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Brian Hong

Playing pieces before you are ready for them; an ever increasing problem in today's music world.

September 7, 2009 at 3:42 AM

 A little over a year ago, a very young girl, still in her single digits, played a Paganini caprice at a festival I was attending. It was in a masterclass for a famed violinist. To be honest, from my point of view, the performance was absolutely horrendous; it was completely out of tune, forced, with no musical content in it whatsoever. However, to my absolute dismay, the instructor praised her endlessly about how much of a genius she was and how she was incredibly gifted. Yes, the girl was, and still is, incredibly gifted. However, she was not technically or musically ready for that piece or any other piece she was playing at the time; all of them surpassed her skill level.

To me, this is a huge issue in the modern world of violin playing. Too many venues I go to offer me a recital, masterclass, or, God forbid, a competition in which someone is playing a major piece of the violin repertoire, ranging from Ravel’s Tzigane to the Beethoven Concerto, far before they are ready for it. It is true that there is a huge amount of incredibly gifted players in the world, but not all of them are a Sarah Chang or a Yehudi Menuhin. I posted this opinion on my Facebook page, and many of my friends agreed and commented. One of them made a simple yet thought-provoking statement. “I always see people who play Mendelssohn before Mozart or Bach or Bruch or any fine pre-requisite concerti.” This is true. People skip to the more famous, more commercial pieces that are likely to impress, not realizing that, in this particular situation, that Mozart or Bach is just as, if not more difficult than the Mendelssohn.

I believe that the main reason people play these pieces and think that they can get away with it is because in their heads they think that, “Oh, it’s [insert famous piece here], so I can play it uncleanly and get away with it as long as I play with passion”. And that, my fellow colleagues, is the crucial issue. No, you cannot get away with playing it uncleanly, even if it is a very musical performance. Yes, the music in some ways matters more than the technique, but there needs to be a certain technical standard which must be set in order to let the musicality shine. This doesn’t mean that the performance has to be perfect, though. Only a certain number of students, or professionals, for that matter, give technically “perfect” performances. I just mean that the piece cannot be beyond comprehension, that it must sound inspired and technically sufficient in order to be a convincing performance.

If there is one thing I learned this summer, it is the benefits of waiting to play a difficult piece until you are ready for it. My teacher at the summer festival I went to had a discussion with me about this. I told him the story of the little girl and the Paganini caprice, and he looked at me and said coolly, “I would have given her the first Rode caprice and asked her to play the introduction”. That quote had a profound effect on me. The Rode caprices are underplayed today; too much so. The teacher explained that the reason that so many kids play Paganini early and skip Rode is because of the fact that most music schools require a Paganini to be played in their auditions. This bestows a false sense of impatience in teachers and parents alike. I always ask the question: Does this help students? It has come to the point that people find Paganini caprices to be a whole set of pieces full of technical difficulty. They feel that if they get the technique, that’s all they need, they don’t need to play musically. Oppositely, there are kids who play it almost too musically and let the technique slide. 

That, friends, is where Rode is invaluable. In Rode, everything is obvious. If you make a mistake or play out of tune, it’s noticed. Plus, every single caprice has a huge musical statement to make; they are works of art that are meant to be played beautifully. To prove my point, listen to Oscar Shumsky’s recording of all the caprices. It is absolutely breathtaking, and in more than one instance I found myself with tears in my eyes. In my own humble opinion, I feel that Rode is actually harder than Paganini in many aspects. While, technically, it may not be as “flashy” as the up/down-bow staccato, left hand pizzicato, and harmonic-riddled Paganini caprices, musically, they make more of a statement, and it is a great way to work with a student on finding their musical identity while still focusing on basic fundamentals like intonation, correct and expressive bowing, and varying vibrato. They can get that with Paganini, but if they are not ready, they will most likely be overwhelmed with the technique.

The music world has changed drastically. Gone are the days of Auer and Galamian, who would rather impress upon students the genius of Bach and the fundamentals of technique found in exercises and etudes like Rode. Still, today, there are still a great amount of teachers who don’t give pieces to students until they can feel that they can play it convincingly and with good technique. I have been lucky to study under people like that; the pieces I play always challenge me in different ways, but they are not completely beyond my musical and technical ability. I am not saying that I don’t have much to learn, though. Quite the contrary. However, I have never been pressured to learn all the flashiest and biggest pieces known to the repertoire before I have covered basic pieces, and I feel that I have grown immensely from that. I think that the music world could be much cleaner, more friendly, and with more healthy competition if some teachers toned down their aspirations for their students and helped develop their technique and musicality instead of pushing it upon them. In that same vein, gifted violin students would become more than overrated so-called “prodigies”….they would become artists.

But what do I know? I’m just a kid.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 5:57 AM


you are abolsutely right Brian but how much longer are you going to get awya with the `I`m just a kid` line when telling it like it is;)   It`s a finite excuse.  Next useful line is `gotta get some prunes.`  It may save your life.

The worst recent example I have seen of this problem is the Suzanne Hou masterclasses.  No reflection at all on her as a teacher. She survived quite well....

AS for the Rode,  they require the most fiendish control and perfection.   Aside form the exposure I think they demand the most astonsihing perfection of key sensitivity.   The slow openings with double stops always strike me as the most demanding things.   If you cna play these you really can play anything.  Presumably that`s why Kogan stated that these etudes were sufficient for techncial development and sustenance at the highest level.


Buri the kid.


From Jerald Archer
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 6:12 AM

  It is a fine observation that you present. I have often wondered how any musician can render any work as "convincing" unless they have had some serious life tragedies involved. Another important aspect is a keen understanding of history itself. One cannot know the mind of any composer unless they understand the world in which they lived. A child has little understanding of such a concept as history until they have seen a little of it made during their lifetime (and sometimes its tragic outcomes). Some of the greatest performers were born into very disruptive political situations and it is clear in their performances, and can be heard even under the most primitive of recordings.

 Today, it is not uncommon to "sweeten" up a great deal in both the studio and the stage. We have the technology to make even the most mundane violinist sound like a master. This is a disturbing trend that may prove the undoing of the art (of music) itself in the future, heaven forbid.

Even with that, we often lose the real gist of a work if we apply too much modern thought and technique to it (unless it is a modern, innovative composition). With many violinists, it seems to be a fine line between art and imitation. Most seem to choose imitation and very few can be considered as "original" or even ground breaking today. One cannot expect much from a child when it comes to  artistic interpretation, and I for one would be frightened at such a display in a child prodigy were it to actually occur in real life.

The musician's technique may be fine (adequate, never perfect) but the occurrences of real life experiences makes a true artist. It is evident in the playing of even the most simple of  cantabile passages that one can honestly say "now that was unique and thoughtful". I miss the old days when this was the case. I would venture to say that there are few persons who really know what is good and what is exceptional today.




From Malcolm Turner
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 9:39 AM


I totally agree but I think the problem starts right at the beginning with the endless chase for the Associated Board grades. The kids seem to be measured by what grade they have, and the pressure is on always to move straight on to the next grade. Unfortunately, this usually means just learning the set pieces by rote and never really learning the techniques required. I totally disagreed with this and wouldn't let my students near (say) a grade V piece until I felt they had the technique required and could almost sight-read the set pieces. That way I felt they would be able to learn to really play the piece and not get (and sound) bored with it. Didn't go down well with the music school - I think I'm they only teacher they ever fired!

I saw the other effects of this a bit later teaching music students at a training college. The students had no ideas of their own - one girl in particular wanted to learn the Spring sonata (and was well able for it). So I asked her to look at it first and come back with some ideas on bowing, fingering etc. She looked totally non-plussed - the way she'd been taught previously was that the teacher dictated bowings and fingerings (and therefore any phrasing etc.). How about developing musicianship - no - not needed for grade exams.

I's much rather that the grade exams were marked harder but on playable pieces. I remember back to my own grade VIII days - Wieniwaski Legende, Bach Presto from the 1st sonata, and slow movement of the Mendelssohn. It must have been awful and I certainly couldn't play them in any acceptable sense of the word. So the students get the idea that scrambling through some sort of approximation of the notes is all that's required.

Rant over!


From Royce Faina
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 1:13 PM

What comes to my mind........ is the high potential of creating prima-donas out of these students with them having huge expectations which will not be met in time and they end up nuerotic wrecks!  And I mean some messed up people!

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 1:21 PM

Maestro Hong-  I'm 44 years young.  It also saddens me.....that anyone would not listen to what you say, and instead of giving thoughtful concideration....will just write you off as just a kid when it comes to subjects that you posess a genuine expertise!

From Dottie Case
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 1:34 PM

 I went to a local festival a couple of years ago and listened to player after average player hack through Mozart 5, Bruch, Lalo etc. My daughter was in this festival, and what I heard there actually had me re-think and re-articulate my whole teaching philosophy. Luckily, my daughter's teacher and I are like-minded in this, so her students stood out by contrast, actually playing music that they could really PLAY.

It was distressing in the extreme...every run or arpeggios became an indeterminate mass of sounds...not even identifiable notes, and you could tell that the kids were just praying to be able to get through the next passage without crashing and burning.  I felt so bad for the kids, and was really unhappy with what a mess was made of some really wonderful pieces.

It was so upsetting that I couldn't sleep the night after the festival....I wrote a long email to my daughters teacher,  and we met for tea, and  hashed out OUR philosophy of teaching/performance and festivals/competitions.  

This is all to say that, in my opinion, you are right on, Brian, young or not.  In my opinion, this is a really serious problem in the strings world today.  One of the worst results of it is that students begin thinking that pieces that are 'below' what they've played are somehow 'below' them as players.  Playing anything below about a grade 9 or 10 or ARTC level is now beneath them, and they are almost offended if you put something at a Grade 7 or 8 in front of them.  How ludicrous...professionals record pieces of that 'level' all the time.  

I have a brief story that demonstrates this. There was a young man here several years ago, who was considered one of the up-and-coming players. ..he had just completed Mozart 5 with his teacher and was heading into Mendellsohn-ville.  We happened to be together in a 'jamming' situation with players of mixed age, and someone mentioned the Vivaldi a minor.  He of course dismissed it out of hand, as something he had played years prior.  However, as we played, he made an absolute hash of the lowly Vivaldi.  Another girl, who won the local competition with an admittedly good playing of the Lalo subbed in my string quartet on 2nd violin.  We play BASIC music for weddings.....simple stuff played beautifully. She was totally lost...couldn't keep her own place even in pieces like Jesu, etc.  Another kid, who went to auditons at Curtis with his Mendellsohn was such a poor reader that he really couldn't even sub with us....  even if we rehearsed with him ahead of time.  The one time tried we it, I was constantly calling out "letter a", etc.   (He did not get into Curtis).

My daughter, who is beginning her freshman year as a Violin major played (among other pieces) 2 movements of the Dvorak Sonatina Op. 100 (grade, what.8?) for her festival this past year. My star student played the other 2 movements, with the same acccompanist.  It was stunning to hear...these advanced level players with great sense of musicality playing this piece that is considered 'simpler', of a lesser graded level that some others  By the end, the audience was almost holding its breath...not out of fear that the kids wouldn't make it through, but out of a sense of awe and an appreciation of the beauty of the music and the sensitivity and quality of the playing.  

In my opinion, that is the way it should be.  Thanks for this GREAT blog.  


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 2:45 PM

Brian is SO right. However sometimes it exists. I fell on a wonderful video of VADIM REPIN ON YOUTUBE AT JUST... 12.  Yes I know it is much older than the girl you talk of (I think I know who it is...).   In Mr. or Maestro Repin's case, he REALLY was an accomplished artist at 12. I know I am also just a kid : ) (much more than you in my violin playing Brian lol) but I have NEVER seen such things around here (on the net). IMHO Repin was one of the last gifted students  to have the chance to pass many many years (13 years with Bron as a teacher in his case!!!) with a great master pedagogue as a teacher! Now, in 2009, people are lucky just to have the chance to pass 1 or 2 years with such a master as Bron, Delay or Perlman etc I think, right?

When I see this video   I immidiately know why Repin is often quoted as the best currently "alive" violinist.  I think he was a SUPER prodigy kid...   A MUST SEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think this video is an good example of what Buri said in another thread when he defined what was a prodigy for him and everyone wanted examples : )   But what do I know, Is it this vdeo an example of what you meant Buri? 

I am soooo impressed!  No one will want to play after (just joking)!


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 2:57 PM

This is very wise.  You are fortunate, and demonstrate a great deal of maturity, to understand this point already--some people never seem to get it. 

I haven't played very many of the major concertos, and I haven't played any Paganini either--not ready.  Rode and Kreutzer are plenty challenging enough for me.  There is a lot of great, very enjoyable music in the "simpler" levels.  Honestly much of the so-called "simpler" music is more accessible to the audience as well and they get more out of a performance like that than they do out of a mash of an advanced concerto.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 4:06 PM

 You said it, Brian!

From Julia S
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 5:32 PM

 Today there is so much pressure in society to accomplish everything at a young age from learning Mendelssohn at age seven to taking AP courses as a freshmen without the prerequisites. Sometimes the pressure seems so great that you forget that Rome was not built in one day. At times I am guilty of this. But I have learned through experience that delayed gratification is the best sort because it allows you to feel pride in your work. I have wanted to play Mendelssohn for years, and am finally at the point where someone thinks I am ready. I am confident now that because I waited, I will be much happier with the end product, and I won't waste valuable time struggling with something that I am not yet ready for. Now when I read through it occasionally, it feels much more natural and I am happy with my sound. 

From E. Smith
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 8:27 PM

 Brian, this is a well-written blog, and I agree with your argument. But I also want to make a point about master classes. Of course, I wasn't there and cannot comment on the specifics of the class you describe, but I think it's good to remember that master classes are public performances on the part of the master teacher, as well as by those performing. The purpose of the class is to provide food-for-thought for an audience with a common interest, which often includes teachers, professionals, and other students. It's a public demonstration more than a private lesson.  It would be churlish and pointless for the master teacher to publicly humiliate a small child by suggesting the piece is too hard for her.

 I've seen instances over the years when it was clear that a young student in a master class was playing over his/her head. The wise master teacher praises the child's hard work or native ability-- "That's a very difficult piece. I can see you worked very hard to learn it"-- and then goes on to focus on some aspect of technique or musicality. There's only so much you can do in 20 minutes-- you can't take on an enormous issue. If this child had been given a private lesson by a teacher with a long-term interest in her development, the results might have been different.

Or perhaps not-- you may have hit the nail on the head.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 9:53 PM

 Brian, I need to clue you in to the real end of Hans Christian Andersen's story The Emperor's New Clothes. The little boy who cried out that the emperor was naked was cruelly tortured and executed for his lese majeste. It doesn't matter if you're right. It only matters that you offend someone's dignity.

The truth is that after listening to Mischa Elman and a few of the greats play the Tchaikovsky concerto any modern player's efforts are just a license for anyone else that can keep a little continuity.

From James Patterson
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 10:05 PM

In the youtube video of years ago, Mr Repin looks so serious and really unhappy.  He seems to have turned out ok, but speaking as an audience member, I do wish we could see just a little more pleasure in the faces of musicians at some point in the performance.

From Anna Meyer
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 10:08 PM

I sooo agree with your post! I admit I sometimes fall into this trap of considering pieces I play too low for my level but in the end I end up loving those piecs and they teach me a lot :) I love the Rode caprices and find them very educational. So now I am going to bite my tounge and play Mozart Rondo as it´s NOT below my level. I think we all fall into this trap However my teacher said the wise words of:"Grades don´t matter, what matters is how you feel your instrument". I am no Paganini but I feel my instrument thanks to my teacher. Oddly enough I derive as much playing Abba as I derive from Dvorak 0th :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 10:13 PM

 E. Smith, thanks for those interesting comments about master classes.  If what you say is true, I would question the process by which the master class students are chosen.  Since it would indeed be churlish and pointless for the teacher to say something publicly like "this piece is too hard for you" to the student, why was that student there, playing that piece?  Who decides which students get to play for the master class, and how do they decide?


From Bonny Buckley
Posted on September 7, 2009 at 10:24 PM

Great discussion and Brian, for the most part, I agree with your ideas.  There are some things to consider, which are touched upon by others, such as the selection of student performers for these classes.  One time when I was in music college, I was "requested" maybe 1 day in advance, to play for Eugene Fodor, and it was to be broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning Edition.  Then, the day of, I was called at work to find out that by the way, Mr. Fodor requires females to wear a dress.  I had to go shopping because I didn't have time to go home first.  I managed a movement of a Mozart Sonata pretty well, and enjoyed the experience of learning from him.  But the student who played after me, whom I knew from school to be a FAR more advanced player and performer, tripped all over the Prelude for the Bach g minor Sonata. I mean it was BAD.  Unbelievably bad.  So I think sometimes, even when a masterclass performance goes off horribly, there are things unseen that also contribute to this beside what might appear to be taking on too challenging of a piece. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 12:29 AM

James, how funny I didn't find this at all??? In the old generation, it was fairly common to not show pleasure in your face or to just play with no special body expression. it is very important to note that the russian violin technique doesn't teach students to moove or to expose "pleasure". (Although he does dance a little when he plays, no???) It is by far less theatral and people look so serious...  I am not taking the defense of anything and you might be right! (we would have to ask Vadim Repin : )  

But no one knows for sure, of course. Just to tell that many musicians in Mr Repin's context(soviet union then) told me that despite the very strict regime, they were very happy because they were forced to do what they like in life and the teachers were so wonderful + gave them such a "passion of music".   So I don't know if I would jump to the conclusion that any prodigy like Repin look "sad".  It might be the case but maybe really not either. 

But I am getting off topic sorry! Anyway, we'll never know.


ps: today, I feel such pressure in youngsters to smile, smile and look happy. Sometimes, I wonder if they really want to smile that much or if it is a conditioned behaviour???   Is this real pleasure or fake : ) ??? Personnally, I think one should follow his/her personnality. I once saw a little girl (I live in america and smiling is quite in style but I am not for one more than the other : ) in a gig completely miss her shot... But this children was so conditioned to always smile... (by her teacher). She came back to her parents, with much tears in the eyes wanting to cry but still, she had a so huge smile because she surely got adviced to smile no matter what.  It was heart breaking for me, also a player in that gig, to see that some students are not even allowed to live their real emotions (especially at this young age). As adults we know that sometimes we have to hold back these tears but it is different!!!

Sorry for this off topic post!!!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 4:04 AM


Heifetz once commented that smiling couldn`t really beseen beyond the first few rows anyway.  You`d have to be grinning like an idiot to get any further back.  

Just for me,  if a person is playing beautifully,  infull control of their craft they exude a quiet satisfaction which is all that is necessary.  Come to think of it last time I saw Ms Hahn she didn`t really go overboard on lookign like she was enjoying herself. It was all pretty self explanatory.




From J Kingston
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 3:03 PM

I am late to this discussion, but I would suggest that focusing too much on this type of venue, masterclasses etc. is a waste of time.  You reveal a lack of belief through this critical analysis of a little kid. Who cares what she plays at what level? Maybe the teacher is just a kind happy fellow and is enjoying the lesson and not hell bent on "setting her straight" or whatever you suggest.

If you can't learn from that moment in time, because you are inclined to measure yourself and your experience against others, then that is just a lost opportunity for you. It proves nothing if you are right or wrong about it. People pick their paths and then live with the consequences. The little kid and what she plays is irrelevent to your moment as an artist. As an artist one must free the mind to some degree and get past this type of thinking. It is a vortext that sucks up time that you will need for your understanding of your own creative state and processes. I would personally blow off this type of scenario and have done so in my own life when I found myself bogged down in how unfair it all is.  Otherwise, you run around with an excessively self-critical/narsastic metal yardstick measuring everything and everyone and will never have satisfaction with your skill, your teacher, the politics, the music, the judge etc...on and on. Now is a pretty good time not later, not when your better, or older, or whatever other reasons you come up with. It is a lie of the mind this type of measurement and I would completely blow it off and quit analyzing it. You will waste your breaths and heartbeats on it all and be no better off in the end.

Be free in your expression and don't worry about others too much. Refine your craft at the same time. When you hit a balance between skill and freedom you are "good enough" for whatever you cook up in your head. Otherwise you will chase after shadows. Happiness can be a very cooll thing as well. Suspend your doubts about your self and believe your circumstance is right. If you can't do that then change your circumstance as soon as you can. Good Luck.

From Bev Saunders
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 3:59 PM

Brian - excellent and insightful post!


From Royce Faina
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 5:06 PM

Something else that I think goes with this......... the trend of children growing up way too fast, faster than they ever have, IMHO.  Other than the sad cases of neccessity which have been since the begining of time, but being pushed beyond their years by parents, teachers, peers, media, etc!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 5:10 PM

 J Kingston I find myself in a world of no standards and no expectations agreeing with you even though every fiber of my being says I should not.

From Andrew Paa
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 7:18 PM

J Kingston, I do not believe he is using this event in a way where he is measuring himself.  He is pretty clearly on a good path with a great teacher.  I think he is just trying to show the fact that music is suffering because kids are playing things beyond their technique.  He's very clearly worried about the overall quality of our art form and its future.  These kids may enter the music field and spread sloppiness on because they want their students to be playing the hardest literature.  It's how they were taught and they may well teach this way.  It's just a specific example but I've seen this many times, where, people, not ready for a piece technically or musically, play it with mediocrity but the teacher lavishes praise upon their rendition (I saw it so many times in my first couple of years at college during our seminar performances it made me sick).   Also, I think he learned a great deal from this because he clearly understands the need for high expectations, a solid technique and a sense of musicality.  Also, he knows the value of patience in the learning of anything.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 7:44 PM

Bravo J Kingston! While I enjoy reading Brian’s blog and, like many others, am very impressed by his maturity and insight, I think your warning against misuse of our intellect is timely and very well put.  Having philosophic and legal education background myself, I know how hard it is to fight the addiction of certain type of critical thinking.  I think it’s Simon Fischer who wrote that if you want improvement, you have to change your way of thinking.  It's hard work, but each time I caught myself having the certain type of thinking applied at a certain point of time that is “a vortex that sucks up time” could have been better utilized, I considered myself lucky.

From Michael Felzien
Posted on September 8, 2009 at 10:09 PM

 I had a professor of engineering tell us once, “Skepticism will serve you well”.  It stuck in my mind.  He was talking of critical thinking in the sciences and other fields.  Time went on and several decades passed while I embraced his ideal. I one day discovered, that my own personal skepticism was no longer serving me.  I was serving it.  So, after many years of being RIGHT I learned to let other ideas into my world.  I’m happier now, and dog-gon it…if I don’t enjoy myself a bit more than I did before.  Thank you for pointing out the addiction of certain types of critical thinking.  IT IS A POSSIBLE PITFAL.

On the lighter side I’m reminded of Stuart Smally.  For those of you who remember his personal flavor of “recovery”

 I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and dog-gon it.. people like me..




From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 12:11 AM

Hi, just to tell that I really not see this as mesurment thing. It's just about telling that many students do things much harder than their level and that it is not good for the "art of violin" as someone else said. But everyone is right to his/her opinion!!!  I also have a very critical thinking on myself as well as on everything but if well used, I don't think it is a negative thing. Critical thinking doesn't = always comparing yourself. It may be just analysing situations and truly, sometimes it helps. But peoples behaviour are so varied and this is a good thing!


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 1:00 AM


there certainly are far too many instances where musicians over intellectualize or become so dependant on critiquing everything,  more for their self esteem than anything else (youtube is a classic arena), In this instance I personally don`t believe this to be the case.   

Bonny`s description of behind the scenes factors reminded me of one of the best pieces of advice I ever recieved from John Ludlow at the RCM.  He got all his studnets together at the beginning of the year and gave us a variety of down to earth precepts he considered vital to being a successful professional.  The most importnat was -always- have a piece of music ready to play,  anytime,  anywhere any conditions.  This is so often not the case and its symptomatic (no disrespect to Bonny intended)  that  (at least?) 2 first class players in a world class  institute were somehow not ready to play for Mr. Fodor at the drop of a hat.  I think this advice is also linked to repertoire recycling so I have expanded on it a little in the violin tips section.



From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 2:39 AM

Anne-Marie and Buri,

What I see in J. Kingston’s post is not so much as an accusation of over-intellectualizing in Brian’s case; nor in any way suggesting critical thinking itself a problem.  Whether J.K.’s concern applies to Brian’s case or not is really not so important in that his point applies to a lot of us.  I don’t think he needs my defence but what he wrote, as critical as it might appear to some, carries a profound truth that speaks to all of us who have a habit of analysing and criticising at the moment may be much better reserved for better use, and this moment tend to be more frequent than we might think if we look carefully. 

Buri, over-intellectualizing is not the concern here. The thinking/analysis appears in a way that is so proper, so normal, so intellectually interesting and sophisticated.  It is in itself both incredibly appealing and enjoyable to both do and to watch others do.  But this is precisely the problem I believe J.K. is talking about -- the problem of addiction of the skillful critical thinking we learned over the years that gets in the way of learning and seeing, yet gets justified and self-justified simply because it's normal and we are so good at it:)  Something not unlike AT tries to correct. 

Again, there is in no way one can suggest that Brian wasn’t absorbing a great amount during the masterclass.  Brian’s brilliance as a young man and accomplished violinist is evident and I’ve got nothing but admiration.  It is because of this admiration, not in spite of it, that I appreciate and echo J Kingston’s point. 

From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 3:20 AM

 Actually we're better off with no critical thinking. Anybody can play Paganini Caprices and whatever comes out should be applauded and admired. There is no bad anymore (but of course you know--thank goodness--that means there is no good either. )

So Curtis and Yale that keep applying some sort of standard are merely elitist and are to be condemned. They should admit by lottery. Of course all those people that listen to Kreisler and Elman and Heifetz and Quiroga etc. and weep for something lost are terrible elitists and fossils that are to be completely ignored. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 3:46 AM


Yixi, nice ot hear from you. At risk of splitting hairs I think you have misinterpreted the following

`Buri, over-intellectualizing is not the concern here. `

It doesn`t refer to too high a level of  application but rather the linear aspect of constantly approaching things in this way.  Admittedly my phrasing was ambiguous. 

As to whether Brian was being referred to or not I think that wa sclearly the case. It is his blog we are talking about and nothing else,  sort of.....;)



From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 5:27 AM

Well, I should be practising instead of muddying things up here. But I'm crazy and addictive so I’ll give it another try.

@Corwin: no one is denying that there are true artistic standards, that critical thinking and intellect are some of the most important and helpful tools for achieving anything in this world. By pointing out the risk of misusing one’s intellect is in no way of denying the validity of the intellect. If anything, it is an attempt to put it where it properly belongs.  So let’s not cheapen the discussion by red herrings, shall we?

@ Buri, I was kind of hope you would be among the first a few people here see what I tried to say, which obviously was not very clear.  Put it in a different way, J. Kingston’s point of “a lie of the mind” is similar in saying that be aware of the mind misusing the self – a point parallel to AT’s notion of misuse of the self without being aware of the doing.  Yes, J. Kingston was addressing Brian’s blog and whether it is applicable to Brian’s case or not is a matter that could justify a defence of some sort.  Being gentleman as you are, I’m not surprised at all that you felt compelled to do so.  But my worry is that in so doing the wisdom expressed in J.K.’s post can be too easily dismissed, and that in my view will be a pity. Don’t take my word for it, but just read what he wrote again and try to see beyond the immediate case related to Brian if you could, see if you can’t find the kind of wisdom and love I’m trying unsuccessfully to explain.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 5:44 AM


Yixi,  I agree that J Kingston makes a number of very importnat points in his post.  am certianly not going to take it lightly,  nor do I belive it stems from anything other than good intention and spirit.

I do however think he has focused on Brian`s blog from a misleading perspective.  He is ,  as far as I can see,  concenrned with Brian as an individual rather than the point being raised.  It may well be that there is a certain personal element involved in what Brian is saying,  or indeed that at his age it is better to just do his own thing and not be too cocnerned about the rest. That might be veyr good advice given within the context of an interpersonal exchange.  However, I think it is better to avoid this kind of approach and just focus on the message. That being the case I find myslef askign ,  irrespective of the state,  age or motives of the person who wrote them `Is it true?  Is it well argued?  isit necessary/importnat/worthwhile?  Does it cause any harm to anyone?`  All of these criteria are answered positively and I think the personal element wa smore than offset by the examples quoted by other people.  

It did kind of interest me that there is quite a lot of variety along a spectrum of `beyond studnets capabilities.`  Sometimes it is not so obvious and can be argued the opposite.  I think the example of the 12 year old playing Mozart five in Suzanne Hou`s masterclass is better.   But J Kingsley`s post does serve as a good reminder that maybe that child really had little more ambitin than to enjoy playing the violin and do Mozart five in public before going off for the more enjoyable baseball pracitce session.  

The @live and let live@ aspect is importnat but if we don`t raise these issues loudly and publicly then the ruining of talents will continue.   As always it remains the spirit with which it is done.



From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 10:53 AM

I thought JK's points were interesting (to the extent I understood them, which was perhaps not very much), but I thought they didn't really have to do with Brian's blog.  I didn't see him comparing himself inappropriately to others, over-intellectualizing, or over-criticizing (legitimate though those points may be in other contexts).

Are there violin performances anymore that are *not* described as "breathtaking," "incredible," "dazzling" etc.?  In order to get beyond hyperbole fatigue I have just started ignoring such descriptions altogether.  Which works generally to keep me interested in listening to music, but I still think something profound has been lost when perfectly good words lose their meaning like that.  The result is not too much critical thinking but rather too little.

There are also many studies on child-rearing that suggest that empty praise, or even just the praise of innate ability rather than specific efforts and results, is harmful to children's development.  I would think a "master teacher" ought to consider that.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 12:33 PM

I love your Ideas Corwin but very very respectfully, if they weren't any critical and analytical thinking (sometimes comparing : ( ,  the world wouldn't have had such pedagogues as Stoliarsky, Auer, Yampolski, Delay, Bron etc etc etc nor that they would have had Oistrakh, Hahn, Heifetzh, Chang, Perlman, Repin, Haendel etc.   I also hate elitist thinking and all but critical thinking doesn't always mean elistic either and society achieves good levels by sometimes analyzing situations.  (The following  is just an example and nothing bad. what did the students and teachers typically do in Asia to start to become good violinists... they looked around them what they others were doing and at what level...) 

But I do understand that J Kingston and others are just telling that in life, too much of this is too much and can be a lost of time etc. Ideally, the good balance is best. IMHO Brian certainly has this "good balance". 


From Brian Hong
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 1:40 PM

Words cannot express how enlightening this discussion is.  Sometimes I have to read these posts two or three times over in order to get the general gyst of them.  I am glad that it has caused discussion, though; thank you all so much for your comments!

Ms. Allendoerfer has made a profound yet true statement: "There are also many studies on child-rearing that suggest that empty praise, or even just the praise of innate ability rather than specific efforts and results, is harmful to children's development.  I would think a "master teacher" ought to consider that."

I completely agree.  In a way, I was trying to address that topic too in my blog.  As I recall, when I had my first lesson with Shmuel Ashkenasi, he told me (roughly paraphrased): "Young man, there are many, many things that you do very well and I like very much, but if I told you all those things you wouldn't grow much as a musician.  So let's keep it at that and I will only tell you the things I would do differently and that you need to improve."

Needless to say, I was struck by his incredible sincerity and his intellect, and I still go back to him for studies, which I am very grateful for.  Under him (and all of my other teachers), I have gained far more thoughtfulness and skill in my playing than if I had studied with someone who gave endless praise.

Bravo, Ms. Allendoerfer; you have my vote.

From E. Smith
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 2:51 PM

Brian, I think you're distorting my point about the master classes; however, bear in mind that I was agreeing with your larger point. 

Look, I wasn't at this particular master class, so it could be quite true that the teacher lathered empty praise on a horrible performance. My point is that it is not the master teacher's job to excoriate a small child and her teacher by proxy for what, in Brian's opinion, is a poor choice of repertoire. The master teacher needs to think on his/her feet and find something to work on in the alloted 20 minutes that will help edify the audience. 

I'm not sure how my point translates into my supporting a practice of dishing out empty praise, thereby harming the development of children (!)  Or becomes a lightning rod for snide suggestions about lowering the standards at Curtis and Yale. Remember this is a 5-year-old who has mastered the notes, at least, of Paganini 24. That little girl has worked very hard; it's the adults in her life who are running the show.

 Why does the level of discussion on this board degenerate to sarcasm the instant one perceives one's own position as threatened? I don't know this little girl personally, but I've seen videos of her posted on this board which I easily followed to YouTube sites. I will keep my ideas about her musical development to myself because I think it's in horrible taste to publicly deride a small child. [Edit: not to say, in a backhanded way, that she should be derided; I just think this particular discussion should be off-limits, particularly since her identity is easy to discover.]

As for Ms. Allendorfer's question about how master class participants are chosen: generally, it is the presenting organization that makes the choice. They may have any number of reasons. They may want to showcase a broad range of age, development, and repertoire. They may be honoring faculty, repaying favors, recruiting potential students. Sometimes there's a masterclass scheduled and all you have to do to get rostered is call up and ask. Sometimes you need to submit a resume, which is reviewed by a panel. Many different reasons, different routes. 

From Dottie Case
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 3:49 PM

 It's interesting how different posters see different things to comment on.  What I understood the blog to be about is the common practice of teachers to introduce literature to students before they are really ready to play them with mastery.  I thought the whole 'parameters of a master class' was totally peripheral to the main discussion point.  Nor did I read the original blog to be in any way a judgment of the player.

What I got from it was the important point that there is an obvious trend with some string teachers to teach by having their students play the most advanced thing that they can wrap  their fingers around.  To me, this was a pedagogical discussion, about the philosophy of teaching strings and the value of perhaps spending more time on basics before shooting our young students into the stratosphere of major concertos.  Since many of us here are string teachers, it seems a useful discussion to have.  Not only do we teach, as a unit, we actually can shape common teaching practices, at least in our own small neck of the woods.  

As I read it then, the anonymous 'child at a master class' example stood clearly as simply an example to illustrate the 'real' topic, which is about teaching philosophy.  I admit then, to some confusion about where the discussion has gone, as I think the original topic is an excellent one for a forum of string players.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Dear E. Smith,

I'm sorry, but I think you are taking some of these comments too personally.  I didn't intend to direct my comments at you, except where I thanked you for giving more information about master classes, and asked a question (which you helpfully answered--thanks).  

My comment about empty praise harming the development of children was meant generally, was not directed at you, and was also not sarcastically intended.  I was thinking in particular of the work of Carol Dweck (summarized here in a magazine article, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids":  This work is also currently being discussed by Po Bronson in his book, Nurtureshock (which I haven't read yet, here's an Amazon link:  While I am not completely familiar with this work, as a parent I would like to learn more about it and I am interested in how it might apply to music instruction.

Finally, I do have a personal reason for thinking about and taking to heart the larger point that this blog makes.  I had a direct experience as a teen with learning and performing a piece that was beyond my capabilities.  I indirectly blogged about it a few months ago:

That piece was the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  Back then, when I learned it and performed it and used it for an audition piece, I did not receive the praise I had expected and hoped for when I chose it.  Quite the opposite.  And at first, the experience was shattering, devastating.  But looking back I am grateful that I wasn't told how wonderful and talented I was for attempting such a difficult piece.  I am glad the feedback was realistic.  In the end the experience made me a better, and happier, musician.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 4:32 PM

One other small point.  I think the criteria by which master class students are chosen is relevant to the overall topic because of something else E. Smith said:  that the adults are running the show.  I don't think there is anything wrong with bringing up the question of whether it is wise or in the child's best interest for adults to put a young child in that particular situation, especially if the situation is really for the benefit of the teacher and/or the audience.

From E. Smith
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Karen, I agree with you all points. My only point was that [usually] it is not the master teacher who is making these decisions. That person is as much "on the spot" as the child playing.

Dottie, the child isn't anonymous because Brian posted openly in a discussion about her in April.

A colorful scene can be a fine device at the opening of a persuasive essay because it creates a vivid hook, rather than launching directly into the abstractions of argument. But even if the child were anonymous, the example remains problematic since the onus is placed on the master class teacher. If Brian were one of my students I would counsel him to come up with an example like Karen's rather than to use this striking, but slightly off-key example because it weakens his argument. :)



From Dottie Case
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 4:56 PM

 Karen, I do agree with that.  Ultimately, the topic and the question is about  decisions made by adult teachers that impact our students, whether by leading to stressful performance situations or by depriving them of necessary foundation skills.  As I said in my first reply to this blog, one of the objections that my daughter's teacher and I had to the festival we were discussing was the sense that kids were being put in situations that they shouldn't have to be navigating  (i.e. playing pieces far above their ability, for an adjudicator and an audience).  What stress!  Being at that festival was a life-changing experience for me, as a teacher.  I suspect that the above mentioned master class may become a similar thing for Brian.  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 6:54 PM

 E. Smith, that is a good point.  I am not very familiar with Master Classes and have never participated in one myself.  Performance situations generally make me pretty uncomfortable and I guess it just wouldn't have occurred to me to imagine a teacher voluntarily putting him or herself on the spot like that in the first place.  But I take it to heart that the onus in that case is not necessarily on the teacher and in that light, my comment about the teacher was unfair.

I do think, however, that the onus is on us as adults to educate and introduce children to performance situations in a responsible and appropriate manner.  If something's not working, we shouldn't be afraid to speak up about it.  I was about Brian's age when I tried to learn the Rondo Capriccioso.  I wish I'd been anywhere near as good a musician as he is--not just technically, but also in terms of understanding the big picture.

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 8:09 PM

@ BRIAN- Did / does Mr. Ashkenasi give any possitive reinforcements, or complaments, or praise?  And if so could you give an example?  I believe I know where he is coming from?  I see that he did complement you in what you quote him saying...... that there are many things he liked and he thinks are good...  I know that, when done apropriately, complements & praise reinforces and stregnthens good points and accomplishments.

@ E. Smith; J. Kingston; Dottie Case; Corwin Slack; Karen Allendorfer; Buri: Would you consider Blogging your points that you have made?  Perhaps each in your own blog expound upon your points that a thread leaves no room for?  Perhaps a write up regarding a Master Class, etc.?

From Michael Divino
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 8:17 PM

This blog and subsequent discussion (bravo to the blogger!) reminded me of a few conversations I've had with a cellist friend of mine.

I don't remember the context of our conversation, but when I told him I was playing Mozart's 3rd concerto instead of the Barber, he pretty much in effect said: "You're only playing Mozart"?

And when I told him that my private teacher played the Tchaikovsky concerto when he was a senior in high school, he goes: "You should play that too."  I pretty much said "yeah right".  But then he said something I thought was really dumb.  "Has your teacher played, like, the virtuosic stuff?"  I said that Tchaikovsky is pretty much up there in the standard rep.  He replied "Ok, that's standard rep,  but what about the virtuosic stuff, like Paganini and Sarasate?" , like violinists have a standard rep list and a virtuoso list above that. I thought it was pretty silly.

I didn't say anything but I don't necessarily think that Paganini and Saraste are as musically challenging like Mozart or the Beethoven concerto. Technically, of COURSE, but it is basically just harmonics, crazy double stops, ridiculous runs, things like that.  They are firework pieces!

Adding to Brian's point,  there are cliches as to what credits someone as a "prodigy" or virtuoso, like Paganini, composers whose music you associate with technical ability. 


I like saying when a piece is too hard for me.  It gives me something to work for.


Fantastic blog, Brian.




From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 9, 2009 at 1:45 PM

Anne-Marie Thanks for mustering up some praise but none is needed. My comments are all ironic. We live in a  world of no standards where everyone's ideas and efforts are equally valid, equally fruitful and all are "praise worthy". It is a tragic place. But here we are. Standards are, take your pick, sexist, racist, paternalistic, imperialistic, hegemonic, patriarchal, elitist etc. etc. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 10, 2009 at 12:17 PM

Ah, I see...


From Rosalind Porter
Posted on September 12, 2009 at 1:15 AM

Lots of different points of view on here and I have to say:  Thank you Brian for startng off this thread because I think you raised a lot of very valid points in an extremely articulate way -  stimulating discussion is good! 

I'm probably going to come back with some more comments, but I'd like to ask the teachers, moms, grad students and school pupils one question:   How do you REALLY feel about having your/your pupil's/son's/daughter's performances put up on YouTube for everyone to listen, watch, analyse, criticise, praise, abuse etc etc etc?   Of course when I was Brian's age, YouTube didn't exist but I can tell you that if my teacher had put my performances up, I'd have been mortified!!  

It's one thing to play Paganini for a teacher and be told in the privacy of the classroom:  "You made a real dog's dinner of that, let's leave it for a while and do some Kreutzer..."  and quite another situation to be playing Paganini in a masterclass or filmed lesson, where the teacher knows his/her comments will potentially reach a very wide audience.  If I was the professor, I'd be feelng quite uncomfortable with this.

I've attended as a listener a few masterclasses and interestingly on each occasion, the musicians taking the class said words to the effect that what happened in the class was to remain in the class.  I also remember a conducting masterclass where someone wanted to video the proceedings and the maestro in charge refused as it would change the whole atmosphere that he wanted to have in the class...

I personally think there is MUCH too much MEDIA exposure of young musicians as "virtuosi" these days.  But now it is getting late so I'll come back to this over the weekend.

DOTTIE:   Your comment about the Dvorak Sonatina really took me back!   I used the first movement as one of my audition pieces for university places and also to try out for a top "training orchestra" - everyone else was doing Mozarts or Tchaiks or Sibelius, but I got into the training orchestra with it (we did concerts in all the London concert halls) and it also helped me get my university BMus Hons course place!  

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