Difference between a student and a pro

September 8, 2007 at 05:28 AM · When I hear other students play in master classes, studio recitals, competitions, on the radio (From the Top), etc. I often think, "Well, he/she is really good, but still just sounds like a student." I can't really point to specific aspects of performance that give me that impression, though. Assuming basics like good intonation, good tone, and at least basic phrasing are present, what would you say are some of the things that make the difference? Or is it a difference that can't be put into words?

Replies (28)

September 8, 2007 at 05:57 AM · I've always looked at the word "professional" from a technical aspect. A professional is simply someone who gets paid to do something. An amateur is someone who doesn't. There're professionals who're frighteningly bad at what they do (Andy Dick, anyone?), and there're amateurs who can outdo just about anyone else in the world.

I think, in the arts, there're only degrees of advancement, and I don't think it's truly quantifiable. Art's entirely too subjective to be measured. However, there's still, perhaps, a basis for comparison. The more people you can wow with your art, the better one can say you are. (Though, that kind of attempt at measuring one's talent doesn't account for Christo and Jeanne-Claude. How anyone can call them artists is beyond me. I wrapped a neighbor's tree in toilet paper once, and noone called me an "environmental artist"...just a juvenile delinquent. Maybe I didn't use enough toilet paper.)

So, if you ask me, I'd say a person ceases sounding like a student and starts sounding like…hmmm...I suppose the proper term here would be "master"…when she can lift me out of my seat with her playing and make me laugh, cry and feel generally soul-swollen...when it stops sounding technical and becomes, for lack of a better word, spiritual. *shrug* But, I could be completely wrong. ;)

September 8, 2007 at 08:49 AM · For me, there are two main differences. Firstly, consistancy in playing. A professional player has to be able to have a minimum level of competance below which they never fall, regardless of how they feel that day, any technical issues with their instrument etc etc. This, hand in hand with an ability to sight read at a very high level is important for players to cultivate, in order that fixers and other players have the confidence to book them.

September 8, 2007 at 01:22 PM · Yeah, after I typed the question, I realized "professional" wasn't the best word. "Master," or "artist" would be better.

September 8, 2007 at 02:02 PM · There's an old adage: "A student (or amateur) practices until they can play it right. A professional practices until they can't play it wrong."

A little simplistic, maybe, but a student's primary goal is improvement, while a professional is expected to play at a high level very consistently, and on demand.

September 8, 2007 at 02:47 PM · Aside from the differences in technical ability mentioned above, I think what differentiates a professional from a student is sovereignty. A student does what he/she is taught is right, or what he/she thinks should be done. A professional has internalised this and plays what is right for him-/herself. A professional is completely responsible for his/her decisions, whereas a student is guided in them.

September 8, 2007 at 02:54 PM · Megan and Michael,

You both certainly make excellent points. I'm always pleased to be shown new ways to look at something, and y'all did just that. :) Thanks.


I don't think you were wrong to use "professional." The word has several meanings. I merely expounded on one of them. ;) It's a very good question, to be sure.

September 8, 2007 at 04:31 PM · A student tries to play what is in his/her head. A master plays what is in his/her head.

September 8, 2007 at 06:27 PM · Context corrected by poster, master v. student means full control over the musical output, rather than a practiced effort.

While a good student might be able to correct something and pull it off on the fly, a master has fun with it. (See the spoof on Heifetz masterclass).

Also, a master has 'musical vision' that is mature and not forced. There are 'few' of these.

September 8, 2007 at 10:33 PM · Al--

If we are both thinking of the same Heifetz spoof which I believe involved something by Vieuxtemps, it is one of the most cringing mean-spirited exhibitions I've ever seen. It only confirmed what I had always thought of Heifetz.

September 9, 2007 at 03:52 AM · The transition for me, as it is when observing the art of actors, writers and singers, is when your analyzing side shuts up and you just listen, agape with admiration, at how they are bring art and the composer's/muse's intention to life.

Judging simply disappears from the equation. It's a wonderful moment.

September 9, 2007 at 12:09 PM · another way to look at it is:

student vs teacher and

amateur vs pro.

the first one is pretty obvious in terms of direction of knowledge flow, money flow:), but hey, some students sound better than the teachers for various reasons.

the second one is interesting. often people have wrongly assumed that because one is amateur then it is acceptable to have a lower standard, to learn something not exactly right...

i think the distinction should be only one of involvement. the pros are totally involved, with time and energy and the amateurs are partially involved. both, however, should maintain the same focus, interest and the pure pursuit of knowledge and skills.

also, what do you call pros who do not sound great?:)

September 9, 2007 at 03:39 PM · Al,

That's why I reserve the word "professional" for those who simply get paid. I call a professional who sounds terrible damned lucky to have a job. ;)

Someone else made a good point about the distinction between a master and less-advanced players. So, perhaps in this instance, instead of using "master," the word "expert" would be better. ;)

September 9, 2007 at 05:13 PM · larry, your points are well taken.

since you are a photographer, here is one may be you can appreciate, something celestial...


September 9, 2007 at 05:46 PM · Al,

Though I'm not religious, I was utterly impressed by her work! Some of them looked truly photographic, which is no small feat, to be sure (even though taking pictures is far easier than painting one). Thanks for sharing this link. Her images are amazing. :)

September 10, 2007 at 04:16 AM · As an audience member, when I watch a master, I never worry if they can do it. With great amateurs, I root for them, but worry a little bit that they may be in over their head. In general, I feel a little bit relieved for great amateurs because somehow they lack confidence on some level that is difficult to describe...even when they are great technically. It must be the confidence. I consider it a certain selfless generosity to the audience. They all share the same quality in that the performance is not about them, but the music they are playing. The line separating them from what they are doing disappears, drawing you in by the sheer power of the moment.

I recently saw a great chamber concert with two professionals that was the greatest performance I’ve seen in 40 years. I go to concerts because once every now and then, I catch a brief glimpse of the divine. I knew there was a reason.

September 10, 2007 at 06:44 AM · You might be interested by what Zeami, the 15th century Japanese Noh performer thought about mastery. First the student works on technical aspects until he / she can perform any piece correctly with ease. That is the first type of mastery. Then there is the matter of how to move the audience emotionally, another kind of achievement. Then he /she reaches the point at which the audience is transported into rapture through something that occurs on an unconscious level, without knowing why. These three skills are not necessarily consecutive, someone may have one more than the other. The true master however has all these abilities: body, mind and no-mind. This master goes beyond criticism. That point is the true freedom of the master.

September 10, 2007 at 08:16 AM · "Well, he/she is really good, but still just sounds like a student. I can't really point to specific aspects..."

To me, someone sounds that way only if something is jarring. It could be anything, and could be only slightly.

September 11, 2007 at 03:38 AM · The student thinks they can't play very well (even if they are good), and the pro thinks they can (even if they aren't good).

It makes a huge difference in the quality exerted, from volume and expression to fullness and clarity.

September 11, 2007 at 05:12 AM · Three main objective categories really separate the pros from the students: Intonation, rhythm, and tone. A very fine violinist but not a great violinist (and their are thousands of these) usually has 2/3 categories in his/her arsenal. I think the term "great violinist" is often overused in discussion.

November 3, 2007 at 08:33 AM · How much does quality of the instrument come into this issue, I wonder?

November 3, 2007 at 01:58 PM · Actually, I guess I'm not talking about just the "sound," per se, but rather the whole impression of the performance; I think the ability to communicate with the audience and be musical, have a good demeanor, and excellent technique are things that can shine through even with a not-so-good instrument.

November 4, 2007 at 12:50 AM · I think it's a lot like telling a native speaker from a student speaker of any language. The more I say in Spanish, for example, the more it becomes obvious that I'm not a native or "master" of the language. This becomes obvious because of quantifiable (not transcendental!)things such as subtle sounds I don't make, a certain weirdness of expression and lack of vocabulary and maybe the occassional misuse of a tense or someo other piece of grammar. The point is that those mistakes reveal to the experienced speaker of Spanish my relative lack of experience using the language in various rich contexts. The violin is no different here- I can tell the very good student from the great artist of the violin by such quantifiable things such as the lack of subtle bow use and distribution, a relatively bland and small palette of tone colors, lack of sensitivity to phrasing, etc. etc.

Now, I think what you're really looking for is an answer to whether or not there exists a complete list of all the things you need to be able to do to pass as a great artist on the violin. Unlike many here, I think that it's at least possible to make a list like that, although it would be very very long! The problem is, even once you can do all of those million things on command, they still have to be wedded to your soul by many individual experiences, so that when you play, what comes out has meaning. In my humble opinion, even that is possible to quantify, as many great teachers have proved by producing legions of great performers!

So my short answer to you is that it definitely is "something that can be put into words", and not some trascendental thing.

November 4, 2007 at 02:46 AM · Wow, dude, I don't think I've ever agreed with you so absolutely! Nicely done!

PS. The borsch and pirozhki I just made are awaiting your visit; as an inadequate but heartfelt thanks - a reward for this unusual moment of sanity and lucidity...

November 4, 2007 at 06:35 AM · Howard, that's a great analogy for me.

and my question then is - Is there one point where a good student becomes a master? Say Menuhin, did he maybe have qualities of masterful playing the day he picked up the violin. Or was there some moment or performance where his mastery (as opposed to just prodigious studentship) was acknowledged. Has anyone witnessed that transition?

November 4, 2007 at 03:09 PM · Simple: A pro gets paid, a student pays.

More interesting to me is the distinction between "student" and "artist," but the distinction is still simple:

Who's approval is the musician playing for? The artist attempts to live up to her own expectations, the student seeks the approval of outsiders, be they teachers, audience members, presenters, or critics.

For me, it has nothing directly to do with subtly variegated tonal production or any of the other 10,000 requirements of top-notch playing. The best students can do all of it (and some do so while soloing with major orchestras around the world and making DG recordings), but are still students. By the same token, some artists are toiling away on their vibrato and intonation as undergraduates, struggling mightily with the Bruch concerto, but they are still artists.

November 4, 2007 at 04:35 PM · quality of instrument is not that important I believe. any really great player can make anything sound good. example, Pinky Zuckerman has recently started playing encores by picking up the last stand violinists instrument and playing on that...i think he is trying to make a point. over 90% is musician, the rest is the instrument. of course it helps to being playing on a strad...

November 4, 2007 at 05:01 PM · For me the difference is clear:

A pro make some music

A student make some technic.

November 4, 2007 at 09:45 PM · Basically technical proficiency is how I can tell when I am listening to a student and professional. Little things such as how long one can draw their bow without cracks in sound or hold their vibrato evenly without getting all or stopping too soon. Also, students seem to give interpretations that are not too creative, maybe a product of their teacher or other musicians. They also tend to loose some musicality during performances due to not being technically proficient yet, so they are not comfortable enough to experiment with sound and other stuff. I am a student and this is what i have observed in my own differences between the professionals.

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