The Difference Between Learning to Play the Violin and Dabbling with Advanced Repertoire

June 9, 2021, 5:24 PM · Recently on social media I saw a post from an adult violin student who had been playing for less than a year and was taking on a rather difficult bit of repertoire -- a couple of movements from one of Bach's solo Partitas.

An interesting conversation ensued, with a good deal of "Good for you!" cheerleading mixed with hefty skepticism about the whether a Bach partita is an appropriate choice of repertoire for a beginner.

This certainly gave me some food for thought and brought up a number of questions. For example, is it a good idea for a student to dabble in repertoire that is far beyond his or her ability level? Is it detrimental? Is it beneficial?

There is certainly nothing wrong with the impulse to learn a piece of music that you love. It can provide motivation and give meaning to all the work and practice.

The problem comes when a student confuses "learning to play a piece" with "learning to play the instrument." Was this the case here? I definitely cannot say.

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But generally, putting the majority of one's efforts into learning a very advanced piece when one does not yet have advanced skills does present not just some challenges, but also some problems.

I'll offer my efforts on the piano as an example. While I've taken lessons over the years, my efforts have landed me short of being able to play, say, "Clair de Lune." But I love the piece, and I do "dabble" with it for fun. I enjoy the parts I can play, and I work seriously at the parts I can't. But I'm still "dabbling" in Debussy - I do not expect to be able to fully play the piece, unless I were to bring my entire level of skills as a pianist to that level. I've appreciated the teachers that have worked with me on foundational technique much more than the ones that tried to skip me ahead without it. As a violinist, my fingers can do a lot - even play some Debussy or Chopin. But learning one or two pieces does not -- by itself -- build the broad foundation for fluency on the instrument.

It's a little like learning to recite a beautiful and complicated poem in French - when you don't know how to speak French. Without any prior knowledge of the language, your first efforts will be very stilted. Since you don't know any rules of pronunciation in French, you have to take every word, one-by-one, and figure it out from scratch. Since you don't know what the words mean, you'll have to figure that out, and you might miss some of the idioms along the way. In the end you may get to a point where you can recite the poem reasonably correctly, and maybe you even picked up a few things about the French language.

But that doesn't mean you've learned French. If you wanted to learn another French poem, you'd still be starting from near-zero.

If you really wanted to learn French, you'd need to start with the alphabet, learn the general rules of how letters are pronounced within a word, how they are spelled. Then you'd want to learn how verbs work, how the words in the language work together, how to construct a phrase. You'd start with simple phrases, say them many times. Then you'd string together slightly more complicated sentences. If you're really serious, you'd likely try to go to a French-speaking city or country and talk with native speakers, so you can practice conversational French, acquire the proper accent, learn the practical application, etc. At first you might not understand much, and people might not understand you, but little-by-little it comes along. Once you have built your knowledge and spent long hours speaking the language, you start to achieve fluency. If you can reach fluency, then you can easily recite all the poems you'd like.

Learning to play the violin, or another musical instrument, works in much the same way. You start with workable goals, master them, and then over time you build fluency in your playing. Each step needs to hold the possibility of mastery, so you can build on what you've accomplished and continue to progress.

If you are simply learning enough technique to eek your way through a series of very difficult pieces without completely drowning, then you are not really building toward fluency. Every time you start a new piece, it will be like starting over again.

Don't take this the wrong way, though. You can still dabble in difficult repertoire. But if your goal is to "learn to play the violin," then you must start with a healthy and robust "violin diet." That means regularly practicing appropriate-level scales, pushing your technique just the right amount with workable etudes, and learning a progression do-able pieces that you master so well you can do them standing on your head. For dessert, you may dabble. In fact, dabble away! It's motivating. It shows you where you need to go. It gives you moments of connection with something you really want and love. Nurturing your love for the instrument and your motivation for playing it - this is just as important as practicing every day.

Some might say, "Well I just want to play certain pieces, that's my only goal, I'm not looking for fluency on the instrument."

To be honest, I reject the notion that adult students can only be dabblers, that they can never actually get good at playing the violin.

When a teacher says, "You can't just play what you want," a student might feel offended. But that student would do better to see that as a sign of respect. This teacher wants to teach you to play, not to just let you wander aimlessly through the repertoire of your choosing. Work together to find a balance between the "violin diet" you need to grow, and the "dessert" that feeds your spirit, and may find a lot more enjoyment and less frustration in the journey.

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June 9, 2021 at 10:56 PM · I sometimes "look at" a very difficult piece with the goal of finding out just what was required for the biggies in the field to learn it. Sort of like them checking out a book on statistical mechanics from the library and skimming it. A good time is had by all.

June 10, 2021 at 12:29 AM · I think adults are more likely to take on works that they'd never want to perform. But I don't think that's inherent to the adult/child divide. I think it's a result of the environment.

Children have constant performance pressure at their doors. In addition to studio recitals, there are orchestra auditions (and camp auditions etc.), competitions, "grade" exams (like ABRSM, ACM, AMEB), and so forth. It's hard for them to learn significant repertoire without needing it to fill a performance need.

Adults can learn repertoire without it needing to fill a pedagogical purpose They can learn things that they want to perform without having to be concerned about whether it's going to be impressive for a competition/audition.

Indeed, as an adult, I'm filling in tons of repertoire holes that I accumulated as a child. The violin sonata repertoire and other chamber works for violin/piano that aren't pedagogically interesting or technically challenge. "Alternative" pedagogical pieces (i.e. three pieces might be commonly used to teach a particular technique, and most teachers will pick just one).

June 10, 2021 at 12:45 AM · It was different for me as a child too because I wasn't training to be a soloist. I took orchestra class for fun and it was a break from academics because my folks understood this and accepted it.

June 10, 2021 at 01:04 AM · I think adult learners sometimes forget that there’s no rush. If you take up or reengage with the violin at 50, you may have thirty or more years to work on it. Take your time. Fool around of course! But you have the time to master this amazing instrument.

June 10, 2021 at 02:00 AM · I'm pretty dismissive of that dabbler attitude, because I know I won't want to hear the playing, and because I read into it a level of delusion and magical thinking that I find frustrating, I suppose, because you can either have that attitude OR you can have the attitude that says that putting in work yields results.

On the other hand, behind my attitude is a whole lot of value judgments on what is worthwhile, and how people should spend their time and energy, and it's really up to the individual to decide what they find meaningful in their pursuits. So while I may not be interested in validating something I see as quixotic, I should be careful to project too much of my worldview into their experience, and I should understand that such an approach could certainly be fulfilling for someone.

June 10, 2021 at 02:38 AM · Another great article Laurie!

I identify with the dabbler because as a self-taught violinist for my first 4 and a half years, nobody told me "no" or told me what I should be studying. I taught myself where the notes are and then hacked away at "easy" repertoire like Corelli and Handel sonatas. I even worked on a Biber sonata! And I did make progress, but never actually made music. Recognizing my plateau was dreadfully low, I finally started taking lessons, until interrupted by covid shutdowns. Stuck over another year, this time I have decided to submit to discipline, take lessons over zoom to keep her, learn to count and play scales, and this time instead of dreading it I am finally welcoming it and even excited because I recognize just how badly I need those skills if I'm ever going to make real music that people might want to hear. I play scales every day now, working on intonation and a systematic knowledge of the fingerboard. And guess what my teacher is guaranteed to tell me next Monday? "Stay in 1st position." AAAaarghhh! But after she says it, I will devote most of my scale playing to whatever she says, and only play if I have first done my chores.

June 10, 2021 at 08:08 AM · Laurie I really like your analogy between learning French versus learning to pronounce a French poem!

June 10, 2021 at 10:39 AM · I think I may have written something about this before, but a teenage lad who had skills on the piano turned up to a church social fellowship I was going to with his VSO, which he had been teaching himself to play for a very short time. He was already working on the G-minor unaccompanied and showed signs of knowing what he was doing. I had a <£200 Piacenda (the tone isn't bad, but there are issues with the pegs) that I was planning to offer to swap for his VSO when I had replaced the bridge that had snapped (I was only using it to leave on church premises and play at rehearsals so I didn't have to add a music instrument to what I was carrying to my church on my bicycle, for which I reckoned a VSO would do. I'd bought it in Aberystwyth for open air meetings when it turned out that a violin would be useful there after all and I hadn't brought my own instruments to the conference as I was having to travel there by train that year), when he stopped coming - a cult had got hold of him.

Laurie's experience isn't entirely unique.

June 10, 2021 at 10:44 AM · Tarmo - full agreement on the need for good beginners' material. I was a passionate learner starting at age 9, but I recall horrific pieces with names like 'Dolce Far Niente' or 'The Swing' - and the latter referred to the playground object, not the dance style. When later I was given a violin arrangement of the Bach E flat major flute sonata, the siciliano, it was a revelation, an epiphany.

June 10, 2021 at 10:49 AM · Richard - At least "The Swing" didn't mean the gallows!

June 10, 2021 at 11:05 AM · True, John! But you've set me on to recall meeting a recording of Berlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique' at about age 14 and being fascinated by the final two movements. The repeated chords at the end of the march seemed like swings of the axe - how significant is that?!!

June 10, 2021 at 01:39 PM · How significant that is from Berlioz's point of view I wouldn't like to say. I would think that by the time he was composing, they wouldn't have been employing an axe, but the guillotine would have been in full swing - Oops, what am I saying?

I was a year younger than you when I first heard Symphony Fantastique (on disc) on holiday in France with friends of the family, and sort of devoured with difficulty the sleeve notes. At that young age, Marche Au Supplice sounded more to me like something from the Nutcracker than true terror - even now I find the Brigands' Orgy scarier than anything from the Fantastique, and even that's not that scary compared with Verdi or Wagner or some Schubert. I believe Marche Au Supplice now exists in arrangement for school orchestra - I always thought it would be suitable. Not so much the Witch's Sabbath!

June 10, 2021 at 02:34 PM · Laurie, the article is spot on! Just this week I had a transfer student come to me going on and about all of the high skills she had after only two years of playing. When she told me she was playing pieces in eight position, I asked her to demonstrate one of the passages. She replied with " can't really remember where eight position is, but I do know it's up here somewhere". My 3 year old niece was playing in 10th position when she experimented how high her fingers could go up the fingerboard, but it wasn't anything close to music!

June 10, 2021 at 03:06 PM · As a student, always reach for the impossible. This is how we improve our technique. If you settle for mediocrity, then you only be a mediocre violinist.

June 10, 2021 at 03:25 PM · If playing at a high level was a requirement for playing a piece then very few players would qualify to play the violin. Professional symphony players learn a number of challenging concertos on the way to a career in the orchestra. The experience undoubtedly serves them well but I doubt that more than a fraction could give a credible performance to a paying audience.

June 10, 2021 at 04:01 PM · There's a risk of missing something important in how we divide up the options here.

Laurie's illustration of how to learn French is a very specific academic process that is widely treated as the default mode. We see it in how learning is structured in all sorts of things. And yet there are alternatives, approaches to learning which while perhaps overlapping in many ways have a different essential focus. For instance 'total immersion' approaches to learning conversational French, or the way jazz musicians often develop, especially before it became an academic subject.

I think the real issue is whether damage is being done--is the student learning bad habits while trying to compensate for lack of technique? That would certainly be bad. Is the student bypassing the learning of important principles which there is a danger they will never go back to pick up if they get to the rewards of semi-playing their heart's desire? Or might they cycle back to these things and have a basis for absorbing them even if they don't pick them up in the normal order?

Adult learners are a special category and striking a balance between helping them to do necessary work and keeping them in contact with what motivates them to the pursuit in the first place can be quite a balancing act.

June 10, 2021 at 05:08 PM · I think there is a middle path, to continue the French analagy. If you are visiting a country where the language is unfamiliar, you can take a class for tourists. You may not have all the grammar, correct verb or noun endings, but you can make yourself understood and can understand directions, signage, menus and be polite. Although not for me, to play or to teach, it could be that someone would enjoy and learn something about a difficult piece of music on a more rudimentary level, playing the main themes, skipping the harder bits, or working through a little at a time. I have often been surprised at how well my teenage students do on a piece well beyond them, simply because they are motivated. Of course, they already have years of solid technique behind them, which is difficult to imagine in a short period of time.

June 10, 2021 at 05:47 PM · When it comes to learning a foreign language nothing can beat being dropped in at the deep end!

I know someone who moved to Flanders, the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, to marry her Belgian fiancé. At the time she didn't know Flemish (a softer-sounding form of Dutch) but, being a fully qualified British nurse she was able to get a job in a local hospital in Flanders. Six months later she reported she was now thinking fluently in Flemish. Perhaps there can be an analogy with learning a musical instrument?

June 10, 2021 at 05:56 PM · I don't think being an adult learner is neccesarily an open-ended propostion where you have unlimited time to improve.

My brother has a tremor in his early 60's and my father had Parkinson's.

I hope I get to where I'm going (which is several levels/years) away before I maybe develop tremor, bad hand/eye coordination, etc, etc.

So, for me, the clock is ticking.

June 10, 2021 at 06:02 PM · Regarding the Sonatas and Partitas--there are arrangements of them as duets that avoid some of the chords. See:,_BWV_1001-1006_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian).

However, I think the duets are still too difficult for someone who has can't possibly have the requisite dexterity and speed after seven months of study.(Unless, perhaps, they've play another string instrument?)

I saw a post about playing the Preludio -- I suppose I'd want to know how the person thinks that working through it helps them meet their goals. Simply "liking" the piece isn't sufficient explanation for me; you can always listen to a recording of a piece you "like" but can't play. My guess is its really about bragging rights and I can't support playing something extremely poorly for bragging rights. However it's none of my business until the person posts asking for opinions.

I also think that adult students with inflexible ideas about what they want to learn and how they want to learn it are why some teachers avoid teaching adults. Kids may have inflexible ideas too, but kids are more likely to accept/expect their teachers to overrule them.

Some flexibility in a teacher is good, but don't give me enough rope to hang myself with, so to speak.

June 10, 2021 at 07:23 PM · Toby, The clock is ticking for everyone whether they realize it or not. I am working with conditions that dramatically affect my playing but the secret is to have a teacher who accepts this and doesn't get upset when I play a certain passage out of tune for the 27th time. I told him when it isn't fun any more I will quit because life is too short to experience endless frustration. I don't experience frustration because the things that I can still do right very much outweigh the wrong things and now I am even buying new bows. I just bought 2 violin bows and am now testing 4 viola bows.

June 10, 2021 at 07:57 PM · Beautiful essay, Laurie! I admit to being a bit of a dabbler myself. I started taking violin lessons at age 59 (I've played other instruments before), and my first teacher focused more on repertoire than technique. (At least it helped me develop a repertoire.) One of the pieces he had me work on was the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach's Partita No. 3. I never did get it to where it was fit for public performance, but I did learn about double stops and it was fun to play - or at least dabble in. (Ditto for the Accolay, which if nothing else cured my fear of 5th position.)

I eventually realized that I needed someone who would drill me in technique, and moved on to a teacher who gave me a good dose of Wohlfahrt etudes and Josephine Trott's Melodious Double Stops.

I like your French language analogy. I went slightly beyond this, although not enough to carry on a conversation. I have, however, learned enough of the rules of grammar and pronunciation that I can read French or German material out loud in a way that probably doesn't sound too bad, even if I don't fully understand it.

I've gotten into the practice of what I call "demand learning": if I need a particular piece of knowledge for something I'm working on, I'll learn it and get on with the job at hand. This means that my knowledge base is patchy in places, but when I have free time I like to pull out these bits and pieces and try to fit them together into a larger structure, much like one assembles a jigsaw puzzle. Occasionally I will take formal training in something, but at this stage in life I find I can fit together a lot of the pieces on my own, while often discovering other interesting things in the process.

June 10, 2021 at 10:42 PM · Wow! Lots of responses snd opinions!! I think if you’re a “dabbler” and not interested in the basics and structure then by all means dabble. But, an analogy I come to as an artist and retired university professor is, you cannot abstract if you first haven’t learn the basics, so, music being my second career, I’m all for learning the instrument, the basics and then the more difficult pieces, then I’ve earned the right to learn / play them.

June 10, 2021 at 11:09 PM · I'm a mostly-self-taught late starter, but I wouldn't say I "dabble" much at all. I've usually been well aware of where my limits are. When I've tried to play anything that was well above my level at the time, it was mostly to evaluate the difficulty and see whether I was ready to make a serious attempt at learning it. (Often I wasn't; I remember looking at the Vieuxtemps viola sonata right after I learned the Telemann concerto, and having no idea where to even start.) Sometimes I started learning a piece to the point where I was able to hack my way through it, but always with the intention of returning to it and polishing it later.

I was inspired to take up the viola by the Walton concerto, so that's the piece one might expect me to jump to prematurely. I eventually did start working on it -- more than 18 years in, when I found that I was able to sight-read much of it, under tempo but steadily enough to be recognizable. (Unfortunately, I also injured my shoulder doing home repair work around the same time and have had recurring injuries since, so had to put it aside when I was just able to play through the notes.)

That said, like Charlie, much of my learning has been "demand learning," mostly in the context of playing in community orchestras. I started playing in orchestras when I was definitely not able to keep up; the idea was to try to play more and fake less in the next set. The orchestral setting meant I felt less need to impress other people. I was always thinking of the long term.

That might put me at the opposite extreme: it was more than ten years before I felt like I could consider performing anything solo.

June 12, 2021 at 03:58 PM · A lot of that decision has to do with the student's age and whether they are on the pro or amateur trajectory. One of my teachers said something like "don't learn technique from working on the major repertoire". For the exceptional young student, the big 5 or 6 concertos can be postponed until their musicianship and technique are 100 % ready. I had one intermediate-level adult late starter who wanted to work on the Bach S & P set. As long as he enjoyed working at them I let him do it. I dabble in concertos that are above my skill level.

June 13, 2021 at 04:50 PM · Editor's note: I've deleted all comments that have sought to identify and expose the social media post that inspired this blog. There are many such posts on public forums and on social media, and the specifics of any individual post is not the point of this blog.

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