Rate of progress vs age

July 8, 2009 at 09:30 PM ·

I am a proficient amateur.  If you heard me play, you would immediately know that I am not a pro.  My goal is to improve my sound so it approaches that of a professional musician.  Is that a realistic goal?

So my question relates to the rate of progress that someone like myself (in my 40's) can expect to see versus that of a child, say 10-12 years old.  I would think that most 12 year old's can probably achieve tremendous improvement over the course of 3-4 years with reasonably hard work.  Are there any teachers out there that have worked with children as well as adults?  For two people that practice the same amount, one 12 year old, and another person in their 40's, how much difference is there in the rate of progress.  Obviously, if the 12 year old doesn't know the first thing about music, and the 40 something is a professional musician in a different instrument, that would be an unfair advantage.  I'd like to know the difference in the rate of progress for two people with relatively similar ability and background, but different ages.

I know that violin is an infinite journey and I may not be looking at it the right way, but I'd like to know whether or not I can realistically expect to create a professional sound in my lifetime. 


Replies (54)

July 8, 2009 at 11:22 PM ·

It's not a fair question. It all depends on the individuals involved. A factor that would help you get credible answers would be to tell us what you are working on and what you want to be playing.

I general I see faster initial progress in adults or dedicated teenagers than I do in little kids, but there are some flexibilities in younger people that permit them to pick up certain moves in no time at all, that older folks have to work and work to modify a lifetime of contrary motions.

But when I was almost 40, and working a couple of hours a day on improving my violin playing (for about 5 years) I happened to watch the movie "They Shall Have Music" once again, and realized just how much a kid could learn in a few years compared to my modest improvement over 5 years.

When i was aged 14 to 17 (and already a violinist of some ability (certainly not a great player - but I was playing the Mendelssohn and Beethoven and Mozart/Bach concertos, etc. at the time)) I started cello and within less than 2 years I had completed my study of the Haydn D Major concerto with a teacher - an the stuff that led up to that. That is very fast progress, I practiced as much as I had time for (HS was easy and TV was not widespread) but I also continued violin improvement. I played violin in one orchestra (as concertmaster) and I played cello in another (at least), and I soloed around our rural county on both instruments. You ain't going to do any better than that teen did.

Now, 60 years after that, I am fully aware of how the rate and durability of my current improvement (such as it is) is much less than ever before, and I can only extrapolate that to other people who are unknown to me. I think I have had some teen and adult students - 20-something (especially on cello) who would have done as well and fast as i did if they had continued longer than they did (but they only got up to Suzuki books 6 to 7 - equivalent - in 10 months to 3 years).


July 9, 2009 at 02:00 AM ·

>It's not a fair question. It all depends on the individuals involved. A factor that would help you get credible answers would be to tell us what you are working on and what you want to be playing.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for the reply.  I am less concerned about what I play, than the sound I create.  Even if I play twinkle twinkle, I won't sound like a professional musician.  But to answer your question, I have played Mendelssohn, Lalo, currently working on Telemann Fantasies for solo violin.  I'd like to tackle the Bach Chaconne.  If you click on my profile, I posted a recent recording of myself playing Telemann so you can get a sense of my current ability.  As you can hear in the recording, I still struggle quite a bit with intonation as well as clean bow changes and string crossings.  And with all these technical challenges, it is difficult to play expressively.

I believe in the 10,000 hour rule -- that it takes 10,000 hours to master any endeavor.  I figure, I've got about 4000-5000 hours of violin under my belt, so I may have to play a few thousand hours more to get a "pro" sound.  But if my rate of progress is half (or 1/3) that of a teenager, then I may never get there in my lifetime.  And I agree, there is no way I will be able to compete with you in your teens.  It sounds like you were (are) a very accomplished musician.  Certainly, you progressed faster than I will, but I just wanted to get a sense of how much slower I can expect my progress to be compared to a reasonably talented teenager.

July 9, 2009 at 03:43 AM ·

As a general observation (there are always exceptions), I find that there is a trade-off between childhood and what I'll simply call "coming of age."  Little children do indeed have a lot of flexibility and potential, but most striking about them is often a real lack of self-consciousness.  This makes for relaxed performances, but the downside is that they can be making mistakes without noticing.  As kids get older you can see the self-consciousness creeping in.  In that sense, I think teenagers have the most in common with full-fledged adults.  When adults turn that self-consciousness into the focus needed to learn independently, it can be a great advantage; unfortunately it can also turn into debilitating self-criticism.

To answer your ultimate question, how you progress now is mostly up to you.  The best advice I can offer is to watch (in person or via film footage) as many great violinists as possible and be very observant in trying to figure out what makes them tick, then see what works for you.

July 9, 2009 at 06:18 AM ·

Having taught both small children and adults, I really believe they learn at the same rate. For example, I know a good number of kids who are nine, in Suzuki Book 4. But they started when they were 3; that's six years. For some reason, adults often think they should be farther along that in six years. When the adult student attempts to skip the "time" part of the equation, that is what ultimately slows him or her down.

Persistence over time is the key, at any age.


July 9, 2009 at 07:26 AM ·

 My talented little ones (starting ages 6-9) and the talented adults (starting 30 to I'm afraid to ask) progress at about the same rate, give or take.

It's charming to see one little girl and her grandfather attempt to out-do one another in their scales. ;)

July 9, 2009 at 08:53 AM ·

wow, you mean an 80yrs old can learn as fast and well as a 16yrs old? 


July 9, 2009 at 09:15 AM ·

I agree with a lot of the things said here. Having also taught kids and adults, I find the main issue is the difference of commitment to the practice of the art of violin playing, not necessarily the an age issue. Many adults have insufficient time to practice on a consistent basis, having life, work, kids to raise themselves, and a lot more responsibilities than a child does. Of course kids have school and homework, and the ones that don't practice as well have their interest wane quickly. What I feel everyone should do regardless of their status is to commit to  a routine practice schedule.

I do find when an adult has had some musical training either on violin or another instrument in their early years, that their "clearing of the cobwebs" and learning curve on violin is a lot quicker. On the other hand, adult beginners with no experience have a much harder time starting out and are generally much stiffer & tense since everything such as counting, reading notes, let alone trying to hold and play the instrument is overwhelming for the student.

One thing I find for intermediate adults is that their critical and logical thinking skills are much more developed than teenagers and youngsters. So if you're taught how to practice well, you can supplement your learning with great pedagogical resources. Basics by Simon Fischer, Carl Flesch "art of violin playing," and Auer's "Violin playing as I know it" are great resources for thought and technique. Good luck on your training, and I'm glad you found such a challenging yet beautiful instrument to dedicate your time with as all of us have here.

July 9, 2009 at 06:40 PM ·

 Ditto what Laurie and others have said.  Also, in your case, you DID start young--you just merely had a break for awhile.  So there is no reason why you cannot continue to improve a lot--as long as you have a regular practice schedule and a good teacher.  The only thing that stood in the way for my adult students, on average, is that they had a busy life and not much time to practice.  Their actual understanding of what to do was actually better than a lot of kids.... the muscles were maybe slightly more tense (this is just an average), but this was more than made up for by their intellectual understanding of how to focus the practice intelligently.  Bottom line--age isn't important.  Practice habits are.

July 9, 2009 at 08:30 PM ·


Thank you for putting up the Telemann Grave -- it's an old favourite of mine.

There is an amusing Zen story that may have something to do with your question. A prospective student approached the Master and asked: "Master, how long will it take for me to reach enlightenment?" 

"Ten years, average."

"And if I practise very intensively?"

"Twenty years."

"But Master, I'll practise as much as I can!"

"In your case, I'm afraid it will be thirty years!"

More seriously, one of my teachers used to say "There is no hope for you to attain the same standard as a professional, because you cannot spend as much time practising." I did not like her saying that, but that does not mean it wasn't true. That is easy to see once you turn it around: would I be a better player if I had practised more? You bet! In moderation, of course -- see above.

I've stopped comparing.

Hope this helps ;)


July 9, 2009 at 11:58 PM ·

Smiley, are you talking of average kids or virtuosic??? I started at 14 and was serious about my violin. Of course, I have not yet played big things like Lalo, Tchaikovsky etc but I catched up all the other average (but still the good average, I think) students that have started so young at my school.  Of course I can in no way compete with true prodigy kids. And like you, my goal number one is the sound. So I have always take all my time and worked very very slowly but surely because I never want to progress too fast and dammage the sound or cut on the time I spend to try to sound ok and do exercises related with it ( many progress so fast that they never pay attention to their sound.  They are showoff but unable to sound decently and for me this is a VISCIOUS circle, no?)  

So, in my case, (and I am so slow because of my sound obsession) yes sure to catch up the average of young starters.  (this means even if I am very slow, I must have had to progress faster than the average very youngs, I imagine, to catch up with them) but in no way I could have had, as a late starter, progressed fast like the prodigies...  Don't know if this helps you or not to define what you wanted since it is only my example.

Good luck,  BTW you play nice repertoire : )


July 10, 2009 at 12:30 AM ·

lol Bart!  What your teacher said is true. At least, I say to myself that there is hope to sound like a pro or such close (thus play at the same standard a few seconds) in very very easy stuff. I've heard a few amateurs sound as great as pros in easy stuff. It's maybe not super frequent, but ennough to say it's possible if you have musicality in your head and hear what you want I suppose (and many amateurs have musician's head even if their body is not as well trained). 

Come on, I think many can play twinkle fairly well... even you Smiley : )


July 10, 2009 at 01:02 AM ·

Smiley, if you spend the next 4000-5000 hours of practicing wondering what you will sound like when you are done, you might not find those hours to be very happy.  You could try focusing on playing your best for the present, and try to make each day a little better.

I teach all ages, as young as 5, and as far along as the 8th decade.  There is no hard and fast rule about learning pace, of whatever age.  But most children with 4-5 years under their belt don't have a "professional sound", whatever that is.  Menuhin had it, so did Rabin, Heifetz, but most violinists aren't in that league.

I've practiced way, way more than 10,000 hours by now, and by golly, I still don't sound like Silverstein...

July 10, 2009 at 04:16 AM ·

Greetings,I`ve never really liked this supposedly objective way of making predictions about progress.  he whole issue needs ot be qualified by a)  the most cost effective practice posisble IE constant mental/emotional activity and comittmnet ,  having fun,  working toweard scorrect goals at a given level and so onand b) the avoidance of repeating and learnign mistakes or using unnecessary tension..  It is the quality that counts. There are plenty of terrible players (relatively speaking ) around who have put in three or four tinmes this ampount of hours and made relatively little retuirn on their investment.

To give you an exmaple against myslef. When I wnet to music college I wa sa practicing fanatic and my teacher told mein all serious that `the more sevcik you practice the better you will be.` this is basically false and the numbe rof hours I wasted on tension filled,  musiclaity dumbing prafitc eof sevick does not bear thinking about.;)



July 10, 2009 at 04:52 AM ·

Quality of the teacher has not been touched on either.  An adult with a good teacher would make faster progress than a child with a mediocre teacher.  However, I agree that it boils down to practice.  Consistent, conscientious practice with the guiding hand of a teacher who is musically talented and able to translate their knowledge to their students.  The teacher has to be a stickler for correct technique or you may as well have a drummer teaching you to play violin.

July 10, 2009 at 05:07 AM ·

still struggling as a violin student, I can't answer as to violin specific answers, however in general, it is still not a fair question.

Younger people tend to learn differently than older people. When you are a child, you learn a lot of things by rote without needing any reason or rhyme (small pun); walking, talking, etc. require this. When you get older, you need more background; you filter what you learn instead of absorbing it like a sponge. This is why teenagers start to make their parents think strange thoughts of strangulation, etc.

Then, there is the component where younger people learn discrete items better, like steps to do something, but as you get older, you start integrating differently, and an individual item does not make sense except in context; you can absorb big blocks (get the big picture) of things much faster than you could when you were young, but the little steps to get there don't really make sense until you have a clear picture of all the steps.

So, with this, you will still learn, in some ways faster, but you will also stumble over some things that someone younger will pick up immediately.
Don't worry about, just accept it.

July 10, 2009 at 06:28 AM ·

Practicng technique is important. (No not practicing technique, but treating practicing as a technique itself)

Recently I've adopted what I'd like to call the 'do it right 3 times rule, then make it harder'. Instead of playing it a gazillion times at 40 bpm, I'd play it till I can get it perfect/reasonably right/not wrong and play it 3 times without errors - then move onto 45 bpm and play it till I can get it 3 times perfectly :) (Or different increment)

For my practicing experience

What I do is

Practice the rythm of the piece first (clapping, no playing here)
Practice intonation and fingering next
Practice dynamics
Focus on tone production (Vibrato, trills, bow angle, tilt pressure etc)

I've only recently adoppted a structured way to learning new things, hopefully after awhile I can combine alot of it together. But while I remain a human I think I need to split the processes up. I learn it all by segments, say like the first line or two, etc. I just like jumping into new things too much though!

And I'm hungry. Craving Moosaka

July 11, 2009 at 02:19 AM ·

Thanks to all that responded.  It never occurred to me that adults could learn as fast as children.  But I completely agree with the comments of Nicole and Thomas.  I would say that I am definitely much more introspective and critical about my playing now than when I was younger.  I also have a lot more discipline to practice slowly, and for longer periods of time.  I have no problem practicing 2 hours at a stretch, and would be happy to practice more if work and other commitments didn’t get in the way.  I find practicing almost therapeutic.  I believe it exercises a totally different part of your brain and somehow clears your mind of the stresses of everyday life.


Bart, you make a fair point about not comparing yourself to others.  I should probably heed that advice.  But, I recently performed with my piano trio.  We played Shostakovich #2, and Beethoven Ghost and I gave a relatively clean performance, but one of the audience members (a co-worker) told me that my playing did not have much feeling and after I watched the recording, I have to agree, it was rather uninspiring.  So when I say that I want to sound more like a pro, I am not talking about Heifetz, I just want to play in tune and convey some feeling in my playing. 

Dimitri, that strategy makes a lot of sense – break it down into manageable bite sized pieces. I'll give that a try.



July 11, 2009 at 05:39 PM ·

Very, very interesting topic and great comments by all. Very helpful to me, too, as an amateur. But as far as learning as a function of age, it is difficult to make too many generalizations, because ultimately each of us learns differently. Age, experience, and maturity matter, of course. But there are indeed unique advantages to youth, just as there are to various stages of adulthood.

Speed of learning is unpredictable. Sometimes you work and work and work for days and months and years on a technique and feel you're getting nowhere, and then one day you pick up your fiddle and there it is. I think the emphasis should be on technical and musical quality, attention to detail, and mastery. I think that if those things are in place, then things will come at the right pace.

But keep at it. Beverly Sills once said, "There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going."

July 13, 2009 at 12:06 PM ·

I believe Heifetz is quoted as saying, "violin is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration".   But I agree with Buri: quality of time is most important.

I do believe kids learn dexterity faster than adults.  I have many kids around me to prove this.  But I believe also musicality comes with maturity, which of course requires some age. 




July 13, 2009 at 12:48 PM ·

Tom Lehrer had something to say about this, too: 

"It's so simple,

so very simple,

that _only_ a child can do it!"

His subject was New Math, not violin playing.

July 13, 2009 at 02:06 PM ·

10,000 hours?


Just because those who have succeeded in various skills have put in 10,000 and more hours getting there does not mean that anyone who puts in the time (in any random manner) has a prayer of getting there.



July 13, 2009 at 07:44 PM ·


Actually, in his book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell presents a pretty compelling discussion of the 10,000 hour rule.  It's a pretty good read for those that are interested.  His other books, "Blink" and "The Tipping Point" are also very interesting books and well worth reading.

Back to the 10,000 hour rule.  Gladwell makes the point that in order to achieve mastery in something, it takes about 10,000 hours.  But, the rule also works in reverse.  That is, IF you spend 10,000 hours doing something, you WILL achieve mastery.

Now, that is not to say that anyone that practices violin for 10,000 hours will be able to play like Heifetz, because over and above the practice time, there is an innate element that is hard to quantify.  And one could take an extreme argument, if you practice nothing but open strings for 10,000 hours, then obviously, there is no way you will be able to play the Paganini Caprices.  But, if one practices diligently with an instructor and puts in the time, they will be a very accomplished violinist after 10,000 hours of practice.  If you still disagree, perhaps you can point us to someone who did put in the time and still sounds like an amateur.  Unless they have a disability, I think you may be hard pressed to find one.

That said, here's where I am unclear on the 10,000 hour rule.  Does that 10,000 hours have to be done while someone is young?  I have seen videos on youtube where 11 year old kids play with incredible expression and technique.  Sure they practice 5-6 hours a day, but the rate of progress seems unheard of for an adult. Several people have responded that adults learn as fast as children, but my gut feeling is that simply is not true.  A big part of learning violin is muscle memory, training your body to move in a certain way reliably and repeatably.  I think in that respect, young kids have the advantage over old folks like me. 

Another endeavor that I enjoy is golf.  In many ways, it is a lot like violin.  It is all about muscle memory, training the body to do something over and over again.  But, unlike violin, golf provides a quantifiable measure of someone's ability -- their handicap.  So, if you know someone's handicap, you know how good they are.  I have seen young kids (14-15 years old) go from a handicap of 20+, down tosingle digits in less than a year.  This rate of improvement is almost unheard of in adults, not impossible, but much more common in kids than adults. 

July 13, 2009 at 09:14 PM · A much easier statement would of been is to practice something right for 10,000 hours :)

July 13, 2009 at 10:52 PM ·


WARNING: RANT BEGINS HERE.  If you do not wish to hear a rant, then please turn to another station, perhaps Disney Channel --

OK this is really starting to irritate me .... (not this post, but all the ones that tell Adults to forget ever achieving anything in the music world if they didn't train from birth).

To your point about muscle memory, if adults could not train muscle memory well, then as an adult you would never be able to learn a new piece by memory, that you didn't study as a child, or any other task that requires muscle memory.  I would maintain that adults have just as much ability to obtain muscle memory as children.  I think the issue is "UNTRAINING" muscle memory developed over years or decades.  So it takes awhile to get back to point zero and then move forward from there.  But that doesn't impact pace of learning, just progress along a particular path.

I'm 49 years old, I have been playing for 7 weeks, and I can make my instrument sound pretty darn good already.  No I don't always hit the right intonation on a note, yet, and no my fingers don't move as fast on a new piece as they now can do on the scales I've been doing every day for those weeks, yet.  But I will bet that in 5 years to 7 years from now, given my current ability to focus during my practice sessions, I will be a pretty good violinist.  55 or 60 is no time to start auditioning for professional orchestras, granted, but I have no plans to play professionally anyway.  But I will be a pretty good violinist, maybe even excellent, and I will make beautiful music, and I will do it on the violin.  That is a sufficient enough goal.  I'm not buying into this you have to have teethed on rosin to become very good at this.  I have just as much ability to learn as a pre-teen, given good health.  There are people that have taken up yoga at 60 and 70 who have achieved amazing flexibility with diligent practice.  I would maintain that the same holds true for a musical instrument, yes, even the much vaunted violin.  I will also say that I probably have more investment in learning than your average 7 year old.  This is something I want .. and want very much!  So I have greater reason to achieve it than many if not most.

So, for the love of Mozart, please stop patronizing us adult beginners.  You don't know us or the individual motivations or abilites of a single one of us.  Music is an art, playing it on violin is a skill.  Skills can be learned, and learned well, up until the day I die as long as my mind stays clear and my fingers continue to move.

End Rant --

July 14, 2009 at 12:34 AM ·

Hi Steven,

By all means, RANT away.  That is what makes these boards meaningful and worthwhile.  When people disagree, the different viewpoints provide the opportunity for us all to grow.  Congratulations on your progress in just a few short weeks.  Given your background as a professional musician, I'm sure you will do very well on violin.  I believe violin is the most challenging and the most rewarding of all musical instruments.  Since this is "violinist.com" I can say that without being crucified. :-)

I would like to clarify however, that I never said that adults cannot learn new things.  I have practiced hard the past couple of years and my progress has been quite profound.  My claim is that the rate of progress may be faster for a younger person.  How much, I don't know.  Maybe there is very little difference, maybe a lot, maybe it depends on the person. 

Regarding your comment about memorizing new pieces, I have learned a little piano, just to keep up with my 7 year old.  Perhaps I am very bad at memorizing, or perhaps my son is very good, but the difference is immeasurable.  I can play a piece 100 times, maybe even 1000, and still not have it memorized.  But my 7 year old can play something 10 times, and he has it memorized without even trying.  I can't help but think that the neurons in his brain are just a bit more pliable, and easily programmed than mine. 

All that aside, I hope (wish) that you are right for both our sakes.  I would love nothing more than to be a more capable violinist.  I surely work hard at it and I plan on continuing to do so.  Whether I am able to create a professional sound in my lifetime or not, I sure am enjoying the journey.  That's really all that matters anyway.  Thanks for posting.


July 14, 2009 at 12:44 PM ·

Hi Smiley,

Thank you for your forbearance.  I didn't mean to imply that you said that adults can't learn the instrument well, but it does seem to be a consistent wolf tone in the harmonics of the violin world.  I guess I was having a bad day yesterday and had a hard time fending off the negativity that seems to surround me in this endeavor.  Thank the muses, not by my teacher.  But, my friends and family think I'm nuts, as do a lot of posts on this board (there is a lot of encouragement as well, I don't mean to imply otherwise). 

Perhaps memorizing IS a skill I learned as a child, and having learned it then I can still do it now.  Or maybe I just have a knack for memorizing music ... and I don't have a particularly great memory for anything else LOL.  Or, its something most people can do if they give themselves a chance.  However, I find I get things into my "fingers" pretty quickly even now, as well as when I was younger.  I can look at my goddaughter as a reference.  She is now 14, and has been playing violin for around 7 years.  She is a pretty talented musician.  But, it seems to take her forever to memorize her pieces.  I can be helping her for 1/2 hour and in that time I can call out the right notes when she hits an off one without reference to the music.  I'm a self taught pianist.  I can have the piece I'm teaching myself memorized by the time I work it through to the end.  I'm nothing special.  There have to be other people, even at my age, who don't find that particularly difficult.  

As to rate of progress, I look at my goddaughter again.  In my short time, I think I draw a better tone out of her violin than she does.  I can hear when my intonation is off better than she can.  Perhaps in part, its the foundation of all my musical training I can stand on.  But I think, to a greater extent, its because I'm far more motivated than she is, and I have the maturity and discipline to develop my skills, and focus to reach a goal.

I guess what I'm ultimately saying here, is that I believe motivation, natural ability and hard work are more relevant to rate of progress than age, given the same quality of instruction and guidance. 

But here's an interesting question.  Do teachers expect more out of their adult students than they do their children?  For example, my teacher and I discuss a lot of theory in our lessons.  Would she do that with a 7 year old?  Or is it because I'm an adult ... or maybe because I've been schooled in theory in the past?  I should ask her.  But I'm curious what other teachers of adult/child  students have to say.


July 14, 2009 at 03:51 PM ·

I'm 46 and have been playing violin for 3 years now. I have been singing and reading music since grade school, and have 15 years of experience playing french horn prior to beginning the violin. Last week I was struggling with a 3-octave scale where I wound up in 15th position (I think) and felt like I was falling off the fingerboard. My teacher encouraged me by saying that very few of his other students are playing scales like that, because it's quite a while before we would normally encounter music requiring us to play in such a high position. There are other "advanced" techniques he sprinkles into my practice routine as well, that aren't really called for in the music. I think he springs this stuff on me because quite simply, I'm willing to try them (his younger students are not). Also because of my previous music experience I can grasp a concept quicker than a child might. The main drawback I've encountered by starting the violin later in life is lack of flexibility (which comes so naturally to children) - but I can see there is potential and my flexibility is improving little by little. So I keep plugging along, and am interested to find out where this road will lead me.

July 14, 2009 at 04:48 PM ·


I am quite familiar with Gladwell's books. "Outliers" is the one I have not read, but since I was given a copy 2 days ago, I guess I soon will.  The legend of 10,000 hours to "make" a violin virtuoso has been around for decades that i am aware of (and maybe more). And I left out an important word in my comment. It is that "not JUST anyone" is going to master a major skill, 10,000 hours or not; the people who do have something special PLUS 10,000 hours. And then too, it takes something else special to put in 10,000 hours. I think he starts his books with some good premises, but runs out of ideas before he finishes his books (I bet if he did magazine articles, instead, they would be top-notch all the way).

We do these things one step at a time. "Master a measure!"  so to speak.  When I was  working on the Haydn D major cello concerto with my teacher, far earlier than I should have been playing stuff of that magnitude, there was one week when I worked on just 2 lines of music - and I practiced about 2 hours a day. By the end of the week I had all the technique to play that type of phrase.

When my violin students begin to become perplexed reading notes with more than 3 ledger lines I tell them to learn (really learn) just one note each day and by the next lesson they will have an entire new octave anchored in their minds.

I know from my own experience that it is possible to read through some major violin concertos, faking here and there. But unless you actually stop, work out the necessary fingerings and bowings, you can spend a lifetime faking those parts and anchor the poor playing forever - and if you work them out (before you anchor the wrong ways) you will just as easily do them right.

If you want to sound like a pro (and don't have a teacher, or even if you do) get a decent recorder and record your playing and listen critically, and then fix things one at a time. Pocket-size Ederol and Zoom digital recorders are good enough to work with for this purpose.


July 14, 2009 at 10:49 PM ·

Hey Smiley (or anyone),

I have a question about chamber music.  Does it help when members sit closer together and make lots of eye contact?  It certainly draws me in more when I see members feeding off of each other.  Maybe it's harder with a pianist involved, though.  At any rate, I thought your group played well, Smiley.  You're clearly a very strong player.  I would like to see more "connection" among the players, if that makes sense.  Might that make it more inspired? 

July 15, 2009 at 12:54 AM ·


Interesting point.  One goes to a performance not just to hear music, but to see the players, so I agree there is definitely an important visual aspect to performing.  That is something I need to work on in addition to my sound. 

And the visual impact can affect your impression of the sound.  For example, there are some virtuoso violinists that I cannot bear to watch, either because of their movements, or facial expressions, or apparent tension in their playing, but if you close your eyes, you get a completely different sense of the music.  It's funny how our eyes can affect our ears.


I totally agree with your point about recording yourself.  I do it on a regular basis.  I have a Zoom H2 recorder.  You don't really know how good (or bad) you are until you hear yourself on a recording.  In the Piano Trio recital that I posted, I played every single note in tune, and with tons of lucious vibrato.  Well that's the way it sounded when I played, but the recording is another story.  I think it is harder to really hear yourself on violin than many other instruments.  With the instrument so close to your ear, and vibrating into your jaw bone, the sound you hear when playing is quite different than what the audience hears.  So absolutely, with violin, you are not in touch with reality unless you hear yourself on a recording.

July 15, 2009 at 01:25 AM ·


gotta refine the question I think;)  The best quartets don`t use eye conmtact. They watch the fingers. The older quartets use to joke they didn`t eevn know the faces of the othe rplayers.  Its also true in piano trios by the way or even front desks in orchestra at times. Incidentally,  the cellists hands often give the clearest signal.



July 15, 2009 at 02:25 AM ·

I've taught both youngsters and oldsters, and I can't say that when group learns better or more quickly than the other.  Children have plasticity in their muscles and nerve pathways that adults don't. On the other hand, most adults have the ability to conceptualize better.  I agree with Laurie:  What really counts is persistence over time.  BTW, I'm starting to write a blog about that now.

July 15, 2009 at 02:35 AM ·


Thanks for the enlightenment. :-)  This makes sense, of course; just something I wouldn't think of not being a musician.

My son just did a week long chamber camp and most of the musicians weren't professionals.  I enjoyed the groups that seemed "connected" rather than just trying to read the music and get through the piece, if that makes sense.  The better groups obviously played well intonation-wise, but they also seemed to listen to and respond to each other, so maybe that means they're looking at each others' hands.  So now I get to ask my son (when he returns from his out of town trip) what he looks at when he plays chamber music.  He played a Dvorak quartet and a Fuchs Clarinet trio (with cello).  Both pieces were really cool. (Can I say "cool" here?)

Ok, here are a couple of videos of simple wedding songs with one of his quartets:


What I notice is that noboby looks at the cellist. Ha!   I do notice my son looks at the first violinist's hand quite a bit.  (Ahem, the violist had no music-she was just improving) 

In this one, they move a lot but don't seem to look at each other's hands:




July 15, 2009 at 04:10 AM ·


please say `cool` after all my posts. Nobody will believe you but there might be a cumulative effect.




July 15, 2009 at 08:36 AM ·

Shinichi Suzuki used to say "Beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”

The best tone comes when you throw yourself into a piece and you're enjoying it just because you're playing.  People don't watch Joshua Bell becuase he's a perfect violin playing robot with acclaimed professional grade sound.  The guy has passion.

I think people can achieve that at any age, professional or not.

August 10, 2009 at 07:22 PM ·

Hi Smiley,

I have been carrying your question around for some time now -- that must mean that it is my question as well -- an I came across these sentences on the Internet: they are from Wittgenstein's Tractatus logico-philosophicus. After going on for nearly six chapters about the world and the relation of language to the world, he comes up with this:

6.52 We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

To me, the question of whether I will ever sound like a professional is such a question of life. This means that getting the piece I'm working on to sound according to the musical ideal I have of it, is the only thing I can expect of myself. If I truly succeed, the question of whether I sound like a professional will vanish into thin air. If not, I must hope that at least I know what has to be done about it. Of course, I would be wise to choose pieces that offer some chance of success, and practise technique in the meantime. They say that after 10,000 hours of practice one's technique can be complete.

Hope this helps,


P.S. Just made a calculation: came out at 10,500 hours. What did I do wrong? "Nothing" is a scary thought! Perhaps my Alexander teacher can shed light on this.

August 10, 2009 at 08:48 PM ·

Hi Bart,

Question for you:  so you say you've played about 10,500 hours.  How much of it was before the age of 15?  Perhaps your personal experience would be one data point to help shed some light on my original question.

As much as I would like to believe that I can learn as fast as when I was 12, my gut (and experience) tells me that it just isn't going to happen.  I look at my 7 year old, and his ability to learn new things is astounding compared to me.  Aside from cloning myself, that's the closest genetic match I have for comparison.

We can probably go back and forth with this discussion, but we will just drive ourselves crazy.  I've come to realize that the end result has nothing to do with anything.  The point is to simply enjoy the journey.


August 11, 2009 at 12:14 AM ·

An Old Dog can learn new tricks.  We are always having to learn how to adjust with things related to age and development.  At my University, we have many new students in their 50's & 60's making outstanding grades and acquiring new abilities.  True reaction time can slow down, and there are other things.  But much does depend on the individual.  As a whole, old dogs can learn new tricks.

August 11, 2009 at 04:05 AM ·

I believe in the 10,000 hour rule, however I do believe that it is not always a response to the intent, but is a response to the practice. If you practice scales a bit flat for 10.000 hours, you may develop the best flat scales in the world!
Spending 10.000 hours on a pursuit will allow you to integrate it to a significant extent; however the QUALITY of that pursuit may vary. I used to be a woodworker and notices that some peers developed a significant level of skill, while others developed s significant level of speed. I tried to find the best compromise, based on my abilities. I found as I gathered more hours under my belt that I could maintain a reasonable speed, and focus on improving the quality of the work. For violin, my only goal is to relax and to make my grandson happy.

I can play twinkle very well, but when he is playing along on his ukulele, it may not quite be concert quality, but it makes him laugh, so it is all I want.

August 11, 2009 at 05:06 AM ·

 OK, this is probably not too helpful (and I can't remember if I already posted this), BUT....

I've got a whole bunch of students that started at 7, 8, 9 (and younger).  And a violinist who's starting now at age 12.  He has tons of passion for music (to a level that is very rare), and came to lessons self-taught with a well-developed vibrato, knowledge of shifting, strong rhythmic understanding and great, instinctive musicality....  played through pictures at an exhibition for fun on several instruments.  What 12 year old does that in their spare time?  One can argue that he's still young, but he started past that "cutoff" that is supposed to define whether one can become a professional.  But, then why does he demonstrate the potential to become a professional (if he can develop the technical discipline)?  Yes, he'd be better if he started younger and had lessons, but you don't hear that from his playing.  All you hear is talent. 

So.... I have to say that rate of progress vs age is a rough correlation.  There are, as always, exceptions to the norm.... just as "more pricy" violins aren't always better-sounding than less expensive ones.  I've heard of other people starting later, as late as 18, and becoming successful orchestral musicians.  But, there is a difference between becoming Kavakos good and orchestral good.  Kavakos famous, youth is a necessity because, if nothing else, the competitions have young cutoffs and *that* level is so hard to reach regardless of starting young.  But, orchestral good, I will throw in a vote that you can start past age 10 and do it... it's not frequent but it's been done before and I fully expect it'll be done again.

As for progress.... I know of several professionals who improved in their mid-20s, AND late-30s... to a point where you couldn't recognize them as being the same player.  Yes, they were already professional, but the progress was just amazing.  While it takes place more often when younger, I have seen this formula--passion, strong work ethic, fantastic teacher--succeed time and again for older violinists.  I soundly refuse to believe otherwise--maybe that's just my dafka talking. ;)

August 11, 2009 at 06:39 AM ·


I enjoyed watching your Shostakovich and Beethoven. You are a good player and congratulations for all you accomplishment! 

I agree with what others have said above, including (to a certain degree) your last comment on the result being less important than the journey itself. To me, being an amateur means I’m free from competition against other players.  Comparison is meaningless and especially so when I’m not even in the game, so to speak.  I’m not even sure it’s useful to think in terms of discovering my own potential and competing against myself.  Instead, I find it simply beautiful to be aware of each incremental improvement itself, and once in a while, the consistent gorgeous sound here and there gives me the shiver down the spine.  But the most amazing experience for me comes when I get so nervous for performance because I love this piece so much that I really want to do justice to the music, which is what result means to me. This type of result is not nothing; it is the raison d'être for all my hard work.

You raised a very important issue and thanks for generating this interesing disucssion.


August 11, 2009 at 09:39 AM ·

Hi Smiley,

I totally agree with you: enjoying the journey is what it's about.

You asked when I have spent all this time practising. It's like this:

from    to     years    hours         total     teacher
                                per day      hours
 7      12        5        0.5              875      Johan Wielinga
12     18        6        0.75          1575      Johan Wielinga
18     25        7        1.5            3675      Josef Hampl
27     33        6        1.5            3150      Marion Turner

44     50        6        0                     0      could not play
50     55        5        1               1750      no teacher


Johan Wielinga introduced me to music and violin playing and it is thanks to him that I still loved music when I was 18. With Josef Hampl the focus was more on violin playing as such, and to this day his teaching has provided the technical basis for my playing. We worked through Kreutzer and lots of Ševcík, especially the bowing exercises. Marion Turner introduced me to the method of Kato Havas and helped me study repertoire.

So, in the context of your question, I did some serious work on the violin, but started late doing it. That's what one gets for wanting to be an MD.

The funny thing is I'm still improving. There's more than enough room for that ;)

Like you, I'm intrigued by questions such as: what makes a very good violinist sound so radiant, so alive, and so harmonious? Why can't I (!@#$%^!) play like that? Maybe that's why they are called stars: they guide us in the proper direction.



August 11, 2009 at 11:38 AM ·

Bart, I like your calculations.  I just did an analysis like yours and came up with, ahem, 3212. Going for that humility prize again!  ;-)

However, interestingly, during the time I've been playing again after the last break (ages 40-43), I've already practiced significantly more hours than I did ages 7-11. 

I think it's hard to measure rate of progress, though.  I mean, when I was 7-11, I went from nothing to something.  I learned how to read music, I learned how to play a scale, I learned slurs and 3rd position and shifting, I learned to play in an orchestra.

In my 30's I learned to play the viola and I learned how to read alto clef.

I'm having a harder time pinning down what I've learned in my 40's so far.  Maybe I can say I've learned to listen more carefully to intonation and am now able to hear out-of-tune notes better, especially on the E-string.  And I've learned how to practice more efficiently and effectively.  And, I've learned a bit about bowing orchestral parts and leading a section.  But is that the same rate of progress as learning to read music?

August 11, 2009 at 11:39 AM ·

Deleting duplicate post.  Sorry!

August 14, 2009 at 04:56 PM ·

June 27, 2010 at 10:31 PM ·

A couple of recent blogs got me thinking about this again.  Here are the blogs in case you have not seen them. 

Who learns violin faster, adults, children or both at the same pace?

Why Adult learning violinists are better practicers than young students

There seems to be a consensus that children have an advantage when it comes to assimilating new skills.  Similar to learning a new language; few people will argue that a child can pick up a new language more readily than an adult.  Obviously, there are individual exceptions, but overall, I believe most people would agree with this generalization.  When learning violin, or any instrument for that matter, children have the same cognitive advantage over adults. 

However, when it comes to discipline and structured practice with a deep understanding of the objectives and how to achieve them, it is the adults that generally have the upper hand.  That is certainly true for me.  I know that as a child, I did not have the same level of discipline that I do now.  As an adult learner, I have more patience and am less accepting of sloppiness in my playing. 

Perhaps in many cases, these two factors balance out, so in most cases adults learn just as fast as children.  This makes me wonder if maybe prodigies are simply rare kids who have the best of both worlds, i.e., the cognitive learning ability of a normal kid in addition to the discipline and analytical skills of an adult. 

This might also explain why adult prodigies do not exist.  At least I'm not aware of any.  Of course one could argue that adults lead busy lives and do not have the time, but in a world with billions of people, I'm sure there are adults out there that  are able to devote 4 hours a day or more to practicing.  Certainly, these adults will get very good, with without the cognitive learning ability of a child, they will never achieve virtuoso status.

June 28, 2010 at 05:59 PM ·

Adult prodigies don't exist because the definition of a prodigy is when a child is capable of playing something technically challenging with the mature expressiveness of an adult -- when a child has the technical chops to say something profound on an instrument.  I think we just tend not to be surprised when an adult is capable of saying something meaningful.  That's at least part of it anyhow.

To me, that's the biggest advantage nearly any adult has over nearly any child, and I'm an early learner on piano so I know the value of having the technique drilled into you to the point where you need not think so much about it.  Learning young gives one a fluency in a language, but lots of people are fluent in English without being great novelists or really terribly articulate at all.  Billions of people are fluent in English, but they aren't all Shakespeare.  And a billion native speakers of English don't mean a billion riveting and brilliant extemporaneous speakers of that language, or any other.  Just because you CAN say something without being hampered by the technical considerations doesn't mean that what you have to say is worth listening to.  Some of the best novels in the language were written by people who were not fluent.  Nabokov always said he spoke English like an idiot but wrote like an angel.

When fluency comes together with a strong desire to say something worth listening to, that's certainly best.  But the second is what people most often remember, really -- the stumbles and ums that may have marked even the mumbled and barely audible Gettysburg Address don't matter worth a hill of beans compared to what was said.

June 29, 2010 at 02:01 PM ·

I also think there are many factors involved. The older you get the harder it gets to stay with an instrument, (I say that as I watch many of my friends leave the instrument) so if you don't maintain the desire to learn then you aren't going to have success. I think a small child might do better because they don't have 30 years of hand movements to trick themselves out of, whereas an adult would understand the whole process better than a child might.

It could also depend on how much you know already.

I'm 15, I've been playing violin since I was ten. Two weeks ago I got a cello and I have taught myself to read bass clef using "Essential Elements" book 1. Eventually I hope to learn all the string and bow instruments, along with guitar which I'll be starting in the fall. Anyway. I've found it easier to learn cello because of all my experience in school orchestra, chamber orchestra, etc.

June 29, 2010 at 05:35 PM ·

 About the '10,000 hours rule' to master the violin...I just made a calculation that if I practiced 30 minutes every day religiously it would take me 55 YEARS to achieve 'mastery level'!!!!

This means there is NO HOPE for me to master this instrument as starting at age 37 I will be 92 by the time I 'master it', that is if I am lucky enough to make it to 92!

I do practice more than 30 minutes but there is also the odd day off here and there or times I can only do 30 minutes so I thought I'd 'average it' at 30 minutes a day.

Oh well, that's it then, I better 'stop worrying about it all' LOL

June 29, 2010 at 07:01 PM ·

When I picked up the violin again 2.5 yrs ago after a 40 yr hiatus I would have knee-jerk agreed that children learn quicker.  But I find that I am progressing at a rate I could not have imagined as a child.  Why is this?  Well, its personal and I suspect there is no clear cut answer to the topic's question - it depends on the child and it depends on the adult.

I can compare for myself though - an internally controlled experiment (I like those in science ;) ).  As a child I was considered quite talented but I found the world of the violin - with restrictions, formal teaching methods, an elitist element etc - unattractive and unlike some of my fellow music I was torn between the violin itself (which I liked) and its world (which I did not).  Eventually the latter won out but the struggle greatly compromised my learning - which is OK I found other toys :)

As an adult I can adopt my violin and I can choose my violin world.  The one I have created - focusing a lot on practice alone and very very much on an unlimited supply of music is one that I have no rebellion against - and I find I am learning at a speed that I am astonished at.  least I feel that way so please don't put me right :D  I don't learn by rote, I learn by right-brain methods that were never permitted let alone encouraged as a child.  But that is another topic altogether...

June 29, 2010 at 07:03 PM ·

When I picked up the violin again 2.5 yrs ago after a 40 yr hiatus I would have knee-jerk agreed that children learn quicker.  But I find that I am progressing at a rate I could not have imagined as a child.  Why is this?  Well, its personal and I suspect there is no clear cut answer to the topic's question - it depends on the child, and it depends on the adult.

I can compare myself then and now though - an internally controlled experiment (I like those in science ;) ).  As a child I was considered quite talented but I found the world of the violin - with restrictions, formal teaching methods, an elitist element etc - unattractive and unlike some of my fellow music students I was torn between the violin itself (which I liked) and its world (which I did not).  Eventually the latter dominated and I gave up the instrument itself - which is OK, I found other toys :)

As an adult I can adopt my violin and I can choose my violin world.  The one I have created - focusing on a comibination of practice alone and an unlimited supply of music with (for now) the occasional formal lesson.   its a way for me - and I find I am learning at a speed that astonishes me.  Least I feel that way so please don't put me right :D  I don't learn by rote, I learn by right-brain methods that were never permitted let alone encouraged as a child.  But that is another topic altogether...

July 1, 2010 at 12:35 AM ·


I like Gladwell too. There are many variables in achievement beyond the 10,000 hours. By definition a mature adult might be able to handle "intensity" more easily or at least more predicatably. Some youngsters can handle it, but it is exceedingly rare in my opinion. Conversely, an adult might make things too intense at the beginning level. I study competition as a hobby, and I am convinced that kids recitals, sporting clubs, testing, are really good even though many people think competition is bad for kids. While not formal, at the age of around 12, children become aware of how they measure up compared to others so the competition might not be formal, but it is a factor.

Many adults are out of recreational competition and therefore don't progress in musical performance, but more in isolation which I think would go slower but still be fun. Competition, or public performances in art and sports etc, gets kids used to handling intensity which I think you need to pursue a goal like musical performance. I think many adult beginners bale out of recitals and such because they know it is very intense when you aspire to do well. Afterall, we can all play great pieces in private, but rare is the child or beginning adult who can perform in front of a larger audience (with strangers), and deliver consistenly in that situation. That takes different preparation and not all adult beginners aspire to that and most kiddos don't get a choice as many teachers require them to do it. It can drive one to progress faster if the desire to perform  and excel is in the equation vs. simply the desire to learn. I certainly found this true in my own situation. But  public performance is why most adults don't try or give up quickly. That is why the adults seem to drive the teachers nuts afterall, all intensity, no experience...like all hat and no cattle :) So I think an adult can learn as fast as a child and possibly, may learn more deeply in some case but where they want to take their playing; what they aspire to beyond the lesson, defines how fast they will progress.

July 1, 2010 at 03:50 PM ·

I look at this way: Of all the best, most famous and beautiful repertoire, how much of it was actually written by children? Some children may be able to master the techniques and methods needed to play music with iPod-like consistency, but 9,999 times out of 10,000 it was an adult who had the creativity to write that music in the first place.

July 1, 2010 at 04:36 PM ·

In (competetive) ballroom dancing we have two main styles - latin (chacha, rhumba etc) and standard (waltz, foxtrot etc).  A friend recently commented on how youngsters tend to be better at latin (which require a lot of energy) while oldsters are better at standard (which require a lot of expression).  Sorry for mixing metaphors here but isn't the original question a bit simplistic?  How can one compare learning the flight of the bumblebee (which I suspect the kids would learn faster) with learning (as raised above) a slow movement from Bach or Brahms (which I doubt any kid could understand, let alone play)? 

The answer to the question, which learns faster, a kid or an adult is (IMO): yes.


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