Golf, Zen and the Violin

October 22, 2010 at 06:25 PM ·

There is a concept called the four stages of competence, which applies to learning.  I first heard about it in the context of golf, but thought it might be interesting to discuss how it relates to violin.  Here are the four stages:

1.  Unconscious Incompetence:  The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.

2.  Conscious Incompetence:  Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.

3.  Conscious Competence:  The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of conscious effort.

4.  Unconscious Competence:  The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes "second nature" and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply).

Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers who ever lived, said in an interview that during big tournaments, he could not remember hitting the most critical shots.  It was as if he was on autopilot, having an out of body experience.  Clearly, he performs at the highest level of "Unconscious Competence."  

One of my former violin teachers, a very accomplished violinist who started playing solo with orchestras at age 12, said he was only completely satisfied with one performance in his life.  His description of the performance was surprisingly similar to Tiger Woods.  He remembers walking on stage and finishing the piece, but hardly anything in between.  

As an advanced amateur violinist, I would put myself somewhere around the level of "late 2, early 3."  Playing difficult repertoire requires a tremendous amount of mental concentration on my part.

So, here is my question as it relates to the four stages of learning.  Does it get any easier?  Virtuoso violinists make it seem so easy.  Is it really easy for them?  Are they operating at level 4?  What level are you at?  Have you ever reached level 4 in a performance?

Replies (29)

October 23, 2010 at 03:11 PM ·

If one will put in the time and effort to excel, or at least to rise to one's current level of best competence, it may occasionally happen that the process of playing will be taken over by what I (and possibly the ancients) call the Muse. The effect is extraordinary; it's as if someone else is creating the music. The experience cannot be commanded.

Sometimes I will just extemporise for a while, wooing the Muse, so to speak. From time to time she will use me to express herself. I'm grateful for the experience.


October 23, 2010 at 07:00 PM ·

Violin playing getting easy -- it hasn't happened to me, yet. But something similar does happen on the level of individual pieces. The first stage is like "I can sort of hit all the notes in sort of the right tempo (well, half the tempo, but who cares). This cannot be too difficult." Second stage: "Oh dear, this is more difficult than I thought. How am I going to learn this?" Third stage: "If I concentrate really hard, I can play it all." Fourth stage: "It will be alright, I can rely on that".

A piece that does not reach Stage Four is too difficult for me. And with a new piece the cycle starts all over again.

October 23, 2010 at 07:15 PM ·

 I think during one practice session alone, it's possible to hit all four phases.  Guess it depends if it's a piece you know well or are looking at for the first time.  The other angle is there are different aspects of technique for which one may fall into vastly different categories.  I think we've all had those moments, though, where you think just about expression and not technique..... and vice verse.  Interestingly, I've heard violin compared to golf on a number of occasions.  There must be something to it.  But in high school I couldn't even hit the golf ball.... I don't know what this says about my playing. ;)

October 23, 2010 at 09:05 PM ·

 Smiley, I am not at all convinced that this is a good theory of learning.

I tried to apply it to my violin and other learned skills. I don't think that at mastery, the skill unconscious or even subconscious.  Rather, I think that as learning proceeds, progressively larger chunks of information or movements, get linked together so that they can be fast forward executed. but the execution of those links or engrams is still very mych a conscous effort. I see thought and reflection in the virtuoso players every note they play, that is not an unconscious act. the fact that they can quickly respond to unexpected events such as a string breaking or a miscue etc, again shows that the actions are conscious, they can interrupt the engram and adapt to the new situation.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that probably the only LEARNED skills that become subconsciously  mastered would be mobilisation and reach/grasp/release, and perhaps the sounds of speech (not the speech itself, because I think that too is consciously effected.

So i'm not sure how to answer the question - I guess that what we are experiencing as we learn violin is the ability to link different aspects of playing - dynamic control, phrasing control, intonation control, bow speed and placement control, visual understanding of the notes wrtitten on the page - and at any one session perhaps one or two of those things becomes the focus. After the 10,00 hours of focus on these different points, they are chunked together sufficently that they can be programmed quickly, almost automatically, and all of those aspects can be put together in the manner intended by the player.

October 24, 2010 at 02:32 PM ·

Smiley, I think it becomes more difficult, but in an entirely different way.  Perhaps, more involved would be a better word.  Unconcious competence, to me, has always been the key.  I prefer thinking of it as unconcious/intuitive, and kind of the element of genius that distinguishes a good, great violinist from a mediocre one.  All the technical skills can only be brought to their conglomerate fruition through great inner knowledge, growth and pursuit.  Indeed, even mastering a technical skill will be proportional to inner awareness.  Man violinists 'master' the technical issues, but truly, a simple technical issue can only be brought to it's height of perfection if and only if the inner mind, that understanding of kinesthetic sense and balance through intuitive recognition and belief/conviction (which requires trust in one's self) has the vision to allow you to struggle to get there.  Simple example, tons of violinists can play Claire De Lune, but did you hear Oistrakh play it?  Technique for that?  Think about it.  The simple drawing of a bow by someone who has that unconcious depth of understanding is entirely different from the simple drawing of a bow by someone who doesn't (even if they are a concert's amazing what people get away with )

October 24, 2010 at 02:58 PM ·


I've been following a video blog by a top golf coach recently, not because I have an interest in the game, but because he is a blue-sky thinker with ideas that can be applied to the violin.

He points out that when you are practising, you have to think about the swing technically. But when you are performing, you have to be holistic. Talking about the practice swing, followed by the actual swing, he says:

"Feel the swing, then swing the feel"

I find this a rather brilliant summary of what I am trying to do when I practice. As I work on something technical, I'm looking for the kinesthetic "feel" in my body when the technique sounds right. Then, when I perform the piece, I try to retain the "feel" without worrying about the individual technical points. It's a kind of "conscious competence", I guess, but one that goes a step beyond working on points one at a time...

October 25, 2010 at 02:34 AM ·

Smiley, on a few rare occasions, I've had #4 happen with an orchestra.  Something almost unworldly takes over, the sum becomes greater than its parts, and for awhile a piece just kind of plays itself.  It seems to happen with pieces the orchestra loves, where the technical challenges have been met, and I guess just when a critical number of people are open to the experience.  There's nothing like it.

October 25, 2010 at 03:22 AM ·

I have to plead ignorance when it comes to Zen and golf.

With violin, my experience is that individual studies and pieces get easier with time and practice.  But regarding violin playing as a whole -- the best answer I can give is, "It never gets easy."  That's a direct quote from one of the three CSO players I worked with who served as section coaches during my student days.  The more new material I master, the more I sense the distance I must still travel -- always reaching, always striving, never satisfied.

Is it really easy for virtuoso violinists?  My guess, as odd as this may sound, is easier than for a non-virtuoso -- but still not truly easy.

My level?  It depends on what stage I'm at with a given study or performance piece.  When it's new, I'm typically at 2; but when I keep at the same material, I generally progress to 3 fairly soon.   If I see right away that it's similar to items I've already mastered, then I may start at the lower end of 3.

I've gotten to what I would guess to be the lower strata of 4 in performance -- once I've mastered the technics of the piece and can play with abandon and let the impish side of me cut loose and ham it up a bit.  But part of me is still like the defensive driver -- keeping a constant circle of vision, watching out for potholes, anticipating the unexpected.

October 25, 2010 at 06:38 AM ·

 Lisa, that sound like "flow". that guy with an unmemorisable russian name talks about it. where feed forward takes over.  

I still don't think there is such a thing as 'unconscious competence'.

October 25, 2010 at 03:58 PM ·

I'd like to believe that level 4 is real and one can attain it given enough time and practice.  Like Lisa, I have had glimmers of level 4 on occasion -- where the technical issues seem to disappear and I can focus 100% of my attention to making music.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it is an amazing feeling.  In sports, athletes refer to this as being "in the zone." 

Sharelle, Perhaps we can think of violin as a bunch of individual skills, where you can progress from level 1 to level 4 in each skill.  Take for example, shifting.  My son is currently learning to shift from 1st to 3rd position.  He is a level 2 right now, nearing level 3.  Having played for many years, 3rd position is just as natural for me as 1st, so I would put myself at level 4 when playing in 3rd position.  I can do it without any conscious thought or effort.  Now, this is just one out of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of individual skills required to play the violin.  If each of those skills are mastered individually to level 4, then wouldn't the musician be able to perform at level 4? 


October 25, 2010 at 04:53 PM ·

There are so many different skills involved in this thing called "playing the violin" that you can't grade it on a single one-dimensional scale.  Furthermore, what would be an exceptional performance for a beginner might be considered unacceptable for an advanced player - so the scale itself is constantly moving.  My experience with other instruments (and now the violin) is that once I begin to master a particular skill, I move on to more difficult ones.  As a result, I'm never completely satisfied with my playing, no matter how good I might get.  I suspect that this is the case with even the most advanced virtuoso - there's always something that can be improved.  As I used to put it: "We all suck - it's just that we suck at different levels."  (I've been somewhat hesitant to say this ever since a workshop instructor retorted: "You're one of those glass-half-empty people, aren't you?")

Still, I occasionally get those level-4 flashes myself.  My bow will suddenly start floating over the strings with no conscious effort, and the music will flow, pure and clean.  (Then in the next phrase I come crashing back to earth.)  It's for these moments that we strive - where your playing turns golden, or it combines with the other members of a group to make magic.  It's times like these, where you finish playing a piece and look at each other in amazement, too stunned to say anything aside from perhaps "wow" - that we realize why we put so much effort into learning how to play these strange devices.

October 25, 2010 at 07:58 PM ·

(duplicate post removed)

October 25, 2010 at 07:58 PM ·

I think this is just one way of loooking at what is going on, but doesn't express the full range of playing.

I look at things more in a 'Novice to Expert' model.

  • A novice can repeat what they are provided, with varying levels of accuracy. This accuracy improves as they develop.
  • At some time, they become proficient. Many of the basics are automatic, so the player can start putting more things together without having to think of all the individual steps. This proficiency covers a rather broad section of playing. the player at times experiences an epiphany about how it flows together.
  • At some time, the proficient player starts becoming expert. The combined ease of some components and the deeper uunderstanding. The epiphany of the proficient player can become a flow of comprehension at a multi-tiered level, providing a much more integrated experience.

I believe this final stage is what Smiley is describing.

October 26, 2010 at 04:19 AM ·

>>1.  Unconscious Incompetence

2.  Conscious Incompetence
3.  Conscious Competence
4.  Unconscious Competence<<

I am not sure if Smiley is referring to the entire gamut of violin playing or the progression through the above steps on a piece-by-piece basis. If this refers to violin-playing as a whole (for example, technical facility), I am languishing at a halfway house at step 2 (conscious incompetence).  If this is a reference to the stages when one begins playing an intermediate to intermediate-advanced piece to one's "finished" product or the end-result, I would still be at stage 2, possibly, at the extremely early stages of step 3 (conscious competence), step 4 (conscious competence) being very elusive. 

I still use the Peter Principle to promote myself, though, predictably, with disastrous results.

October 26, 2010 at 10:29 AM ·

I'll be a bit of a heretic and state that #4 is actually very easy to achieve.  Just play a very simple tune that you love.

For me that would be (first come to mind) either Brahms lullaby (just the theme) or the Ash Grove or Danny Boy traditional songs.  I know these so well they just pour out of my violin. Give me an audience and I'm gone into the music to the point I can play them without any thought or effort.

I'm right there on the unconscious competence goal.  The point for me though is that achieving this level is directly related to the technical difficulties of the piece in question.  As I've now learned it also demands memorization - I don't think you can reach violin zen when there is a requirement for sensory input.  It all has to flow out....

October 26, 2010 at 02:02 PM ·

@VJ, I believe one could break things down and apply the 4 phases of learning to each individual skill.  As I mentioned above, I believe I am at level 4 when it comes to playing in 1st and 3rd position -- not so with the other positions.

@Elise, I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but permit me to hereticise you for a moment.  Let's go back to the very first thing Suzuki students learn -- Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Do you believe you can play this piece at level 4?  If so, then I challenge you to record yourself and compare the recording to the CD.  I don't know who the violinist is on the CD, but he/she is clearly a pro.  I'm not trying to put you down, but I think it does illustrate my point.  BTW, there is no way I sound as good as the CD, so you are not alone.

My point is that even in the most basic repertoire, there are a lot of things going on.  The perfect intonation, the relaxed and even vibrato, the smooth bow changes, the subtle nuances of bow pressure and speed to produce a full and clear tone, the list goes on.  For more advanced repertoire it gets even harder.

I think level 4 is quite achievable in individual skills, but to play ANYTHING, even twinkle, requires a combination of many skills that is not easily attainable. 

October 26, 2010 at 02:28 PM ·

I think I'm kind of where you are--early 3.  I can get to mid-3 on some pieces, and consider that good progress.  I don't really know if I've ever reached stage 4, or just backslid into stage 1.  I suspect it's the latter.  Historically I seem to have had the biggest problem going from stage 1 to stage 2.  I'm not a perfectionist and I'm not particularly hard on myself.  I'm generally pretty easily pleased.  So, thinking too much about some holy grail of stage 4, or striving for it to become "easy" might just be counterproductive in my case.

October 26, 2010 at 02:28 PM ·

I'm not sure that "unconscious competence" is an accurate description of the psychology of the highest levels of mastery (whether it's golf or violin playing or writing or driving a bus or anything else). First of all, I do not think that one becomes "unconscious." That there are alterations in one's focus of attention? - Yes. My guess would be that when the technical problems (which are enormous in violin playing) are mastered to a level that they become second nature, one is free to focus one's attention on the aesthetic heart and soul of the music, and the technique simply follows (just as one thinks about where one wants to go when walking across the street but pays no attention to the neuromuscular actions involved in walking). I think that may be what makes for a truly great performance. And for some people, just walking across the street can be a truly great performance (Just watch the Chicago rush hour streets downtown sometime).

October 26, 2010 at 02:35 PM ·

Sorry smiley, - but I did not think that tperfection and unconscious competence are the same thing.  To make that claim makes the latter meaningless.  To my mind unconscious competence is when the act as transcended the thought of processing.  It must come out very good (else its not competence) but I don't see why it has to come out perfectly. 

October 26, 2010 at 07:02 PM ·

 Sorry if this has been said before but I didn't have any time to read any more than 2 responses. 

I think in a way, lots of different things reach different stages. I think it is impossible for a violinist to be the top at absolutely everything. Even some techniques (for instance, maybe a very good spiccato) aren't the strongest points of every violinist, however, they may be able to get a very good technique in a different area for something else. The violin is something that constantly pushes the boundries. When you first start playing, you have to think about everything including your bow hold and how to hold the violin correctly. Does this not just become second nature and reach stage 4 after a lot of practice? I certainly don't think 'Right, I need to put my little finger standing up at the end, keep my thumb bent...' etc. I just do it and I don't ever think about it or remember the process. 

If I am learning a new piece, it automatically means warning lights flash up as I place my fingers on the notes for the first time. It will always take at least 2 times to polish off even the easiest of pieces if you've never seen, heard or played it before. 

I think I have probably reached 4 before in many ways, but even when I have been very very happy with a performance that has become second nature almost to me, I still remember it in many ways. No, I don't remember every detail of what happened, I just remember getting a great surge of happiness as I was playing... and then the audience clapping. Yet it sticks in my memory as it would for a lot of people. 

I think there are many smaller levels in between these 4 that are explored maybe more frequently by violinists. Thanks for posting!

October 26, 2010 at 09:27 PM ·


As we all know, there is no such thing as perfection.  But we may have different definitions of "competence."  In the context of violin, I define competence as being able to play something very well.  Let's face it, after a couple of months, anyone can play twinkle without much thought.  But, to play it well requires many subtle skills that require years to develop.

I can probably offer a compelling rendition of twinkle, but if I want to sound like the CD, there are many things I would have to think about, and it would require quite a bit of concentration, and after a point, you would be able to hear the effort, which would defeat the purpose.  But a virtuoso would be able to do all those things WITHOUT the conscious effort.  At least, that's what I am wishing for in my own playing if it is possible.


October 26, 2010 at 10:02 PM ·

Perhaps we just have differences in degree?  I just think the same forces are in force once you can play a piece without thought whether its an advanced amateur playing a beginning piece or a virtuoso playing an advanced one.

October 26, 2010 at 11:05 PM ·

No one can reach level 4 - it doesn't exist. No master will ever be unconscious of what he/she is doing to achieve the outcome.  As Marcus (and I in my earlier post) suggest, it becomes more automated, looped into a sequence, but not unconscious.

I would be surprised if the virtuosi, or those people who have commented on their moments of 'level 4', were acutally oblivious to the sound they were making, the atmosphere, the mechanics of what they were doing even. For that moment (many times for the greats), the physical mastery and memory of what was needed didn't have to be the focus of attention, it could be something else.  But it was still consciously being regarded and assessed.

October 27, 2010 at 03:11 AM ·


The term "unconscious" is being used somewhat loosely here.  Obviously, no one is expecting to see a comatose violin virtuoso.  But, it seems plausible that a person could become so technically advanced that they might be able to perform effortlessly, even to the point of letting their mind wander off to a distant place.  On quite a few occasions, I have done this when driving to and from work.  I might be listening to an "unconsciously competent" violinist on the radio and arrive at my destination without realizing that I was controlling the car the entire way.  In that respect, my driving skills have reached the level of "unconscious competence."  Now, if only I can figure out how to get there with the violin :-).


October 27, 2010 at 06:16 AM ·

And you illustrate my point very nicely with the driving example.  You were not competing in formula 1 - you were just driving to work but doing so with unconscious competence - just as I would play twinkle twinkle...

October 27, 2010 at 09:14 AM ·

I remember taking the stage and feeling like I had an appointment with destiny, watching my fingers unfurl as though I was I was Itzhak Perlman.  Those moments are few and far between.  I think all violinists move in and out of all four stages, depending on the piece at hand, depending on the work put in, depending on the audience, depending on the fortune cookie's words that day...

October 27, 2010 at 10:50 AM ·

When it comes to initiating intellectually-challenging threads, Smiley is without equal. As a violinist.commie he has definitely reached stage 4. It's going to take me quite some time to get my head round all this.

All I can offer in right now is that as an orchestral fiddler I did my job in well-known classics on autopilot many times. Sometimes I look at my compositional efforts and cannot remember how I thought them up. Similarly, I am sometimes amazed by my old posts on I presume that the active process of forgetting is a kind of stress-reduction thing. You cannot keep reliving the agonies of creation !

I am sure the psychologists have a word for the way we bundle together a raft of complex physical moves into an entity. "Gestalt" ? As long as no-one asks me to speak in a foreign language, I can talk quite fluently on a good day - but I cannot immediately "replay" all that I might have said. And, as observed already, I don't recall every detail of a journey even if I have been the driver but I generally arrive safely.

I shall follow this thread hoping to get a glimpse of a level 5, even if it's too late in life for my fiddling to be affected ! I suspect "it" gets easier only if you abandon any self-criticism.

October 27, 2010 at 11:04 AM ·

 @ Smiley,  :)

Maybe the problem is with the whole model being presented. I think the fact that people are describing moving fluidly between these different levels, shows that the levels are not accurately describing a hierarchical structure of learning ( i.e. 1st you have unconscious incompetence ....  4th you have unconscious competence).  

Every non-virtuoso, (so judged by the fact they do not have mastery over all of the facets of playing), is going to be, perhaps simultaneously even, at all 4 levels described, which doesn't make for a very useful model to compare yourself against.

October 27, 2010 at 02:04 PM ·

And you illustrate my point very nicely with the driving example.  You were not competing in formula 1 - you were just driving to work but doing so with unconscious competence - just as I would play twinkle twinkle...


As a commuter driving to and from work, I am level 4.  As a race car driver, I am level 1 (I don't even know the skills I am lacking).  I will grant you a level 4 in twinkle for fiddling around the family room.  In that context, I will assume level 4 competency as well (patting myself on the back). 

But if we are taking the perspective of high level musicianship, I rank myself at late 2, early 3 at best.  Anyone that thinks they are level 4 and doesn't sound like a pro, is teetering on the verge of level 1 (e.g., they don't know what they are missing). 

When I play twinkle, I can hear that my vibrato is not as steady and pleasing as the CD, also my bow changes are not as fluid.  I hope I am at least at the point of enlightenment (e.g., beyond level 1), but can't say for sure.  It is very possible there are subtle things going on that I don't know about.  So perhaps even with twinkle, I could be at level 1 proficiency in some respects.  If that is the case, then it is a sad state of affairs for the Bach Chaconne -- sorry Johann, at least I'm trying my best.

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

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Interlochen Center for the Arts
Interlochen Center for the Arts

Virtual Sejong Music Competition
Virtual Sejong Music Competition

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

Metzler Violin Shop

Bein & Company

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

String Masters

Bobelock Cases

Things 4 Strings LLC



Sleepy Puppy Press

Jargar Strings

J.R. Judd Violins, LLC

Southwest Strings

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine