious circle of regrets is not a good thing either.  Just don't all put the blame on you, if ever it doesn't work like you wanted.  This is very important (I think).


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 7, 2009 at 11:20 PM

I don't know why a study has never been done covering all this, except that nearly everyone seems to like about their background so it would be a hopless thing to try :)

I remember in the mid 80s or so, when home computers were new, there were classes where you could get your kid head started on computers,  the idea being that computer and piano and violin and etc. all needed to be started early to be done real well.  I was designing circuits in computers at that time, and never saw any computer until I was in my 20s, and I saw a slight problem in their thinking.  But they were pretty convincing !!  :))  Then soon adults had to start using computers at work, etc., and the idea fell by the wayside.  It's amazing what you can do it you have no choice. 


From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 1:02 PM

Bethany's point is not quite correct, but, for violinists, not that far off as a rule of thumb and has been fully discussed in previous threads.  Couperin's observation several centuries ago -- that for a violinist to become a world-class virtuouso, it was necessary to start playing by age 7 -- is pretty much supported by the anecdotal evidence.  The latest start for such a virtuouso I have heard anyone point to is Ricci, who started at age 9.  The point is not that you cannot become one, but that the odds go way, way down quite quickly, probably for scientific reasons which are not all that well elucidated at this point (I once had an exchange of emails with Daniel Levitin, author of "This Is Your Brain on Music" on this point).  Also, notice that I limited this statement to violinists.  It is probably not as true of cellists, pianists, or other instrumentalists, at least based on the anecdotal evidence, for reasons which are unclear.

From Jasmine Reese
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 2:14 PM

Thank you, Tom!!  I like how you said it's not that it cannot be done; the odds just go way down.

In other words, the competition gets stiffer.  It's hard to compete against a child who's already made their debut by age 8 or 9.

But professionalism is a possibility and teens (and adults) need to have an open and creative mind of how they can fit in the music world.  Look at such groups as the really terrible orchestra.  And the untalented (in my opinion) become famous on youtube everyday.  Our world has provided us with so many tools for even the silliest of ideas.  It just takes a creative mind to use those tools to his or her benefit.

Tom, I've done my research.  Yes, it's pretty much the same across the board,  But I must stress that this is mostly in the classical genre.  In pop--well, you know how pop is.  It would be much easier to become a pop violinist than a classical violinist.  Of course, in the pop world, image becomes the issue.

The only instruments that are not possible to start early are the really big instrument (ones that require strong lungs) such as Tuba.  But in that case, I have seen that a professional tuba player may not have played tuba until age 13 or 14 but he or she had extensive music experience before hand, learning piano (or some other instrument) at age 4.  So even with those instruments, there is still the strain of being a late starter if you had no prior music experience whatsoever.  However, there are more cases of a "late starter" brass or woodwind player "making it" than a stringed instrument musician (that excludes such "popular" instruments such as guitar, piano, and drums; the skills that "professionals" exhibit on these instrument in the music world as a whole varies greatly, so the competition is not as hardcore.  But you need to have a great image in order to make up for what you lack in skill. Or have some other talent such as singing).   


From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 3:10 PM

Jazzy - your point that the "late-starter" problem tends to be limited to classical is a good one.   Areas of music which are not so technique-dependent (e.g., pop, jazz) can more easily accomodate late starters.  The other important thing to remember is the wide range of opportunities available to musicians who want to make their living in music but are not as good as Joshua Bell.  You may not be an international soloist or member of a top-tier orch, but you have a lot of options.  That said, it is important to go for the gold but know the odds and be realistic about what options are there if you do not quite make it.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 3:04 PM

Tom, you have to be careful not to confuse correlation with causality.  In that regard it doesn't matter what Couperin or any other artist says, if they're speaking as an artist, because it's a scientific issue, not an artistic one.

Like I said, I doubt anyone has ever done a real study, but my personal gut explanation for what you see goes like this:  of the total number of people who ever want to play classical violin, the majority are first exposed to it when they're very young, for cultural reasons.  Out of that group, very few eventually get to some level where they're recognized.  Now, the number of people who develop a serious interest later in life is much smaller than the original first group.  If the same percentage of both groups got to a level where they were recognized, there might be very, very few people, maybe even apparently none, from the second group who reached a level where they were recognized.   The same situation would probably apply to skateboarding and most other things people most often begin at a certain age.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 3:36 PM

Jim - I see your point, which has some validity.  Levitin, who is a neuro-scientist, confirmed what I have said in an email exchange: after a certain age, the odds grow very small very quickly.  I know there have been studies of brain structure differences in people who started earlier.  The brain is very plastic, but less and less so as you age.  So, there is something more than just correlation behind what I have said.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 3:51 PM

Tom, until they've shown concrete cause and effect it's just correlation.   That will be a while coming.   A scientist has to do more than ask us to take his word, or else he's speaking as "just some guy", in spite of the fact that he's a scientist.



From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 4:29 PM

Jim - given what we know about the brain and about the correlation, would you advise someone starting violin as a teenager that s/he has the same chance, if s/he busts his/her butt, of becoming the next Joshua Bell, as anyone who started before the age of seven?  I think from Jazzy's point fo view in the blog, that may be the problem here (she can correct me if I have misunderstood).   The question may be to help late-starters get a sense of what the world looks like for them.  While you may be correct that we will not know enough science for a while to definitively answer the late-starter question, I think we have enough information from the science we have and the correlation to try to give a realistic picture of what the likelihoods and options are.  That's my understanding of what is at stake here.

From Jasmine Reese
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 4:20 PM

Most scientists agree that a healthy brain, that is one not effected by a mental disease such as Alzheimer's, Dementia, learning disability etc..., has the ability to take in tons of amount of information (at the capacity of a 12 year old) for years and years. 

Of course, starting late stems mostly from a sociological and partly scientific thinking.  Society does not accept late starters and unfortunately "support" dwindles for ones older in years, pursuing a career in music.  Children get tons of support from their parents and music educators.  This support decreases rapidly as a person gets older because parents start wanting their teens to think "realistically"--become a doctor, or even a fast food chain manager, but god forbid a musician! And music educators are too busy nurturing child prodigies to put time and energy into someone older whose "chances of success are far less" than the prodigy they are working with!!

Scientifically, physical and mental problems arise as we get older.  We tense up, we become self-concious, we get depressed, we develop serious injuries and muscular defencies.  So, these are sometimes uncontrollable ailments which a late starter must fight against on top of the competition.

I believe wholeheartedly that if a person works hard, makes the necessary sacrifices and bleeds for a dream, they can accomplish it.  But it is good to know what you are fighting against.  And as a late starter myself, I know that fight is far from easy. But also as a late starter, I realize having an open mind, seeing the multiple options available to me as musician, I can attain success in my own way, not as society sees it.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 6:20 PM

Jazzy - good luck.  You have a great attitude.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 8, 2009 at 10:07 PM

"would you advise someone starting violin as a teenager that s/he has the same chance, if s/he busts his/her butt, of becoming the next Joshua Bell, as anyone who started before the age of seven?"

Tom, nope.  I was only saying that I want to see the phenomenon really explained.  It's been said forever, but I've yet to see anyone explain why it is.  If there is no "why it is" then it could be explained like I said.  Actually -- I suspect it would be explained in large part the way I said, even if a scientist presented a "why it is" in addition :))  I say it's highly unlikely, but people seem to maintain that it's impossible yet don't have real evidence. 

You pick a hundred people and start them at 7, and I'll pick a hundred people and start them at 17, and in twenty years, who'll be the best players?  No idea.  Maybe all be equally good, though, 'cause that nomalizes the experiment for sample size.

I wouldn't advise anybody at all to plan a career in classical music.  But if it's already underway and going good, then that's different.  Then you have that to hold up in my face. That's what Menuhin said about careers in music, basically. If money comes along, that's great, but don't count on it happening.   I would discourage anybody from picturing themselves in a career  performing classical music, unless it's already underway and going good.  Teaching and stuff notwithstanding I suppose.  But that's not performing. 

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 1:16 AM

Wanting a career in classical music performance can be like stalking a famous actress with the intent to marry her.  If you're doing that, then you just might qualify as crazy...  On the other hand if you're already dating her, or already married to her, then that's different.  Likewise it's not unknown to stalk the idea of a classical music performance career.  When you and your family both run out of money, it means she called the cops :) 


From Graham Clark
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 2:43 PM

I suspect that later starters get into other forms of music simply because they have become more exposed to a wider range of music. That is certainly  so in my case. I didn't start listening seriously to music other than classical until I was about thirteen. Until then, from the age of about seven, maybe earlier I had only really listened to classical music. I had heard pop (and Hawaiian! For some reason there was a lot of Hawaiian music in our house. No idea why), but I never listened by choice to anything but classical.

I am pretty certain that, had I begun at seven, I would not have branched out into jazz etc. My discovery of rock and jazz coincided with my getting some control over the fiddle, so it was natural to play those forms as I was learning the instrument. If I had started earlier, I would have stuck to classical for a lot longer, say from seven to fourteen, by which time it would have been too late to become a decent rock or jazz violinist. I would have had seven years of conditioning to overcome.




From Samuel Thompson
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 1:43 AM

"Wanting a career in classical music performance can be like stalking a famous actress with the intent to marry her.  If you're doing that, then you just might qualify as crazy..."


Where's my straitjacket - perhaps I left it in a dressing room...

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