V.com weekend vote: Can one become a professional violinist, starting at age 18 or older?

December 9, 2011, 9:29 AM · Is it possible to become a professional violinist if you start at age 18 or older?

This is a question that is causing us a lot of grief -- recently a discussion on this topic zipped up to 100 responses in less than two weeks, with very passionate exchanges.

One one side of this argument is the simple fact that one has to put in many hours to learn the physical skill of playing, and that starting early can greatly aid in developing the musculature for playing (stretchy and nimble fingers, strength in the arms, etc.) Also, the mental process is considerable: learning to read music fluently, getting a great deal of repertoire into your fingers and mind, etc. Also, when one talks of being a "professional" you have the aspect of career development, which also happens early: making connections with other musicians, learning to play in an ensemble, taking auditions, seeking mentorship, etc. etc.

On the other side of it is motivation and dreams: the general idea that if you put your mind to something, you can do it. A whole lot of people who begin playing when they are young do not actually wind up as professional musicians, and that's because they aren't driven by some kind of fire to do it. The fire can get you quite far, even when you are starting late.

Personally, I'd probably compare it to learning a language. Not too many people become fluent in a foreign language -- speaking it like a native with no accent -- when they start as late as 18. And yet, some do. But certainly it requires a combination of natural inclination, immersion and a lot of work.

I think that if you have the fire to do something, you should pursue it. If you truly have the fire, you will be happy on the road to the goal, whatever the outcome. But it will help to be flexible about the outcome: I've definitely witnessed late-starter musicians becoming excellent teachers, or winding up in a church Baroque group that makes them happy (along with a different day job). Certainly you can find work in music, but becoming a soloist or professional orchestra player is a pretty rough road, even for those who began at age three.

I'd like to see where people stand on this, when given the chance to vote anonymously! And feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.


December 9, 2011 at 05:05 PM · I am a professional cellist. I started at age 20, but already played 5 other instruments (albeit most not very advanced, except piano) and sang and was a senior voice major in college when I started playing. I had a lot of knowledge and experience to draw on. I don't think someone who doesn't have that sort of knowledge and experience can do it if they start that late in life.

December 9, 2011 at 05:01 PM · Well I think we have to define "professional." To a lot of people, "professional" means making a middle-class wage in a top ten or twenty orchestra. To others, it's playing in a couple local orchestras and supplementing income with teaching. Is the former possible for an 18-year-old just starting out, especially if you don't have access to the best training your country has to offer? No. Read the biographies of the people who have been lucky enough to land such a top ten job; almost without exception, they began at five or earlier with the best teachers in the business. Heck, I started at nine and I was too late. But is the latter possible - work in a regional orchestra, supplemented by teaching? If you have enough talent and drive, probably. But it will take a lot of hard work, and the emotional toll of such work I think can be easily underestimated. What is *always* possible is to be a devoted lover of music. There is no shame in being an amateur. Actually, amateurs have it better than professionals in a lot of ways.

But maybe I'm just biased because that's the choice I personally made, and I'm happy with it.

December 9, 2011 at 05:17 PM · I voted no, notwithstanding Anatol Ugorsky, a pianist who is said to have started at 19. If there had been a category "highly unlikely" I'd have voted for that.

But there are more examples of people who have learnt to play as a child and got serious much later, and still made it as a professional.

December 9, 2011 at 05:25 PM · A simply yes or no won't do. There are too many factors to consider. Besides, I have known musicians with lots of talent that started at a young age but they had no passion for it and became quite burnt-out in the professional music scene and have left music behind. I have also known late-bloomers with lots of passion for music that play anywhere that will let them. Even though they don't make a living off what they do, they love every minute of it. For any musician, I think it's like what Laurie said in her article: the road to the goal should be the enjoyable part.

I also like what this blog has to say: http://kennedyviolins.com/blog/2011/07/its-never-too-late/

December 9, 2011 at 06:16 PM · I voted yes for the same reason as said above - 'professional' is a large tent. If you meant a classical soloist I think most people would vote no - though some people always seem to find a way to carve their own road.

Also, the topic you refer to did not discuss the other group - mentioned above - those who started at childhood and then took it up much later. What is their potential?

December 9, 2011 at 06:35 PM · No, and, no.

December 9, 2011 at 07:29 PM · I voted yes, because I know several musicians who fit under the "professional" = playing + teaching model. They were all 18+ when they took up their major instrument, and all seem to be very satisfied with the variety and quality of their musical lives.

December 9, 2011 at 07:30 PM · If you by "professional" violinist you mean a living wage, the oldest start age that I know of is age twelve.

I know of two. One has a high five-figure orchestra gig, the other a six-figure orchestra gig.

Both are exceptionally talented and musical, with *way* above average intellectual capacities. One had a professional string player parent.

Both were local standouts by their teen years. Both went to top-notch Big Name music schools with top-notch Big Name teachers, and both won living wage orchestra auditions by their early twenties.

I have heard both express regret they didn't get an earlier start...

December 9, 2011 at 08:01 PM · define "professional violinist"

-Professional Orchestra Player: NO

-violin teacher: probably YES (It takes other strengths, wich are availible to learn at any time)

-professional folk or rock violinist in a band: probably YES

-Studio musician: NO (but depends on the style and job)

list goes on I guess...

December 9, 2011 at 09:30 PM · It depends on "professional". I am always slightly amazed by how many musicians seem to regard orchestral playing as the holy grail. To rely on a top orchestra as your sole source of funds is attractive to say the least, but far form the only avenue available to pros. It takes a special personality to do well in such an atmosphere day-in and day-out as well...

Two of my best teachers and subsequently, the best and most successful musicians I have ever had the honour of studying under want nothing to do with orchestral playing.

They both take a variety of teaching and performing gigs and lead happy lives. All without setting foot in an orchestra (one does sub in a big-name symphony as well as the local one here, but actually turned down an invitation to play with the former full-time...said he didn't want to be tied down).

There is more than one way to skin a cat, if you will forgive the ugly saying. Think outside of the box and be willing and flexible, and there will be success on your own personal journey.

Life is too short to play a game of chicken with possible bitterness and having to deal with a "what if" sense of regret for the rest of your days. Take calculated risks and pursue your passions with vigor, whatever they may be.

To answer the question, I would say a violinist beginning past 12 would have a near impossible time getting into a pro orchestra...but there are many other routes one can take in order to derive all of or a large part of their income from making music...all require a certain fire and lots of hard work, of course, as does everything in life).

December 9, 2011 at 10:54 PM · "Personally, I'd probably compare it to learning a language. Not too many people become fluent in a foreign language -- speaking it like a native with no accent -- when they start as late as 18. And yet, some do. But certainly it requires a combination of natural inclination, immersion and a lot of work."

The view held for many years was that after the age of 3-5 it was almost impossible to master a foreign language fluently. However modern thinking by language experts is that you can become fluent in a foreign language starting at any age.

Speaking with a native accent is much more difficult but there are now accent removal coaches and accents are now well understood by linguists. There is also the fact that it probably doesn't matter. Has anyone ever complained about French actresses speaking with a sensuous French accent instead of a native English or American accent?

Regarding learning a violin though I do not have sufficient knowledge to comment.

December 10, 2011 at 01:09 AM ·

December 10, 2011 at 03:22 AM · Does any of the "late starting violinists making it to a living wage orchestra" stories occur in the last 10 years or so? It seems that it was more probable in the old days, when most violinists did not start at age 3-5... With jobs so few and a global pool of amazing talents, it can only get harder in the foreseeable future - have you noticed that nowadays concertmasters in many top orchestras get hired fresh out of school?

December 10, 2011 at 04:45 AM · @Joyce, my friends are of two very different ages. But the kinds of experience most of us are describing doesn't lead to being the concertmaster of a major orchestra.

[And, imho, hiring concertmasters right out of school (or after a short solo career) isn't always in the best interests of the orchestra--what does such a one know from experience about leading a section to a good blended sound, or about orchestrally helpful bowings? They can SOUND great as individuals...but... It's a fashion, but I expect it may be relatively short-lived.]

December 10, 2011 at 04:47 AM · There's a very simple flaw in logic with most of the reasoning that I have seen here:

People are confusing possibility with probability. You're arguing against the possibility of human potential, which is invalid from the start. If you're thinking "but the chance is so little, it never happens or is likely to never occur if current trends continue". Yes, but that does not mean it's impossible. Technically, it's not probable. However it's not even very probable for people who start at an extremely young age, either. Getting an early start increases the odds so drastically you could say hypothetically that starting when you're 3 grants up to 5 times more chance than starting when you're 12 (for instance). However, that still doesn't mean that it's outside the realm of possibility for a 19 year old who devotes their every breath to the violin and lives like a monk in a famine to achieve a standard worthy of a good career.

Remember studying for the SAT (or better yet, the LSAT)? Answers containing definitive words like "always", "never" and "impossible" are usually incorrect answers. I realize that life isn't a logic portion of a standardized test but both lives and tests are created by people, and people are subject to undefinable variables. Remember, the existence of our planet with it's perfectly balanced atmosphere and ability to sustain life is an extreme improbability, and yet here we are. With all the people defining what's possible and impossible, someone's bound to slip through the cracks and accidentally do something surprising and wonderful.

December 10, 2011 at 02:15 PM · I say no because of sociological reasons, there are so many violinists out there who fit the mold why should prospective employers take any interest in a late starter...

December 10, 2011 at 03:55 PM · My thought on this is the seriously limiting time/life factors for a late starter (any age from 18 up) on a musical instrument include family, work, and study disciplines other than music, perhaps at a professional level. However, if the late starter has the desire, application and a good teacher, I believe it is possible to achieve a professional standard of playing in a useful subset of the entirety of violinistic technique. Such a subset is admittedly insufficient to gain admission to a full-time professional orchestra but may be sufficient to enable the playing of a respectably-sized chunk of the classical or other repertoires at a level that will give the player satisfaction and bring pleasure to the listeners. The possibility of occasional paid performances is not out of the question. Teaching is another possibility.

Regarding languages, my three grand-children, aged 3, 6 and 7, are fluent speakers, appropriate to their ages, in Flemish (their natural language) and English, and flip between the two at the blink of an eye. Their English mother, a hospital nurse, who moved to Belgium some 9 years ago, was thinking in Flemish within 6 months of arrival.

December 10, 2011 at 04:39 PM · "... but actually turned down an invitation to play with the former full-time...said he didn't want to be tied down."

That reminds me of my cello teacher who was offered the post of principal cellist in the BBC SO just after the War, which he turned down because he preferred to go free-lance. Which he did for the rest of his long and happy life.

December 10, 2011 at 05:21 PM · "I say no because of sociological reasons, there are so many violinists out there who fit the mold why should prospective employers take any interest in a late starter... "

Actually I think it has more to do with how you play, unless you're trying to get an orchestra job in your 60s. As one of my teachers used to say, "if you don't play in tune and in time you won't work."

So how long does it take to get to A. conservatory audition level and B. paying orchestra audition level and C. the level of broad experience, knowledge, and repertoire to call oneself "professional?"

Most successful string players seem to start around 6, give or take a year or two, and have an almost fully-developed technique at around 18, when they have to audition on advanced repertoire for conservatory. However, my experience as a teacher shows me that for most students, the early years go by pretty slowly--youngsters can't practice for 3 hours and don't have the intellectual development to make shortcuts that the adult musician can, such as figuring out their own logical fingerings and bowings. So let's say that with a talented student, the time to conservatory-ready could be shortened, perhaps instead of 12 years to 8. What's the minimum? I simply can't imagine someone going from beginner to Sibelius and solo Bach (typical conservatory audition material) in less than 6 years. Remember, they have to learn to read music, and learn how to practice effectively.

So could someone at 19 be conservatory-ready by 26? It's conceivable, and possible to be orchestra-ready by 30. The limiting factor may well turn out to be nerves, as people who begin as adults typically get so nervous that their heads explode at the thought of playing in front of people. It's the same reason people don't start skiing at 19 and suddenly become great downhill racers: not the technique of skiing, but fear.

One additional comment I have is the definition of "professional," and it has less to do with salary than the mastering of one's craft. I believe one is considered a professional when one is at least competent at most of the technique and repertoire and styles. That person should be able to read or figure out anything, and learn new material without help. They should be able to teach a piece they've never studied and come up with musical fingerings and bowings for the student. In other words, I wouldn't call someone who's learned a couple of concerti and one Bach sonata a full profession, but more of a one-trick pony. One should have studied all the Mozart concerti, and all the Bach sonatas, and should have fingerings for all the Brahms symphonies.

For our 19-year-old beginner, then, it would probably take until they were well into middle-age to acquire that basic repertoire, if their money and physique held out that long.

I find the training of the Japanese puppet masters to be quite similar to that of the professional string player. In Japan, the common wisdom was that it took 10 years to acquire basic skills, another 10 to become professionally competent, and another 10 to become an artist.

December 10, 2011 at 09:49 PM · Anything is possible!!!!! With the pedagagues available these days plus the literature, methods, schools.... it is very possible and with what we are seeing in the competions keep in expectation.... we will begin to see such violinist in the future!

December 10, 2011 at 10:50 PM · Scott, you give a great description of what's needed to be a professional of the 'mold' that Mark wrote of. Molds are always useful, but they also benefit from being broken! I think the definition really, in practical terms, has to be much more flexible.

Let me give an example from another field (to keep things neutral). When I was getting my PhD (at a Research-1 uni) all my professors expounded on the 'fact' that the only ‘real’ professors were those teaching at R-1 institutions, preferably sporting a string of publications. They were even ‘realer’ if the R-1 was ivy league. That was the world they knew (well, not the ivy league part—something that made many of them perpetually depressed with their professional ‘failure’). Realistically, that standard means most PhD's could never be 'professional.' It would not only discourage many fine teacher/scholars, it would make 95+/-% of the colleges/unis in this country professor-free. It also makes many fine professor/scholars think less of themselves because they don’t measure up to the ‘real’ yardstick.

Conservatories provide one well-trodden path to ‘professional’ musical standing, but it’s not the only path. It may be the most direct, but this thread asks about possibilities. There are many, with diverse professional outcomes.

December 11, 2011 at 01:30 AM · Marjory,

Sorry, didn't mean to imply that a conservatory was the only route. Lots of fine players also to to state universities, and small colleges. I even know 2 successful violinists who never got degrees. My point is just that for most classical training programs, it would be a reasonable expectation for an 18-year old to be able to play a romantic concerto, Bach, a showpiece, and all 3-octave scales. So for our hypothetical adult beginner, that would be some sort of reference for accomplishment and on the instrument.


December 11, 2011 at 03:00 AM · Right now with the "Steam Punks" and their fellow Avant Guard string players who are using more strings such as violin, viola, cello are inspiring younger listeners whom many are showing a precocious brilliance that is just amazing! What the electric guitar was in the 60s the violin very well may be the 21st. century's counterpart in modern music! It could be just a flash in the pan... who knows? But they are gaining in recognition and abilities!

December 11, 2011 at 05:04 AM · One thing that has not been touched upon is the social expectation, which in turn translates to financial pressure facing young adult beginners, if they dare to dream a career in music...

Kid starters have the blessings of their parents to become the best they can be, and they don't have to worry about feeding themselves while practicing at least 3 hours a day... Kids that reach the point of contemplating a career in music usually have proven track records - they are deemed to have a shot by their teachers and families, otherwise they would have been dissuaded from even trying...

As for young adult beginners, on the other hand, at 18/19, one is expected to think about one's future and make responsible choices. Music, in many people's minds, is not a "serious" career, because few can make a living out of it (just like acting, dancing, and many other artistic pursuits). It takes at least a year or two to see if one has potential, and if one does, at least another 5-7 years to become minimally proficient. Unless one has a trust fund, few families would support such "irresponsible" endeavor even if they can afford it. Therefore most likely our hypothetical adult beginner is on her own, and must either go to college and study something else (possibly taking out loans) to buy time, or work to support oneself, while receiving private instructions from a good teacher (usually quite expensive) and practicing like crazy... Either way it would be very hard to attain satisfactory results under these circumstances, unless one has extraordinary talent, drive and discipline.

December 11, 2011 at 05:47 AM · I'm not trying to be sarcastic, what do you consider a living wage as far as a professional musician is concerned? I know by asking this I've tipped my hand; so yes I am an adult learner. I hold professional musicians in high esteem. I know you put a lot of effort into your craft. So please do not take this question as an affront.

December 11, 2011 at 05:59 AM · Don,

It's a good question, but everyone will have a different answer. A single person (with no loans) doesn't need a big salary. Someone with a family needs more. If you don't have employer-paid health insurance, you need a lot more.

That's why I turned the definition of "professional" from one based on income, in which sheer luck plays a role, to one based on some kind of standard of technical and artistic achievement.


December 11, 2011 at 07:16 AM · I voted no, not in the classical world. Competition is getting more fierce from what I understand. That goes for late starter and returning adults, also goes for adults such as myself who started young, kept playing but didn't pour my life into it. We make choices in life, sometimes it is not about a choice, but never having had the opportunities required, but life is what it is. Learn, play, maybe do weddings and the like if ability permits, play less demanding music, teach if your teachers tell you that you should, but show some respect for those that did make all the sacrifices and worked so hard to be where they are.

December 11, 2011 at 03:33 PM · "...but show some respect for those that did make all the sacrifices and worked so hard to be where they are."

I'm sorry, but this makes absolutely no sense.

Late-starters shouldn't put the effort in if they have the time/ability/etc because it's disrespectful of them for not being made to start as 3 year-olds or for growing up in families whose circumstances did not allow funding for expensive teachers, summer camps and precollege?

December 11, 2011 at 06:09 PM · "but show some respect for those that did make all the sacrifices and worked so hard to be where they are."

I'm guessing the meaning here is that adult beginners should have respect for the enormity of the project, and that they shouldn't expect to easily accomplish in a few years what people working since childhood have. Kind of like seeing a lithe 18-year-old olympic skater doing a triple jump and saying "I could do that if I just put my mind to it..."

December 11, 2011 at 07:14 PM · @Michael Pijoan - Good answer

Of course it is possible - your burning desire sets your limits for you.

December 12, 2011 at 04:30 AM · If you mean classical violinist and not just a teacher, it's a no.

The reason why you see an overflowing population of Asians in the instrumental market being called child prodigies isn't because we're talented in any way. In fact, a lot of us are at disadvantages; tiny hands suck (thankfully I have enormous hands). The reason why they're called prodigies is because they receive Spartan education since they're toddlers (think 2, 3 year olds).

Another thing is the physiological problem. By the time you hit age 12, a lot of posture issues start to arise; simply put, that particular form for any instrument does not register as "natural" in the brain, and so one has to put extra effort in maintaining it. IE: an 18 year old ballerina trained in Vaganova method since age 3 has a natural posture with muscles tensed at the stomach and inner thighs, giving a very good posture, while a ballerina who started at age 12 will have to consciously strain the muscles to maintain the same pose.

Stringed instruments and piano demand quite a lot of accuracy as well; a child's hand fully forms its skeletal structure at age 7, so once you reach that stage you will have to deal with "non-violin" or "non-piano" hand. I talked to my former teacher and he pointed out that my curved fingers are only on the left hand, indicating that my left hand was curled around the neck so much when I was little that the bones formed that way, giving me a natural tendency for cleaner fingering. A pianist seems to develop thicker fingers that are uniform in thickness all the way to the tip. E.t.c.

If you want to see just how torturous it is to change form after age 12, try eating your meal with different way of using knife/fork/chopstick for a week (or for that matter, try playing with a different form for a week). It's almost impossible.

December 13, 2011 at 05:58 PM · Here is my own definition of "professional" and "amateur" musicians:

A professional musician is that one who will ONLY play if he(she) is paid for that, whereas an amateur musician is that one who will not only play for free, but would be willing to pay if he(she) is given a chance to play.

The problem with the terms "professional" and "amateur" is that both terms have a not necessarily right connotation : "professional" frequently means that he(she) plays "well" and "amateur" frequently means that he(she) plays "so, so". I know many "professional" violinists that play rather mediocrely and even hate their profession, and I know some "amateurs" that play beautifully, enjoy playing and sound very "professional".

If you want to become a Heifetz fiddler you'll need (among many other important virtues) to start playing the violin at 3 or 4 years old, and for that purpose, starting at 18 is already too late, BUT ... who wants to try to become a Heifetz and play the price for that ? if you want to play decently, reasonably well, without trying to achieve a very high degree of perfection, AND you want to enjoy making music with this beautiful instrument and be enormously happy, then YES ! you can start playing the violin at 18 or later, provided you have the talent, dedication and willingness to do it, and then ... you will not care whether or not you are labeled as a "professional" or an "amateur" violinist.

Ignacy Paderewski was the president of Poland and at the same time he played the piano and was considered one of the greatest interpreters of F. Chopin. Was Paderewski a "professional" pianist ?

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