Playing an instrument or learning to play?

February 11, 2010 at 02:48 AM ·

The other day, I was talking to a music professor about my beginning to play the violin as an adult, and he was quick to point out to me that I don't really "play the violin" but rather am "learning to play" (as if I didn't know that) and that it would take a few years b/f I could really qualify as being able to play my instrument and/or consider myself a musician.

Anyway, other than wanting to belt him one, I got to thinking about what he said. When may one say they play an instrument as opposed to learning to play one? And, for that matter, other than professional musicians, when may one say they have become a (amateur) musician?



Replies (34)

February 11, 2010 at 03:05 AM ·

Well, he wasn't too sensitive about it, but let me see if I can shed some light on what he might have been trying to say...

I believe he is talking about the concept of mastery.

Occasionally one gets a student like adult student that came to me about 15 years ago. "I'm in Suzuki Book 6," she said over the phone. I said, great, come play for me and let's see if we can work together. She came over, rosined up her bow, and tried to play something from Suzuki Book 6. It was complete torture, she could barely play three notes in a row for all the "figuring out" she was doing. How about something from Book 5? Same thing. Book 4?...

Basically, she couldn't play anything at all, not even from Book 1. I have no doubt that she probably pushed and struggled her way through those books and probably played every note in them, even in the right order. But could she "play" any of those pieces? No way.

Mastery takes practice, repetition, devotion. It means that when you are an adult beginner and you finally figure out how to play "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," you then play it at least 100 times perfectly before even thinking about moving on. (Perfect + 100 times = Perfect) Then you continue to keep it in your repertoire until your foundation grows; by that time you have other "old pieces" to build on.

That said, I do think that one can "play," very early on. But the things that you can play are the things you have mastered.

February 11, 2010 at 05:23 AM ·

I agree that 'playing' the violin can be defined as playing a piece perfectly. However I also think that the definition of 'playing' varies from different perspectives.

February 11, 2010 at 07:43 AM ·

Practically identical to the questioned I posed to my teacher.  She answered without hesitation: when you can pass grade 8 (this is AMEB).  She then explained that at that point, you have control over the majority of bow strokes, the scales in up to 4 octaves across all the keys including double stops, musical interpretation, and the ability to get through standard repertoire of the baroque, classical and romantic composers.  I liked that answer, I'm now working on 8 th grade, and I can see what she means.  Theres a feeling of mastery (even though there's always a further level of mastery) now over Grade 5, 6, and 7 stuff that I have worked on in the past.

February 11, 2010 at 12:10 PM ·

A famous teacher (I don't remember what he taught) was interviewed about his students.

"They are all perfect", he said.

"What do you like most about them?"

"They all have so much room for improvement!"

This goes to say that I don't believe playing and learning to play are opposites.

After all, "one does not have to play the violin extraordinarily brilliantly in order to make music."

The real enemy is self-deception: thinking that one makes music while doing something else.


February 11, 2010 at 01:11 PM ·

"Anyway, other than wanting to belt him one..."

Ha... I know how you feel!

February 11, 2010 at 02:33 PM ·

He actually went out of his way to tell you this?  Yikes.  Someone has a real superiority complex.

February 11, 2010 at 03:02 PM ·

You can say that you are playing the fiddle rather than learning to play when someone who isn't related to you will voluntarily stay in the same room & listen to you play!

February 11, 2010 at 03:17 PM ·

I believe one is always "learning to play".  If this weren't so, there would be only one interpretation of any given piece.  Violinists everywhere would obtain a recording of the "perfect" rendition of this or that work, and put monumental effort into duplicating its every musical nuance.

But even the most accomplished violinists are constantly polishing their playing according to how the music speaks to THEM.  That's part of the Adventure of Music -- the path (learning) can go on forever.

February 11, 2010 at 04:39 PM ·

When you have enough mastery of the technique and the notes to play the music, whether it be Brahms concerto or Twinkle, then you can say you play the violin.  some of us play at a higher level than others, and we are all striving for our next level.

February 11, 2010 at 05:37 PM ·

Kathryn -- you're a VERY wise woman!!! :)  Well-said!!!

February 11, 2010 at 06:17 PM ·

Perhaps I am wrong for saying this, as I am still very much a student myself... but aren't playing and learning the same thing? I mean, do we ever really stop learning?

February 11, 2010 at 08:20 PM ·

 ...only if we stop playing.

February 11, 2010 at 08:27 PM ·

 The professor is an opinionated idiot.  Ignore him.  

Piano students hear me play some concerto piece - and they think "he can really play the piano".  I hear my piano teacher (Russian concert pianist) play and I think "I wish I could play the piano".

Kathryn is spot on in my opinion.  If you can play your chosen piece well - be it Twinkle or whatever, then you are a musician playing the violin.  You will learn other pieces that are more complex eventually, but your level does not demean you in any way at all.  All of us learn continually.  


February 11, 2010 at 08:36 PM ·


Well said!  I have done the exact thing with my teacher and my students have to me.  They think I play fantastic and I listen to my teacher and think that his playing is spectactular to my ears.


Your comment is exactly the idea I am always trying to impart to my students.  Level doesn't matter - it's how you play the music.  

February 12, 2010 at 02:49 AM ·

If you're struggling with what you're doing, you're learning to play.  If you're playing anything, no matter how simple, which you have practiced until you can produce it smoothly, calmly, joyously, you're playing.  Sometimes you're learning, sometimes you're playing.  And if your heart is full of the music you are learning and playing, you are already a musician. 

I recommend the book Making Music for the Joy of It, which is about - and for - adult beginners and amateurs.  It is a great antidote for dealing with the feelings that are evoked by people who want to make you believe you are not a musician until you reach some arbitrary mark set by a person other than yourself.  You can be proud of what you are doing and pleased with the process, even while you recognize that mastery is in the future.

February 12, 2010 at 03:03 AM ·

I think

you scratch or make noise when you learn something

you play when it becomes to sound somehow acceptable for those who know violin a bit...

you master when you sound like a master recording (a little less frequent )

Maybe I'm totally wrong ; )



February 12, 2010 at 04:48 AM ·

A few things on this.

People playing the violin usually learn to read music at an early stage.

I can't imagine someone continuing with all the teqniques involved in the violin, if they didnt enjoy playing. And enjoyment should be factored into all this too.

By the way. You should have belted that prof. Snide comments like that can go a long way in discouraging people.


February 12, 2010 at 02:47 PM ·

Despite having scraped Trinity and Guildhall Grade 8 I still feel like a beginner, but with rare glimpses of what it might feel like to be a real violinist, or that elation at hitting an arpeggio passage cleanly.  I think you know it when it happens, even if only for a few seconds at a time at first. Recommended reading: Zen in the Art of Archery.

February 12, 2010 at 07:12 PM ·

Objectively- I like what Kathryn posted.

Subjectively- To my family and friends I play the violin.  I listen to the Facaulty string players...THEY play the violin. I'm trying too!

February 13, 2010 at 06:34 AM · Hm..I think this not my place to talk since i was also a student..But i don't really agree that to be said "play" the violin means that we need to play "perfectly".. Indeed it was great to be able to play perfectly..But rather than aiming to play perfectly..I think it would be better to aim to play with full of feeling..I personally think that somebody is qualified to "play" the violin, when they already understand what they play..Their instrument, everything..When they truly want to "play" together with their violin..Not to play the violin..But play with it.. It's true that skill is needed..But skill without understanding and feeling is the same as nothing.. And to play the violin is the same as learning the violin (according to my opinion) There's no way that you can learn if you're not playing, and it's also impossible that you can play without study..It's like the 2 side of the coin.. Cheers, Stephen

February 13, 2010 at 07:46 PM ·

But when we say perfect is not the perfection we are speaking of actualy relative?  Even the Masters are continuously perfecting

February 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM ·

I think 'playing' means you play music for other peoples enjoyment, whether it be just one tune or a repertoire. If you say....'I can play the violin',  you will very likely get the response...'What can you play"? So bring your fiddle with you and be prepared to get up and play something that wont make your audience cringe. And once you begin 'playing' your violin for your community you have reached amateur level.

If you dont have the confidence in your ability to delight your audience then I think you should say...... "I am learning to play the violin". This is a very good excuse to leave your fiddle in the case and only bring it out when in the practise room. 

But 'learning'  is the most exciting aspect of violin playing because the long term goals keep you motivated and  the short term goals can give you a great sense of achievment. Once 'learning' stops, no matter how well you think you can 'play',  then I think all enthusiasm to 'play' would be lost.  



February 14, 2010 at 05:31 AM ·

The above post describes exactly how I see it.

I'll be able to say " I play the violin" on the day I can play a few pieces well enough to stand outside with my open case and have passers-by like my playing well enough to throw a few dollars in it. And not get arrested for disturbing the peace (piece)!

February 14, 2010 at 08:53 AM ·

The man was on his own ego trip and forgot to pack his humble.  Everyone plays.  Some play it better, but we all play.

February 14, 2010 at 10:48 AM ·

I can't agree with the premise that you're only "playing" when you can play for, and entertain, other people.

I play for my own enjoyment.  No matter how well I know a piece, the instant that I know that someone else is listening everything goes to heck in a handbasket!  I'm just not geared to be a performer for any kind of an audience.  That's fine with me.  Maybe someday I'll overcome it, but if not I'm content to be my own audience.  :)

February 14, 2010 at 05:47 PM ·

"The man was on his own ego trip and forgot to pack his humble."

Thanks, Emily - you may have just solved my fear of performing for others. Next time I'll simply leave the humble at home, or at least pack a little less of it.

February 15, 2010 at 07:12 AM ·

I'm not into this touchie-feelie view of 'being able to play', vs learning. 

If you can play twinkle nicely or whatever, then you can say that you can play said piece on the violin. 

But that's not the same as being able to play the violin - having an understanding of how to approach a piece that you are say sightreading, with respect to how to intonate, how to achieve wanted dynamics and phrasing, how to efficiently map out a piece with regard to fingering and position, and how to implement specific bowings. 

Being able to do all of that, is being able to play the violin. And I think that it does correlate with being able to achieve at a particular grade - I mean that's what the grading system is about isn't it - a systematic progression of technical and musical skills.

February 15, 2010 at 06:40 PM ·

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful replies.

I think I have to go w/Laurie's very gentle and eloquent reply on this one (thank you, Laurie), as in my mind, I too equate mastery w/being able to "play the violin." And while it is true that we do continue to learn forever, in my opinion mastery is what really separates the two.

For example, despite the non-musical nature of it, take typing. I learned to type in high school (thank goodness considering the keyboard-based world we now live in) and have been doing so ever since. I never even think about it anymore, I just do it and can type just about anything "sight unseen" as it were at about 80 to 90 words per minute. Same thing with the violin--it just becomes second nature. But, then again, I suppose that doesn't mean that one can't be a good typist or "player" while learning and before achieving the level of mastery. I guess it's not a totally black & white issue, is it?

Of course that professor was still a jerk for saying it the way he did. And to those who picked up on it, yes, he does come across as being quite full of himself and, in fact, always rudely interrupts me to talk whenever he sees me practicing. Funny thing, though, the other day, he asked me how I would feel about playing with his student ensemble--just a repetitive type thing designed to introduce me to playing w/other people. Hmmmmm, could he possibly be trying to make amends ;-)? I doubt it, but hey, maybe I'll take him up on his offer.

Anyway, thanks again!

February 15, 2010 at 08:33 PM ·

Phil, I don't want to be too curious but did you take him just because he had a very good reputation?  Sometimes, students are forced to study with x teacher because he's or she's the best even if quite... special. Don't answer if you don't want ; )

Anyway, good luck!


February 15, 2010 at 10:55 PM ·

Anne Marie,

No I don't mind answering at all.

While he is a music professor at my university, he's not my professor. I just work there and, as an employee, am able to use the practice rooms during my lunchtime. One day, when I was practicing, he opened the door and asked me if I was the new violin teacher! How funny is THAT!!!


February 16, 2010 at 12:47 AM ·

I've been playing for the 71 years since I was 4. I'm an amateur. I've performed solos, with orchestra, with piano, and alone. I've performed in string quartets (all 4 parts), and in piano trios (both string parts. There are still parts that I ahve not seen before and that are hard enough that I can't sight-read them. SO I have to practice them (still learning). I've played in community orchestras for 60 years (1st and 2nd violin and cello - concertmaster of one for about 20 years)

Since there is music that I have not played, I consider (like most amateurs), that I'm still learning.

There is music that I have never played well enough to consider performing it in public (lots to learn).

I'm old enough now that I have to practice daily to keep from getting worse. There were many years that I practiced daily to get better (and did).

I'm not ashamed to still be learning, just grateful that I can be.

Humble out! (Chill!)


February 16, 2010 at 04:06 AM ·

Phil , I see!


February 18, 2010 at 12:51 PM ·

<<<Humble out! (Chill!)>>>


Yes, quit right, sorry Andy, please forgive my redundant attempt at humour.

But really, playing for an audience was my motivation to begin learning the violin. Yes I wanted to be up there on stage playing my fiddle for the folks and charming them just like I had been. 

And it remains my motivation to keep practising and learning. 


February 21, 2010 at 11:02 PM ·

Can one be said to speak (as opposed to learning to speak) a given language  if he uses bad grammar and poor spelling? Clearly communication can happen in spite of imperfection.

Just a thought! Hopefully we'll always be learning.

Be well.

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