Only prodigies are successful nowadays?

April 23, 2008 at 07:01 PM · Does one need to be a prodigy to become a v. successful violinist?

By v. successful I mean becoming a soloist performing with the major orchestras and conductors of the world on a regular basis?

The greatest violinists I know of were all prodigies (i.e., played Mendelsohn by 9, the Chaconne by 12 or some similar trajectory).

Examples are: Heifetz, Menuhin, Elman, Perlman, Szigeti, Oistrakh, Zimbalist, Vengerov, Chang, Kennedy. While some of these were not human (they played like gods!) and are much much more than v. successful, are there examples of successful violinists that only found their passion for the violin as early teenagers or later?

Or is it true that unless you practice 5 hours a day as a child, you wont be able to compete as a young adult?

Thank you.

Replies (64)

April 23, 2008 at 07:14 PM · It seems like now adays this is the case, mainly due to the high amount of violinists giving way to higher standards.

Reminds me of a YouTube video I saw last night, where a five year old was playing Paganini's 24th caprice! How that is possible is beyond me...even if you started as soon as you left the womb.

April 23, 2008 at 08:04 PM · whereas prodigies have been successful now or then, MOST prodigies have not been successful now or then, because the market almost always outsmarts the parents of the prodigies:) . imo, to strike fame in art, it is more fate than work, more blood and sweat than the love of music. leave it up to chance, kid. nothing academic about it. besides, read up the history of classical musicians. it is not for the faint of heart. all that glitter is not gold.

and if one is so caught up that one forgets to smell the roses, it might be a pity in retrospect.

April 23, 2008 at 07:49 PM · Andrew are you 9 years old?

If so, just remember: there is more than one path to success.

Also, looking at the past is a poor predictor of the future,

April 23, 2008 at 08:01 PM · "looking at the past is a poor predictor of the future"

the past is an excellent predictor of the future, particularly with the perverted justice of the classical circle.

April 23, 2008 at 10:27 PM · Is a solo violin career the only career line open to musicians? What about chamber music (which requires more maturity than a solo career, IMHO), or orchestral music, or teaching? Just because you're not a child prodigy doesn't mean music is shut off to you. Find something you're passionate about and do it. Be the best at it that you can be...

And besides, there's nothing stopping you from doing multiple things.

April 24, 2008 at 01:54 AM · Bilbo is wise as usual. And I thought he was joking about Andrew's age... but apparently not!

April 24, 2008 at 03:39 AM · I think Szigeti and Oistrakh, if they were members, might disagree with the assessment that they were child prodigies. Szigeti described himself as "lazy" well into late childhood/teens I believe. He played in a circus but that doesn't mean much, maybe. Oistrakh was not really starting to get convincingly good until early 20's I think (not sure). Ysaye was kicked out of his violin class as a young teenager, told he would never make a violinist (of any kind). Milstein said he was not much good until into his teens (or thereabouts). Tertis (a violist with a technique worthy of any top violinist) didn't even start violin or viola until about 13 or 14. Kreisler, after a good start, abandoned violin for a few years, taking it up again at the age of 21. He tells us he didn't do much practice; though at other times he practiced a lot, if it suited him. Sarasate had a similarly lazy attitude towards practice at times, too. Al is right. Genius will get through, no matter what, if it is going to get through.

April 24, 2008 at 03:25 AM · One of my teacher's students is an 87 year old Japanese lady who started to learn to play the violin at the age of 60. She will be performing the Mendelssohn concerto as a soloist for her 88th anniversary. Is she a successful violinist according to the definition you have given? No. But, it should illustrate that one can be a late starter and achieve great things nevertheless.

Other than that, I second the notion that chamber music shouldn't be overlooked. How come your definition of successful only accommodates soloists? Why does everybody seem to want to become a soloist? Seems rather childish to me.

April 24, 2008 at 03:46 AM · Sometimes I think that, that it's childish to want to be a soloist. I think though, from what I've seen, that some people are really only interested in that form of music; or it's their main interest. It's the type or form that motivates them. That is OK. A lot of concerto and sonata stuff is the best music there is, imo. It does not logically follow that a soloist necessarily has an ego problem. Perhaps in many successful cases, the contrary (only those who love the music the most deeply could actually 'make it').

That said, I love quartet and trio music, and symphonies, the lot (Eroica is my favorite symphony).

April 24, 2008 at 04:48 AM · Greetings,

Jon, I think there are differnet kinds of prodigism. there is no doubt taht Szigeti had enormous techncial facilty forma young age. Then there were prodigies like menuhin who played with what we perhaps mistakenly call an `adult@ pasison and depth which was shocking to many people. The slower develpmentla curves are inetresting too. Not only Oistrakh (and his son in many ways) but also Tetzlaff, Gil Shaham and the American dude who ha sa lot of cds for sale by Shar.



April 24, 2008 at 08:23 AM · Yes, Szigeti must have been technically/musically very exceptional from a young age Buri. I suppose I was just pointing out that he wasn't either the Menuhin or the Heifetz type prodigy (or it doesn't seem so, from what he writes), although with different environment he might have been. It is interesting, the different developmental paths that this sort of genius can take.

April 24, 2008 at 11:02 AM · either we stop the pervasive and senseless use of the term "prodigy" or i am going to address male v.comers as studs and female hotties.:)

April 24, 2008 at 12:25 PM · "whereas prodigies have been successful now or then, MOST prodigies have not been successful now or then, because the market almost always outsmarts the parents of the prodigies:) . imo, to strike fame in art, it is more fate than work, more blood and sweat than the love of music. leave it up to chance, kid. nothing academic about it. besides, read up the history of classical musicians. it is not for the faint of heart. all that glitter is not gold."

I do not belive in fate or chance; I believe some people are not only geniuses at their craft but also are geniuses at working the system, allowing them to open those doors that most can not budge.

Look at Jack Benny for example. A good violinist, but not a Stern. Yet, he still made it big. Why? He was a genius as far as the inner workings of the entertainment industry goes. Some have a highly advanced ability to adapt and learn quickly therefore using this advantage to play upon their own success. Only 10% of the world's population have this ability: 1% of them are in the entertainment industry, 5% are rich CEOs, Inventors, and so on, while the other 4% chose to use their gifts for something else such as helping starving children in Africa. For example, my mom has the gift of talking to people and learning their quirks, likes and dislikes in a matter of seconds. And she has been relatively successful. However, she chooses not use her gift as a way to make tons of money (and part if her is tired), but she wishes to start her own business to help fundraise for schools.

Not that I am refuting your opinion on chance, just saying there are many other possibilities.

And you said yourself that the industry outsmarts the parents, but there are those people out their who know how to outsmart the industry to such a degree that they fly over it.

April 24, 2008 at 12:39 PM · I wonder where everybody is pulling all those statistics from :-)

April 24, 2008 at 01:36 PM · hello jasmine, the definition of "success" as defined in the original post is rather narrow, imo, so my statements were made within that frame.

it is very difficult to reach soloist level like bell and vengerov if you stick to classical classical form. the precedents speak for themselves.

if the original question is that if i play violin very well and love to make a living with it, can i gain mass appeal? well, more opportunities exist with other forms of classical or music. andre reus and vanessa mae took the other route and fed into the craving of the mass. many classical musicians hold dismissive attitude toward them, but imo they have earned their "success".

April 24, 2008 at 06:00 PM · I would think it depends largely on who's in charge.

April 24, 2008 at 07:11 PM · To be honest, it's much harder now days to become a "superstar" soloist than it was in the past. The level of playing is much more competitive, and many more parents are starting their children on the violin and other instruments in order to get ahead of the pack (in terms of extracurriculars, etc). The level of technique now required to become a soloist has shot up (probably set by Heifetz), but you also see a lot more younger violinists with solid technique and maturation in "musicality." Truthfully, if you don't have "perfect technique" or a really really solid foundation, you have no chance of even getting into the most prestigious music schools/studios let alone becoming a virtuoso soloist.

After Chang, Hahn, and a few others, the "superstar" violinist has sort of died. Sure there are many violinists we know that are wonderful (we as in the "circle" of violin literates), but most of the new crop of talent aren't recognizable to most ordinary people.

Many "normal" citizens recognized Sarah Chang or Hilary Hahn when they blasted onto the scene, but you don't see that anymore.

I think it helps to be a prodigy, because of the press you get and engagements with big orchestras, but the prodigy label does wear on most soloists...and to be perfectly honest, there are now so many "prodigies" out there, it is difficult to distinguish one's self from the next person.

April 27, 2008 at 03:40 AM · To be successful in the violin world, you need to be technically solid, have taste, style, artistry, business sense, and luck. You do not need to have been a prodigy. I have been told that the vast majority of prodigies have very uninteresting careers later in life.

I read an interview not long ago with Itzhak Perlman where he states that he was not a prodigy. When he was asked why, he said he didn't play well as a child and that to be a prodigy you must play well. If you look at videos of him playing at the age of 14 or so, you do see an innate musicality, and an approach to the violin which was recognizably "Perlman". I have also heard that Schlomo Mintz, while having remarkable bow dexterity, was not careful and perfect in any way as a young teen. Both are clearly artists of the highest order.

In my opinion, coachability, early development of coordination, an abundance of attention on the part of a heavily invested teacher, and parents who throw themselves into the project are all needed to make a prodigy. These ingredients sometimes work against the making of a mature artist, however. An artist is not necessarily a particularly cooperative student since they have a need to stubbornly express their own unique vision and will often resist the teacher's ideas. A person who has had an abundance of structural support early on (daily lessons, etc...) sometimes flounders just at the time when they are supposed to find their own way and have artistic ideas of their own. So, I think an artist is born but takes time to blossom while a prodigy is made. Menhuin, it seems to me, is an unusual case of an artist who was also a prodigy.

It is much more important to focus on the things you can do now rather than to worry about not being a prodigy. At nine, you have plenty of time to become technically fit before college auditions. You need a competent teacher, a quiet place to practice, and a plan. The quality of the practice is much more important than the amount of time. As you get older, you will be able to focus for longer blocks of time, however you should never practice longer than 50 minutes without a break. The plan for my nine-year-old sons was three blocks of 50 minutes per day with a 10 minute break between blocks. One of my sons, had to make his blocks of time shorter because he just needed more frequent breaks. You need to know your limits and to be honest with yourself about this. Interestingly, this son is now 14 and playing at a very advanced level for his age, so his shorter practices early on did not seem to hurt his development. Later, perhaps when you are 12 or so, you and your teacher may decide on a 4 hour or 5 hour practice schedule.

A boy I know won an award in the Rostropovich cello competition two years ago at the age of 14 1/2. He is a highly regarded cellist and definitely a prodigy. He claims to practice an hour and a half a day but more on weekends when he can. So, the big practice schedules are not always necessary for success.

To strive to play the violin at the highest level is a wonderful goal.

Good luck!


April 27, 2008 at 11:17 AM · "These ingredients sometimes work against the making of a mature artist, however. An artist is not necessarily a particularly cooperative student since they have a need to stubbornly express their own unique vision and will often resist the teacher's ideas. A person who has had an abundance of structural support early on (daily lessons, etc...) sometimes flounders just at the time when they are supposed to find their own way and have artistic ideas of their own. So, I think an artist is born but takes time to blossom while a prodigy is made."

fantastic thinking and writing!!

April 27, 2008 at 01:59 PM · Yes.. Thks. Good piece of writing.

Jennifer, I wonder if you have encountered kids who practice like this : When doing detail work, eg bowing, playing scales, he is very careful, with shifting, finger shapes, intonation etc. But when it comes songs/pieces, the articulation takes over, and the "carefulness" is gone. The playing is full of "style" but tend to be sloppy. Would you correct/overcorrect it, or let his "artistic" nature develope? I hope I make sense here.

April 28, 2008 at 03:16 AM ·

April 28, 2008 at 05:27 AM · LyeYen,

In my experience, the care that a student puts into scales and exercises eventually carries over into the repertoire and performances. You just have to be patient. There are only so many things a little violinist can take care of at one time. Very musical children often feel the need to take care of the musical ideas first. It is one sign that they are taking ownership over the process of learning the instrument. As a parent, you have to respect their priorities.

You are very lucky to have a child like this! You will see, once his set-up becomes more comfortable, that he will use every technique at his disposal to deliberately create the musical effects he wants. He will go absolutely crazy when he learns about different kinds of shifts! You will not have to do a thing other than support him, follow his teacher's instructions and be his biggest fan.

The other part of this is that the student is continually developing his/her aesthetic preferences for the sound of their violin (volume, timbre, roundness, smoothness etc...). As their aesthetic sensibility develops, their ear will begin to guide their fingers and bow. A teacher who can provide an excellent example is really important in this process. The student needs to have a "search image" , a clear idea of what type of sound they are after. This "search image" then becomes more and more refined as they grow in sensitivity and technical skill. As the saying goes, "A picture is worth a 1000 words."

April 28, 2008 at 12:39 PM · "To be successful in the violin world, you need to be technically solid, have taste, style, artistry, business sense, and luck."

there have been recent discussions if not debates on "taste". jennifer, can you share with us your concept of "taste"? thanks

April 28, 2008 at 12:45 PM · Look at tennis pro Roger Federer. When he first came on the tour he was hot headed and uneven. Over the years he found his zen and now is virtually unstoppable. There is no real black and white when it comes to the maturation process.

April 28, 2008 at 03:28 PM · Thks Jennifer for the reassuring post. Well, that's my older boy (7 years old). He is extremely creative and artistic, quick (too quick), but just careless and rough most of the time. I am still trying my best to drill the concept "think before do" into him. When left alone, his practice quality drop to ?

I read from your previous post and I seem to recall that you have similar experiences with your younger son. Could you share your experiences -- to tighten, or to loosen, and wait for him to "grow up"?

April 28, 2008 at 04:14 PM · "trying my best to drill the concept 'think before do' into him."

My god, he's seven, not seventeen. You'll crush his spirit. Let him experiment! Guidance and feedback yes. Maybe that's what you mean by drill.

It is very difficult to *really* know what someone means on an internet post:-)

April 28, 2008 at 04:20 PM · I know what you mean, Bilbo. Without facial expressions, tone and body language, it's easy to misinterpret one's message. By "drill", I mean constant reminders :)

Experiment - oh yes, when left alone, he can spend hours experimenting, improvising, pretending to be playing Paganini.. (I call these playing with his violin), and doing none of his actual practice. Yes, it's funny, but we need to strike a balance, or else none of his work gets done at the end of the day.

April 28, 2008 at 08:26 PM · LyeYen,

I have a few ideas for you. In general, I think patience and tolerance are the best road to take at this point in your son's development.

Efficient practice:

Since your son is only seven I think you should be present for his entire "official" practice. I used to sit in a chair with my son's scroll pointed directly at me. I would hold the music and the check-off sheet or notes from the lesson and guide him through an efficient practice. I would mark off the check off sheet and read the instructions to him aloud. If there was a particular skill I was to evaluate on the teacher's request I would do that, otherwise I would just listen. I used finger-puppets and lots of non-verbal signals. My kids tease me about these to this day! I had a "posture pony" a "pianissimo mouse" etc...I allowed unlimited time to fiddle, invent and improvise, but not during the official "practice with mommy" time.

Thoughtful practice:

A very useful trick is to isolate tricky spots as pre-exercises. If your teacher can look ahead a week or two to the next passage or piece, he/she can pick out the technique learning points and make them into exercises. The little bit is taken out of context and for my sons, they had to hear it in context before trying to play it as an exercise. These are usually spots where the hand has to get in place before the bow moves. The exercise is almost always in the form of "stop... prepare... play". You can say this rhythmically with your son following with the actions or you can set the metronome at a slow pulse. This trains the habit of thinking before playing. It works well for spots where there is a dynamic change, a change of strings, or a shift. It is a technique that advanced players use all the time in dissecting difficult passages, but it is really a good thing to teach as early as possible.

The other thing that you can do is to tell him what a thoughtful person he is , how good he is at planning etc... Point out all the little things he does that show you just how thoughtful and deliberate he can be in his actions. This type of praise is usually successful in bringing out the best in a child (or anyone for that matter).

I would, however, be very careful not to nag.

Al, I will get back to your question about my definition of "taste" later. This is a tough one!

April 28, 2008 at 09:15 PM · Wow! What you said is really really what I'm experiencing! Yes, I'm trying to do "efficient practice" with him. Yes, 1 to 1 mommy time should be treasured, and if he wants to experiment, he can do it any other time of the day. He has to remember he has another sibling who also needs 1 to 1 mommy time!

Oh, the "stop-prepare-play" is so important and our teacher never stops emphasising it!

Thks so much for sharing. I'll remember your advice:>

April 29, 2008 at 01:12 AM · Apropos of nothing, I just have to say that I'm SO VERY glad and relieved that I didn't have a mom standing over me or sitting opposite me and constantly supervising/commenting as I practiced as a child, because I sure as hell know I wouldn't still be playing violin now in my 40s and really loving it...

Right from the start violin playing was always something that I ENJOYED doing and my mother wholeheartedly encouragd it along these lines: So if I wanted just to spend some time simply "experimenting" or pretending to be Yehudi Menuhin, that was just fine, as was having the occasional day off because I was tired from school or it was sunny outside.

Looking back I can see that her approach was much more positive than constant supervision, because when I spent time with the violin, it was quality time because I absolutely wanted to be playing - and thus I produced positive, intense results. There's plenty time to get into a disciplined 1 or 2 hour a day or whatever routine later on at age 11 or 12 (4 or 5 hours sounds way too much...) but when a child is so young, I feel very strongly it should still be voluntary and still be fun.

April 29, 2008 at 03:20 AM · Al,

OK I'll make a stab at defining good "taste" now. It is a risky one because sometimes those who push the limits of taste forge new artistic ground, and what is considered good taste at one time in history is considered boring or obsolete at another time. That being said I think most people recognize when something is truly awful. My son's Spanish violin teacher uses the term "Nio Nio" to describe really exaggerated gestures and generally tasteless playing.

In my opinion playing with good taste requires an understanding

of the composer's intent and the technical facility to bring out even subtle musical ideas with clarity and grace.

April 29, 2008 at 05:08 AM · "In my opinion playing with good taste requires an understanding of the composer's intent ..."

I would have to disagree with that.

For one, there are many folk melodies for which the composer is totally unknown, in many cases we don't even know when those melodies were composed. By your definition, we could only ever play those tasteless because we don't have the faintest idea about what the composer's intent may once have been. At the very least nobody could ever make any statement on whether those melodies are played tastefully or tasteless, it would be nothing but total speculation. "Getting it right" would be a matter of chance and chance only.

Then, in those cases where we know the composer, we often second guess the intent, the question is just to what extent we do so. This means that those pieces where the intent of the composer is not well documented, we'd generally play them less tastefully than pieces for which the intent is documented. In other words, once lost pieces by Bach like the Brandenburg concertos can only ever be played less tastefully than program pieces like for example Mussorgsy's Pictures at an Exhibition. Or at the very least, taste would be debatable to a larger extent on the Brandenburgs than it would be on the Pictures. That doesn't make sense to me.

Last but not least, your definition suggests that any kind of arrangement, any kind of transposition into another style, say Beethoven's Fur Elise transposed into a Jazz piece could only be tasteless for shouldnt Beethoven have written it as a Jazzy piece if his intent had been to make it sound that way?

In other words, you are denying modern artists the artistic license that has allowed them to reinterpret other artists work. Even the great composers whose works we so cherish today have themselves made use of that artistic license to reinterpret others work in ways that those others did not originally foresee nor intend.

I think we will have to admit that taste is a very subjective thing and any attempts to try to make it into something more objective are probably futile. The only thing you can hope for is to find out why people with a certain cultural background/education like certain ways how music is interpreted more than other ways.

April 29, 2008 at 01:23 PM · Your last sentence is certainly true, although folk music (Bluegrass, Celtic and others) is often living music with active composers (for example Tommy Peoples). In the case of Celtic music proper style is really important. Sligo style has to be Sligo style, etc... and if one chooses to cross over into something else, one risks losing respectability amongst the serious Celtic fiddlers.

We have a good idea of Beethoven's intentions, because he notated them. If a player chooses to play something different than is notated, they risk being accused of poor taste. In the case of Bach the player is perhaps more at liberty because there are no recordings and really sketchy descriptions of how music was played at the time with some indication that improvisation was the norm. However, it is generally accepted that a player will not ignore what is on the page.

To play what is on the page is the minimum for good taste. I know, and I'm sure others on this site know some violinists who play with exaggerated slides and other gestures in a way that distorts the music. I personally find this to be in poor taste, but this could be simply culturally inappropriate playing for this particular time in history.

April 29, 2008 at 02:12 PM · That is patent nonsense, just because some Jazz musician chooses to play Fur Elise as a Jazz piece doesn't mean it has to be tasteless.

Besides, what is tasteful to one may be tasteless to another, what is tasteful today may become tasteless in the future.

Last but not least, how many listeners are aware or care about composer intent? If taste is based on matching composer intent then that means the majority of classical music lovers have no taste at all.

"Yes, you say you liked today's concert but since you don't know the composer's intent, you have no taste so your liking it or not means zilch, thank you for coming anyway."

One can argue about taste all day long, but a definition of taste based on matching composer intent is just silly.

April 29, 2008 at 06:34 PM · ben and jennifer, knowing the topic can be rather inflammatory, i just want to thank you both for your thoughts because for one, i am not looking for right or wrong answers here, just opinions that can help shape readers' paradigms.

you see, coming from where we are, since we are not musical family, it is rather difficult to really broaden/deepen our violin education if the only exposure is from weekly lessons. it truly takes a village to raise a kid:) and we appreciate thoughts from different angles.

ben, don't you think from the perspective of a kid learning violin/music that the adults need to provide enough guidance which serves as direction guide on taste? you and jen both know that bach does not sound like mozart and vice versa. that distinction, if i share with my kid, is it not an introduction of taste to her,imo? i suspect that was what jen had in mind when talking about raising kids with violin.

rosalind, upon first reading of your post, i am like, what was she thinking about? nuts!:)

then i thought about it (which is a rarity:) and asked myself this question: do we really know what is good for our kids with OUR way? i am really not confident with an answer. it is honestly an 50/50 proposition.

currently, with school, sports, music, etc, etc, etc there is just so much structure, so much demand of concentration/effort/sacrifice from them that deep inside, i truly admire them for hanging in there (or putting up) with a smile and i pray that one day when we/they look back, it is a philosophy of life that they cherish or at least accept. but i am not all~!

for instance, my violin kid has been bugging us to let her to learn piano for couple years for now (i guess as long as the piano kid hinting to quit if she could:). no, we say. you don't have time.

can i have a play date? no, you have to get ready for the violin lesson 3 days later.

can i go to a summer camp? no, your entire summer is booked with golf tournaments.

can i go swimming? no, the water is too cold.

can i ride the bike outside? no, the weather is too hot.

can i be a kid? hmmm.

April 29, 2008 at 06:37 PM · ha ha.. Al, that strikes a chord!! Can I have a sleepover? No...

Well, my elder kid IS learning piano as well..

Oh yes, we are taking a 2 weeks roadtrip USA southwest this summer. Oh.. the Grand Canyon.. I think deep down, all these exposure help broaden and deepen their minds. (yes, they will be bringing their little violins along)

And, yes, I do acknowledge that we demand a lot of structure and hardwork. Against many's wishes But I enrolled the kids in a rather new age school, where they learn in a mix age setting, have downtime to draw/internalise their knowledge, etc. So it's a balance, and as parents, we just try our best. :)

April 29, 2008 at 07:10 PM · Not to fire the flame further...

This idea of taste is a difficult one to define. I still contend that among knowledgeable fans of any kind of music there are certain expectations that a player violates at some risk. The risk may be worth taking as it may result in some expansion of the definition of Jazz, or new-music, or whatever the genre. But it can also result in being roundly held in disregard.

A few months back I read an interview with Dave Brubeck about his use of unusual rhythms and his drawing from South American and African rhythms. As difficult as it is to imagine today, when he was first composing, ( I guess this would have been the early 50's) this was a controversial thing to do. Acceptable jazz rhythms of the time were limited to syncopation. The definition of jazz has definitely broadened since that time.

April 29, 2008 at 09:06 PM · "can i ride the bike outside? no, the weather is too hot."

It is *never* too hot to ride a bike! That's one activity that makes wind and cools you in the summer.

April 30, 2008 at 02:07 AM · Al, you seem to have misunderstood my point.

I am not saying that composer intent (or the perception or second guessing thereof) cannot serve as a guide.

What I am saying is simply that composer intend is not a measure of whether something is tasteful or not.

Beethoven once listened to another pianist playing one of his sonatas and he was pleasantly surprised at the interpretation, saying that it was very different from how he conceived the piece, that it was better than his own. I do not believe he said this because he was being diplomatic for Beethoven had many strengths but diplomacy was not one of them. Thus, Beethoven stated that one of his pieces played in mismatch to composer intent was played very tastefully in the judgement of the composer.

Ergo, matching composer intent is *not a requirement* to playing tastefully. It can be a guide, but it is not a requirement.

April 30, 2008 at 12:53 PM · Back to Rosalind's comments regarding children practicing with a parent.

The success of the Suzuki Method is due largely to the training of the parent to be a daily teacher. There are other methods involving older children (late elementary or middle school string programs for example) and the occasional situation where a teacher gives daily lessons, but for young children of non-musician parents the Suzuki Method is very effective.

The "parent as teacher" model that the Suzuki Method employs, capitalizes on the natural tendency of small children to want to please their parents and the fun that both parents and children have when undertaking a project together. Small children like to be with their parents, and are delighted when they please their parents. They might draw a picture by themselves, but then they want to tell their parent in detail what every squiggle means. If they could, they would have their parent on the floor building with legos with them or Lincoln Logs for hours. They also enjoy doing activities that require a parent's assistance (building model airplanes, building robots etc...). Violin falls into this last category.

That 15 or 20 minutes a day of practice was a project my sons and I thoroughly enjoyed doing together. As they grew, and as their practice time grew it became less and less possible for me to be present for their entire practice. At the same time, they were growing more and more capable of practicing alone. The trick is to match your parental support to the developmental stage of your child. A 13-year-old does not need a parent present for their practice at all, but still might appreciate having a parent take notes in a lesson. My 14-year-old still calls me in to his practice room or comes to me to play a passage he is particularly proud of nailing. My 15-year-old makes us slide a card under his practice room door if we need to ask him a question. He does not like to be interrupted at all.

So, that is a long way of saying that practicing with a parent is not some form of torture for most small children. It certainly wasn't for my children anyway. I just asked my 14-year old this question and he sides with me on this!

April 30, 2008 at 03:41 PM · Jennifer, you're very insightful, and very fortunate. I think that's precisely the reason that Suzuki didn't work for my daughter and me. Practicing together has always been an iffy proposition for us. It's getting a little better--slowly--and she's 8 now. But when she was 6 or younger it wasn't torture, exactly, but it also wasn't very much fun for either of us, except when I did silly stuff explicitly aimed at having fun, like conducting the lesson in a silly voice using her stuffed cat as a puppet. And while she liked the cat "teacher" quite a lot, she didn't listen any better to Miss Kitty than she did to me.

I never had any assistance from either of my parents with my violin practicing, so I can't say for sure how it would have gone with me, but I think it would have been similar. Some personality types just don't lend themselves well to that kind of a relationship.

April 30, 2008 at 09:45 PM · I suppose how you measure 'success' is what needs defined first. Does that success lie only in the classical/symphonic/chamber music sect??? Does success branch out into fiddle, bluegrass, rock, jazz, fusion, etc??? If you limit 'success' you limit who's in and out for sure. The more out-of-the-box you become, the more you'll realize of the un-tapped violin market. To be honest, when it comes to music/art, there is no box - so be true to who you are, work hard, and find your niche in a market or field that brings you success.

This year I'll make nearly 90K w/in my market and field of the electric violin and songwriting I have carved for myself over the years (no management, no record label. just old fashioned CD sales and touring).

So there ya go. Best of luck!

-Ross Christopher

May 1, 2008 at 05:07 AM · Ross,

Wonderful advice. I had originally read his question to mean success as a classical soloist, but even among the classical musicians there is a lot of variety in the successful careers. You see a lot of combining of chamber music with some solo work. You also see some combining of classical with some fiddle like Mark O'Connor, the Turtle Island Quartet or Paul Kendell or the wonderful collaboration of Nadia Salerno-Sonnenburg with the Assad brothers. With some imagination many things are possible.

May 1, 2008 at 12:07 PM · It's funny how your world broadens as you get older. I used to be fulfilled only playing in orchestras but now I'm sniffing out folk music, rock, and I don't think my journey as a musician will be complete unless I tap into other genres. The first step is the hardest though, don't know which direction to go!

May 1, 2008 at 03:00 PM · bilbo, "It is *never* too hot to ride a bike!" haha, thanks for pointing out my lame excuses.

karen, interesting post. i can imagine, and from my experiences with my 2, some kids at certain age may or may not work well with a parent being "there" or too involved. even my rather willing kid sometimes looks at me and says: thank you dad for not saying anything!:)

however, since children in the animal kingdom have always copied their parents to acquire survival skills(since violin teacher is only once a week:), the role of the parent/s is very important for daily practice, imo. it is a matter of locating the right approach at the right time frame. this is particularly challenging when the parent (yes, I:), does not really know what he/she is doing:)

i have seen many otherwise musically talented kids not making deserved progress with persistent fundamental issues largely due to a lack of direction and feedback during daily indepdendent practice at an age too immature to get the details and the big picture without play by play reminders. so many new problems can pop up on a daily basis and it is often inefficient to try to catch them all in the violin class one week later on a long term basis.

or, may be some of you are dealing with true prodigies that simply know and can do what is right very early on.

May 1, 2008 at 02:52 PM · Al, I agree with you completely. That's how it ought to work in theory, and I'm sure that's why I didn't make very much progress on violin in my own first couple of years of study (in the school program, before I started taking private lessons somewhere around 5th or 6th grade), and why my daughter's progress has been pretty slow too (especially relative to, say, your daughter's ;-).

But I also think that after a certain point you can't push it, and you have to work with what you've got. Parent-supervised daily practice can become this holy grail, highly desirable, always chased, always out of reach.

Since I'm a little further along than my daughter, I think I have some perspective on what can happen to that kind of unwilling student, the kind of student who (for whatever reason lost in the mists of time) didn't work with or get any assistance from her parents with violin practice, ever, later on down the violin road.

While it is lonely, as long as you stick with it, I think you do generate a lot of self-motivation that way. You do it because you want to, not to please your parents or anybody else. You learn to appreciate the rewards of violin study for their own sake; you become un-selfconscious about practicing, you just do it and don't care what other people think about how you sound.

But you probably don't become a "successful violinist" as defined by the original author of this thread. Instead, if you're successful and stick with it, I think you're much more likely to become a successful maverick: you will find (or define) a new or unique style of playing. You will be open to learning another instrument like electric violin, or viola. You might play in a rock band instead of (or in addition to) an orchestra. You might try your hand at composing. You'll play in the subway and the park and you'll make underground recordings and sell them through your personal website. You'll have a story to tell.

Not that people whose parents helped them practice don't have equally fascinating stories to tell. It's just that you can't choose your childhood, your children, or your parents. And so if you didn't, or couldn't, achieve the ideal in that regard, and one day wake up to discover that you've reached adulthood without having had the privilege of 4 hours-a-day of parent-supervised daily violin practice, it's still going to be okay . . .

May 1, 2008 at 03:31 PM · very well said, karen. to strike that balance between keeping a close eye vs one eye open one eye closed also depends as much on the parent as the kid. we as parents basically learn along with the kid, how to deal with her, which button to push for what...

with my older kid on the piano, i must admit she's got whatever she could possibly got in terms environment, teaching, support, etc. however, she simply was not crazy about music. yet, now she is older, she is developing other interests with zeal simply because those are what she wants. as parents, it is comforting to see the joy when she applies herself with all her heart and energy, a big contrast to those evening piano practices with yawns after yawns. if piano does not work out, we understand and we move on. it would be nice, but hey.

May 2, 2008 at 03:57 AM · Karen,

I appreciate your relating your personal experiences. I also agree that the less coachable children, often become the most interesting adults. The world needs people with authenticity, creative energy and independence. These are all traits to be treasured rather than crushed. I also believe that parents generally know best how to nurture their own children's particular gifts.

May 2, 2008 at 08:53 PM · Some interesting points of view here. I was floundering somewhat, unclear as to what approach to take, particularly with my son. He is quick in learning, but can be sloppy. Likes to add on his own "frills" here and there. Or plays something that is recognisable, if not perfect, yet when that piece is introduced as one of his set pieces because he liked it, and he is then asked to 'play it properly', he loses interest.

Lessons are now once a week. I have backed off sometimes and let him 'practice' (more like mess around having fun) his own way, because to do otherwise was making him lose interest in playing. This fun aspect was what kept him going. I would then let the teacher pull him up on certain things. It still meant that sometimes he would drop a piece that he would have been well capable of playing extremely well, given a bit of work on it. I realise that at some point the child has to learn how to play something properly, with due care and attention. In an even tempo so as to play with other musicians eventually. Some of that is coming by and by. I find it hard to balance retaining the fun aspect with careful learning sometimes.

May 2, 2008 at 09:27 PM · A child never *needs* to learn to play anything "properly." What is this? Is there an ISO standard on what is acceptable in music?

Music is a creative activity. Let the creating flourish!

The only reason a child must learn to play a piece "properly" is to satisfy some external demand (e.g. parent, teacher, coach, employer, orchestra, or the other players in the jam). If it is the parent making these demands, then it is misguided displacement of a parents' own lost desires.

Learning to play with others is good.

May 2, 2008 at 09:28 PM · No, Bilbo, this is a teacher's requirement for a piece that is to be part of an exam - so ultimately an examining board, I guess.

May 2, 2008 at 10:11 PM · Yes. The examining board.

Just remember that there is more than one path.

May 2, 2008 at 10:36 PM · I love reading stuff like this:

>One of my teacher's students is an 87 year old Japanese lady who started to learn to play the violin at the age of 60. She will be performing the Mendelssohn concerto as a soloist for her 88th anniversary.

Thanks for sharing it, Benjamin.

May 2, 2008 at 09:42 PM · Bernadette,

How old is your son? Where is he in the violin literature?

It is a very difficult balance to be sure between insisting on correct playing and allowing experimentation. In these early pieces a child is developing the vocabulary with which to express their musical ideas. It is important for them to learn the correct hand position, how to shift, how to cross strings, how to do the basic bow strokes etc.... These things must be learned with care or eventually the child will become frustrated as they attempt to tackle increasingly difficult pieces and is likely to quit. On the other hand, the desire some children have to take what they know and to create something new must be honored.

My youngest child is definitely in this creative category. I can tell you some of the things I did to keep him on track while still allowing creativity. Primarily it has involved patience, lots of patience, and providing abundant opportunities for experimentation outside of his classical violin repertoire.

Fiddling: First, I took him to beginning fiddle jam sessions starting at about the age of five. Fiddling is improvisational by nature. I never required him to practice his fiddle music. He never took his fiddle music to his teacher. He learned by ear from the group of adult fiddlers at the sessions. Before long he had learned more than 200 tunes and had composed some of his own. At some point he took Celtic fiddle lessons from a local Celtic expert where he learned some of the standard tricks for adding variation to a basic melody. The importance of fiddling in my mind was to give his active brain something other than his Suzuki repertoire with which to experiment. It really helped him to have the abundance of new musical material with no expectations on the part of a parent or teacher. At the same time, his teacher and I were able to take him carefully through his Suzuki repertoire.

Piano and Composition: At six he started piano lessons simply because I felt it would help his music reading and provide him with some theory. I did not supervise his piano practice except from the kitchen on occasion. I let him improvise on the piano to his heart's desire and allowed him to progress at whatever slow pace resulted. He did not find the musical result very satisfying as he grew old enough to know the difference, however, he did learn some theory. Last year he asked to quit piano and to take composition. He was 13 years old at the time. The weekend after his first composition lesson he spent tied to the Finale composition program day and night, and by his following composition lesson he had already completed the first movement of a string quartet. It was as if someone had turned the faucet on. He has stunned all of us!

Patient Guidance and Trust in Their Musical Identity: I have had to adjust my approach to fit his particular needs. He really sees himself as a musician, so I have trusted that as he matured he would hold himself to higher and higher standards. He took two years to learn "Twinkle", and was midway through Suzuki Vol. 2 by the time he was 7. Not an impressive pace to be sure. At nine he told his violin teacher that he wanted to throw me out the window during his practice -so I minimized my presence during his practice, providing support in other ways. He needed to do things his way, with a minimum of interference. At 12 he asked for a particular teacher because he knew this teacher would provide him with some serious technique. Finally, at 14 his technique looks terrific and he plays with a wonderful fluency and boldness. His teacher is thrilled with his progress as are all of us who have watched him develop. You simply have to be patient and have faith in your child.

May 2, 2008 at 11:37 PM · Andrew,

To answer you original question: If you define "success" as I do, then, probably, yes, a violinist these days had to have been gifted as a child. Of course it depends on how you define "success" and "prodigy." Everyone has different aspirations of success, but I would chose a set of typically middle-American economic goals:

The ability to raise a family in a house in an urban area, the ability to afford health insurance, a decent car, the ability to put away money for the future and have a few small luxuries. Unfortunately, this is becoming much more difficult for classical musicians, especially in the urban areas in which we make our living. A few years ago, a freelancer could gig in a few orchestras, have a studio, and make a living. Back in the 70s, even middling violinists could do sessions in Nashville and do quite well, or do shows in New York. Now many of those gigs have gone away. The price of gas, housing, health care and instruments have all gone through the roof, preventing us from all but breaking even. So in order to make it, one really has to win an audition to a major or almost-major orchestra. I'm met a lot of people in good orchestras, and while not everyone in them was a Menhuhin-style prodigy, they were all gifted as children in some way. The fingers were there from the beginning.

Of course, this also holds true for soloists and successful chamber musicians. There are different levels of prodigy, of which perhaps Saint-Saens was the most outrageous example, but in my opinion and experience, mediocre talent these days simply will not make a decent living.

May 3, 2008 at 01:26 AM · I agree, but I do think there are some young children, very gifted in music and with great "fingers", who for some reason don't get started in music until much later years. Now, traditionally this has always been accepted, but with a sigh and an admission that this is unfortunate that this person didn't find their calling until too late. I believe that a late starter (who was exceptionally talented as a youngster, though maybe no one particularly noticed this at the time - including the possessor of the talent) is one day going to 'make it' with a career in classical violin. It's hard to believe something for which we have no or little evidence, but interestingly belief is often necessary as a precondition of attaining, or indeed even recognizing, something good that is worth working hard to achieve (do you spell it 'recogniZing' or 'recogniSing' :-) ?).

Sure, there is a danger of believing in something that turns out to be wrong, and making wrong decisions because of it. If you are not seeing signs of real talent and progress, no matter what age, don't start working towards conventional models of musical 'success'. Just be content to be a player of more humble achievements. And don't believe me, either, just follow your own strong instincts.

May 3, 2008 at 02:13 AM · If I remember correctly, Michael Haber started very late--16?--and got into the Cleveland Orchestra (as a cellist). Pretty rare, though.

May 3, 2008 at 07:47 PM · Hi Jennifer,

Thank you so much for your insightful post. It is so helpful to be able to draw upon your experiences, though I must say, reading between the lines, one can appreciate what a wise and patient mom you are. It takes moments to read a few paragraphs, yet the years that are covered, especially the early ones, are full of dogged perseverance and determination and love-in-action. Wow!

You're an inspiration!

Anyhow, to answer your question, my boy has just turned 10. He started regular lessons in Oct 2006, so it's been about 18 months. He's done G, D, F, A and C major scales. We are not doing a Suzuki programme, but probably what could be called a more traditional one. He's done part 2 of Rieding's concerto in B minor, and is now working on part 1 (because he liked it when I was playing it last year). (This is the one where the gilding has worn off somewhat.) Another such piece was a duet by Weber (?) - name almost illegible on poor photocopy. He dropped that from his repertoire after starting to 'learn' it properly. Yet he all but had it in his hand, it just needed a tiny bit of spit and polish to be perfect. He preferred to play it a bit sloppily and enjoy it.

There's no jazz/bluegrass stuff available here like you mentioned. Though I think in future I might encourage him to 'have fun' with some pieces outside of lessons, without having to learn them properly, and just 'work on' the set pieces for school. That might come closer to what you were doing with your lad, and give him some time to just mess around and have fun with the instrument.

Some of the other pieces/etudes he's had have been photocopies from a book the teacher has, and I don't know the source.

He also likes to play tunes by ear, eg Pirates of the Carribean theme tune, or the Shrek or some such tune. He can pick these out by ear whether he's done the relevant scales or not.

When he's practising, I've almost bent over backwards to accommodate him (sometimes too much so perhaps, ie not accompany him if he didn't want it, then if he changed his mind at the drop of a hat, I'd drop what I was doing and play a duet or the piano accompaniament). Also, though I mention sometimes that frills might get frowned on with his repertoire and that if he does it too much it might become habit, I give him some leeway and don't insist too much on 'playing by the book' on a day to day basis when he's practising.

If you have any more inspirational ideas, Jennifer, I'd be very glad to hear them. It seems that sometimes, it doesn't matter about 'perfection' every step of the way, rather keeping the enjoyment going, as that will keep them going on with their learning.

May 4, 2008 at 12:17 AM · I've been playing now for 23 years and I remember MANY a frustrated lessons growing up because I would add my own interpretations to the songs my instructor was coaching me on. Of course now, I understand her frustration. She however, is not a very creative person. She saw the violin and the violinist having 1 path...lessons...conservatory...symphony...teach...die.

well, I'm glad I continued to do my "own thing." From as early as I can remember, I would play my violin right along with the radio. Whatever my parents had playing in the background, I could always play along - almost note for note. Of course, my bowings weren't proper, my style was unconventional, but lets remember that music existed WAY BEFORE the theory we use to understand and harness it did.

I'd suggest allowing space for creative freedom and expression. I'd also suggest following your instructors lessons, theory, etc. This stuff is very important, but its not the only side of music.

If your instructor is good, he or she will teach the mechanics and push your son or daughter accordingly. But a GREAT instructor will encourage making up music, writing, etc even at an early age.

-Ross Christopher

May 4, 2008 at 02:56 AM · That's always been my belief Ross - the music comes first. Then the theorists step up to the plate and formulate theory, models to follow, compartmentalizing (pigeon holing) of info and ideas. Nothing wrong with it; in fact it's necessary to the general survival of any art since quite a few human beings are not themselves creative.

Experts sometimes grab creative people by the scruff of the neck and say "Hey, you upstart, you're not playing the game by the book". I think something like this occurred with the young Ysaye. The experts may or may not themselves be creative, but either way theory is sometimes used as a justification for suppressing creativity. Just an observation. Great teachers and experts use theory in positive ways, to support free inquiry and experimentation.

The creative artists, whether composers or original performance artists, are the originators of the whole caboodle. Some rigid theorists say "no consecutive fifths, you imbecile". It's the unending tussle between strict discipline and free creativity that gives art its energy in many ways. Most (or all) creative people have an achilles heel: either free and not disciplined enough, or the opposite. Perhaps the best artists are equally balanced in this respect, either naturally or through a lot of work.

May 4, 2008 at 11:58 AM · Thank you everyone for the helpful answers. I have learned a lot from the discussion.

May 4, 2008 at 10:55 PM · jon-

great comments...i agree wholeheartedly.

i have been in MANY heated debates with 1 side saying unless you are flawless with your theory, you aren't a musician, the whole time i'm laughing inside because the people making the argument haven't written a single song on their own.

on the other side of the debate was me, not the sharpest on my theory, but i've written a hundred or more songs.

the debate continues...

-ross christopher

May 5, 2008 at 05:01 AM · I recently viewed the Christopher Nupen film about Sibelius, who so desparately wanted to become a violin virtuoso, but ended up doing something else with music- and the rest is history.

Then there are these quotes to remind us that success depends on more than talent and genius:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

President Calvin Coolidge


"To me, success can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the 1% of your work that results from the 99% that is called failure."

Soichiro Honda


"Some critics will write 'Maya Angelou is a natural writer'--which is right after being a natural heart surgeon."

Maya Angelou

and finally:

That person is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent people, and the love of children; who has filled a unique niche and accomplished his or her task; who leaves the world better than before, whether by a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of the earth's beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he or she had.

Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson

May 5, 2008 at 05:32 AM · Thank you so much Ron for your wonderful post! What a great message to get in a late evening on Sunday! I will print it out and put it on the wall.

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