Is it close-minded to specialize?

September 8, 2008 at 05:37 PM · Am I being close-minded if my goal is to specialize in a certain period of classical music? For example, in the near future, I will indefinitely put away Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; I want to focus solely on 20th and 21st century composers. Of course, I always go back to the greats for reference and knowledge, but I mean my main focus will be new composers. Is there anyone else who does this? Am I damaging my musical growth by playing only a certain period of music?

Replies (31)

September 8, 2008 at 07:07 PM · I could never do this... You'll be losing some of the greatest pieces ever written if you do this... Bach and Mozart are the greatest pieces you can play...

I think you'd be losing out by doing this, but it's your choice, I just wouldnt do it.

September 8, 2008 at 10:16 PM · Greetings,

I would say thta you are damaging both your musical growth amd quite possibly your technique.

That does not mena you should nto make a sicnere and determiend effort to play as much modern/contemporary repertoire as you can =within= a balanced program of repertoire development.

Such music -may- damage your tehcnique for two reasons. First it asks you to do things that may require a lot of extra tension (the realm of dynamic extrmes springs to mind) and crude attacks and crunches. Second playing this kind of music can diisrupt your sense of pitch and desinsitize the ear.

Later on , if you choose ot focus on contemporary music you may well find huge benifits in terms of precision of rythm, ability to recognize incredibly complx patterns and so on.



September 9, 2008 at 02:04 AM · I agree with the posts above me, especially the fact that modern music is detrimental to what the mind considers "harmonious" and cannot compare to the classics. It is so close to being anti-musical that it astounds me to listen to it and can only respect it for it's artistic value. But art is a reflection to the society in which it was created. If I can give some sound advice, be open to all styles of music. As a specialist in Baroque performance, I still find myself using baroque techniques when I play modern (popular) music with great effect. I would hasten to add that if I were only to play music from the baroque period alone, it would not satisfy my artistic creativeness. I don't know how old you are, but if your interest lies only in one point of music history, you are limiting your scope, as well as understanding of modern music, which becomes obsolete the moment after creation, in general. Remember that all music was once considered "new" and that even the composers of the past utilized the works of those who came before them. The aspect that it is new does not make it superior, as would be the case in all styles of music. It is a matter of personal taste. In prediction, 200 years from now will prove very interesting as to how new music (at that time) will sound...

September 9, 2008 at 03:27 AM · I guess it depends on what you want to do as a career--most violinists need to know more than just contemporary repertoire. Normally, I would agree with the others, but sometimes you just have to follow what your heart wants for a while.

When I was younger, I was absolutely horse crazy. I read every horse story and encyclopedia entry, studied the evolution in science, and drew horses in the margins of all my assignments until I nearly flunked, twice.

I could have been learning other things, but my obsession pushed me to new levels of achievement within that realm. I plunged into novels well above my reading level, memorized every bone and muscle from anatomy books, and honed my art skills until I could capture their glossy sheen and velvety flared nostrils with frightening accuracy for a seventh grader. Eventually, I branched out and tried drawing other stuff, and well what do you know, I could draw other stuff, too!

You're young, still, and you have lots of years to get repertoire under your belt. If you played nothing but contemporary pieces until you were gorged sick, you most likely would get the desire to branch out into other periods eventually, I'm guessing. It's not like you won't have made substantial improvements in your technique along the way. I've seen it before; sometimes passion pushes a student beyond his capabilities. The only problem is, you may not have a say in what you play sometimes. Sometimes, you play it because your teacher said to, or you flunk. Job, college, and competition requirements bring you back to reality in a hurry.

Also, if you follow every whim and only play what you please, you may end up like me, and never end up playing stuff like Accolay and Vivaldi. And then when you want to teach your student who really wants to learn the Accolay, you'll have to go back and learn it real quick. :)

September 9, 2008 at 03:35 AM · I think you should stick to it. Not only are you playing what you like, you're saving the majority from having to play music they loathe. The big problem will be finding a large enough audience to keep you from starvation. The vast majority of concertgoers flees from that stuff as though it were the plague. But it might be a place to carve out a niche for yourself.

September 9, 2008 at 05:47 AM · CAREER ISSUE ASIDE - I think you gotta follow your heart and realize one thing: no one does it all, or VERY few come close to doing it all.

and in fact you`re still sticking to the realm of classical music... outside classical music, a lot of violinists are lost, and vice versa...

the closest i`ve seen to someone doing a variety of styles is roby lakatos (i have a private album of him playing jazz with a big band) but even then, i read on an old thread that when it came to the music of mozart or beethoven, the results were not exactly stellar...

there`s a video of sandor lakatos on youtube playing some paganini, and his intonation is way off, but when he plays his hungarian music it is absolutely sublime...

just do what makes you happy, everything else is secondary. The world of classical music is extremely conservative which is why you have those two replies about modern music being detrimental to your ears ... with the utmost respect to the posters; is there any proof of anyone being that desensitized by modern music? ie is it a proven fact, or are you guys just assuming...

and even if it is true, so what? at least the original poster will potentially be a master of modern music; perhaps even inspire others to follow in his steps... the same way glenn gould was a master of bach....

my example of sandor lakatos says it all... a world class musician in the hungarian style, but when it comes to playing classical music, the results aren`t as good

or even maxim vengerov who a few years ago became infatuated with jazz music... he is particularly fond of a jazz violin friend of mine from switzerland who has limited classical chops (or just chops period), but who improvises really well and just swings so much in the jazz styles... maxim was completely floored by his playing and even took time off to study jazz at french jazz violinist didier lockwood`s school in france...

btw if anyone is familiar with authentic jazz or authentic klezmer, itzhak perlman has released two albums in those styles... NUCLEAR DISASTER!!!

so to recap NO ONE DOES IT ALL! and i think that it`s graet, it`s what makes music so wonderful, that you can always learn and be inspired by others!

September 9, 2008 at 06:10 AM · Greetings,


>just do what makes you happy, everything else is secondary. The world of classical music is extremely conservative which is why you have those two replies about modern music being detrimental to your ears ...

Your response contains a number of fallacies which reveal lack of familiarity with the topic under discussion. First of all there have been extensive discussions of why calling classical musicians conservitive is ill thought out and banal. To mention two aspects: musicians are frequbelty not narrow minded but forced to play the same repertoire over and over by managment etc. Second, very often they enter the field because of a love of reperoire within the range of music general held to be `classical,` in laymans terms. That is what they love. One doesn@t accuse a baker of being narrow minded for not being interested in cooking fish dishes. Its what people love doing so -don`t be rude.=

Nor do you have any idea about why the people concerned posted . I suspect I have -a lot- more experience of the kind fo music referred to herethan you. I grew up in a regional orchestral system thta placed a fantasitc emphasis on modern works. I have literally been playing in world premieries since the age of twelve. I have a deep affection for the music of Xeenakis, Ligeti, Berio, Penderecki, Carter, Stockhausen and Glass to name but a few. I always try to play modern works in recitals I do to keep people alive to the variety of sounds posisble in nature.

>with the utmost respect to the posters; is there any proof of anyone being that desensitized by modern music? ie is it a proven fact, or are you guys just assuming...

So yes. I am familiar with the effects of a heavy diet of this music, aklthough actually we are not yet 100 percent clear what music Jasmine is referring to. A balanced diet may have the oppsite effect sicne it may demand the player to learn to listen to and distinguish quarter tones quarter tones and complex note cluster. It is when the score demands random pitch that the ear becomes confused over time and requires some nurturing back. I doubt if there is permanent damage. I wa s studying with a professotr at the Royal Academy in London when the academy launched an extremely rehearsal heavy and etxenisve festival for its orchetsra of modern music in order to demonstrate that it wa sthe only university that deserved funding from the Thatcher government. He told me that the effect on his studnets playing from weeks of rehearsal in atonal, abrasive and just plain weird music had had a very deleterious effect.

Your lack of know how in this area is clealry demonstrated by the examples you cited. The discusison has nothign to do with Klezmer, Jazz, or whatever according to how the original post is worded. Those are other wonderful specializations but even then a violinist is not remotley narrow minded for stciking to standard works and not experimenting n those areas. On the whole they belong to those who spent a life time perfecting -their - beutiful art.

In short, nothing wrong with writing in ignorance - but don`t claim to be being respectful when you are doing the opposite.



September 9, 2008 at 06:25 AM · I think they're thought of as conservative because they damn anyone who does cook fish :) If not now, at least in former times by some, creating the stereotype.

September 9, 2008 at 06:19 AM · Greetings,

Jim , your usual excellent humor aside I think this another load of bs. Standard classicla players do not all go around disisng other genres all the time. I am sure some do and the reverse is true, as in the post I responded to. However, as a rule I found that peopl respect and acknowledge experts in other field as differnet rather than lesser. Emil`s long disocurses on the subjetc covere dit all quite nicely. I can`t be botehred to do a rehash.

I wonder if Jasmine wouldn`t mind clarifying what composers she had in mind? To a clasccial violnist `modern music` tend sot assume the Stockhausen type works but the time span she is talking about is actually so vague she might be choosing to spend a large part of her life playing so much of the standard repertoire the debate is moot.



September 9, 2008 at 10:34 AM · Oooo. That wasn't nice of me!

September 9, 2008 at 08:08 AM · I'm conservative. I'm a baker. I cook fish. What does this mean?



September 9, 2008 at 08:15 AM · I don't know. I'm sure it means you shouldn't be allowed in polite company to some people though :)

September 9, 2008 at 08:25 AM · I'm just sad I'm not your favorite pal anymore. I keep thinking, you never had my fish. If only you'd had my fish, maybe things would be different... Oh well.

September 9, 2008 at 08:57 AM · I need all the pals I can get. You can be one too! Most bestest even.

September 9, 2008 at 06:24 PM · well i understand some of your points, and i will admit one thing at least, i am sure you are hundred times the violinist i am (of which i am not) and i definitely do respect your knowledge and i know that is vast and based on years of experience (i`ve read many of your previous posts/blog posts)

with that said that doesn`t mean that you are an end-all be all master of every aspect of music and violin. Quite frankly, a lot of your posts come out that way even if intentional (I am right my opinion is the right one, and nothing else is correct : the one topic that comes to mind was that of sight reading, in which you completely bashed people who cannot sightread (i think the thread is a few years old).... Now if you don`t believe that I don`t respect you that`s fine, but I m not one to idolize anyone and believe what everyone says no matter how respected they are; especially when it comes to grey issues (ie shoulder rest vs non shoulder rest - btw and i did read carefully what you wrote with regards to that issue). That said, besides the things i disagree with and the authoritative style of writing, i would personally love to take lessons with you.

As much as I love classical music (and i use it in a very broad term for simplicity`s sake), I`ll admit I`ve only studied and listened to it (degree in music theory) and am not a performer.

However, when it comes to guitar and especially jazz music, i am in my element, and from the years i`ve spent with musicians around the world and giving masterclasses around the world... I`ve realized one very important thing, that opinions are like a-holes, everyone `s got one... I respect every genuine artist, but, again, they can be wrong sometimes. One thing that is often taught in jazz schools is to consider the 4th degree of a major scale an avoid note over the tonic chord... yet if one were to analyze the music of many jazz musicians, it is immediately clear that that theory is wrong... A jazz professor told me recently : `"At the university, I teach things I don`t even agree with!"... My personal approach is the neutral one, whenever I say something that is my opinion, i make sure to say so, and to encourage my students to form their own and to feel free to disagree with me as long as they can back it up (these are issues that often regard interpretation)

That said, you are definitely entitled to your opinion, and i really do respect it. But there are certain things I disagree with; but I will not argue too much about it, I won`t change your opinion, and you won`t change mine, that`s fine as it is.

regarding classical musicians being conservative, i didn`t mean that classical musicians were snobby or put down other styles of music. I meant that a lot of people are scared of change... and quite frankly that`s not only in classical music.

if for example violinists were not conservative, then everyone would agree that for certain people, the shoulder rest might be necessary... but instead (and the proof is in the previous discussions), you have people saying that the shoulder rest is not necessary and should be avoided... Other examples of conservative thinking: the riot at stravinsky`s premiere of the rite of spring.. granted that was a century ago.... or how about more recently: the criticism of Gilles Apap`s interpretation of the mozart concerto?

again i`d like to restate that conservatism can obviously be found elsewhere as well...

Anyway, your example of the royal academy in london was an answer that I was looking for; still , i`d be interested in further explanations as to the result of the negative effect.

what i meant with jazz or klezmer, is not the style itself, it`s the fact that everyone within a style or outside style, has his or her specialty... within and outside a style, no one is a master of everything...

outside of career issues, to me the important thing is to make sure the player is happy... what is wrong with that? i said it in my original post, even if it affects their ears when it comes to non-modern music... so what (again career issues aside)? but then again.. suppose it does affect their ears; would it not be possible to retrain them? quite frankly i don`t know the answer to that, but wouldn`t it be like riding a bike? ie takes a bit of time to readjust but you get used to it soon enough...

Jasmine originally asked if it was close-minded to focus on modern music... My answer was who cares (career issues aside) haha. but then she did ask if it would damage her musical growth... you had an interesting answer with the royal academy anecdote; but even then, it would be nice to have more indepth research into this... and furthermore, how does one define musical growth anyway...

bah it`s late, and i`m tired

September 9, 2008 at 11:53 AM · Whoa, things sure got heated in here when I wasn't looking...

Jasmine, I think Buri's points hold a lot of water. Judging from what you've told us about your experience and development before, I think it might be a bit early to consider giving up the standards to focus on the 20th and 21st century entirely. Here's why:

'Traditional' performance techniques have a lot to teach us. The classical style in particular offers challenges in nuance, in subtlety, which you can spend a lifetime perfecting. Playing that perfect phrase with perfect articulation, structure, intonation and and and sets the standard for what we can do on the violin. How many ways can you play the bowing pattern 2-slurred-2-separate in a Mozart concerto - or in a Mozart sonata, for that matter? And it all has to sound so easy...

A lot of modern music is unviolinistically written. Yes, this does offer you interesting challenges, but learning from people who knew the violin so well teaches you so much about the instrument yourself. One of my regrets is the period in late high school/early college where I didn't play many showpieces - going back, I would have learned four or five a year and gone through all the Paganini caprices.

That said, you can certainly expand your repertoire to include these sorts of works, but I wouldn't do it exclusively. Practicing quarter-tone scales will increase your pitch sensitivity - you have NO idea how big a semitone really is till you've done this for a couple of weeks. Another thing - often the best contemporary pieces are written for chamber ensembles - how about forming one of those as well?

September 9, 2008 at 01:10 PM · Why should she learn nuance and sublety using the opportunities in Mozart, rather than the opportunities in something she wants to play?

September 9, 2008 at 02:01 PM · "I think you would say career-wise she ought to learn everything, to improve her chances of actually getting work, if that was her goal, but that isn't what you're saying."

No, Jim, it isn't what I'm saying, though I do agree with what you say about chances of getting work. I chose my words carefully. A classical phrase (and I mean from the classical period) admits very little; it's essential to have total mastery and control of so many aspects of your technique without letting the phrase sound 'engineered', 'calculated' or 'unnatural'. In my opinion and experience, no other music requires such exactitude of intention or execution. And no other music is as transparent - you really hear it when something goes wrong.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't have such exactitude of techique and intention when playing other, or particularly contemporary, music. I'm just saying that it's a lot less evident - you can 'hide' more easily. The chords are more complex, and you can't hear immediately exactly where your tone should be. Sometimes it's difficult for anyone to hear whether a higher or lower tone fits better in the chord. Phrases are less simple - less clear. You can get away with a lot. Buri mentioned articulation - a lot of contemporary music does thrive on extremes. However it's important to have the whole range of colours and tools in your paintbox, not just red, yellow, blue and black, one thick brush and one thin one.

EDIT: Your question changed - my answer stands.

September 9, 2008 at 01:52 PM · Jasmine- What led to your decision to concider focussing on 20th-21st century music?

*Do you feel that you are lacking focus?

*Not enough time in the day to learn all the periods?

*by focussing on one or two things you can progress faster and closer to long term goals?

These are just some sample questions. Tell us what 'you' are most comfortable with.

Your Buddy,


September 9, 2008 at 04:16 PM · Hey,

Everybody! Sorry, school keeps me from in long intervals, so I am just now reading all your responses. Thanks everyone. I appreciate everyone's opinion and expertise and I most definitely will get more than one perspective before making a final decision.

As to what music I meant, NO, I DO NOT WANT TO PLAY ATONAL OR CHANCE MUSIC. When I say 20th century and 21st century, I mean along the lines of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, John Adams, Philp Glass (just the concerto), and FILM MUSIC (korngold, miklos rosza). I adore film music and I hope to be a studio musician someday. But my biggest goal is to start helping new composers (who actually create tonally, harmonically, melodically beautiful pieces, such as Michael McLean) put their pieces on the map or repertoire list. (I am working with student composers in my school.) I also want to study all of Mark O' Connor's Caprices, all of S.C. Eckhardt-Grammate Solo Violin Sonatas, Max Reger's Solo Sonatas,the Ewazen Trio, and so much more from the 20th century. And I can't even mention all that I want to study from the 21st--"The Village" soundtrack comes to mind and Michael McLean's pieces! :0)

I guess, I feel like if I keep on focusing on the old classics, I won't have time to keep up with the new. But I understand where a lot of you are coming from. So, I will think long and hard about it.

September 9, 2008 at 05:52 PM · Megan, thanks for the answer. What I was really trying to get at led me to change the question to what I did - why not just do what's required by the music she likes? I agree that the period you mention has its own demands, but if that's not what she wants to play....

September 9, 2008 at 06:10 PM · Sort of like others have been saying:

(a) follow your heart

(b) don't ignore the basic grounding in technique and ear training that the traditional repertoire can give you. It's sort of like wanting to study history - but only history since WWII.

(c) Soloists aren't always as conservative as their calendars make them look. When Anne Akiko Meyers came to play with us last season (Prokofiev #1), someone asked her at a Q & A session about performing contemporary repertoire. She said she loves it & loves to play it (Schwantner wrote a concerto for her a few years ago, for example), but "it's so hard to get orchestras to let you play anything but Tchaikovsky." Even a beautiful, lyrical, accessible piece like the Barber concerto frightens audiences. I suspect a lot of musicians have the same story.

September 9, 2008 at 09:13 PM · Just saw you edited your posts back there, Jim. I wonder if Buri saw what you wrote. It's nice to be able to disarm verbal missiles midair, before they detonate.

I can send you canned salmon, if you prefer.

September 9, 2008 at 10:15 PM · Jim,

Good question. I don't actually have anything against specialising per se, but I do think doing so too early can be detrimental to one's development as a player, to say nothing of as a musician. In some ways, classical music is cumulative - later works assume a knowledge and understanding of earlier ones. That's not to say you can't play Shostakovich if you haven't played Bach, but understanding what came before Shostakovich harmonically, formally, and yes, technically will inform it that much more. Based on what Jasmine's previously shared about her experience, I'm hesitant to recommend she abandon the core works of the violinistic repertoire just yet.

Jasmine, it's funny, but Stravinsky and Shostakovich hardly seem like 'modern' compositions to me anymore! When choosing your program, I'm sure you can find pieces that push you violinistically and musically, while learning those that interest you. Do a recital, and program a big modern sonata and an E-Gré caprice. Complement those with Beethoven op.12 no. 1 or a Mozart sonata (I'm on a bit of a classical kick, I know) and something violinistic. Or choose a Prokofiev concerto this year, or the Korngold - or even Barber. But balance it out with Bach, Haydn quartets and tonal etudes. You can definitely broaden your focus to include more contemporary works without specialising completely.

September 9, 2008 at 11:57 PM · Yes, cumulative, or at least depending on what came before for a context. I never really thought of performance itself that way before, but don't see why not :) Never thought of it inescapable in performance, at least.

September 10, 2008 at 01:53 AM · hmmm, these v-com discussions can certainly become very heated very quickly.

I think the point is how you define yourself as a musician. For me, the goal was and is the ability to play anything I choose, or improvise, or is demanded of me, to the highest level, at any time. To me, this is the hallmark of a true virtuoso.

Interestingly, in my experience I have noted players in classical who can make the transisiton to jazz, can go back and forth twixt the two. Grappelli is reputed to have had the musical and technical ability for both genres. Paganini diverged and expanded, too. But, those who focus on one or the other, cannot.

Variety is a spice, and I would not exclude anything, or limit myself to anything, when setting my goals.

Sadly though, I am not a virtuoso, so I am limited to the "basics" by advancing age: the totality of which is an utter frustration.

September 10, 2008 at 12:08 PM · Since you are in college I would hesitate to advise you to abandon the staple of violin repertoire.

That said I think you may be on to something career-wise. As you get older you will most likely specialize in something. I have friends who are well known in the city for championing contemporary music and they do very well for themselves and their careers.

Someone above said that "that would be like majoring in history but only after WWII" (paraphrased). Well..... yes that is absolutely true. Historians do in fact specialize. As undergrads they study the complete range of history and then by the end of grad school they may choose to only study one small time period such as WWII. You are doing the same thing. Studying it all and then choosing to specialize.

More power to you! Goodness, can you imagine if musicians turned up their nose to Beethoven and did not want to play his music because it wasn't part of the classics at that point in time?

September 10, 2008 at 05:13 PM · Hey Buddy (Royce),

"What led to your decision to concider focussing on 20th-21st century music?"

Well, I have recently been listening to a lot of film music. I also started to go to the school library, and I checked out about 200 cds (over a three week period), studying the practically unknown composers of rarely heard violin music. I found so many beautiful pieces such as the Lee Actor Violin Concerto played by Pip Clarke (not unknown, but unknown to me before I checked it out!). I thought, "Wow, there are so many composers that are actually good, but did not get their name on the map because not enough of the violinists in their time would play it, because those violinists were focusing too much on the classics." Well, I don't want to be one of those violinists that plays the heck out of Beethoven, I want to discover and play new pieces. I guess I want to be the discoverer/agent/adventurer of new composers and new pieces.

I like Marina's idea, though. I should get a good foundation of the classics while I am in school and then maybe start to delve into all the excitement of discovery after school. Although, I will, of course, take everyone else's advice about subsequently playing modern and classic pieces now.

Thanks, Buddy!


September 10, 2008 at 05:23 PM ·

September 10, 2008 at 08:05 PM · I think the 20th and 21st century composers need as many champions as they can get, and your decision to focus on that is a good one. I love tons of music over all of the time periods, but have felt recently that for listening I need to start giving much more attention to the music of my century. It's vital that we keep it alive and relevant.

It's still important to study earlier music, though, because all of the traditions of the past can/ought to/will inform music of the present. Something you learn through woodshedding or philosophizing about a Mozart concerto might come in handy putting together that piece by Part or Carter.

September 10, 2008 at 09:56 PM · Jazz,

Have you heard of Tai Murray? She's supose to come to my university November 21st. I have a sample promotional CD of the visiting musicians & groups and her playing. I could send you a copy!

You know, I think that you may be on the right track. I'ed persue what you are wanting to do but would still strengthen my ties to the past composers & their eras. A tree only falls via nature if it has no heart (core) or has no roots.

your Buddy and fellow traveler,


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