Can old beginners (very old) play fast?

February 16, 2011 at 10:23 PM ·


I'm a late beginner (very late!) and I'm doing Suzuki. I'm on book 4. I don't have a teacher, because my work involves traveling a lot and changing schedules. I'm looking for a private teacher, but I can't find one who's ready to accept my limitations (time constraints). I don't blame them.

My question: I see improvement in everything: the bowing, string crossings, vibrato, etc. But I seem to have hit a wall when it comes to speed. I can play the pieces of book 4 with a sound I find pretty, clean, in tune. But not at tempo. Most pieces I can play OK at, say, 75% of the tempo in the recordings. The Bach double, I can play OK at 85%. Please, by OK, I don't mean perfect, because I don't even know what perfect is, but just OK, in tune, no weird noises.

What could I do to play faster? Is it impossible, because I'm old? Are there studies to help me work my speed?

My aim with the violin is to work my brain, to relieve stress and to play pieces I love for myself. The problem is that some of the pieces I love have fast passages...

Should I forget Suzuki and follow another method? Do only studies? Should I move to book 5 even if I can't play book 4 at tempo?

The way I practice: I practice difficult parts. Slowly, then adding beats to the metronome. Then I try the piece together (the whole piece).

Thank you for your help.

Replies (34)

February 16, 2011 at 10:42 PM ·

If you can't play very fast, it could be other things aside from the player. Different strings require different types of work to get quality sound, so that may help. A well balanced quality bow is critical. I have multiple bows (in the advancing student level), and one is noticably easier for faster passages. I have another than sounds better, but I can't seem to get the same 'lightness' feeling, and speed with it.

If you have the chance, also try the same passages on a different violin in shop. You may find a different violin in your future.

February 16, 2011 at 11:12 PM ·

Here's what I find: 

First--the Suzuki CD's are not necessarily a goal speed.  Actually, I've heard some people say they think certain pieces are too fast on the recordings.  Whatever your opinion on that, the important thing is to really make it musical sounding.

Which leads to the strategy I usually use with my students--practice it till it is completely correct,; praactice it till it is comfortable; practice till it feels easy.     If all that is happening, speed will almost certainly eventually come on its own.  Then, get the music of it in your mind and play to match it. 

If you've done all that and speed's still a real problem, gradual metronome practice can help get you where you need to be.  The key here is starting at a speed you can handle with complete confidence, accuracy and comfort.  If the passage is insecure at a slower tempo, it will almost certainly go frantic on you at a faster tempo.  But if you get it where it feels completely secure, then gradually move it up even one metronome marking at a time, then you remove the "speed wall" gradually.  It does take patience to practice this way--most people (myself included) hit a point where they feel good and decide to jump and aren't really ready for it.  If you hit a wall, go back and practice one step slower till you're super-comfy, then try moving up again.

I don't know how old you are and I won't ask, but I can't think of any reason that age should be a problem unless you have actual physical problems (arthritis etc.) that hinder your movement.  Maybe there's a reaction time or muscle movement thing  that slows down as people age, I don't know, but I wouldn't think it would be a problem in Suz. 4.  Good for you for working at it and I hope you continue to enjoy your playing!

February 16, 2011 at 11:18 PM ·

Oh, and regarding which books--Suzuki is a great series of repertoire buit there ar e lots of others out there too!  What I would do is keep up your current stuff, but if you don't feel comfy moving forward, review review review--and then find other books with more music to develop your current level till you feel good to move on.  Some resources...pardon the names  :) but these are some I love to use with students young or old :) --Old Masters for Young Players, Solos for Young Violinists vol. 1, the other volumes as you progress; Fun With Solos; books of fiddle tunes (that'll  work your coordination!!); sacred or folk music as it fits your fancy.  Hope that helps!

February 17, 2011 at 12:10 AM ·

For music in quick tempo, it's much better to play in tune, with a good sound, and musically, with correct phrasing, than to play at a very fast speed.  If you play cleanly and musically, with good phrasing and intonation, with even notes at the smallest note values, and with control, it will sound much, much more satisfying than if you try to race as fast as you possibly can but aren't able to play with complete control or good phrasing.  Don't obsess over speed.  As you progress you'll be able to play well at a faster speed.  Like all other aspects of violin playing, it takes time.  Work on playing even notes at the smallest note values--that's something that 's not as easy as you might think but pays off much more than absolute speed.  Practicing lots of scales is a good way to work on even note values.

February 17, 2011 at 12:18 AM ·

Hi, to play fast also requires very supple bow wrist...  and left hand of course.

I know that you can't have a teacher on a regular basis from what you've told but can you  just have one or a set of lessons to take a look at this issue with a teacher?  Just an idea... 

Good luck

February 17, 2011 at 12:36 AM ·

I started violin late too although I came on board after studying the piano. My second and third piano teachers essentially taught me to play the whole piece being studied at the metronome setting where everything was under control. Phrases etc. that were a problem and holding up achieving faster tempos were the focus for improvement. Fixing one segment allowed the tempo of the whole piece to increase, but that would generally bring out other problem areas that needed concentrated improvement. I use the same method with the violin. Sometimes it's just one or two fast runs that need constant work. I find that frequent small sessions, gradually increasing the tempo a few beats at a time, or up ten back five results in progress. For performance it helps to get the practice tempo up beyond where it needs to be for the performance. Giving the piece time to sink in musically without actually practicing is important, that is mental practice. Practicing the right hand without the left hand,and left hand without the right hand. Trying different fingerings, string changes, know the more you think about it the more there is in terms of trying to answer the question. The violin is not an easy instrument to provide easy answers as to how to master it. 

February 17, 2011 at 02:44 AM ·

Something my teacher said when I was working through Suzuki 4 stuck in my mind. My aim, she said, should be to perform a piece (from S.4, but it applies to anything) at a standard that I would be happy to hear coming out over the radio.  Another important point is good tone; that is something listeners will always take away with them; good tone and good intonation go hand in hand.

I see little point in going on to Suzuki 5 until Suzuki 4 has been mastered, and by that I mean much more than getting the right notes in the right places at the right times and at approximately the right speed. It means finding out what the music really means – its structure, the story it tells (yes, any piece of music worth playing tells a story), its phrasing, its interpretation. (In the case of a concerto or sonata, what is the orchestra/piano doing when the violinist isn't playing? It should be the violinist's business to know the other parts as well as his own). Find out about the composer, the musical and cultural history (even political history) of the period and how these affected his music. And all this is after the technicalities of fingering, bowing and dynamics have been sorted out.

In passing, I must say I feel a little uneasy about some young people apparently collecting a large repertoire just because the concertos are there, with little apparent indication that their repertoire has been "mastered" in the sense I have used above.

February 17, 2011 at 02:50 AM ·

Um, no.


February 17, 2011 at 03:24 AM ·

Hate to say this, but a teacher could help you locate the problem areas that are slowing you down and help you focus on correcting by way of more efficient movements of left hand and bow arm.  This typically involves breaking things down into very small segments and practicing efficient and increasingly rapid movements.  My teacher is constantly doing this for me, since I have similar problems with speed.

February 17, 2011 at 05:22 AM ·

I really don't think the left hand is much of the problem with speed. It is the bowing that will trip you up.

February 17, 2011 at 08:48 AM ·

Playing fast passages up to speed has less to do with age than it has to do with the correct technique and it is more a mental thing. If the violin is being used correctly and you have applied certain studies like the Kreutzers and Rode Caprices amongst others, and have practised scales, then, all things being equal, the speed aspect will be mastered. Personally, I would abandon Sazuki and get on to studies written by people who really understood violin playing, but this is only my (to many people) misguided assessment of Sazuki (who tended to make very noisy motorbikes anyway).

As someone suggested, you could take a group of lessons, or even occasional ones with a very good teacher, and this would help.

(Yes, and bill is certainly correct about the bowing aspect).

February 17, 2011 at 10:44 AM ·

I struggled with the same thing - but let me ask: do you have difficulty with slurred notes as well as individual ones? A difficulty in the former is mostly a left hand problem but with only the latter is a right hand one (both is probably both!).  I find slurred notes easy to run but the real challenge is with the detache notes.

There was a tip in the tip area a while back - short bow lenghts for fast notes - that I think is right on.  It made an enormous difference to my single note-bowing speed.

February 17, 2011 at 11:22 AM ·

Yes, I often find it very difficult to play semiquavers at crotchret = metronome marking 200 with separate notes - and using the whole bow from frog to tip. Maybe I'm going wrong somewhere here?

February 17, 2011 at 12:23 PM ·

 @ Peter: yes, you are. You should have bought an electrical, levitating bow instead of that conservatoive wooden stick. They can easily handle 10 times your speed.

February 17, 2011 at 04:43 PM ·

Hey Peter,

Suzuki doesn't have an 'a' in it and the motorbike maker has nothing to do with the violin pedagogue.

February 17, 2011 at 05:02 PM ·

Peter- see David Burgess' YouTube video about playing violin with a Sawzall. Beautiful, even 16th notes all the way through.  Even in sustained passages, but one thing at a time!

February 17, 2011 at 05:50 PM ·

Back to Caroline:

It seems to me there is absolutely nothing wrong with the speed at which you are playing - and therefore no reason not to move ahead. But, for the specific problem you mention, if it is fast separated notes that are the problem you may be using too much bow and too much right arm. If slurred notes are also a problem, then it may be (as has been suggested) that you are raising your left-hand  fingers too high - and/or you are not keeping down (on the string) all the fingers that you can and have to move too many muscles when you play.

Personally, I like the Suzuki books for the selection of music offered, the the bowings and fingerings in some of the pieces should be viewed with caution - they may be included for some obscure pedagogical reasons - but no one would ever actually play that way - one of the reasons to have a teacher for these books. I also thng the recordd music that goes along with the books can set a very fine example.

I would also suggest buying a copy of Kreutzer to get some etudes to work on to improve technique. You will find the sort of music that will work on very specific problem areas. The 2nd Etude in there, alone, is always a good warm-up and has many bowing variations and is good left-hand warmup.

You don't say how old you are - and that can be critical to how much improvement you can expect. Even the greatest violinists (who began in their first decade of life) start to get worse as they get older - some even give up the concert stage in their 50s, most before they are 70. Even if the continue to perform, they long ago stopped improving technically.

Older beginners will never reach the quality of playing they might have achieved if they had started younger and continued seriously. My "theory" is that for each player there is an "arch" (or graphic curve) of playing ability that they might achieve if they start at the optimum young age and follow a lifetime of maximum learning, practice, and performance. No matter how good they get to be, they will get worse technically after they pass a certain age - even if they are still improving in musical understanding and interpretation.

If they start at the same young  age but do not optimize their work on the instrument, their actual arch will be lower.

If they start to play at an older age, their arch may approach their maximum possible arch, but will never reach it.

As suggested, you should get some help from a teacher or a really good violinist who can interpret your difficulties. I can tell you, from 70 years of hacking away on my instruments, that one can learn so much from face-to-face encounters with better players - especially teachers and coaches. Just the right single minute with the right person can change your life.



February 17, 2011 at 05:54 PM ·

Sorry bill, spelling was never my strong point. But I mentioned the motorbikes because I prefer their sound to a Suzuki player ... (wink)

Lisa - yes I've seen that video ...

February 17, 2011 at 05:54 PM ·

You guys have no idea how privileged I'm feeling right now, reading your input! Thank you so much for taking the time to help me.

Yes, I'm desperate for a teacher, even if it is only for lessons now and then. Desperate. But they don't want even see me. I explain my problem on the phone and I think they must believe I'm not serious enough and that it'd be a waste of time to lose their time with somebody like myself. A few of the teachers I've contacted have told me so (in kinder words).

I'm sure a teacher would spot a world of things I'm probably doing wrong. I'm even looking for teacher at the places I have to go for work, but I haven't found yet. I look for teacher even when I'm vacationing.

I'll concentrate on playing the pieces the best I can (there is always room for improvement, of course), and try to speed them up.

The suggestion I should study the composers: I've done that. I've always been fond of classical music, so, I've read a lot about it. I play my pieces with orchestra (I've purchased software which can slow down recordings, so I can play along my favorite CDs).

Like suggested, I'll continue to work with the metronome, increasing one beat at a time. I've been a bit more daring than that (about 3 beats at a time), but I'll try to be more patient.

I would love to try other bows, or violins, but I'm too self-conscious to play in a violin shop, in front of other customers and the sellers.

I didn't know strings could slow you down (and bows). Could anyone suggest me a brand of strings I should try? 

I'm in love with my bow, but I would also consider purchasing another one.

I've remarked I sometimes tense my fingers when playing fast (almost gripping the fingerboard). I've also remarked I lift my fourth finger too much. I'm working on these issues. Relaxing left hand is easy, if I'm aware I was tense.

I've read one should have a very light touch when playing fast, like almost harmonic. Is it true?

Would anyone suggest studies? I have Kreutzer and I do the 2nd everyday, but it is the only one I do. Should I go one by one, in sequence?

By the way, I'm 42.

Thank you very much for your help. And thank you very much for suggesting books. I'll be looking for them tomorrow!



February 17, 2011 at 06:15 PM ·

Aha - 42 is not old at all. I know beginning players in that age range that are doing very well indeed. But you just can't rush the speed at which you progress. Some of the string players in our community orchestra started at that age.

Such considerations as the chinrest and the shoulder rest (if any) you use might make a difference in your playing ability. I consider these to comprise the "support system."

You sound very serious about this - and to get over your fear of playing in a violin shop, I suggest you work up one of your pieces to "perfection" - at your tempo and go in to a shop to try other instruments, other bows, other chinrests - and shoulder rests. The right chinrest is a very individual thing (like fitting a shoe) although most people don't seem to know that and will add all kinds of other accessories to make their instruments comfortable to play with the chinrest that came on it originally. I had been playing for 30 years before I found the right chinrest for myself - and now, 40 years later, it is still the right one - the only right one of the dozen (plus) that I have tried.

With the wrong "support" system, one is likely to grip the neck too tightly and even use the left-hand muscles wrong - to say nothing of the damage you may do to your skin, jaw, neck, and spine.

An improperly balanced bow (and yes, they do sell them) makes it very difficult to play certain passages well - same is true of a poorly re-haired bow (too much hair can make a bow really mushy).


February 17, 2011 at 06:31 PM ·

OMG Caroline, you are a spring chicken. You've got plenty of time to learn! Then again, I thought it too daunting to re-start in my late 30s. I sort of gave up and play guitar mostly. But maybe, just maybe I'll play viola instead.

Do what Andrew says and you'll make progress and appreciate it. I understand the trepidation about playing out. Do work on it, though. The shop-owners want to sell you equipment--they won't mind :-) Then again, you are in Paris. If you are an American in Paris, then maybe I understand. Read "French or Foe" and then you'll know what to do.

All the technical (as opposed to technique) stuff is hard-learned and inter-related. As Andrew says, the chinrest is possibly more important than the shoulder rest and the latter won't work well without the former. Then again, I know an accomplishe conservatoire-trained player who uses a shouldre rest with no chinrest at all--that works for her.

The strings are also related to the fiddle. A pair of steel strings might work great on one fiddle, and terrible on the next. Generally, Thomastic Dominants work well on most everything. Or so it seems. (The setup affects the string choice....or vice versa.....)

To know what Andrew means, you do need to go out and try stuff. If you are diligently through Suzuki Book 5 then you should have enough time on the fiddle to notice some things about bows, and fiddles, and strings. Go to shops and try them. Heck, it is Paris! You should have a b;last!

February 17, 2011 at 07:16 PM ·

Dear Andrew,

from the beginning, I've understood I needed a different chinrest than the one which came with my violin. I've tried things, till I've found one that's quite tall and centered. My shoulder rest is also a good one (for me), because it can be adjusted in all possible directions. I feel quite comfortable with this setup, and I don't lift my shoulder, nor do I cling to the violin with my chin (I've installed mirrors in my music room to check posture out).

Oh, and I'm serious about the fiddle. I don't leave home without it, and I've got a whole assortment of mutes, so that I can play at hotels. I've gone as far as practicing at airports, when flights are delayed. I look for the farthest corner, and I practice. I've already practiced Bach at an airport restroom. And I've taken my violin hiking in Peru and Malaysia. My violin climbs and skis. Oh, and it loves kayaking.


Dear Bill,

I don't wanna be negative about people; one should never generalize, nor be unfair with people who aren't here to defend themselves, but I must say, my experience in the violin shops is all, but positive. It was a struggle to get my chin and shoulder rests. I prefer to purchase my stuff in Italy, or Portugal, where I go often for work. I'm sure there are fantastic shop owners/sellers in Paris. I just haven't found them yet. It surely is my fault. I speak French, but, it seems, not good enough.

You talk about Suzuki book 5: was it a typo (because I'm on book 4), or are you also suggesting I could move on to book 5?


I'll be reading all the replies again and taking notes, so that I don't miss a thing.

February 17, 2011 at 07:30 PM ·

Dear Kathryn,

thank you again for the suggestions! I'm taking notes and I'll look for the references tomorrow.


Dear Elise,

I have problem with both slurred and individual notes at fast tempo. I think it is a left hand problem, more than a right hand one. Sometimes I have a synchronization problem, but I can improve it by working on it. It's like string crossings: I have problems, but it is sufficient to practice the problematic areas to see improvement (practicing string crossings with open strings sorts me out). What I really seem to be stuck at is the speed at which I can move my left hand fingers with accuracy. I have the impression I always play  flat when playing fast, and my fingers sometimes hit the wrong string (two strings, instead of one), or make wrong note, because of accidentally strumming a string (when playing fast) -  I mean sort of like a accidental pizzicato.

February 17, 2011 at 08:21 PM ·

What I really seem to be stuck at is the speed at which I can move my left hand fingers with accuracy.

This is a problem everyone faces--you're not alone, and it has nothing to do with age.   It takes time and patience and a lot of hard, and even boring, practice to make progress.  So don't be discouraged--just keep at it.  And, as everyone else has noted, you're not that late a beginner.

One thing I think can help you increase your speed without sacrificing accuracy is to practice scales in all the keys, in groups of three and four notes, and in various rhythms.  Start very slowly to hear the notes correctly and get the feel for the placement of the fingers.  Then build up speed up very gradually over time.    Try the acceleration exercise for scales--play two notes to a bow, three notes, four notes, six notes and eight notes, keeping the time-value of each bow stroke the same.  Definitely use a metronome.  Do arpeggios, too, for nailing down accuracy in shifting.

This is a good scale book, if you don't have one already:

An exercise book designed to increase finger dexterity:

Follow Kathryn Woodby's advice about using the metronome to gradually increase speed.

Good luck with your practicing!


February 17, 2011 at 09:05 PM ·

Hey, you're still young! I didn't start until I was in my 50's. I still am in my 50's, but I find that when I relax and just play something, the speed is controlled by my ear more than anything else. I don't sight read, so I have to memorize to do that, but that's not the problem. Thinking too much while playing is a problem.

February 17, 2011 at 09:12 PM ·

Schradieck school of violin technique is the bible for finger speed and dexterity.  Start on page 1 and slowly work your way through it.  It can take 5 years or more to get through the whole book.

February 18, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·

42?  I have milk older than that!


February 18, 2011 at 10:37 PM ·

42?  Isn't that the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything?  I'm 60, and I've been studying violin for a year and a half (although I've been playing guitar and mandolin for much longer).

For me, one of the signs I'm trying to play too fast is that my left and right hands get out of sync.  I'm getting more conscientious about slowing down until I can play a piece cleanly.  My teacher has given me a wide variety of material, including some of the Wohlfahrt etudes, and this week he started me on Kreutzer.  His goal isn't to get a piece concert-ready, but good enough to impart some basic principles.  Then we move on to something else.  But occasionally I'll go back to a previous piece, and darned if it's not suddenly easier to play, and cleaner too - not to mention just a bit faster.

Keep at it.  One thing I've learned is that unlike many other things, violin just needs lots of time.

February 19, 2011 at 01:16 PM ·

Playing fast passages up to speed has less to do with age than it has to do with the correct technique and it is more a mental thing.

Nuggets of wisdom here.  When I started back up after a 25 year absence from the violin scene, I had lots of bad habits.  A few lessons with a very good teacher fixed those quickly.  But playing fast?  That's another issue.

At first, an arpeggio or run was just black blur.  I could play them very slowly, one note at a time.  But playing them up to speed escaped me.

I kept at it.  I played s-l-o-w-l-y and bumped up the speed a little at a time.  I kept thinking of all the people I taught to shoot, telling them "You can't be good fast, until you're good slow."  The incremental approach really works., but it takes time.

From time to time, I would hit a wall on a particular passage.  I found that setting up a very fast tremolo, then working the left hand into it helped me jump the gap.  I could get the right hand going, without having to concentrate on sync'ing up.  Once the left hand caught up with right, I could dial down the speed.

I still struggle with fast stuff, and will just sit with the music and figure out the  best positions and fingering to streamline things.

February 19, 2011 at 08:19 PM ·


trya dotted rhythm practicing. assume u have a run of 16th notes, pair them up, and play each pair fast, with a short rest between the pairs. ie play notes 1,2, rest.....3,4, rest.....5,6......then switch pairs. play note 1,rest......playe notes 2, notes 4,5.....etc.... do this type of pattern several times. then combine and play the group normally. if you have the patience and discipline ( not my strong point), it works quite well. good luck

February 21, 2011 at 01:47 AM ·

That's too bad you can't find a teacher.  I agree that you need someone to see/hear what you're doing and help you with your issues.

I don't quite see why a teacher wouldn't be interested in adult students though - unless they're only taking students with super-star potential.


February 22, 2011 at 02:00 AM ·


I'm very close to your age and am currently tackling some very fast separated bow passages.  The first thing that I try to focus on is staying relaxed.  Tension is a killer both for left hand accuracy, coordination between the left & right, not to mention eventual searing pain.

For my left hand, I practice slurred to make sure the left hand articulation is even and clear.  I try to keep my fingers very low to the fingerboard, and sometimes during practice actually allow them all to touch the string very lightly and then let them drop (not press) onto the string for each note.  It sounds horrible, but it is a very good exercise.

For my right hand, I'll practice the passage without fingering any of the notes, just open strings.  String crossings for me are a challenge.  They sometimes cause me to get behind the metronome.  This is often caused by changing the angle between the bow and string to dramatically between crossings.  Sometimes I practice the string crossing transition as a double-stop.

Putting the two together - Simon Fisher's "Practice" has an excellent exercise for right and left hand coordination towards the beginning of the book.  Essentially it is practicing in rhythms - trying to force your left hand to be 'early'. 

I do hope that you find a teacher who can be a good match for you.  It can be especially challenging as an adult beginner to find that match.  When I first started playing again after a 25 year long viola sabbatical, I contacted the local children's music school who recommended me to one of their teachers.  Granted, it was a little odd waiting for lessons with a bunch of 4-8 year olds and their parents, but it was worth it.  It always made me smile when one of the kids called me "teacher" and asked for help with their theory workbooks.

February 22, 2011 at 02:54 PM ·

I had to laugh when I saw (very old) in the title, and then found out you're my age. :p)

After picking up the fiddle again after so many lost years, I find that speed isn't my problem, but accuracy is. Especially my stubby pinky. I need to stretch that little guy sometimes and it throws off the rest of my fingering. That's what I get for being old and inflexible.

My hearing is still very good so any tiny error in intonation is a glaring error to my ears. It's going to take a while for my aging bod to catch up.

If we started at age 3 and kept on playing throughout our lives, it probably wouldn't be an issue, unless arthritis set in. Look at how Milstein played during his last performance at the young age of 82!


February 24, 2011 at 01:35 PM ·

 Hi Caroline, I also had to laugh when I saw your age, I am 44 and also started at 42 after a 26 year hiatus, having only spent a couple of high school years at it back then.  I'm quite convinced that I'm still a spring chicken so no bursting my bubble please.......

As for learning to play fast, I can quote many of the above recommendations as regular prose from my teacher.  That is, play well slow before fast, break the piece into smaller and smaller chunks or notes and get them completely right before speeding up, low fingers to the board, light grip, loose left thumb, shorter bows at balance point of bow preferably, use a metronome for better control, read ahead as you play for preparation.  As you can see, speed relates almost completely to how well you know the piece, get a new piece and you are often back to square 1, slowly slowly.  And putting the above ideals into practice to where they become second nature, can take a long time in my opinion.  They need to be consolidated individually, otherwise you will find that you cannot progress much in the speed department without sacrificing accuracy, such as intonation.

I do hope you can source a good teacher somewhere, even if you only see them once a month, its better than nothing.  

Best of luck with this :)

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