Whether you're born to be a virtuoso violinist?

August 11, 2010 at 03:15 PM ·

How do you know you've the aptitude to become a virtuoso violinist? Isit true that only precocious kid can become that ? Only a young child can become a virtuoso violinist? One cant be a great and a virtuoso violinist at the age of 16 ?  Just to clarify with some of your doubt, my '16' means that you started violin probably at 10 or 11 years old, and just a short span of years ( from 10-16), one is able to master great masterpieces and concertos like wieniawkski theme and variation, Sibelius violin concerto and etc.

Replies (70)

August 11, 2010 at 03:20 PM ·

try doing a web-search on the following term:

"10,000 hours"

August 11, 2010 at 04:15 PM ·

I admit I tend not to take seriously any discussion that has at its heart why so-and-so CAN'T do something.  I don't think you've said that in your post, but a lot of times that's where questions like this lead to in music.  It is very fashionable and probably always has been, for people to sit around talking about why someone CAN'T play.  Why it's inevitable that a certain entire class of humans can't.  This one can't because of their age.  This one can't because of their upbringing.  This one can't for another reason.  Lots of can't.  Tons of can't.

They use these can't as an excuse to "weed out," ultimately to ensure that as few people as possible do something -- probably to cut down on potential competition.  They consider it a greater success to have persuaded an "unworthy" person to have dropped the instrument than to have helped create a passionate musician.  Some people feel that only one human being on earth should play a given instrument or do something, like that 80s movie where people who lived forever went around cutting one another's heads off because there could only be one of them.  I think it has to do with fears that a small fish in a small pond can only grow larger by shrinking the pond.

Don't listen to anyone who tells you why you can't.  The hell with can't.  Just go do it if you love it, and don't get distracted by other people's can'ts.  Their can'ts are their problems -- don't let them load their problems on your shoulders.  :-)

August 11, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

Hi, everyone can't be a virtuoso because of contex, financial support, opportunities and luck issues, talent and natural selection (why just a few in the world can run or swim very fast???  They are build and born with running and swimming aptitudes.  Of course, these aptitudes can develop even more at a younger age in those who have them)

I see it as simple as this... (don't know if I'm right or not)



August 11, 2010 at 08:53 PM ·

 It's absolutely possible.  It has been done before.  I went to school with a violinist whose father was a famous violin soloist in China.  I can't remember his first name but his last name is Chen.  I had a couple lessons with him and he is absolutely amazing, a true virtuoso.  He is retired in Colorado with his family but his soloist career was extremely impressive and he started when he was 18.  Basically he went to college for something else entirely then changed his mind and started the violin his freshman year.  Obviously it was not as simple as that.  Even under ideal circumstances it requires natural talent and enormous effort and commitment but it is technically possible.

Basically, you can be as good at violin playing as you believe is possible.  If you don't think it's possible then you're probably right, but if you believe that it is and you practice as much, as well and as efficiently as you need to then there's technically no actual limit.

August 11, 2010 at 09:22 PM ·

 There is something real called talent. But there are a lot more talented people than there are virtuosos. But one may not be a virtuoso without talent. In other words talent is a necessary but insufficient condition for virtuosity. 

10000 hours is also a necessary but insufficient condition. 

August 11, 2010 at 09:53 PM ·


I like your attitude, but I have to respectfully disagree.  I believe there are certain innate abilities that people are born with that allow them to achieve higher levels than others.  Let's look at an obvious though perhaps ridiculous example.  Olympic high jumpers are all very tall and lanky.  This is the ideal physique to enable a person to hurl their body over a high bar.  No matter how hard they try, a midget is not going to win Olympic gold in the high jump. 

With violin, there are other less obvious factors that affect ability.  Some people have more fast twitch muscles, allowing them to play those fast passages.  Some have a better sense of pitch.  Imagine trying to play violin if you are tone deaf; an extreme example for sure, but it does illustrate the point.  Some people just have a better sense of where there body parts are, so are able to move their fingers to a specific spot on the fingerboard more accurately and repeatably.

Any teacher will tell you that students advance at different rates.  I believe that for the vast majority of people, if they put in 10,000 hours, they will achieve a very high level - even a "pro" level whatever that means.  But when you are talking about being the best in the world, I believe it takes more than just hard work.


August 11, 2010 at 09:58 PM ·

 My advice would be to give it all you've got for five years. After that you will be clever enough to think up excuses why you cannot make it. The list is unending but the word talent will be conspicuous by its absence.

After five years the apprenticeship is usually over and you will know whether you are destined to be an artisan or an artist. Some people needs longer to decide but they are usually the more obstinate.

August 11, 2010 at 10:16 PM ·

Smiley, those are really extreme examples, though.  The truth is that for the vast majority of people "talent" is just the word that gets used when someone else looks at them and can't fathom how a person like that managed to succeed.

"Talent" is mostly appetite.  If one LOVES it, LOVES to think about it, LOVES to do it, and LOVES to problem-solve about it, then one will become very good.  In the absence of appetite, an unbelievably pushy parent can manage to prod a kid to top status, but that generally falls apart once the kid gets old enough to decide for themselves what they want to do in life.

Beyond that, what's needed is time.

When it all comes down to it, we can't even decide for ourselves what a "prodigy" is or what "talent" consists of.  And yet we talk ourselves blue in the face determining whether someone has it or not, mostly again when we can't understand how someone manages to do something because we're not inside their skull.

And I have to say that the "fast twitch" stuff just doesn't impress me because I know for a fact that this research has never been done in virtuoso violinists.  At all.  We're talking out of hats on this.  Someone has heard of "fast twitch muscle" in a magazine article once and wildly extrapolated to its vital necessity in -- of course -- mastering the very skill they themselves are struggling to do.  That is not science and it's not proof.  I've got an MS in the hardest of hard sciences, and I just am not going to mistake musings fed by an incomplete Sunday paper supplement for actual scientific research.

Until someone takes the best violin and string virtuosos, examines their muscle tissue in every conceivable way to reveal precisely this, compare them with a well-chosen control group, and then reports on the findings and let the research sit in the field for about fifteen years while it's debated and examined, we are talking out of hats on this fast-twitch-muscle-cognitive-neuroscience stuff.  This is junk science of the sort that turns up in a colorful sidebar on USA Today, and it's not worth the waste of time without hard figures to back it up.

August 11, 2010 at 10:23 PM ·

Guo, by "at the age of 16" you mean already being a virtuoso at such a young age or did you mean "starting at age 16". I started a month after my 16th birthday. We'll see just how much of a virtuoso I'll be if I'll keep practicing hard and concentrating on not making any bad habits in the progress. Most of all,  there are two choices. Easy and hard. Easy would be loving music and the sound of the violin and not looking at the past or at the present mistakes, only concentrating on the future. Just doing all you can. The hard one would be not liking music particularly much,  thinking that the violin just doesn't sound good enough and to boot that, having a parent that makes you practice 12 hours every day. Either of them might or might not make you a virtuoso but HONESTLY -- If you choose the EASY way, you won't even care how good you'll be and definitely not if you're going to be a virtuoso.

Music is fun, as long as it stays fun, there's no way you can sound bad with proper practice and equipment. HECK, let me illustrate the moment. I recently got a 300 hundred year old violin from a distant country that has been shut in the basement for decades. The violin is opened up, there is no sound post, it's all scratched up. I found a bridge, retuned the ancient string that came with it and added a new pirastro string. << Aside from that, it's a 3/4 sized violin. I played it, and well.. It definitely isn't something to be proud of but during the school, ill get the sound post in place, new strings, violin glued and if I can find a way, make it look like new. But that's not what I wanted to say. Even THAT kind of instrument will sound beautiful when you love music.

That's all I wanted to say :)

ps: While I was writing this, Janis expressed my thoughts in only a few words, thanks!


August 12, 2010 at 03:07 AM ·

 Janis is correct.

August 12, 2010 at 04:02 AM ·

It looks like we have a healthy debate here, and I am in the minority.  Since I am not convinced, I will give a rebuttal.  Michael, you stated:

Even under ideal circumstances it requires natural talent and enormous effort and commitment but it is technically possible.

If anyone can be a virtuoso, then "natural talent" should not be a part of the equation.  According to Janis, all that is required is enormous effort.  Therefore, even in the absence of natural talent, anyone can become a virtuoso.  And not just any old virtuoso, a world class, famous and highly sought after virtuoso.  Even someone with ZERO natural talent.  Is that the contention?

If so, then I am really not convinced.  That is about as believable (to me) as the statement that all people are the same.  Einstein was not special in any way, he just worked hard and figured out some of the most complex workings of the universe.  Anyone can do that if they set their mind to it right?  Wrong.  Einstein was a highly gifted thinker with an amazing ability to think outside the box.  His gift is not something that all people can develop.

Same goes for musicians.  My contention is that the most gifted musicians are exactly that -- "gifted."  I will not harp on the fast twitch muscle issue as I just threw it out there as an example.  I am not a neurologist, nor physiologist, so cannot give scientific reasons why some people are better suited to be high level violinists than others; however, I am quite certain that there are mental and physical differences between people and those differences will have an enormous impact on their ability to assimilate specific skills. 

Janis states that all it takes is hard work.  Perhaps that is true.  Just 6-8 hours a day of intense practice for many years.  But, I would argue that not all people have the patience to do that.  In fact, that is one factor IMO that differentiates top musicians from mediocre ones.  They have the ability to practice more hours without getting tired or bored, or sick to death of playing.  Again, isn't that also an innate ability that some people have and some don't?



August 12, 2010 at 06:54 AM ·

 Smiley, apparently I wasn't clear.  I didn't mean that anyone without natural talent can become a world-class famous violinist.  I meant that anyone who really wants it can become a virtuoso with hard work, and I do not mean "hard work" in any trivial kind of way.  I mean painstaking, efficient, meticulous hard work.  A virtuoso by my definition isn't necessarily famous, it is a person with virtuoso technique.  There are famous violinists that are NOT necessarily virtuosi.  But I do believe that there are many people who possess virtuoso technique who are not famous.  Virtuoso technique is (by my humble definition) the ability to easily learn and play the virtuoso repertoire at a high level.  An argument based on "who can get famous" is pointless because fame is largely dependent on being in the right place at the right time, it isn't just handed out to everyone who deserves it.  That is why I didn't make the argument that anyone can simply choose to become a famous soloist and predict that it will happen.

However, I also do not believe that natural talent is so easily quantifiable as many seem to believe.  It isn't scientifically proven, it's just that special "something" that helps certain people to excel at something, and that "special something" is found in your own soul, in your heart.  You're the only one who knows for sure if it's there.  Every violinist I have seen that has that feeling inside them where they just KNOW that music is their path are described as having natural talent.  And by KNOW I mean that they want nothing else and they live and breath practice, slaving away at what they want because the need for excellence is a tremendous thirst that threatens to never be quenched.  You can be told you're talented but in the end it is something that you just know.  If you know this to be true in yourself and you commit your life to it, sacrifice for it, practice yourself damn-near oblivious because of it, then it will happen (and by "it" I mean the high standard of playing and hopefully some recognition).  That is what I meant.  And the cherry on top is that when you have taken what you knew to be true all along and have shed blood, sweat and tears to turn it into something real and glorious, then some influential person will tell you that you have "talent".  

You don't have to agree with me, this isn't a debate.  At least now hopefully you understand what I meant so it's clear that I wasn't contradicting myself.  I said that Janis was right because what she's saying is quite parallel to what I believe about effort and work ethic.  She didn't say that someone with ZERO talent can become a soloist.  Why would someone with no talent at all even work hard enough?  Not likely.   Also, what she said about muscle fibers is frankly much more accurate. 

August 12, 2010 at 07:25 AM ·

I can only vouch for myself! I can tell you without hesitation that I certainly was not born a virtuoso (nor am I one)! But, I do seem to have this odd natural talent to learn to play instruments. Just give me something and I'll play it (except the sax, that one has me stumped). I believe I could have been a super good violinist, if I had wanted to. With most people it's a matter of desire.

I do happen to know a virtuoso (flutist). He was the last student of Rampal. I'm no flute expert, but when you hear him play, and there are other flutists there, it's literally shocking how he is head and shoulders above the others. There's just something about him that stands out. I personally believe he was born that way, since it was already present as a child.

August 12, 2010 at 08:21 AM ·

There appear to be four factors at play here:

1. Age: if you start young you learn better

2. Natural ability: if you have the right genes you have a better learning capacity

3. Effort: if you work harder, you will achieve more

4. Desire: if you are determined you will succeed

I think most of us agree that these are all factors to become a virtuoso.  We could have a separate topic on each as to how important it is in the equation but I think it is clear that if you have all those factors you could be an outstanding violinist.  However, I would add a firth one:

5. Musicallity.  This is an inate/experience factor that defies definition and is what surely differentiates the great from the outstanding.   

Its an interesting excesize to critique 'virtuoso' violinists according to the 5 factors above - to sort of score them because not one is everything and a greater measure of any one factor will compensate to some degree for another. 

August 12, 2010 at 08:44 AM ·

I think there are many other qualities that virtuosos have besides the obvious. 

They must have the kind of personality which makes them comfortable performing to large audiences, and they must have some kind of stage presence. They need to have a huge amount of stamina and need to be able to deal with continuous pressure. They need to be good at communicating. They have to be able to put themselves in the right frame of mind to play at their best at any given time. They need to be incredibly disciplined when it comes to pratising, and maintain this standard over many years. They need to have opportunities in the first place to show how good they are, which might involve a good manager.

There's lots of other essential qualities that are needed, but I think playing ability is only part of the equation.

August 12, 2010 at 09:22 AM ·

 Certainly the 10,000 hours number in itself is to be questioned.  In the group of Suzuki students in the north western united states, I was among many who started at the age of 4 and practiced every day for an hour or more.  I'm pretty sure in the 8 years I played as a child I totalled 3-4 thousand hours of practice time.  I certainly wasn't anywhere close to being a quarter of the way(if such a thing exists), to being a virtuoso.   When I quit, there where many students who had played half as long and already surpassed me in every regard.  But also, there where many, many, many students who by 13, while playing phenomenally well on the violin, had clocked 10 thousand hours by the time they where 9 years old, and yet STILL where not virtuosos.

Maybe many of them became virtuosos at some point.  I think that many good points have been made about the different factors required to become a virtuoso.  But I think that great preformance requires, not only tallent and practice and desire, but some kind of setting.

I saw many young Japanese students who had all three in my time with Suzuki.  Some of them even had the technical skill of those you see soloing in front of the symphony.  BUT none of them had the soul of a virtuoso.  I'm not talking about soul in the religious sense, but in the "old soul" "new soul" sense.  The emotional quality.  These children, who where for the most part growing up in ideal conditions for virtuoso formation, did not have the life cercumstanses to feel the great big emotions of classical music.  There was happiness, there was desire, there was something nice to hear.  But there was NOT Joy, or Longing, or Beauty.

Not sure if that makes any sense...

August 12, 2010 at 10:18 AM ·

Elise, you have missed out what I think may be the most important factor of all - great good luck.


August 12, 2010 at 10:45 AM ·

Having read John's post, I think maybe it isn't "good" luck at all...   ....


August 12, 2010 at 11:11 AM ·

Playing to become a virtuoso is not "nonsense", it is a noble goal, when you consider what the word really means.  I think it's important to stay true to the meanings of words to avoid semantic confusion.  To keep things real and to the point I have consulted Merriam-Webster under which I have discovered the following definition for "virtuoso" (it even mentioned violinists):

"One who excels in the technique of an art; especially : a highly skilled musical performer (as on the violin)"

The word "virtuoso" also may refer to highly skilled doctors and members of other professions as well.  The term refers to ability and skill and does not mean "famous".  It is from the Latin "virtus" which means "skill and excellence".  I am aware that often when a word is associated with a particular subject people begin tacking extra implied meanings onto it but doing so when words already have well-defined meanings contributes to inarticulate and sloppy-sounding word usage.  Pardon me if this is overly thorough, I find etymology very fascinating and I am sort of a geek.  Also, I take a ten-minute break for every hour of practicing...hence the research.  Cheers.

August 12, 2010 at 12:13 PM ·

Well, whatever a virtuoso is, I tend to agree with Yehudi Menuhin. He said said (somewhere - I don't remember the exact quote) that being a successful prodigy (i.e., "virtuoso"?) is sort of a happy accident of all of the stars aligning in just the right way - the right inborn talent, the right parents, the right teachers, the right opportunities at the right time, etc.

August 12, 2010 at 12:52 PM ·

@ Don: the same occurrence as a crazy mathematician, not as a brilliant one.

August 12, 2010 at 01:21 PM ·

 Everyone should listen to the video that Don Roth mentioned. This North Korean prodigy epitomize virtuosity and musicality.


Thank you Don

August 12, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

A viruoso is not necessarily a great musician to my mind (and fitting to the definition above) its much more about technical prowess than musical ability.

In hs later years Segovia was a master musician - but he made mistakes even on relatively easy passages (I sat within 6 feet of him once).  I think the goal of 'virtuoso' is grossly over rated - it plays to the athletic ability and minimizes the musical one.  The question is: which would you rather watch and which would you rather listen to? 

August 13, 2010 at 10:55 AM ·

concur with john on that.  a lot of words are used these days with meanings that have long departed from what is written in the dictionary.  try prodigy for instance, haha.

instead of defining a person as a virtuoso or not, i think another way to look at this is to consider the concept on a scale of 1-10 (although it is to be kept in mind that the whole discussion on virtuosoness is not that sensible)

so, having that in mind, it is not difficult to put heifetz and some others at 9-10.

i speculate i am at 1 or slightly below 1, or in the negative range.  my kid, a 4.   some of v.commis perhaps a 7, perhaps a 3.   perhaps you are truly a 7 when you think you are a 3. or vice versa.

the original poster is a 16 yo budding violin student.  the last thing i wanted to hear when i was 16 was that i could not grow up to be a soccer star.   i tried and i failed.  but i tried.  the process of dreaming and trying, looking back,  has been fun and provided purposes for a kid who was coordination challenged comparing with others.

so sky is the limit on being a virtuoso.  with hard work, good guidance, good luck, one can change a 3 to 7, imo.    with good genes, perhaps even a 8.

one thing to be aware is that it is very possible that the push from 3 to 6 produces a much happier person overall than the push from 3 to 8 for many.   once a person is out of the house and independent,  the life lesson is to find a balance point if and when childhood infaturations fade.   it is never too early to keep that in mind.

August 13, 2010 at 12:49 PM ·


All good points as usual, except I think your daughter is higher than a 4. 

August 13, 2010 at 03:02 PM ·

It is normal that a young man seek his true calling, and wondering if he might be a virtuoso-in-the-making could be a part of that.  In a way, it's part of taking life seriously, part of avoiding wasting his time on the "wrong" thing.  How can I be a hero? a young man asks, ready to brush aside anything that isn't on the right path.  Once you get beyond a certain age, though, even the wrong things you chose can seem worthwhile, and there are few "wrong" things as wonderful as the violin.

August 13, 2010 at 04:01 PM ·

 I think that one's life prespective follows a path.  Perhaps this one:

You're born.

And you ask yourself, "How can I be better than my older brother?"

And your older brother goes off to college.  And you ask yourself, "How can I be the best of all?"

And you go off to college, and see that there are soo many better than you.  And you ask yourself, "How can I be happy?"

And you settle down, find a job, get married, and ask yourself,  "How can my children be happy?"


August 13, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

 "Of course you have to be prepared for an untimely death as well That`s not in the dictionary either And stay away from those cracks in the pavement."



August 13, 2010 at 09:01 PM ·

Help - how did Bo Derek come into this discussion?

Now that we have a new scale (its obviously not the RCM grades, though I'm pretty sure Heifetz would have got is grade 10 if he had tried).  We need some pointers - in particular what is a 5?

Or, perhaps there are more practical ways of breaking it up.  For example, a concertmaster of a major orchestra (7??); the passing level at a reasonable conservatory (5??); college entry (3.5??);  'Intermediate' level (2.5??); ready to learn third position (2??), coordinates bow and fingers (<1??).

On this scale I think a 'virtuoso' would be an 8.5-9... and the marks get very fine above that point...

My guess...

August 13, 2010 at 09:26 PM ·

ha, wonder if bo derek of today should be reclassified based on age? :)

my original intention of the scale mention is based on my opinion that everyone has some level of inborn virtuoso-ness in him/her, and with cultivation or the lack of, things can change.  not that if you miss some elements early on then you don't have a chance....don't bother trying since you are 16 that is too old.

to me at least, the level of playing plays a big role in my assessment, but there is also a lot of subjectivity involved that i can imagine to be highly debatable.   we tend to regard those who play in the styles we treasure more highly than those who do not.

if a violin professor has been rotting since attaining the rank, i won't regard him highly in that scale. :)

if a green high school kid has got "it", i have no problem paying him respect by calling him a virtuoso.  sometimes that belief in the kids can actually change the course in an incredible way.

August 13, 2010 at 10:27 PM ·

Ever read the book called Telant Is Overrated? Now I'm going back to practice:)

August 14, 2010 at 06:12 AM ·

Its a pity these days that its more important to be a prodigy or a virtuoso than an artist. Artistry is the element that marks the great any one can achieve vituosity.

August 14, 2010 at 08:09 AM ·

thats what I was trying to say Jane - virtuosity does not necessarily imply artistry (thanks for the exact word!). :)

August 14, 2010 at 01:44 PM ·

Ah the old topic is back again. Agree with Michael. And talent is indeed overrated. 

Just consider for a moment what talent means. It's very ambiguous word you can't even quantify it. When people use the word talent, it's usually used to describe something that already happened. For example you say that child is talented, after hearing him/her play. so what good is that? well that means you shouldn't use it to predict the future. 

The key to being great is of course not just hard work, but the right work, efficiency matters, and the right instruction also matters. That book used the term "deliberate practice". So find a good teacher. I suspect what differentiates great player and just good ones are the highly efficient way they use their practice time. 

August 14, 2010 at 03:31 PM ·

I don't think talent is overrated - its not just something that kicks in to get you started, it is (IMO) what differentiates the great from the stupendous...

But the old adage still holds: Genius is 10% inspiration (read talent) and 90% perspiration - which is why so often the not-so-talented outperform those that were blessed.

I challenge anyone to argue that Paganini did not have talent and that this was a major factor that differentiated him from everyone....

August 14, 2010 at 04:38 PM ·

Yes it can happen, anything can happen. There are so many factors outside the violinist, teachers who don't teach or whose style doesn't mesh with the individual, time, resources, etc. There are many who have studied such things, and the one thing they have found is that those that excel spend time on it. There is practice, then there is productive practice. I personally think motivations, why you do what you do, come through. Arrogance, pride, wanting to feel superior all sabotage what might be. I think the reason Hilary Hahn is so amazing is her great love and generosity of spirit, gratitude and appreciation for the opportunities she has had. The soul is laid bare in art, and some souls just need a little maturation. But I am not a pro, just someone who loves the violin, and will always be a tiny bit jealous of those who have had opportunities I haven't, (which will probably hold me back!).

August 14, 2010 at 06:59 PM ·

And just what does it mean that paganini has talent? It just means he was really good. now can you say that you don't have talent? or that person doesn't have any talent? or can you say his talent is just half of paganini? that sound ridiculous right? 

if you think you don't have talent because you're not as good as paganini, well maybe you haven't even put any effort anywhere close to paganini, or maybe you just don't know a secret practice technique that made him that good. If you're analytical you don't stop at seeing something and just say it's talent, you investigate and analyze what make something happens. I think that's the main difference between people who prefer talent vs effort thing. the only one who can tell you if you have talent or not is yourself, nobody else is qualified to apply that word on you. 

talent is not quantifiable. that's why it's vague. you can say someone has talent after seeing result, but it makes little sense to apply the word talent prematurely, because you just don't know what could happen. 

August 14, 2010 at 09:41 PM ·

For those of you who do not believe there is such a thing as talent, what term would you use for someone like Mozart?  He would compose entire symphonies in his head.  Is this something everyone can learn to do if they work at it?  No way Jose!  The guy was special, and he was capable of things that normal people cannot do, no matter how hard they work at it and no matter how much they want it.

There are many other examples of great minds, musicians, athletes, artists, etc, etc that were so far beyond normal people that you cannot attribute their success to hard work alone.  I'm not saying they didn't work hard; on the contrary, they busted their butts, but on top of that, they were talented to begin with.

August 14, 2010 at 10:03 PM ·

"Talent works, genius creates."  (Robert Schumann) By that definition it means that Paganini was more than talented and other kings of the violin 'merely' talented.

"Use what talents you possess, the woods would be silent if only the birds that sang best, sang there."  (Henry van Dyke)

"Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising." (Cyril Conolly)

Just a few quotes from other people, if I were talented I would have thought it out myself.




August 14, 2010 at 10:45 PM ·

 Smiley, I'm hearing you. this is a tale of 2 players:

I started playing about 6 years ago at 44. I am now playing far better than some of my peers who started learning 10 years ago or even in childhood, and for this same period have regularly attended lessons and practised as diligently as they can. I probably averaged an hour a day of practise for the first four years. I have learnt some things quickly - bowing things, some left hand things (not vibrato, that was a bitch). I have picked up a lot of skills, including sight reading and less measurable skills like understanding the mood of the music and how to use the geography of the fingerboard/bowing etc, at a faster rate than any of the adults I study with, and they are focussed and try as hard if not harder than me. SO, perhaps that makes me 'talented' for this task of playing a string instrument.

But its all relative. Al Ku's daughter started at the same time as me, roughly. She practised significantly less than I did for a a long time (2 x 20 minutes a day, or something wasn't it Al). She was barely out of toddlerhood when she started, so the the idea of conscient practise was a bit beyond her. She is, and always has been, so far ahead of me its not funny. 

Whether we both end up playing as well as each other, in the sense that we can both manage serious music, and play it in a way that people want to listen to, and request, iwill only be revealed in the fullness of time. For now, She is by far a better player than I am: able to handle far more technique, implement many more skills, make fewer errors, take less time to learn a piece, less time to memorise, work on more complex pieces. 

I don't believe the difference is that she is a better practiser or more determined than I am. This is impossible to compare between a 9 year old youngest of two, and a 50 year old mother of two, in any case. But for what we have each put in to this endeavour, she has so far outpaced me - that has to be talent. This whole notion of putting in the work and your 'dream' will come true is such a soppy Americanism. The truth is, if you put in the work, you will be as good as you can be. Not the same as being as good as you want to be. 

Virtuoso - by definition, it is about mastery and performance (? work + talent), not actually about fame or fandom, so the external variables of the right place at the right time should not count. But then, does having some 'luck'  or connection as a teenager actually mean so much more that we don't consider: you come to the attention of the better teachers, have a few masterclass opportunities, become aware of the better colleges/conservatories, target your learning to meet their requrements, learn to pace yourself in competitions where even more notable teachers see you, and so it goes. So the tailoring of a talented and hard working pupil, with those external factors, helps to produce the 'virtuoso'. Meantime, the hard working, talented but unconnected teenager in Mud Rock Flats becomes a really fine non music professional who is a great asset in the local orchestra.

August 15, 2010 at 03:20 AM ·

sharelle, you have made many interesting points.  i have remembered over the years that you have often made comments about my kid's playing and progress, hinting that she had made faster progress than you did.  you know why the difference?  me.  if i were in your room every time you practiced, commenting on your playing whether you liked it or not, whether i knew what i was talking about, either you went insane or you got better:) 

but seriously, i must agree with you as far as violin learning is concerned, some individuals are better equipped to start.  but each story is unique and complicated.  and interesting.   no fairy tale beginning or ending is guaranteed, but hopefully the process is enjoyable in real time or in retrospect.  violin playing is so hard, but can be so beautiful.  since i am just a spectator, i truly wish you all well in your pursuits.

we often talk about the infamous 10,000 hours from gladwell.  believe it or not it is up to us.  but i wonder if you have read this piece by him...


August 15, 2010 at 05:21 AM ·

the phrase "they have talent to begin with" is funny, because you apply that after they were successful, not before. so we just apply the word talent to everyone who are successful? they are successful therefore they must have talent to begin with. ok that's fine. now if you reverse that: they have talent therefore they will be successful. that's what I have problem with. 

So of course mozart is talented, but put in context, now you're looking at your kid, will you say "you know, mozart is special and talented, you're not as talented as him, just don't dream of becoming like him you'll be disappointed". you don't even know what your kid will accomplish, why set a limit by that word talent? 

I'm not just suggesting positive thinking and saying everyone will be equally successful if they just work hard. It's just that talent is so overrated. even the old adage of saying 10% talent 90% hard work reflects that.  

that article from al ku is interesting, too many people equate talent with precocity and that's what I don't agree. 

August 15, 2010 at 09:05 AM ·

So of course mozart is talented, but put in context, now you're looking at your kid, will you say "you know, mozart is special and talented, you're not as talented as him, just don't dream of becoming like him you'll be disappointed". you don't even know what your kid will accomplish, why set a limit by that word talent?

That is because, people normally witness signs of talent at a young age in the futur "mozarts".  I know talent doesn't equate with precocity but in music, you'll find that many of the great musicians were precocious. (not all but fairly many that it is not a coincidence).  So, if your kid is ten, you might have an idea by then if he will be talented or not.  And therefore, you can know that he won't be Mozart... But I wouldn't tell him or her the way you stated because it would be so...mean.    But it worth to stick at it because something good could come out older too! 

I agree that those who are talented at the beginning won't necessarely turn out that way but those who are very very successful or great were 90% (at least) of the time, talented when they were young.  Everything is not always "reversible" concept in life.  It's like saying: short people won't necesserly be professionnal divers athletes because they are short but professionnal divers athletes are 90% of the time short people. 

Interesting discussion,


August 15, 2010 at 12:21 PM ·

age and talent.

if we walk into a grade school and start a bunch of 5 yos fresh on violin, after couple weeks, it is not difficult to conclude that who has more innate abilities.   then the group is put to some serious teaching for 3 years and everyone gives a recital after that.  my feeling is that it may not be easy to predict which kids will demonstrate more  "talent" then.  my point?  with time and good teaching and learning, one can "create" talent or the mirage of talent if you will.  in others words, someone who has never witnessed those 8 yos will have no way to tell how  talented the kids were when when they first started at 5.    when we see someone plays on youtube, just one clip, or even many clips, without knowing for sure what went on behind the scene, when we say something on talent, we really don't know what we are talking about:)  should we say: you are born to be a great violinist!  or, your hard work is paying off!

in my opinion, excluding the 2 extremes, for the average kids from the average families, the earlier one starts learning something seriously, the cleaner the slate, the less of an issue of talent, the less of an issue of finger arthritis,  the more an issue of nurture over nature.   that is not too shabby, isn't it?   that work on it and you shall go far. 

how far? who knows.   just dream big and enjoy the process.  if your dream does not  come true, just say: i knew it!  i wasn't talented after all!

August 15, 2010 at 03:03 PM ·

Let's take the example with a bunch of 5 years old, so after 3 years of lessons you said it's easy to tell who's talented and who's not. I think it can be used to project their progress in the next few years but it's by no means enough to predict the final result. People in the talent camp seem so eager to stamp the word "talented" and "not talented" at this stage (ok I might be exaggerating), but I'd say hold on a sec, these are just 8 years old, you have no idea of what they are capable of becoming. 

I think this is all just about the difference in philosophy of education, Suzuki said that there is no such thing as talent, some kids just learn faster than others. well I know it's an exaggeration, but that's what makes him one of the best music educator in the world. Everyone learns at different rate. some learn faster early and some later. 

I think we have kind of hijacked this thread :) the initial post was about whether you are born to be virtuoso. what does that even mean? does it mean you have a birthmark that says "virtuoso"? or when you're born there is a message from heaven "this kid will be virtuoso"? I'd say only you know if you can be virtuoso or not, maybe it's time to prove it to the world that you can be virtuoso starting at age of 16 :)

August 15, 2010 at 05:45 PM ·

"Let's take the example with a bunch of 5 years old, so after 3 years of lessons you said it's easy to tell who's talented and who's not."

reynard, that is not really what i had in mind.  my point was that it is very difficult to look at someone' s playing and attribute the level of playing to inborn abilities or hard/smart work or both.

we simply don't know in most cases.

often, we see people got labelled as being talented, as if suggesting that they are born that way.  as we know,  most likely that is not true,,,

August 15, 2010 at 07:15 PM ·

@Don: Can someone name three world class violinists who did not touch a violin before age 20 ?

Ho goodie,  there's hope for me still :)

(violin 6-14, x time 10 gap, 2.5 yrs and running...

August 15, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

Al, I agree but sometimes it can just be talent and even someone who doesn't even play the instrument knows this.  An example not related with the violin would be this young prodigy painter boy of 8 yo now in England who paints like an adult wonderful paintings that sell for much money. He has line ups of people waiting to buy and visit his exhibit.  If you just call this hard work, it's impossible... It's more than this.  None of his parents are painters.  They are themselves surprise that their son is a star presently.  I remember hearing Jacqueline Du Pré's teacher in england telling in an interview that he gave her a whole concerto at about 13 on the wednesday lesson. She came back on friday or saturday lesson (I don't remember which day) knowing it pretty decently completely by memory.  Anyway... just a few days...  It can't just be hard work.  Hard work wouldn't sound good in less than a week for a whole concerto! 

However everyone has valid points and everyone can do something good regardless of talent.  

I enjoy reading the posts!


August 15, 2010 at 09:30 PM ·

al ku, that's exactly my point :) there are just so many factors, so it's ok to use the word "talented" after seeing success, but it's kind of misguided and even harmful to use that to someone who's still in the process (well to say "you're talented" to a student of course is good for encouragement, as long as it's not too much which can make the student lazy).

so Don, I guess the title for world class violinist who touch violin after 20 is still up for grab :) sadly I don't qualify, I touched my sister's violin before I was 20 .. lol

August 15, 2010 at 09:49 PM ·

To complicate things further its a bit dumb to talk about 'a' talent for the violin.  As for any pursuit you can be talented in one area and not in another.  One person may have a talent at the skills necessary to play violin blues, another baroque and a third modern.  Some people do have all-round talents but they are very rare and might (as is often the case for the talented generalist) be missed because of it.  I remember reading about Menuhin admitting that he was incapable of improvisation (his collaborations in jazz were scripted).  Fortunately for him, he entered the 'virtuoso' field when that was not a requirement.


August 15, 2010 at 11:54 PM ·

I've come across some violinists who obviously have trumpet DNA - judging by the noise they make!

August 16, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

"Just goes to show that if you have the violin DNA..."

and to complexify things up, I really beleive that someone can have a violinist's head and not a violinist body and vice-versa.   As a normal amateur, I am a bit in that situation.  I call this mental vs physical talent involved in violin playing.

But imagine at a much higher level if someone had a Mozart head in a non musician's body.  (I mean unable to materialize his thoughts...) 

A violin talent is composed from many kinds of talents together!



August 16, 2010 at 12:16 PM ·

 hello anne marie,  i agree with you that there are a few on the extremes, but unfortunately, they are imo still poorly studied and understood, for the benefit of the average folks.  for instance, for du pre to memorize the concerto in such a short time is amazing.  what is missing is what exactly had happened.  what methodology/tech did she employ to accomplish such task?  if average folks use her methods, what will happen?

to me, that is the interesting part...knowing what went on behind the scene or inside the head.

August 16, 2010 at 01:52 PM ·

I was born to be a virtuoso viloininst. I just haven't got there yet.

August 16, 2010 at 02:07 PM ·

 If the average Joe used du Pre's methods he would have struggled through the first page of the  concerto after two days. Du Pre' s memory was vastly superior to the ordinary cellist. Toscanini conducted without a musical score. George Enescu played a new piano sonata of Ravel from memory after going through it twice with Ravel. Menuhin was standing next to them and said it was the most extra ordinary demonstration of retention that he has ever seen, he himself no slouch in the memory stakes. 

Method is for you and me to remember, when we forget to remember how to remember. No one has fathomed out what goes on in the head of a genius. 

Julian if you believe in re-incarnation you can live in hope.

August 16, 2010 at 02:08 PM ·

@ Anne-Marie && @ Al:

Those rumours about somebody memorizing a whole concerto on two days can easily be shown not to be so super cool.

First question: We do not know what concerto that is. It can be anything from some simple Telemann (if he had cello?) concerto to a massive Romantic concerto. A short, very easy concerto is not so difficult to memorize.

Second question: What difficulty did the concerto have relative to de Prés technical level?

If I get a sonata that is corresponding to my technical level or below, I think I would be able to easily memorize this whole in two days. (Indeed, I do know all my (limited) repertoire by heart without ever doing any conscious memorization.)  I am certain the same thing would be for a concerto that is not beyond my technical level. And I am really far from being any musical genius. But if I now would get the Glazunov violin concerto, that is far too difficult for me, I would not learn it by heart even in 2 weeks (and probably neither in 2 months with my too little practice), because I would not have the required technique for majority of the piece.

August 16, 2010 at 02:37 PM ·

My memory is extraordinary:

Once I learn a mistake, I never forget it!

August 16, 2010 at 04:00 PM ·

Lena: LOL!!

Don: I don't thjink you get the idea.  You are now like me, an old prodigy, or maybe that should be porridgy. 

August 16, 2010 at 06:43 PM ·

"Thanks for the encouragement.  Nice to hear that we share some kind of respectable status.  I was having my doubts since the cat ran away."

the cat ran away?  Thats GOOD news not bad.  It means he was jealous of your tone!

er, ....

OK so maybe not great news but at least you rank in someone's assessment....

August 16, 2010 at 06:44 PM ·

I agree a bit with Dion... (the Du Pré memorizing example was just an example. However, her teacher who is no small cello teacher was impressed... so it must have been something pretty amazing she had did...) 

I could also take another example:  Put average "Jos" or a random sample of people with super violin pedagogs as Bron, Delay or Oistrakh (back then...) and they won't all become masters even if they would have all spent 24 hours per day under the master's guidance.  Good methods help (as Al pointed out very well) but I beleive, in the case of genius and virtuosos, it goes further than this.

Again, it's just what I beleive and  it's not a "scientifical" discussion.  Every advice here has some true in it!


August 16, 2010 at 07:51 PM ·

 I am also going to be a porridgy, I found my violin case it was in the fridge next to the prunes.

August 16, 2010 at 08:27 PM ·

 A simple modification to the question:

As every "born" has got at least a mother (sometimes even parents, a more and more outdated model) how does this mother know or learn how not to destroy the virtuoso in her child while raising it?

Basically everything what we traditionally do to kids is to "socialize" it. We teach how to get along with class mates (poor child was not even allowed to pick). Watch any kids' party (even adult ones!): As long as someone contributes stories about failures, bad marks this someone will be liked. The moment the kid explains "I was late for the exams because my flight back from Ravinia (Chicago) to Frankfurt was delayed." it is not liked any more, it's "showing off". You can't be modest and excellent and have an audience as virtuoso without "showing off" to others, no way.

Therefore one has to find the balance between telling the truth and telling all truth. And not the one "showing off" is the problem, but the (in some field) mediocre one who demands from pioneers and virtuosos: "keep silent, you are not normal". Without pioneers and virtuosos (in their fields) we would still live and die in caves. This is what a child has to learn as early as only possible. People are NOT equal, not in total and not in special fields. People have (formally) equal rights but not because the ARE equal. Not being equal is not a bad thing. To abuse weaker ones is disgusting. But recognizing weaker ones and helping them is not.

Give a child the strength and - very important - the support to resist group pressures and you will find out very easily whether a virtuoso was born. Force it into social compatibility and you will have a "mass product", no virtuoso. Help the child to understand that responsibility and compassion has  to grow as excellence grows.

This does not say whether being a virtuoso is a good or bad thing. But I want to stress that letting a child strive for recognition and appreciation by someone whose (sorry!) "value" is unclear or cannot be judged, does not lead to virtuosos. It leads, however, to street gangs, drugs (like booze and cigarettes) and other really NOT social behaviour most of the time.

In this context one message to the child is key: Any school or academy or college is not there to teach you anything or even to motivate you. You have to teach and motivate yourself and try to get the best possible support from the relevant educational establishment. Such is a virtuoso's mindset. A mindset for virtuosos in any field, not just music.

Considering this: to be a parent is a high-level underpaid job and one gets support when failing as parent, only (if lucky), but not to prevent failure.


August 16, 2010 at 08:49 PM ·

Frank-Michael did you get a bare bottom spanking as a child? Maybe that was missing. 


August 16, 2010 at 10:19 PM ·

I think I'll have the following engraved on my tombstone.

Here lies Smiley Hsu, renowned violinist, who could have surpassed Paganini had he practiced more.

BTW, Don, I think your cat just showed up at my door meowing like crazy.  I think he was trying to say his owner will be a virtuoso violinist.  He just needs more practice :-)


August 16, 2010 at 10:30 PM ·

Frank, I agree!  The brightest kids when  was young at schools were those who (very often) had stay at home devoted moms who trained them individually and introduced them to all sort of things.  These kids were usually more "mature" with adults, more stubburn and had better conversation.  They also had higher grades.  The ONLY BIG problem is that these kids were said to be "not normal" because they made fits at school when they had to learn to get seperate from their mom and didn't want to listen 100% to the teacher so were rated as slight "trouble makers".  But this fixed itself alone eventually. Now that I have seen these kids grow up with me, they are the ones who lasted the longer at school and were the most able to think by themselves unstead of always need other's approval.  They weren't parts of "gagns" They often were project starters. 

This is with normal kids but I imagine it's true too with prodigies!  Getting socialized is important but too much of it will kill some important "alone" time with appropriate guidance and individual attention to wake out the creative side of a children. 

Again just my advice from what I observed around me.  I can be wrong!


August 17, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

Awesome replies everybody. Took me a hour and a half to read them all.

(No need to tell me that I should have practiced that time rather than reading posts but the thing is it is too late to practice unless I get a sound-proof room which I will be working on once I move)

Lawrence, did you anyhow hint at me? :D
Perhaps it was just a coincidence.



August 17, 2010 at 12:11 AM ·

Guys, FMF is Julia Fischer's father.

August 17, 2010 at 07:50 AM ·

@ Anne-Marie:

I am not as sure about that the results of training an "average joe" 24 hours daily with super pedagogues would end up as you suggest. As a matter of fact, I do believe that the increased hours of practice of general violinists partially comes from that many mediocre raw material now CAN reach amazing levels with lots of practice (and good expensive classes). Any kind of hyper specialization into any field, does require mainly discipline in learning. Talent is the ground that can make this learning progress quicker, but far too insufficient to give any success. For instance, talent can help you to learn the music of the pieces, but unless you have good steady supervision, you can learn a lot of errors that requires more determination than musicality to remove. The practice is the real architecture of the violinist. Sadly, I think that you can pick a monkey, and train it 24 hours daily and make it doing an impressive lot of tricks. Why cant you just then pick a standard human? I would expect talent to follow a Gaussian distribution, but not some Boolean logic :-) Standard humans are not untalented, they are just mediocre talented. In their case, they just need to put into it perhaps 3 times more effort and time than a talented person, which means many more hours. And the problem of many of those 3 sigmas off in talent, is that they are not good at putting in the hours needed! (If they pursue the talent.)

Shortly: I think wherever there are cases of hyper specialization into a single field, it is difficult to distinguish talent from hard work.

On the other hand, I doubt the "average joe" would become an excellent artist, which is a different topic of discussion. 'Creativity' in any field, is what makes an expert unique and different from others.

August 18, 2010 at 08:36 PM ·

I still think its really probable to find kid virtuosos that become great after playing for 6 years 5 hours daily.

I would only get impressed if you show me an oldie of 80+ that had never done music before in his -her life, starts violin after becoming 80 years old, and does the same tricks.

THAT I would call a real prodigy!

August 21, 2010 at 12:50 AM ·

 There are short cuts out there to be an great violinist.  When somebody finds them, please post them here. We would all like to know.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases



Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins


Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine