The Aging Violinist

September 13, 2007 at 05:01 AM · I've been wondering for some time: What happens to violinists as they age? How much do certain capabilities decline? And to what degree? Can they be offset by increased musical intelligence (assuming you learn something from playing for decades)? Can an old dog learn new tricks? I thought some of the more experienced players and teachers could tell us young whippersnappers what we're in for :).

Replies (23)

September 13, 2007 at 07:44 AM · As you age into the sixties, your desire increases and knowledge expands as per nuances of the violin and you continually try to become better at your gift of sharing music with others.

appreciate your gift,for few have the gift.

teach others,that is how tradition is passed on.

musicans have an obligation to pass on everything they know to others---that is how musicianship carries on forever.............

September 13, 2007 at 05:45 PM · Since relatively few of us take the right kind of care of our bodies when we should, like in our 20's-40's, to some extent its luck and genetics whether a person has repetitive motion ailments, arthritic problems, or more serious illnesses that impede playing or progressing into the next decades. Even so, getting fit, adjusting diet, using supplements(carefully!)if you're inclined, doing exercise and fitness like yoga, tai chi, Feldnekrais, Alexander can all help. My friend finally stopped playing at 83 due to arthritis in hands and scapula, but at 88 is teaching (one very grateful student.) Sue

September 14, 2007 at 01:05 PM · It is very hard to generalize because what happens depends on luck or lack of it. If you look at someone like Aaron Rosand who is 80 and still going strong, you see one thing. HOwever, seeing Stern at 80 and Menuhin in his 70s was painful. You may or may not get arthritis, your hearing may become impaired, etc.

September 14, 2007 at 02:23 PM · Good discussion. Allow me to add just a couple of points. Flexibility in the hands and fingers becomes a real problem for violinists as one ages (not just because of arthritis). For example, the first joint (next to the nail) of the fingers of the left hand become a little stiffer, which makes vibrato and finger control tougher. That's why, I think, pianists maintain their technique a little longer than violinists - they don't need that finger flexibility as much.

And, yes, hearing can start to go - and with it, intonation.

One exception to the great-violinists-playing-poorer-in-old-age syndrome was Nathan Milstein. I heard his last performance in Chicago; he was 80 years old and had trouble walking (it was a recital at Orchestra Hall, which was packed). But his playing was as good as any of his recordings and as good as when I heard him years before that. One of the pieces he played was the Bach 2nd Partita, and the Chaccone was the best performance I have ever heard by anybody - live or recorded. It was quite remarkable, at any age. But at 80?....Wow!

Sandy

September 14, 2007 at 02:40 PM · Pianists can usually go on longer than string players for reasons stated by Sandy. Horoszowski was still playing recitals at age 100. I had a cousin who was playing recitals when she was 92. Hearing impairment and less flexibility in the fingers is not as crucial to them.

September 14, 2007 at 08:28 PM · And on pianists, I heard a recital in Pittsburgh by Earl Wild in his mid 80's. He opened with the Brahms "Ballade" (from the Op. 118 pieces), and it was all uphill from there (lots of Liszt, mostly unfamiliar). Quite remarkable.

Equally remarkable: the original cellist of the Borodin Quartet (Valentin Berlinsky) still plays with them, which would be since 1945! (he is now 82, according to one on-line biography) At a concert last winter in Minneapolis (which unfortunately I did not hear), a friend told me that he walked on stage with difficulty, and then played marvelously. Can anyone think of a string player who has been a member of the same string quartet for 62 years?

September 14, 2007 at 09:13 PM · Speaking of Earl Wild, his website states he was born on November 26, 1915! About seven years ago, I was in a pick-up orchestra (a very classy pick-up orchestra, of course) that cut a CD with Wild. He would have been about a spry 84. I remember at least two overtimes...that man's energy is amazing...and of course, his playing was divine.

Also, Robert Mann, one of my Violin Heroes, was in the Juilliard String Quartet for about 50 years. Not too shabby!

September 14, 2007 at 10:24 PM · The eyes start to go, making it harder to read music. The various joints lose flexibility (back, neck shoulders as well as fingers). Sitting oo long can bring on blood clots, which will of course eliminate the problems above. If you survive that, and can still hear yourself play, there's bladder and prostate issues interrupting your practice. Playing standing up has its drawbacks as well, taking a toll on your feet.

My aunt was adamant in her advice: "Don't get old", she said. It was her failing to take her own advice that brought her in sorrow to the grave.

The silver lining of the aging process is that it makes the inevitable departure something to be wished for rather than feared.

September 14, 2007 at 10:37 PM · Greetings,

dn`t know how serious the above post wa smeant to be but the kind of deteriroiration described above is actually avoidable to a very large extent with the the practice of arts like yoga, Alexander technique and eating approriate foods for you.

Cheers,

Buri

September 14, 2007 at 11:23 PM · Would those appropriate foods include prunes?

:P

September 14, 2007 at 11:49 PM · Oh, it's serious. Give yourself a few decades and re-evaluate.

September 15, 2007 at 01:22 AM · http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj91VzrSxww&mode=related&search=

September 15, 2007 at 05:51 AM · One plus point is that performing and teacing music until a ripe old age will keep the mind agile and therefore the body more youthful.One point worth pondereing is women in menepause.This can bring all sorts of problems and it will be interesting to see if this generation of exotic young female superstars will still be regularly performing as soloists in their fifties.

September 15, 2007 at 10:23 PM · Both Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel are in their 80's and still going strong.

I bet Ida Haendel will be able to challenge any of the male violinists on v.com with more bench presses. :)

September 15, 2007 at 10:52 PM · Heifetz decided at the age of 70 to quit playing while Milstein kept going to do that but with a bad result considering the legend he was in 60s and before. It's up the violinist to know when it is time to stop basing also on the opinion of our friends if thay are not too old too:)

September 16, 2007 at 04:33 AM · Logically speaking, we are slowing dying the minute we were born.

Physically speaking, our body's functional decline starts when teenage is. The body keeps deteriorating and eventually it'll just give up.

Mentally and spiritually, we can age at any stage of our life when we start to give up the will to push that extra inch, when we stop care, and when we stop hope.

So, young whippersnappers, ask not what will be like when you are old, ask how to stay young physically and spiritually, and enjoy the violin as though each day is the last day you could play.

September 16, 2007 at 04:36 AM · Yixi, I would say it's impossible to stay young physically and important to mature spiritually (if that's not impossible too) :)

September 16, 2007 at 04:38 AM · Another violinist who played well into his 90's was Stephene Grappelli. When I saw him in the early 1990's he could no longer stand to play, and I had to tune his violin for him because he didn't have the strength, but he still had his signature sound, was in perfectly in tune, and swung like crazy.

September 16, 2007 at 05:07 AM · Jim, just watch me:)

September 16, 2007 at 05:53 AM · You discover that the movie is about 40 years long, everything you see later, you've seen it before. Which makes it doubly boring to see :)

September 16, 2007 at 11:53 AM · violinists never age, they just get better:)

September 16, 2007 at 03:31 PM · It's not what I see but how I see it keeps the movie interesting, but then, I've never seen a movie that is 40 yrs long:)

I'm with al, the body may age but the violinist gets better and wiser.

September 16, 2007 at 05:04 PM · In his 2001 book, "A New History of Violin Playing," Zelenko Silvela expounds the hypothesis that virtuoso violiniists begin to fade at age 50, and he briefly describes many careeres through the several centuries that support this view. Of course, there are the exceptions cited above, and mentioned in his book as well. An iconoclast, the author (a Spaniard writing in English) refused necessary editorial support, which gives his book both a provincialism as well as a certain charm - and perhaps some ambiguity of interpretation.

Unfortunately, this question is now the basis of my existence every day when I awake. At 72 (almost 73), I've played the violin more than 68 years and the cello more than 58. So for me it is interesting to see how increasing decrepitude affects my playing on each instrument.

Musically, I am better than ever, I can feel more ways to interpret and express the music.

Acoustically, my hearing is fading, but with assistance I hear all I need to and have a better sense of intonation than ever.

Pedagogically, my years of improving technique are definitely over.

Technically, I can feel the affects of arthritis, mostly in my left thumb and wrist. This affects playing the violin more than it does playing the cello. There is no comparable effect for my right hand - yet. The high positions on the G string are especially challenging now. I'm always searching for new ways to take advantage of natural harmonics to make things easier and less painful - and there are lots of ways.

Fading eyesight definitely takes a toll on sightreading, although brighter lighting and new eyeglass prescriptions help. And one can always go to a copy store and have the music enlarged.

I think that in general we see violinists' skills degrade at an earlier age than cellists' and in my own body I can feel that and it seems to be because the cello is played in a much more natural position than the violin. I think it is far more common to see performiing cellists past 80 than performing violiniists, and personally, I can feel why that is so.

In my piano trio (I'm the cellist), the violinist was just 72 this week, and the pianist was 92 on the same day. She is a retired pro, knows all the literature, still sightreads like a champ,and still great (a real treat) to play with, although her hearing is well past "beginning to fade" and so her tempos and expressions rule (unless we discuss it). The violinist had a "misspent life" and did not play between ages 30 and 60, so his experience is not guide to the affects of aging - in some ways he is still getting better because he restarted so late.

Although it all seems to "go south" with age, like an ocean cruise, one can enjoy the journey - and the progress destinations don't mean so much any more - just stay on the ship to the terminus!

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