How to Increase the Likelihood of Violin Longevity

April 30, 2019, 2:09 PM ·

First off, here is a picture of my Grandfather and me playing the violin together. He is now 93 years old and has been playing for over 75 years! We've spent some incredible time together playing the violin. Even though he doesn't speak English, violin is our universal language.

Now how cool would it be if that was all of us at a later age? I just hope to live to be over 90. If I'm still playing the violin as well, good for me!

This post is created to help violinists and violin teachers worldwide. I thought long and hard about the most effective way to do this and here was my thinking. First I asked, what is a big problem that both violin students and teachers face? There are many problems that I could dissect, but I decided to cover the one that can have the most positive effect for both students and teachers.

And that is the longevity of playing the violin and increasing the likelihood that a student will continue to progress on the violin through good and bad experiences.

Introduction to Violin Longevity

When a student starts learning the violin, excited as ever, it’s a sad story to hear they got frustrated to the point of deciding not to practice as much anymore, or quit altogether. Most of us at some point have had an excitement and passion for learning the violin, and it’s sad that this passion can fade, making the time and energy spent a waste of time.

I think most of you would agree. Learning and progressing on any musical instrument has so many advantages. When a student decides to quit or let the violin collect dust, this negatively changes identity, while sticking to the violin and playing for life can lead to a positive progression of identity and self-worth.

On the other side of this topic, I think about the thousands of violin teachers worldwide. How many of you teachers have had students you enjoyed teaching, and soon to find out they have decided to quit or take a break from the violin? Wouldn’t it be nice to continue to give influence to a more significant percentage of students, especially those that you enjoy teaching?

So here is my conclusion. The world would be a better place if more students decided to continue their efforts on the violin. Not just for a short period, but a lifetime. I think about my Grandfather who is 93 years old and still practices his violin every day. I think about some of the students I’ve had that if they just were able to get through some of the bad times, they would continue to develop their skills on the violin until a late age.

Here is a video of my Grandfather and me playing the violin together. :)

Let's dive into the concept of VISION which in my opinion, is directly related to how long a student decides to play the violin.

Less Students Get Frustrated when they Understand Vision

About ten years ago, I ran a violin studio of 80 students which was my full-time job. The students ranged in age from age 4, all the way to the age of 89. In my career teaching violin, my drop rate has been meager - somewhere under 5%. That means that for every 100 students that came to my door looking to take private lessons, only 5 of them will quit - the other 95 continue wanting to learn and progress.

To give you another statistic, about 85% of my students that started taking lessons with me continued beyond three years of lessons.

Now I think about the flip side of these statistics - talking about the self-taught student. I keep tabs on online students and I would say the drop rate of them starting the violin (feeling extremely motivated) to them quitting is somewhere between 50%-75%. Yikes…

That is a lot of violins getting little to no use in the world.

So what I want you to understand is there is a difference in longevity between someone self-taught vs. someone that uses online resources only as a supplemental tool.

So what is the reason for such a difference? There are many factors, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is VISION (or lack thereof).

What Does it Mean to Lose Vision?

Let me explain what I mean when a student loses vision.

They first see a path of success to learning and progressing on the violin, but then psychologically get discouraged based on uncertainties and/or frustrations of learning the violin.

You’ve all heard the excuses…

  1. I don’t have enough time to practice (huge one!)
  2. I am taking a break
  3. I have a health issue I’m dealing with (some of you do I don’t mean this offensively)

When I hear these excuses, I believe the student believes it. But underneath it all, there could be more going on. There has to be...why else would the statistics I gave you above be so polar? I was teaching human beings privately, and similar violin hopefuls decide to take the self-teaching approach.

The reason, in my opinion, is that a large percentage of self-taught students have lost a lack of vision. No, they haven’t lost time even though they probably believe it themselves. :)

Yes, teachers, I believe this is what has happened over and over again to you (and me) over the years - you maybe have just let it go and decided it's an ordinary happening that you have no control over.

But I don’t believe that at all, at least not at a rate higher than 5%.

Here is my belief...

Excellent instruction + Good Encouragement/Vision + Consistency/Being Organized + Creativity and Ability to Adjust to Students Needs = Student of Longevity

Think about a teacher you had in high school or college that had these traits, didn't it make you more excited to listen and learn? Teachers, any of the above that is missed can lead to it being more difficult for a student to want to continue progressing. With you...or maybe not at all.

Prepare for Violin Challenges

There are tons of great resources for learning to play the violin online, but if you don’t get feedback regarding the vision of your progress, you can come to the point of feeling discouraged, agitated and frustrated with learning the violin.

This is not an “if” it happens but a “when” it happens. It all comes down with how this is managed which a teacher can help with, but also possibly by a self-taught student who has an awareness of this concept.

Example of a Student Losing Vision

This happens a lot. A student gets excited about the thought of playing the violin and decides to get their first violin and learn to play. Probably on Youtube.

They dive into every resource they possibly can. Every drill, every practice tip, every song they can get their hands on. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with doing this. I’m pointing this out because some people ONLY use Youtube or online tutorials.

Here is commonly what happens with someone only learning online. The first week or two (or even month or two) goes excellent. But then frustration seeps in for any of these common reasons.

  1. Unsatisfactory sound
  2. Inability to learn a challenging song
  3. Confusion of what to work on next
  4. Lack of progression based on personal expectations

Any of these can cause a student to become frustrated and quit the violin. Likely it’s a gradual curve of digression. I know you, teachers, out there are nodding your heads.

How to Create Vision if You are Self-Taught

Your personality plays a significant role in your ability to be self-aware and conscious of vision. I think about adult students that do well in the first few weeks of learning the violin, but over time, their mind convinces them that they aren’t doing a good enough job and progressing at a good enough pace.

This happens commonly with adult students that have a musical background. They have mastered another instrument and find themselves getting frustrated over how difficult the violin is compared to their instrument of comfort. It can create thoughts of re-focus - or taking a break.

I also find adult students that are highly successful in their careers (or before being retired) tend to have a certain sense of expectation at how they should sound after a certain period on the violin. I find this less in younger adults and even less with kids.

Here’s the thing. These mind tricks that can happen to some are not reality; they are only a lack of understanding and vision.

Why do you think people that have a personal trainer in fitness generally get better results than those that try to lift weights on their own? The personal trainer can evaluate, give you a vision and keep you on the right track. This effect cannot be underestimated. In my opinion, vision and encouragement have to come from somewhere.

When a student comes to me after a hard week of practice here is a possible dialogue...

Wow, I’m frustrated, I feel like I’m not progressing at a good enough pace. I didn’t get that much practice in either.

I think you are doing great, remember how great you did last week? Keep it up, and you will start to see progress over time! Think back six months ago to how good you were and how good you are now. Do you see the movement in development? Sure there are some things we need to keep working on, but you really shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.

Another dialogue...

It was a rough week…

Many adults like yourself get frustrated, but I’m telling you, you are doing well! You're ______ and ________ have really improved from last week. I know you didn’t practice as much this week but keep at it, you are doing a great job!

Now think about it, how do you get this kind of feedback with only self-teaching? Wouldn’t you say you’ve let your frustrations get to you at times because you haven’t gotten that sort of positive energy?

Even if you have a very encouraging friend or relative saying you are doing well, how would anything they say about your progress be credible from a progress standpoint? You probably would consider them being kind. :) Sure it helps a little, but getting feedback from an experienced player (or positive self) is what will help you.

Here is what you have to keep telling yourself which can help if you are self-taught to counteract negative feelings.

  1. Understand learning violin is a marathon
  2. Your progress is likely standard or even above average for your ability
  3. The time you are putting in is efficient
  4. I’m going to give myself some time to evaluate my progress even though I’ve had a tough week.

Two Steps Forward One Step Back

This concept happens with not just beginners, but also advanced violinists and teachers like myself. For every two weeks of something positive, you will likely deal with one negative. This relates to so many other aspects of life, can you think of one?

Let me give you an example.

You are working on a song you are going to perform in a recital or for a friend. The first two weeks you felt progress, and your violin sounded better than usual. Then all of a sudden you have a stretch of seven days straight where it felt like you seemed worse than before the three weeks.

Sound familiar?

This is what I mean about VISION. If the student saw the big picture that this is a normal thing, they would understand the concept of two steps forward and one step back, which will still give you overall positive progression over time.

Here is an example of how this also happens with advanced students…

A violinist is auditioning to get into a local symphony orchestra.

They practice super hard for two weeks and feel they have mastered the excerpts they have to play at an audition. They get into the audition room and play the excepts worse than they have been playing it for the last two weeks.

They could become frustrated and never audition again (assuming they didn’t get in) or they could see that this is something that happens and that trying still is a great idea - they just had a bad day.

Encouragement for Students

I love the thought of a student learning the violin online, but I’m a believer that to have the most likely success with LONGEVITY, you have to use online instruction as a supplemental resource.

Yes, teachers, I’m giving you a plug! I am doing it because it is the truth!

The reason I believe this is that students that only learn online are more vulnerable to getting into some sort of rutt - and never getting out. These same rutts happen with private lesson learning, but a teacher sort of acts as a “shield” or “aid.”

I know some of you can’t take private lessons, and that is ok. At least this article gives you more awareness which can also help immensely.

Here are things that can happen that you need to manage with self-teaching.

  1. You work on material that is way harder or easier than you should be working on
  2. You minimize the importance of scales and drills
  3. You cannot see where there are technical problems to your playing and how to work on them
  4. You lack the concept of exploring musical options like performing which is essential to progression
  5. You get demotivated based on the inability to redirect a precise plan that could you on a better track

Is it possible to be self-sufficient and learn the violin without a private teacher? Absolutely.

What about becoming a great violinist and playing until you are 93? Absolutely.

Anything is possible, but you must know that I think the odds are against you relying solely on self-teaching. Think about this article when you get frustrated with your progress at any point - it may come in handy.

Consider the idea to at least get feedback from someone regarding your playing so that you can feel you are on the right track.

Here is a suggestion if you can’t afford lessons. You could go to a local university and ask if any of the students studying violin would be willing to check out your playing for a few minutes. Many of these students might be ready to do it for free or charge a meager fee. Tell them you are most interested in the vision of progression and want to make sure you are on the right track.

Finding the Right Feedback Source

There are many teachers out there that are outstanding players - but that doesn’t mean they are super good teachers.

I have had seven teachers in 30 years of playing the violin - every teacher was different in their unique way — many things good, some things bad.

This is a topic that could be discussed in a whole other blog, but I want you to realize that a significant component of you progressing on the violin is getting validation and vision. And that validation and vision are not always 10/10. This is not you - it can be the teacher who cannot give you what you need.

If a teacher evaluates you and has nothing much to say about how you are doing and what they see (the vision) of you progressing, you can stray in a way.

Some students quit because the feedback is negative, harsh or unprofessional.

On the other hand, a teacher that has more emotional awareness and teaching ability will encourage you, find out what motivates you, and keep you on the right track…

Try to find a teacher like this and don’t get discouraged (or worse think it’s you) if the teacher doesn’t fill your need. Also telling them that you want to get some of the things mentioned in this article can help their approach to you - as a good teacher will adjust to a student’s needs.

Now I don’t teach private lessons anymore, but hopefully, now you see how I was able to maintain a 5% drop rate. I was able to teach effectively by adjusting to every personality and weighing many things that ultimately was done to keep students coming back for more.

Wouldn’t that be the goal of a student when they hire a teacher - to help them learn the violin and keep them motivated? And that is the one thing I hope I can help the violin world in general. How great would it be if the world had only a 5% drop rate?

How many more 93-year-old violinists would be in the world making it a more musical place?


April 30, 2019 at 09:02 PM · Being a beginner violin teacher is perhaps the most challenging role in a violinist's journey. Not only do you have to motivate the students mentally, but you have to be able to spot habits which can become problems later.

YouTube videos and poor teachers do not spot potential problems and emphasize proper habits and techniques. Case in point, I watched plenty of YouTube videos, took some lessons from a few teachers which left me motivated for more. But then my body revolted with my right hand becoming numb and the numbness eventually spread to my entire right arm. upon seeing my doctor and a physiotherapist, I was given a diagnosis of carpal tunnel in my right arm. As you might guess, the numbness severely limits my ability to play and enjoy the violin. POOR TECHNIQUE and practising TOO LONG are the suspected culprits. A good teacher would have recognized the beginnings of those habits and corrected them. YouTube videos will show correct technique, but will not ensure you are following them.

I can only hope that I have not ended my violin journey.

April 30, 2019 at 09:20 PM · Nice to hear from you Jim! Looks like we are both entrepreneurs, writers, violinists and website developers. Not everyday I "meet" someone like that!

I agree, self-motivation is key to longevity. In general, I find people under the age of 30 tend to quit for other reasons related to self-motivation compared to older adult students.

In general, students under age 30 tend to struggle more with commitment and focus, while older adults tend to do a lot better with those areas.

It takes self-motivation to get out of your house, get into your car and drive to lessons. It takes focus to work on the technical aspects of violin. It takes self-motivation to get through the tough times and seek outside help.

Having the self-motivation to be able to do these things (and consistently over time) is what I think and you might agree leads to students having success with the violin - sounds like just like you! Thanks again for your comment.

May 1, 2019 at 12:40 AM · I find this subject interesting, indeed. I started playing in elementary school and continue playing now, several decades later, up to 3 hours a day, although I don't make my living in the music business.

Unlike you, I'm not a teacher, so I don't have a teacher's perspective on the matter; but I did have six teachers over a long stretch of years till I finished my degree program -- almost as many as the seven you had. I got valuable pointers from each of these instructors, and I review their advice continually.

Two elements that I strongly feel are key to violin longevity: 1) self-motivation and 2) teaching that inspires. I was definitely self-motivated, and the sound my teacher drew from her instrument was a continual inspiration for me. With her guidance, I progressed much faster in those formative years than I could have done on my own.

A third possible element with me: I was, and still am, the geeky type. My first teacher felt I was ready to start position-playing after only 3 months of lessons. She was right -- I took to this phase of the study readily. I remember reading through the lesson books on positions as bedtime stories, eager to see what challenges lay ahead. This, plus seeing what my teacher, a very accomplished player, could do with the material, kept me reaching -- and helped me avoid getting discouraged by challenges down the road.

May 1, 2019 at 02:11 AM · Awesome

May 1, 2019 at 10:29 AM · great video with your grandpa!

May 1, 2019 at 11:16 AM · I would have to say that one of the things a learner an outlet. There has to be a reason to spend all those hours in practice other than...practice.

I was a late starter on violin, first picked up the instrument at the age of 39. It's been 17 years now and still going. I did have a couple of teachers, one of them offered me a spot on her praise team at church after only playing for 3 was a terrifying thought...but I said "sure". Now I had a 'big' reason to spend hours practicing...there was no way I was going to get up there and play in front of folks without being prepared ! Yes, there were some humiliating experiences but I plugged on.

I suffered serious tendonitis in my left elbow and went through PT..but played through it all because didn't hurt when I played, only when I did just about everything else. Took about a year and a half to clear up and I still have issues with it if I get overly zealous with vibrato.

I still play in that church and for the past 4 or 5 years have also been playing in a local string orchestra...I'm the assistant principal...(the 1st chair better just NOT not show up !!)

As far as not having time to practice....if you really want to do this, you somehow manage to find the time. I've been getting up at 4am to practice for years...because it's the only time of day that I can. If I waited till after work, I wouldn't have the energy or desire to drag that thing out and do anything with first thing in the am, after showering and getting dressed..out it comes.

I really believe that having an outlet....other people to play music with....does more to encourage and keep a player motivated than anything else. Having a good teacher to help you is a definite plus, but I've gone through years when I didn't have right now. So many times I felt like quitting, but then I learned that when I felt that way...if I persisted...I always would find myself hitting another level of playing soon afterward.

So...keep on keeping on...I still don't play as well as I'd like to...but...unless you're a Hillary Hahn or Josh Bell, I think we all feel that way...and frankly, they probably feel that too...

May 1, 2019 at 12:09 PM · Very interesting article, and a great video, thank you! At 59 I returned to the violin close to 6 months ago and the decision to work with a teacher who focuses on training adults has been a good one. My eventual goal is simply to play with others and I am very self-motivated and focus on the journey to get there. I'm sure there will be frustrating times ahead as I improve and move to more challenging and longer pieces, but I know how to deal with those times - life has been a quite good teacher in that arena.

I would certainly still practice/work on my own if I didn't have access to a good teacher - but I would miss so much if I did not. Practicing isn't a problem, as Eileen mentions, if we want to do it we will find a way to do it.

The feedback from a teacher is invaluable in so many ways, and with a few physical issues related to having been knocking around this planet for almost 60 years, I would likely wind up aggravating those things which would make playing problematic. It will be interesting to see how many violin teachers may move to Skype and related technologies to have access to a broader pool of students, time will tell on that.

I will never play as well as I would like, but I'm sure that everyone feels that way - including the top professionals.

May 1, 2019 at 12:38 PM · Thank you for writing this. Well done.

May 1, 2019 at 03:21 PM · There is no question that to keep playing into old age one has to keep doing it. My 84th birthday last year marked the 80th anniversary of my start as a "violinst." I did stop twice in those years, for a year just before my teen years by choice and for another year at age 55 because of an injury. I have been self taught since my teen years and was concertmaster of my high school orchestra for 3 years. I still play - having added cello 70 years ago and viola 40 years ago. I have reduced my ensemble playing recently but I did have string quartets as 1st violinist for many years, was a community orchestra concert master for 20 years, and have been both violinist and cellist in piano trios for at least 40 years, just ending that in 2017.

I now play as a violist in an excellent (mostly senior) conductor-less chamber orchestra of 30 members. Our up-coming concert will include Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. At least 3 other players are older than I am - our bass, a violinist and an oboe player.

Playing into old age, especially reading new music all the time certainly helps keep one's brain active. But when experienced elderly musicians say the are "making progress" it is more like putting one foot in front of the other than selecting the next high-level concerto - believe me.

May 1, 2019 at 06:49 PM · This is where playing in ensembles helps immensely.

In theory, I fall into the category of people who would normally be expected to quit very quickly: started in my late teens, self-taught until age 33. But I'm 36 now and I've been playing for more than half of my life. Even though I've been on busy career paths for almost the entire time, it's been without interruption except for injuries. I currently play in the viola section of a semi-pro orchestra (where I am the only violist without a music degree) and am principal violist in a mid-level community orchestra. My long-term music goals have gotten much, much higher over time: when I started I was aiming to just play in an orchestra capable of playing symphonies, now I want to eventually learn all of the "big three" viola concertos to a creditable performance standard and reach the level of playing ability where I'm competitive in professional orchestra auditions.

I think the big difference between me and other self-taught late starters is: I got into an orchestra early, before most people would say I was ready, and continued playing in orchestras. Since joining my first orchestra in 2000, I've played at least one concert in every season except for 2010-11, which was my first year in a new city. That meant I always had something to work toward, and a certain amount of feedback even though it wasn't coming from a one-on-one teacher.

The other motivator... came from teachers, in a perverse sense. I self-taught only after being turned away by multiple teachers who told me I was already too old to learn a string instrument. Even now, one of the reasons I'm constantly trying to push myself is to prove those teachers wrong.

May 1, 2019 at 06:51 PM · I am an older beginner, 66 years old now and started playing violin 3 years ago. I had been playing piano and guitar since I was 6 so music was always a part of my life, but I always wanted to play violin. I was fortunate to find a good initial teacher for about 9 months and then one other teacher for about 6 months due to a move. Violin has become my passion.

My problem was my job had me travelling over 100,000 miles a year. I traveled with my violin, so I was able to keep practicing. For a year on the road, I focused on just long slow bows, intonation, scales, arpeggios, intervals, Suzuki Book 1, Essential Elements Book 1, songs I would hand write out that I want to learn and didn't seem to complex. But the main focus has been TONE, so my violin woke up, started to sing and sound good.

Now, I am finally not travelling at all this year and home all day. I am ready to find a teacher again and would really like to find a way to play with others too.

This idea of practice and I am the only audience is getting old. Not enough to stop me, but enough that I feel like I want to share what I am doing.

I really loved it when I could play with my teacher, either two violins or piano and violin. It sounded so good and I felt it really helped my intonation to hear the other instruments.

No vibrato yet, just finding the minimum required pressure with my left hand and total focus on tone has brought me to a new place.

My plan is definitely to keep playing, I keep my violin with in reach all day long and pick it up at least 2-3 times a day. I never practice more than 20-30 minutes at a stretch. And I definitely want to be playing when I am 90 if I am so fortunate. That seems like long enough to actually be pretty accomplished!

If I keep practicing alone, I am really going to need someone to guide me in what I should be practicing. How to best practice, both to keep it fresh and to know what I should be striving to take on.

I don't think I am a beginner necessarily anymore, playing scales in a lot of positions, shifting, etc.

My big question now, is where do I go from here?

May 1, 2019 at 09:17 PM · Michael,

I've been playing for over 40 years. I've been part of a community orchestra, now teaching some who cannot afford private lessons, and playing hymns in church and music just for myself.

I'm bothered by the eternal pursuit of perfection that seems buried in your treatise. I'm still playing despite many issues but I've reached a plateau and, instead of trying to climb to the next plateau built a house and decided to live there.

I still play, I still enjoy the instrument and give myself some challenges but I'm not in hot pursuit of perfection. I'm more than happy playing for myself (along with the wife and the cats) teaching student who would never get private lessons and getting the scholarships with other teachers when I can no longer bring them along, and play the occasional hymn in church.

personally, I don't find that there is anything wrong with not striving for something "better" at my age and condition.

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