Statistics on early vs late start?

August 23, 2008 at 11:39 PM · Scott's post in another thread set me thinking: would it be possible to say something useful about the effect of early (say, at age 7 or below) versus late start on the probability of becoming a professional violinist, using input from the members of

We would need to ask two questions:

1) Are you a professional?

2) At which age did you start studying the violin?

The probability that one is an amateur, given that one started early, could then be estimated from the number of amateurs who started early, divided by the total number of early starters. And so for all four possible categories: (E)arly (A)mateur, E (P)rofessional, (L)ate A, L P.

As a science project, this would have a big flaw: the best we can hope for are estimates of our probabilities, given that one is a member! I suspect that that introduces some bias.

Nevertheless, we might learn something, and it might be fun.

Bart (E A)

Replies (70)

August 24, 2008 at 12:04 AM · I figgered this thread might happen ;>)

Well, I will say that boiling things down--the barriers one faces starting "late" versus "early" in reaching the same level of facility on the instrument entail not only usual "kids learn easier than adults" but also-

-Young'ens have a luxury of time at their hands that even middle and high-school students do not....they are expected to have fun, they don't have tons of classwork, or family to care of etc---they're just expected to be kids. As the young'ens have usually also have a distinct advantage in picking things up too--there is a double bonus here.

-As young'ens, having parents bug them into practicing--works much easier, because they don't ask "why"....they are also less liekly to be rebellious, methinks.

~Marc ("E" P)

August 24, 2008 at 12:19 AM · well, I'm a second-year conservatory student--does that make me "early professional" or "late amateur"?

I started when I was three, for the record.

August 24, 2008 at 12:46 AM · but at the same time, most (not all of course) kids don't take music seriously until later on , say age 12-13.

Until that age, most kids take it very very slow.

if someone started music at the age of 12-13 and had access to great instruction, ensemble playing, concerts, and of course quality practice time, he/she can easily achieve in 2-3 yrs time what takes most kids 6-7 yrs to achieve.

the advantage for early starters is there if they practice hard from the beginning

August 24, 2008 at 01:16 AM · Can we define professional violinist?

I started when I was in 5th grade, so age 11. I get paid good money to teach privately. I get paid more good money to play in weddings, dinner parties, etc. I have a bachelor's degree in music performance. I'm getting a master's degree in performance, perhaps getting my teaching certification shortly thereafter. Does that make me a professional?

August 24, 2008 at 01:23 AM · Since we're intending "professional" with an emphasis on a certain attained violinistic skill level, I move that "professional" require:

Having or working toward at least a bachelor's degree (or performer's certificate) in violin, and/or attaining one's livlihood from their violinistic skill in either performance or teaching or both.

Sound like a good standard to use?

August 24, 2008 at 01:25 AM · I like that standard. In that case, I'm a professional, but started at age 11. I always did well in orchestra, and practiced/played a lot. I didn't really take it seriously though until mid-high school, so I'm contrary to the popular statistic. Don't I feel special? =D

August 24, 2008 at 01:45 AM · it may be uncomfortable for people to share what "good" money means or relate even if divulged...

with retrospective survey like this, i think the smaller the scope, the narrower the focus, the more reliable/useful the outcome. instead of being all inclusive, it is cleaner to choose one cohort.

there are so many sectors to study. i would approach with the top 5 symphony orchestras in the US as a start. by and large, these individuals have attained very high level prof skills as well as reasonably secure career positions. (sure, wedding players probably make more sat night 8-10pm than those orchestra players, but an outlook of 10-20 years may be more important, along with issues like benefits and health care and retirement. independent contractors do have their own issues.)

for me it will be interesting to see when did this group start learning violin... my bias is that they started rather early and i speculate that nearly all of them started before 10. with anything there will be exceptions and some of you may find it pertinent to your own situation, that is, start late and achieve high. question: how exceptional are you that you think you can really relate?

ps, agree with marc's 2 points on young starters. kids simply have less worries and more disposable time to squander:)

August 24, 2008 at 01:49 AM · Bart,

Your research idea sounds like a good idea. In fact, you may wish to approach Strings Magazine. Last year, they set up an on-line poll that string players could take (my article was concerning ethics in string teaching).

There are many ways to approach the subject, though final salary may or may not be useful. One possibility is to survey incoming students at the top conservatories. It may be better to limit that to scholarship winners; even at Peabody, I remember several violin students that had absolutely no business in music.

I remember a NY Times article a few years back looking at the differences between top soloists and everyone else, and the conclusion was that sheer number of hours practiced had a great effect: the higher the soloist's standing, the more they had practiced as a youth.

While some on this thread debate whether the time spent on the instrument at a very early age is really useful, I suggest that that time is used to build comfort with the instrument. It is doubtful that someone who begins late in life will achieve a level of psychological comfort with the instrument that will enable them to play in an uninhibited way.


August 24, 2008 at 02:02 AM · It is my dream to become a professional! I am a late starter without a doubt. I started on my 18th birthday, I've only been playing for roughly a bit over 8 months now.

I used to suffer a large amount of anxiety in front of people as I am largely a perfectionist, however recenetly that has waned off and I am finding myself more able to peform in front of people - and really enjoying it to.

Though for my pracitsing I have to try cut out almost all of my 'doing nothing' time (Well cut out down alot on going out aswell) and spend it focusing on the violin. For the first three months I spent an average of 8 hours a day on the vioin. Now I've had to cut it down to 2-3 (sometimes 4!) - however my progress has really sped up again (As my teacher is reallllyy pushing my limits, skills and expanding them. I even try practise more than she tells me to do aswell)

I am always practising though, even when I am not at my violin - I have pre-records of scales and while I am traveling to and from work (50 minutes each way) I listen to them on repeat and take mental note of what is being played and the feel etc. I also try to visualise the violin and the fingers, and different positions I could play the scales in.

Somedays I do feel really drained, but once I do manage to pick up the violin I feel myself return.

The only problem is I am worried I am making it an obsession, but I feel I will be able to pull it off! (Hell I have a strong motivational force, two of my musician friends started playing bass and guitar when they were 16-17. Now they are freaking awesome and its only been 2.5 years - pretty much at the top of their music school!)

Though even though I do cut out alot I try keep in regular contact with friends. Sometimes spending like 1-2 hours with them (They have their own lives aswell)

Despite it all - I feel really happy and confident!

Sorry for the post and sort of off-topicness. But hell, I have passion XDD

August 24, 2008 at 02:27 AM · Well, for what it is worth, I started having violin lessons at age 12 and played in my first semi-pro level orchestra at 15, got to ABRSM Grade 8 level by age 17 and then went to uni to get my BMus Hons, spending most of my time in London playing in what was then Britain's top training orchestra for conservatoire/grad students.

But to complicate things - I could read music fluently at about age 4 and a bit, was a whizz on the various members of the recorder family and with the help of my mom, more or less taught myself to sight read stuff at the piano "for fun" with VERY bad technique. (Something which regularly drove my later piano teachers up the wall and back down again...!)

I honestly don't think there is any real correlation between age started and standard reached. It is far more complex than that. For example, I seem to remember reading that Carter Brey, principal cellist in the New York Philharmonic only started studying cello at around age 12. My feeling is that people who start later, often work at the instrument more intensively and willingly, thus developing very fast, quickly catching up on their peers who were maybe being force-fed practic routines at age 5 but perhaps didn't realise music was their "life-blood" til much later.

August 24, 2008 at 02:42 AM · On a slightly different tangent, the most wonderfully talented and gifted string player I ever met - someone who was an inspiring musician, absolutely top class and who I am sure could have had an international soloist/chamber music career or become a principal in a major orchestra - happily chucked it all in after graduating to become a school teacher (non-music) and rarely even plays for fun these day...

Go figure!

August 24, 2008 at 03:50 AM · I don't think age really has a whole lot of impact. Desire to play an instrument coupled with some natural talent is what separates the men from the to speak.

Learning to play from a young age does not guarantee a professional career path. The young violinist may decide he would rather be a diesel mechanic when he reaches sixteen and sells his violin for a tool box and a set of wrenches.

We all run as soon as we learn to walk. We don't all become world class athletes because we've been training since toddlerhood.

August 24, 2008 at 06:28 AM · I began violin at age 11, have 1 1/2 years toward a bachelor's in music, play in a semi-pro symphony, teach 30 students, perform regularly as a soloist and in various ensembles for pay, and am currently working on a documentary for the Discovery Channel (in case you guys haven't already read that in my blog).

I don't know, no one's given me a certificate. Do I count?

August 24, 2008 at 05:56 AM · A lot has happened in this thread while I slept!

Overall response is rather positive -- thank you for that.

There is a definition problem: what defines a professional? Following Marc, I would say that someone who makes a living by performing or teaching violin, or who studies at a conservatory or university to obtain a professional qualification, is a professional. A few points need clearing up. I have a brother who is a professionally qualified oboe player, but earns his living as a physicist. He calls himself an amateur, and I believe he is right.

Then, we should probably exclude very late starters -- after the age of choosing a career. This is about prediction, after all.

Some people have switched to violin playing or teaching after a career in another field. It is difficult to be fair in such cases. Counting such late switchers as amateurs is not fair to them, but counting them as professionals distorts the perspective for the person who asked the question that started it all: can I expect the violin to support me through life? So, all in all, I tend to count late switchers as amateurs.

Al Ku suggested surveying the best five symphony orchestras in the US. Thinking of great American orchestras I come up with six: NY Phil, Boston Symph, LA Symph, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis. Which one does not belong? Besides, your idea would make a scientifically waterproof setup and an elaborate study a necessity. What I had in mind was more like a pilot study: looking around, what can we say about starting age as a predictor of future professional or amateur status?

It may well be that nearly everyone starts young these days, and that other factors decide between P and A. On the other hand, I expect to find that after a certain age it becomes increasingly unlikely that one is going to be a professional. After all, one needs time to do all that practicing.

About the data analysis: having no more than an early/late division might not be the best idea. Doing logistic regression, adding square and higher powers of the predictor as guided by an information criterion would be better, I think. Statistician violinists out there, what do you think?


August 24, 2008 at 06:43 AM · In response to the "do I count as a Professional?" question: it would perhaps be best to decide for yourself, based on the criteria above:

1. having a professional qualification AND earning one's living teaching or playing violin


2. studying to obtain a practical qualification


3. earning one's living teaching or playing violin.

August 24, 2008 at 07:25 AM · Yippee, I qualify! Are you sending certificates by mail, or can I print it out on line?

August 24, 2008 at 08:31 AM · But Emily, you know what Yehudi Menuhin used to say: "I'd hate to think I'm not an amateur."

You professionals can be both.

August 24, 2008 at 08:38 AM · :)

August 24, 2008 at 10:20 AM · I am pretty convinced that, had I started early (I started at twelve), I would have become a decent classical player rather than the improviser that I am.

By the time I began, I already had a very strong intuitive understanding of music, from very active listening for seven years or so, and I wanted to play violin to play what I had in my head.

I was talking to a violinist the other day, and I told him I wouldn't make a good orchestral player, because if I heard a better line, or a harmony, I would have to play it rather than what was on the page. So I improvise instead.

I make my living from playing and teaching.


August 24, 2008 at 12:25 PM · therefore bart, you may need to pursue this topic sector by sector, or one sector first, instead of grouping the sectors together, such as surveying v.comers who may come from all walks of musical life and are self-defined "profs".

i do not have issues with profs like emily and she certainly counts. (man, if you are going to be on TV, you are beyond prof,,,you are a northern star! :)

just that for the logistics of the survey, it may not be feasible for you to access other "emily"s in a timely if not reliable manner. having said that, i bet couple v.comers would raise their hands to suggest they are emily as well. well, very possible, but simply seeing those hands raised also raise the issue of selection bias. you may need to consider other emilys who did not raise their hands but have story to tell...

one thing about going after orchestra players as i suggested is that their prof status is not disputable. second, they come in groups, making the survey more do-able.

ps, looks like we may need to start another thread to fight over the top 5:)

August 24, 2008 at 12:22 PM · I started at age 10. I would say that as an optimal stage of life to take advantage of the ability to easily build in the neuromuscular connnections necessary to play the violin at an exception level, this is probably "late." Say what you will about the drawbacks of the Suzuki method, but it does take advantage of the neuromuscular readiness of very young children.

I am and always have been an amateur (and I wear it proudly). I think that anyone who has the courage to get up in front of a bunch of people and do something insanely difficult - like playing a violin (especially when everyone has Perlman's CD of the same piece) - ought to be called something other than "amateur." Maybe "foolish."


August 24, 2008 at 01:41 PM · Al, I'm perfectly aware that this could be made into serious social science by doing some of the things you suggest. But those things would not be enough. One would need to do a literature survey of research that has been done before on this topic; address professional organizations with a request for their members to grant me some of their precious time; and so on, and on. I could not handle a project like that, by email, from Europe.

Besides, I'm not that interested in picking out only the exceptionally good musicians -- the problem to decide who is an egm and who is not, could easily become another nightmare.

Here at we have an easy way of getting a rough idea, and that's all I intend to do for now.

But to each his own: if you feel like making a serious social science project out of this, please go ahead!

Sandy, I can relate. I like "fool", having made a prize fool out of myself on at least one occasion.

August 24, 2008 at 02:55 PM · The subject of late starters has been talked about before on here

August 24, 2008 at 03:41 PM · bart, my feeling on things in general is that if one sets out to do something, do it right. lack of fund/resources does not preclude one from a good design. to be honest, i still do not know exactly what you want to do, so i offered my suggestion. further, on this particular topic, i would rely on my intuition that the younger one starts the better, all other things being equal. thus, i am interested in the outcomes of such surveys to prove me wrong.

to survey v.comers,,,laurie can simply put up a weekend survey... problem is, unless you can pre-select the survey-ees, what conclusion can you make out of it other than some demographic data?

i think the goal for many is to grow up to be a violin prof, and not a v.comer, although the former often miss the boat and the latter have much more fun:)

August 24, 2008 at 04:24 PM · Al, I appreciate and admire your outlook. But it seems that I set out to do something different. I do not pretend to search for any definitive truth about the subject. In the documentary about Vanessa Mae, that Laurie writes about in the News section, several full time academics are quoted who research topics like this.

As for me, I am a medical microbiologist whose hobby is playing the violin. If I were to add a piece of research like you are suggesting, that would take time I do not have available. Not to mention the mistakes I'd probably make: sociology is a discipline of its own.

But a survey among V.commers (Laurie, would you please?) is within my possibilities, so that is what I suggested. The result would not be any definitive truth, but it just might be surprising enough to make it worth our while.

August 24, 2008 at 05:37 PM · Maybe it would be useful to have several categories:

1) Full-time pro: Supporting oneself, and/or family, exclusively with musical endeavors.

2) Semi-pro: Makes $ with musical endeavors, but also has another job, or support from a spouse or partner.

3) Amateur: Participating in musical endeavors, but $ are few or absent.

4) Student

Category does not necessarily indicate quality of violinist...

August 24, 2008 at 06:57 PM · Anne, I like your listing. I'm a full-time pro, by those standards.

August 24, 2008 at 07:41 PM · Anne, thank you! Maybe we should subdivide "Student" into "Violin student" and "Other student"?

August 24, 2008 at 08:14 PM · 4) Student:

a) violin student pursuing music degree

b) violin student pursuing other degree

c) professional student (insert smiley face here)

August 24, 2008 at 08:22 PM · Bart,

I'm not sure that it would be all that difficult to figure out who is an

"EGM." One could, for example, assume that violinists in full-time orchestras of national standing are EGM because they have passed fairly objective standards of professional ability: they have all demonstrated the dexterity to play Don Juan, the musicality to play Mozart 39, and the ability to make it through Mozart and Romantic concerti well enough to convince a jury of their peers.


August 25, 2008 at 06:34 PM · Scott,

Obviously, someone in a professional symphony orchestra, especially if that is a very good orchestra, must be an exceptional musician. Why is it then that I'm not entirely comfortable with your suggestion? I can think of few reasons. First is the fact that following it means more work, but that is not a serious objection. More importantly, defining an EGM as a full time symphony orchestra member leaves out many people who are EGM just as well. How about a teacher in a school who achieves great results with her pupils and inspires them for life -- an EGT? Or someone who has done replacement (is that the word?) jobs in various orchestras? I wouldn't want to judge.

And of course, not every violinist is a classical violinist. I don't want to deprive jazz violinists of a chance to prove their egm-ship.

Perhaps it would be best to subdivide the "professional" category, as Anne suggested, and see what we can conclude from that?


what business does a violin student have pursuing another degree? I cannot picture such a person in my mind. Could you help again?


August 25, 2008 at 07:01 PM · I dont think that I would classify any student as a professional.Thanks to Friends Riunited meeting up with fellow students after a 30 year gap it has been interesting to see who went into the profession and who did not.A student is a hope to be professional unless they are actually earning enough money to pay the morgage.

August 25, 2008 at 07:13 PM · Anne - great post.

By your standards I'm a semi-pro player. All the joy of making money with my violin but none of the politics! :-)

August 25, 2008 at 07:26 PM · Bart,

I'm a little surprised at your concept of research, especially someone from the sciences, and statistics in particular. It seems that you want to be able to include every possibility for what might be considered an EGM. I think a researcher would be wiser to narrow the focus of the study, rather than expand it to include all possible factors. Jazz, for instance, should not be a part of the study simply because a jazz musician could succeed without satisfying any objective criteria. A jazz musician could, for example, become famous and sell tickets without being able to play above 3rd position or play spiccato or double stops.

I think there are two separate issues here: What age have successful violinists started at? Or: By what age is it necessary to start to become successful. The first is easy to measure. The second is probably impossible unless there is a large database of twins who started at different ages. The only way to resolve both would be to only sample the middle of the distribution curve, leaving out Carter Brey and other exceptions, and assume that the average age that EGMs started out is by definition the age at which they MUST have started. It's circular reasoning of a sort, but it's the only option. One would have to assume that the necessity of starting from an early age is not some kind of myth that has been perpetuated for centuries. I don't believe it is.


August 25, 2008 at 08:29 PM · Bart, I was thinking of the young people that spend a lot of their childhood studying and playing violin, but opt to take a different career path in college.

August 26, 2008 at 01:25 AM · Scott: "Jazz, for instance, should not be a part of the study simply because a jazz musician could succeed without satisfying any objective criteria. A jazz musician could, for example, become famous and sell tickets without being able to play above 3rd position or play spiccato or double stops."

I doubt it.


August 26, 2008 at 05:41 AM · Violinists do not need to be sorted like eggs and placed in graded cartons. If we did, I would call myself organic free range and charge 25 cents more.

August 26, 2008 at 02:44 PM · Hurray for Eco Emily!

I had thought of a neat way to sort us, based on technical proficiency:

1. Can you play Twinkle?

2. What is the Sassmannshaus grade of the most difficult piece you have ever been able to play at least as well as you play Twinkle?

(in my case 1. No; 2. 9; go figure)

Or, how about this:

Do you work in:

1. A major symphony orchestra?

2. A minor symphony orchestra?

3. A modal symphony orchestra?

August 26, 2008 at 07:35 PM · I seem to be the single most frequent responder to this thread – ouch! Bad manners.

Scott, your outlook on science and mine seem very different indeed. So much so that I suspect a misunderstanding somewhere. Based on your last post, it would seem that you propose to exclude observations (Mr. Brey) based on a peek at the very data (his starting age) that you purport to research! Such are the things that could get a scientist expelled from the academic world. You don’t mean it like that, surely? I think you are after other knowledge, such as the most common age for a professional violinist to have started, and you fear that too many Mr Breys might skew your data. If that is what you want, the standard solution is to include all data, but to compute a median, or an alpha-trimmed mean. This would no doubt result in a young median starting age for successful professionals. But it is not what I am after.

This whole thing was started by a question of a young, but not very young person who asked if, given his age and his experience of playing violin, he still had a chance to become successful as a professional. Everyone surely agrees that would be an exceptional outcome, but the question remains how big an exception such an outcome would be.

Perhaps the best way to go about answering such a question would be a cohort study. Follow a bunch of young ones from the moment they start playing the violin, at school, at a music school, or with a private teacher, record the relevant predictors, and wait and see. Alas, this exceeds my time and resources.

Next best would be a case-reference study. In a representative group of violin playing people, find the cases – the professionals – and the reference group the amateurs. Record how they differ on the predictors. That is what I suggest we do, taking the members as our representative group. I can think of three problems:.

1)Representativity of members. We are perhaps more enthousiastic about our instrument than violin-playing people in general. There are perhaps more professionals or professional students among us than among a randomly selected group of violin-playing people. But I don’t think membership selects for early or late start. We’re probably OK with the influence of starting age on later life, but not with the general proportion of professional violinists. If, say, a late start would make a successful professional career five times less likely than an early start, that would be worth knowing.

2)Are our numbers large enough to get any predictive power? As I’m after the frequency of a late starter becoming a successful professional, this could be a problem. Perhaps teems with early starters, and late starters are few and far between. Time will tell.

3)How to define our categories? How can we judge the technical proficiency and musical excellence of a musician when we cannot hear them play, but have to take their word for it? Wouldn’t that amount to judging books by their covers? One could use membership of an organization, such as a symphony orchestra, open only to excellent musicians, as a criterion. That would succeed in identifying some, but not all, exceptionally good musicians, doing the other egm an injustice. And, for reasons Emily put into words far better than I could, it does not agree with me. More importantly, what is at issue is not excellence, however objectively measured, but success as a professional. If you are successful without being excellent, good for you. I think it’s most unlikely, though.

So far so good.

How do we think about the following series of questions:

1.At which age did you start playing the violin?

2.What is your current age?

3.Was at least one of your parents as a professional musician? as an amateur musician?

4.Are you at present a(n):

a. Full-time pro: Supporting oneself, and/or family, exclusively with musical endeavors.

b. Semi-pro: Makes $ with musical endeavors, but also has another job, or support from a spouse or partner.

c. Amateur: Participating in musical endeavors, but $ are few or absent.


i.violin student pursuing music degree

ii.violin student pursuing other degree

iii.professional student (insert smiley face here)

To my mind, this is as far as it is practical to go. I’m hoping that the system Laurie uses can handle a questionaire like this and present the results in such a way that the relation of the answers given by a single individual is preserved. It would not do to have just the starting age distribution and the distribution of player categories: we need the data on each individual. Not their names, of course.

If this is not practical, a much more simple setup would be the one I described in the first post of this thread. But I don’t know how much use that would be.

Bart (1:7, 2:53, 3a:no, 3b:yes, 4:c)

August 26, 2008 at 07:39 PM · "More importantly, what is at issue is not excellence, however objectively measured, but success as a professional"

Bart, I disagree. The question for someone wondering about a career is, can they achieve the necessary level of artistry? Whether they actually continue and pay the mortgage with the instrument shouldn't matter except as a convenient metric because then we know who has done it--one can't measure the many fine musicians who have, for other reasons, gone to law school and don't read this site.

I don't mean to eliminate the successful late starters, I just mean to avoid the common pitfall of anecdotal anomalies. I find too many on this site say someone can start late because so-and-so did.

I still maintain that a more useful study would be one with a narrower focus.


August 26, 2008 at 07:45 PM · I wanted to respond to Emily's assertion that we don't need to be sorted and graded like eggs. Actually we do, and we are. However, American conservatories and schools of music should be doing a better job of sorting, and the fact that they aren't means that too many string players have unrealistic hopes for a career. Too many college teachers have extreme pressure placed on them to recruit in order to save their jobs, and because there are too many schools of music, the bar is very low, even at prestigious programs.

I will even admit that, though I've worked hard to catch up to my peers, I really had no business being admitted to Peabody. I and many of my classmates existed solely to pay tuition and make sure our teachers met their studio quotas for their benefits.


August 26, 2008 at 07:48 PM · It seems to me that the easiest way to do this is by starting with the publicly available info. For example, repeated threads on this and other sites on how early those violinists started who managed top become international soloists has turned up only two exceptions older than seven: Stern (8) and Ricci (9). Presumably, by looking at the bios on the websites of the major orchs, you could probably get a good fix on how early all those folks started. At least this would answer the question of how early you generally have to start to make a living at that level of playing (and for violinists, I suspect it is probably similar to the age for international soloists).

Then, you could do a survey of the kind suggested by this thread of those who make their living teaching/gig playing/busking/whatever as musicians to get some sense of how early you need to start to at least have a chance of getting to that point.

August 26, 2008 at 10:05 PM · So Scott, are you a grade AA Extra Large, or aren't you?

August 26, 2008 at 11:59 PM · Emily,

Some would say scrambled


August 27, 2008 at 07:04 AM · Scott, I finally see what you mean, or at least I think so.

The issues involved, such as young people's perspectives in life, are too important to mess around with; to take a risk of being led astray from the general pattern (in order to become a good violinist you have to start young) by a few exceptions. Is that what you mean?

Let's call it off, then: there is far too much egg-sorting going on in this world as it is.


August 27, 2008 at 07:45 PM · Bart,

As I was taking my usual 20mi evening bike ride last night, thinking about this issue and solving the world's problems, I realized that our research questions are either easily answered, or impossible to answer. The answer to question #1: on average, when do successful musicians begin, is, for anyone involved in music, fairly easy to answer empirically: somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8, probably a statistical spike somewhere around 6-7. A no brainer. The question to #2 is much more difficult and probably can't be answered conclusively because people differ too much: is there an OPTIMUM age by which someone must start to reach a high level? There are simply too many variables, such as cultural bias "I must start my child early" to psychological problems of older string players (I have one such older student who feel like she "doesn't deserve" to play well because she didn't start "early enough"). Then there are the hormones and distractions occuring at puberty. We can only make some reasoned generalizations: violin is hard and there is a lot to learn. Therefore one must start as early as possible.

The really interesting question of what the optimum age is may be impossible to pin down. Also, I doubt there is a straight-line correlation between age and ability to succeed. What would that curve look like? Is it an S-curve, with a deflection point at puberty? Does the curve flatten or dip in adulthood? Too many interesting questions.


August 27, 2008 at 09:29 PM · Not entirely on the OP's thread, but more in reply to Scott's last post - I posed something along the same lines a while ago in this discussion on learning.

My question: why is 15 years of learning, starting at 7, so different in outcome to 15 years of learning starting at 20 or 40? People playing in symphonies aren't all starting there AFTER they've been learning for 50 years, They've likely been learning for what, 15 or 20 years. I don't understand why someone couldn't do it with 20 years of learning starting at 20 - they're still way young enough for a second career.

I suspect the reason that older starters are not so represented at top level playing is:

1. starting older means that other life shapers have influenced you more than music, so when your expertise reaches that level, its not accompanied by the thought that THIS is the a way for you to earn a living

2. Being older you can look at things cynically and withut idealising them And life as a professional muso loses some of its charm.

3. No one expects or reniforces that sort of life choice in a 40 year old, so it doesn't happen.

August 27, 2008 at 11:07 PM · why is a 5 yo beginner better than a 15 yo beginner?

assuming the same life spans, the 5 yo has got to enjoy violin 10 years longer.

that is why people and do the math! 15- 5 = 10!

August 28, 2008 at 01:44 AM · Too many music schools in the U.S.? The original purpose of the conservatory systems as they were developed in Europe was to offer a quality music education to anyone who showed a desire and aptitude for music - whether they had been playing for 1 year or 15 years. Isn't it a good thing that the number of quality teachers here is in excess of the number of phenomenally gifted students? Isn't it good that, because there so many spaces available, gifted students who are less than genius in their potential have the opportunity to study music?

Anyone who has the desire has the right to study music with a good teacher. There all kinds of abilities that make up the world of music, and all of them are valid. Not only the best of the best can give and receive pleasure from music. There are all kinds of reasons for persuing music (at any age), and all kinds of successes that can come from that study, whether it be a career as a soloist or other performer, as a pedagogue, as a music critic or historian, as an administrator, or even a life's enjoyment of amature music making and an appreciation for good music.

August 28, 2008 at 02:32 AM · Sharelle,

I don't believe that the reasons older starters are not as successful is due to cynicism or other life experiences. 20 years from ages 20-40 is not the same as the 20 from 5-25 when one is talking about learning something as physically demanding as a string instrument for the same reasons that Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters have to start early. Exacting motor memory and fearlessness demand the brain plasticity of youth.


August 28, 2008 at 02:43 AM · Kylie,

I won't argue with your philosophy that studying music is a great thing and that more people should have the opportunity. I think we're talking about 2 different things--secondary education versus professional training. I even think majoring in music as an undergrad is a great thing and one can go on to be anything else if desired. However, when one is admitted to a conservatory or school of music with the express goal of making a living in music, it's a different matter. It's especially true at the graduate level, when other life opportunities may be passed by, and loans taken for study.


August 28, 2008 at 03:40 AM · If I was tempted to be a late starter, I would probably avoid violin and choose some other instrument, just in order to avoid the big question of whether or not I was predestined to be bad. That's the course that makes the most sense, really. And if it's true, it's true. If it's not true, the negativity around it would tend to self-fulfillingly make it true. So, I'm ready to say it's true - for one reason or another.

But realize, you're talking about degrees, as well. The other day I was listening to a live recording of the quartet of a member here. I've never heard precision like that, and it was fascinating, captivating precision. I don't think many people will ever get anywhere near that, regardless.

August 28, 2008 at 04:21 AM · I'm actually a deviled egg, all mixed up with a bunch of other stuff and put back together again.

August 28, 2008 at 04:53 AM · I'm definitely poached.

August 28, 2008 at 07:40 AM · Scott,

You're probably right about ideal research being impossible. One cannot do an experiment, randomizing music school applicants into an "early" and a "late" group. How would you feel if the administrator told you she had tossed a dime and as a result you weren't allowed in until you were fifteen?

All other approaches have their drawbacks, even that cohort study. The reason for a late or an early start may be related to musical or learning ability.

Meanwhile, others are researching this subject. I'll try to find out what they have found.

And I have no idea what kind of an egg I am.


August 28, 2008 at 12:49 PM · bart, in any credible research papers that i have read or been part of, the sequence of events is usually this: objective, method, result and discussion.

i enjoy reading your discussion.

August 28, 2008 at 01:40 PM · Scott,

I think I see what you saying; students are being given false hope of possible career paths by being admitted into prestigious conservatories, and are passing by other opportunities that their time would be better spent pursuing. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I think you do have a valid point there - however, I still believe that time spent pursuing a goal is always enriching and productive, whether the goal is met or not. Education is never wasted, regardless of whether it is eventually put into practical application in a career. I do not regret the time I spent in training to be a professional dancer, although in all likelihood, that training will never have a DIRECT practical appllication in my life. I learned a great deal about myself, life, music, and a number of other things in the course of that training, all invaluable revelations, despite the eventual disappointment of finding that dance was not the career for me. I think in many ways my dance training made me a better musician.

Slightly more on topic, I just wanted to note that neuroscientists are finding more and more how incredibly plastic the adult brain actually is. It is quite possible for an adult brain to make the same changes to the motor cortex that an eight year old's brain can make. True, neuroplasticity slows down to a degree in adulthood (after peaking in early childhood and again in mid adolescence), but the changes that can and DO happen in the adult brain are still staggering - and well documented. An excellent book on the subject, if anyone is interested, is The Mind and the Brain; Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffery Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley.

August 28, 2008 at 01:49 PM · did dr schwartz consider the implication of arthritic finger pain, among other physical issues, concurrent with on-going neuroplasticity for aspiring adult violin beginners? are there any pills in development for know-but-can't-do syndrome?

further, is the so called neuroplasticity observed in clinical setting with issues like mortgage payment, tuition bills and taking care of aging parents in the nursing home?

in other words, is his finding of any revelence to us?

September 9, 2008 at 04:48 PM · Professor Gordon's web site gives a lot of information about early music learning. I won't even try to summarize it here.

But it made me wonder how those late starters did it.

September 10, 2008 at 09:14 AM · I am glad that you have posted this, as it is an intriguing question that I’m certain I will find the outcome useful for my own research. As I’ve perused the posts, I notice that the mention of environment and natural talent, or the aspects of interest and personal life experiences, both bad and good, contribute to the making of a fine artist. I started at the age of nine with much opposition of both friends and family, being reminded that it was “a sissy’s instrument” and that all the practicing I was doing would come to naught. I never allowed this to discourage me and learned all I could, and listened to all that was available at the time. One should bear in mind there were no computers available as they are today, and circumstances of my home life made it difficult to keep up the fight. Despite these factors, I became a professional, as I have made a living with the violin and music business in general for over 25 years. The many adventures that I have encountered in my career have most certainly shaped my playing and I learned more in the actual practice of performing music than any music teacher could have, no matter how prestigious they could have been. Real art is created from real life and in my orchestral work many years ago, I found it rather dry and cold. My colleagues, although I am sure they had their own personal problems, still played as if they were machines. No allowance of artistic freedom is expected in an orchestral situation, and this is for good reason. It maintains a control factor that is normal, but still artificial. It is necessary in the scope of the whole picture. Eventually, I broke from the orchestral work and concentrated on my own career, being my own boss, and producing real-life music, as it was intended to be. I took all of my classical training and applied it to the performance of classic country music and bluegrass as well as retaining my desire to perform Baroque and early classical music for private functions. This decision was very satisfactory, but I will admit some jobs paid very well while with others, you would have to settle for what you could get. The idea of making a fortune never really crossed my mind, and now I see that the experience I gained was priceless. How many people in the world can say that they are truly doing what they love to do, and making a living doing it? It sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse, but in the final measure of it all, when I’ve played my last note and written my last measure, I can leave the world knowing that I have left something for other young students to use in their quest for art.

Jerald Franklin Archer (P)

September 13, 2009 at 11:52 PM ·

 I have been wondering this same thing since I started at 13 this year. I want to persue it, but I don't know if in five years I'll be able to get into a good music school. I agree with Dennis C. that I appreciate music more than I did when I was younger. 

September 14, 2009 at 06:31 PM ·

I started at 23, 7 years ago. I do not plan to become a professional along any of the criterias mentioned here, but I am in the middle of choosing a job that leaves me freetime (lots :).

Also, for statistical purposes, it might be useful to mention, that I do not plan to play classical music (at least not semi profesionally, or whatever). Not that I didn't have good feedback when I was playing in a local orchestra, but I prefer my own band, with my friends.

July 27, 2010 at 12:35 PM ·

Hmm.. how you guys perceive this statement? I've got a friend whose father is a violin teacher and taugh him violin. His serious violin lesson started at 13 yrs old.But within a year or two, he has suddenly shoot up and has reached a certain standard that allows him to play pieces like Sibelius violin concerto in D minor op.47 and bazzini the dance of the goblins

July 28, 2010 at 07:06 AM ·

Dad must be a pretty good teacher.

July 28, 2010 at 09:52 AM ·

Almost every time i read up on different famous violinist's history, i will find out that they started REALLY young. Are there any famous violinists that started late? Say, 17 yrs. old?

August 29, 2011 at 01:23 PM ·

 Well, i started at february this year and i was 17 years old back then, now i´m learning all that stuff about positions, shifts and i´m  fighting a great battle against Sevcik too : D

And if there's not a great violinist that started late so i will be the first, there´s nothing you can´t achieve if you have will, so grab your violins folks and do it.


August 29, 2011 at 01:45 PM ·

I'd like to put in a plug for those who start "late" (say, age 10 and beyond).  There's more to the violin than becoming a professional violinist.  A young person (or an old person, for that matter) shouldn't be dissuaded from taking up music just because there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I started at 5, but I wasn't nearly good enough to turn pro.  I am good enough, in my own estimation (which is the only estimation that matters since I make my living doing something else), to enjoy playing the violin.

August 29, 2011 at 02:37 PM ·

This topic got totally hung up on the use of 'professional' as the success criterion.  Its actually irrelevant.  There are professionals that play moderately well and there are amateurs that are spectacular.

Why not set it by musical achievement instead wiht a set of semi-equivalent pieces (such as a professional circuit concerto; beethoven sonata; etc etc.   Sure, some play well and some badly but at least it would establish some comparator of technical prowess.

For the record I started at age 6, stopped at age 14 and started again in my post 50 years (ahem).

August 29, 2011 at 04:34 PM ·

"There are professionals that play moderately well and there are amateurs that are spectacular."  Elise -- that is so true.  And there are a great many very fine violinists who just decided they didn't need the stress of a performing career and instead took up teaching the violin.  And still others who are also very good at something else even more lucrative and satisfying to them, such as medicine or science or banking or whatever.

August 30, 2011 at 06:41 AM ·

I consider it important for us all, like Menuhin, to consider ourselves amateurs. We do it out of love, not money.

Living here in the UK, I started late (at nearly thirteen) but I have made a living from performing, mostly in orchestras My main love is chamber music and that's what I do now - not for a living, I'm semi retired, but for the love of it.

I always have a hope that one day I might become a professional as well as an amateur.

And I don't necessarily think starting late can be a barrier, although it often helps to start young AND have good advice and guidance, which doesn't often happen. I did know someone who started at 16 and by 19 or so, had a principal job (viola) in a professional orchestra.

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