How to go from good to great

January 17, 2012 at 04:22 PM ·

Replies (56)

January 17, 2012 at 08:21 PM · There's a book called 'The Musicians way which is an overview of practice strategies, memorization, performance techniques. It should give you a starting point

January 17, 2012 at 08:31 PM · This is really a question for your teacher(s). See if they can give you some good advice on this issue.

January 17, 2012 at 09:23 PM · Your question is very broad; so it's hard to offer much input, especially without hearing and seeing your playing. Keep in mind that whether you're good, let alone great, is really a matter of opinion; and you're apt to get as many opinions of your playing as you have audience members.

I second what the previous posters said about The Musician's Way and this being a matter for your teachers to address. I sense from what you wrote that you're not satisfied with your level -- and that's a good sign. I've long heard -- in fact, I started hearing it even before I began violin -- that a true artist is never satisfied. There's always something higher to reach for.

What helps me, now that I'm out of school and no longer have a teacher, is to keep pushing a little beyond the comfort zone with new material -- and, at the same time, keep reviewing some points of technique each day. Record yourself, if you aren't doing this already. As my teachers said, be very critical of yourself.

January 17, 2012 at 09:28 PM · Hi,

it seems to me some of the kids here are either joking or are lacking any form of self-assessment.

"Am I a prodigy?"

"How can I stand out?"

"How to go from good to great?"

"I've always been a good violinist and my pieces sound good, mostly in tune"

- are you yourself saying you are good or is it the judgement of your momma?

As a teacher I say "mostly in tune" (this was at least honest) may be ok, depending on the level. But not *good* at all. Who would want to listen to sb playing "mostly" in tune, exept a mum listening to her little one?

And "great" is only suited to artists, like Perlman, Hahn, Heifetz etc.

This is not meant to discourage anyone. Greatness is achieved by outstanding talent and outstanding amounts of work.

Back to practising. See you in 10 years.

January 18, 2012 at 12:34 AM · Tobias, it's not just the kids;P

January 18, 2012 at 01:20 AM · Hi Meghan,

Whilst Tobias makes a good point about some posters not apparently understanding their true abilities, when I read your question I felt that you have genuinely assessed your position and have seen the need to improve. As you are not a beginner, you are obviously aware of the kind of study required to achieve a good level of ability and given that, you are now seeking pointers on fine-tuning your efforts. Improvements in the way we practice can easily be made, so that we are not wasting precious time simply slogging through pieces at an average level without learning much.

Challenging ourselves in small and great ways also helps, and I echo the very good points Jim has made so far, especially in regard to recording yourself and critical analysis. As far as more precise pointers go, perhaps if you give us some idea of what level you are at, you may get a more accurate response. Good luck.

January 18, 2012 at 03:11 AM ·

January 18, 2012 at 03:47 AM · My insight is that you are one heck of a young lady - all the more so for getting thus far and wanting to get a lot further.

Much further, I hasten to add, than I can currently dream of...

The difference between the good and the great is really not in the playing (you aren't good unless you have the technical chops) but in the musicallity. You might want to explore some other forms of violin playing to really diversify and mature your vision. Even if you plan to stay in clalssical music you will need your own vision. Look at Menuhin and his gypsy influence. IMO it permeates his music and gave him a true indivisual style and message. Seek what you love to hear and feel and then see if you can bring that into what you want to say.

[Edit - I got the Menuhin story wrong! See below...]

January 18, 2012 at 09:55 AM · Menuhin and his Gypsy influence.

This is interesting, I have studied his '6 lessons' and read his biography. I can not recall any mention of 'Gypsy Influence'...

Can you give references to this topic?

January 18, 2012 at 10:00 AM · As far as I know Lord Menuhin learned note by note of his part, before he performed with Grapelli.

Big fun, but also big fake.

The guy could play, but not improvise.

January 18, 2012 at 01:26 PM · Be open to criticism but not overcome by it. Realize that not everyone will have your best interest at heart when they provide feedback. You have been brought to this point in your life for a purpose. You already have tremendous knowledge and understanding and passion and as you progress through school you will gain even more but the guidance of even the best intentioned will often be contradictory and perhaps confusing. The only Teacher that can guide you to success is found in the God given small still voice within you. Best regards. David.

January 18, 2012 at 02:03 PM · Henry - I just tried to find it but I'm obviously hopelessly wrong! I must be confusing this with someone else. Sorry....

Fascinating to read though, according to one account his early training was almost trial and error (hope thats not wrong too!).

January 18, 2012 at 02:19 PM · Hard to know what you are really asking. Are you asking us whether you should concentrate more on studies? Or on certain areas of repertoire? How would we know this? I agree with one of the earlier posts -- you've got to get with your teacher and spend part of a lesson talking about this. If you cant talk about this with your teacher then you need a different teacher. But of course when you go to Cleveland or Manhattan you will have one. One thing I bet you will find is that going forward might just involve a few steps backward, especially if you change teachers. If you're playing "mostly in tune" don't be surprised if some of the flashy repertoire comes off the table in favor of solo Bach, especially the sarabandes and other slower movements. Please remember that in addition to first-class violin training you also need an education. Don't deprive yourself of that. And you need to be mentally flexible and open minded. Read a good book once in a while. And it certainly helps to be in good physical condition -- that takes proper food, exercise (likely including some kind of yoga), and don't forget rest.

January 18, 2012 at 08:12 PM · Mastery of all technical and expressive details, musicality, and humanity. Being able to put every little nuance where you want it, and still come from the heart. If you haven't, I suggest reading some great artists-auer, galamian, delay, and stern have been some of my recent vision-opening reads.

January 18, 2012 at 08:12 PM · Mastery of all technical and expressive details, musicality, and humanity. Being able to put every little nuance where you want it, and still come from the heart. If you haven't, I suggest reading some great artists-auer, galamian, delay, and stern have been some of my recent vision-opening reads.

January 18, 2012 at 09:24 PM · Tobias that was potentially cruel and unhelpful. Of course "good" and "great" are relative, but that doesn't mean nobody should try to strive for the next level. I don't see any purpose to your post except to put down somebody whose playing you've never even heard.

Incidentally if somebody asks me who my favorite violinist is I would answer "Milstein" without hesitation, but I would say he only plays "mostly in tune". That type of perfectionist attitude results in people watching videos of Julia Ficher give a wonderful (and on a purely technical level unbelievable) performance of the Mendelssohn concerto, isolating one out of tune shift, and posting a comment like "4:32 WTF".

Hey Meghan, hope you are well. I remember you from ARIA a few years ago.

Of course if somebody here actually knew how to answer your question they probably wouldn't have time to waste on the internet....

January 18, 2012 at 09:51 PM · Joseph wrote: Of course if somebody here actually knew how to answer your question they probably wouldn't have time to waste on the internet....

LOL! OTOH if they were truly that great they would have all the time in the world.

My plans for the evening: cup of coffee, game of tennis, paint a few pictures, fix the plumbing, go for drinks and to the club - oh, play Carmen Fantasy at the Met, - go for drinks, plan ski trip....

January 18, 2012 at 10:00 PM · Sounds like Fritz Kreisler. Except you forgot the part about being a medical doctor.

I believe his secret was never practicing because it "cramps the technique" and the challenge of performing a piece he didn't really know provided the mental focus to produce an exceptional performance (!). Not a model to imitate in my opinion.

January 18, 2012 at 10:24 PM · Artists like Milstein, Fischer (and any great artist) have no problem with a decent reality check.

I don't see how caressing their ego should help young people.

I am used to talk straightforwardly, and my students and friends appreciate this.

January 18, 2012 at 10:27 PM · Hi,

There is a difference between honest talk that helps us develop and

"Who told you THAT? YO MOMMA??"

which is the gist of your first post. Auer has some interesting discussion on hurting a student's pride to help them develop (in which he claims to have driven Elman to tears) in his book, but it's clear that this is a technique that can easily become abuse.

January 18, 2012 at 10:55 PM · Keep in mind that I'm a german. We are known to be rude.

January 18, 2012 at 11:35 PM · Greetings,

`hang onto your deck chairs boys.` (Anglo\Deutsch relations joke).

Question is vague but is not a bad starting point. There is something to pick up on straight away. You say you play `mostly in tune.` It may just be a figure of speech or it may refelct a very critical self awarness , or somewhere in between. But I would suggest that given the places/excellence you are aiming for that is quite a significant comment. For all the talk about musicality art and the like -intonation- is paramount. It is not a coincidence that the two players I personally feel were among the elite of the elite during the 20c (Casals and Szigeti) constantly harped on this theme. Casals: `good intonation is a moral issue.` Szigeti : `There is -no substitute= for good intonation.`

So we might be talking about two things you can do. First of all, sensitize your ear more. There is of course, no limit to this exercise for anyone;) As well as your cobnventional scale practic eof thirds, 6ths and octave (yawn) spend a greta deal of time on 2nds, 4ths -and- 7ths. This really sharpens the tehcnique.

Second we may be talking about a lack of necessray correct repetition. If this is the case then please consult Drew Lechers rather old post on `repetition hits.` It has been slightly misunderstood on ocassion so I wrote a blog designed to complement this explanation which I think was called `Repetitioon hits a humble stab at explanation>@ Using those key words should enable you to find both blogs. I can assure you the tehcnique is worth a greta dela of thought. It deserves to be much better known.

The other reason why people are ofteh frustrated is lack of awarness of what they are really doing. In order to observe this cloise up it may be necessary to work at an extremely slow pace, stopping on a note, noting any unnecessary , habitual @micro-movemnts- that actually translate into inefficiency at normal speed and eliminating this problem. Cleaning out the junk -between- the notes is a major task for the majority of studnets and one rarel;y undertaken. The result being years of frustration down the line. Clayton Haslop has written extensivley on this subject and his blogs are woiorth a careful review.

Hope this helps a little,


January 19, 2012 at 04:14 AM · I remember you Joseph! Hope all is well at Oberlin. I was actually there in October taking a lesson and ran into Danielle unexpectedly.

January 19, 2012 at 12:01 PM · As otherers including Buri have said, this question starts at the wrong place.

Do you mean great as in Heifetz or pretty good as in Menuhin? Ot just good enough to make a living in some orchestra?

You should aim to be the greatest - at the top - and then you might make back desk of some lousy orchestra. OR you might make it pretty big time, in the end you have to get on and do it. Sorry to be tough, but it's a hard world out there.

You will have to re-arrange your method of thinking rather than asking such things on this forum.

Tobias, I have to take issue with you about being German and being rude. You can't compete with us Brits, we are the rudest race around, in every sense ...

January 19, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Follow that part of which is great and you shall become great;

Follow that part of you which is not great and you shall not become great;

Therefore genius is largely a matter of choice.

(A Chinese philosopher a few hundred years ago)

January 19, 2012 at 01:42 PM · Hi Meghan. It sounds like you are already coming along quite well. Once you are in a conservatory your new teacher, the competition, and the whole milieu will help you sort things out, and provide a lot of stmulus for you. As I've said elsehere, the most important thing is not WHAT you play, but HOW you play. Is your piece in your fingers, techinically? Are you bringing informed isight, and personal flair to your interpretation, w.o. going too far afield, etc.?

"Great" is not an exact place. Keep working on improving your instrumental authority and interpretive education and imagination. It's a constant journey.

And everyone, just fyi, MY country - BROOKLYN - is well known as the attitude capital of the whole %#@** world! F'GETABOUDIT!

January 19, 2012 at 01:44 PM · Oh no Raphael, we Brits are the most awkward b******* in the world!! You are far too nice!!!

January 19, 2012 at 07:21 PM · Greetings,

Raphael, the brilliant linguist Labov did a study of the use of the word "#$% by the inhabitants of your district and conlcluded that the use of obscenities was so standardized that such words assumed a grammatical rather than semantic function. Thus their actual degree of rudeness is diminished to the point where such claims to rudeness are considerably diminished.

We Brits are hanging in there...



January 19, 2012 at 07:46 PM · You guys are all wrong. When it comes to rudeness or straight-shooting, none can compete a Chinese, especially if she is a woman.

Never thought this could be a privilege to claim in a social setting like this:)

January 19, 2012 at 08:11 PM · Yixi, I used to go to the Wong Kei restaurant in Soho, London. I know about Chinese rude - but it seemed the more they respected you, the ruder they were.

"Sit THERE!" "You finiSHED? Pay over there."

"Ah, you been before. GO UPSTAIRS!"



To become a great musician, you have to dig deeper - go behind the curtain, study the other side of the carpet. Get your theory together, undstand how rhythm works.

I know very few straight players who have a clue about these things. Most just master the instrument and how to read, but they do not master music, or how to play. And I mean PLAY.

Timing does things to the listener. Why? because of the expectations you induce in them, and how you deliver (or not) what they expect when they expect it.

Intonation is not something you get from a piano. Listen to how each tome relates to the tonal centre, and how it relates to the tone that comes next. Take time over that.

Ask - what is the underlying structure of this piece. Ask, how can I make this sound clear to a listener who has never heard this before. Ask, where are the phrase boundaries, how does this resolve, which are the chord tones? What aspect of this melodic contour should I emphasise?

Anyone can play the notes in tune and in time, given time to practise and decent guidance.

Turning that into music is another business, and requires extra work, and only points the way to the door that opens onto the path, that leads into the maze whose exit is greatness.


January 19, 2012 at 08:36 PM · Somma yous guys gotta problem wit my gramma an' syntax or what? I gotcha fancy Labov right here. Badda bing, badda boom!

(And that's how mature adults go from good to great! Or is that rather, from good to absurd?)

January 19, 2012 at 09:28 PM · Graham said: "but it seemed the more they respected you, the ruder they were."

Yup. Some call it rudeness, other call it affection. Isn't this true everywhere?

Meghan, the more experienced pros have already given you really good advices. All I can say is that good on you for wanting to achieve excellence in playing the violin, whatever it really means at this point. In life, sometimes all we need is to snatch an impulse or a strong albeit vague desire for some kind of breakthrough. You may not know exactly what, how and where exactly to move forward, but the most important thing to do is to take a step and act on it – a journey starts. You are doing exactly the right thing. Congratulations! Keep us updated.

January 20, 2012 at 12:30 AM · Raphael, isn't the mark of a true Noo Yawkah how many times they can use the same obscenity in a sentence? "Can you %#$&in' believe that $%#&er %$#*ed that up so %$#*in' badly?"

January 20, 2012 at 01:47 AM · I'm trying to decode this topic. I'm not getting far - but I belive an % is phonetically either a 'B' or a 'F'. Except when its in chinese in which case its something about 'how you like your eggs'.

Next: what is an '&' ?

January 20, 2012 at 03:11 AM · Lisa - I dubb thee an honorary Noo Yawka! Now with just a touch more down-to-%#&@-earth attitude, you'll be an honorary Brooklynite!

January 22, 2012 at 03:53 AM · Haha wow I'm in a pretty similar position! So far, I've come up with...practice? xD oh the plight of the musician...

January 22, 2012 at 11:26 PM · Graham,

I used to frequent the Wong Kei. The cvhain saw massacre put me off for a couple of weeks once, but the dim sum lured me back.



January 23, 2012 at 07:30 AM · Dim sum for Buri? But there’s no such a thing as veggie dim sum.

Back to the topic, I think learned taste is the first step for acknowledging and achieving excellence. For instnace when it comes to food, the difference between good and great often is in the minor details that are only noticeable for those who have acquired certain taste. Say for instance, anyone can learn to make a decent cooked plain rice, but to have a great bowl of rice, you need to pick the same-year harvest rice and cooked at 80% of readiness when the rice is really moist but still have quite a bit of nutty texture. At this stage, all the "ricy" elements of a bowl of rice are at their peak before the rice going to the usual spongy lumps you usually get. But if you present this bowl of rice to someone other than a rice connoisseur, he might tell you that the rice is undercooked. Is this a matter of subject taste? I think not.

January 23, 2012 at 09:43 AM · Yixi - I think I agree and you are right.

If we talk of fiddlers instead of rice - that is why certain soloists are rather poor in my and some others opinions, but quite acceptable and very well cooked for others!!

January 23, 2012 at 06:11 PM · Yixi, I think that there is such a thing as veggie dim sum. You just have to define "veggie" as anything that a stereotypical red-neck American won't eat, like tripe or chicken feet.

$#@*%&^, now I'm hungry.

February 11, 2012 at 04:18 AM ·

February 11, 2012 at 09:20 AM · CONGRATS!!

:) :)

February 11, 2012 at 10:38 AM · You have to have a defintion of "good" and "great."

You may think you are good but others may not. You may think someone a great player but again others may not. It's all a matter of opinion.

The best way to think is to consider yourself pretty bad (at whatever level you are at) and then you might have a chance to get better. But at the same time have a positive attitude. (I have a friend who when a student here in London was told by an eminent teacher that he would never make it and that he was rubbish. He now teaches at more than one prestigious college and has led professional orchestras and has also played in professional chamber music for over 30 years).

February 11, 2012 at 12:15 PM · one of my teachers said sometimes to a quite good violinist in a lesson something like that: " it is a lot of work to get where you are, but its more than double the work to go to get the last edge to be really good."

She meant, there are many violinists who are good, but what seperates them from the even better is not a small thing but a lot of more work. Simple as that, russian school... it can work

February 11, 2012 at 05:19 PM · It's the teacher - he or she determines how well you can do playing the violin. You should >love< to practice with your teacher and everything.

February 11, 2012 at 11:18 PM · Perhaps this topic has been covered to %$#&! death, but i had to weigh in and say that the thing that constantly excites me about the musical JOURNEY, the thing that gets me up and into the practice room, the thing that thrills me onstage, is the constant promise of new discovery, new things to learn and new ways to improve. There is no end to the adventure of a life given to the study of music. No matter how good or great you become, there will always be things to refine, explore more deeply, etc. When you can play a passage or piece with technical perfection, then you must fully embody and inhabit it and that takes a lifetime, perhaps many. I hope that doesn't sound discouraging, it's not meant to...after all what would be the point if there were an end to the adventure?

February 11, 2012 at 11:40 PM · It does seem that the workload increases exponentially for each level of playing achieved, doesn't it?

February 11, 2012 at 11:42 PM · I would say it increases by quantum leaps...big packages of infinitely detailed things....

February 12, 2012 at 10:48 AM · I would say the last 15% takes 85% of the effort.

February 12, 2012 at 01:43 PM · Let's cut out the waffle and say that the journey is more important than the arrival (Unless you are pregnant ...)

February 12, 2012 at 02:22 PM · I think to make that final last one percent no amount of practice will help, you either have "it" or you don't. I don't.

February 12, 2012 at 06:53 PM · Ray I don't think so at all. I really think, that everybody is able to reach nearly everything. but its a different matter when you start losing your focus on only the person and include the social environment. The ones who can go from good to best are most likely from a supporting, healthy and wealthy social background. And yes in this case: either you have it, or you don't. If you have to make money to pay expensive lessons, instruments and travels you will have a hard time practice as constantly and productively as someone who already got the money for our expensive and time consuming educational process. It totally depends on the parents or whoever takes care of one. Does that make sence to you too?

I have many violin students, they are all in a way able to reach something very good, but only a few have also the caring hand of the parents. Not starting to talk about the families, where a child really wants to play an instrument, but the family can only afford some plastic violin and never pay regular lessons. There is not a "talent" wasted, but a motivated student. Talent is in everybody.

Its like plants: If you have a good ground everything will grow into its full potential. If you have bad ground, they will all look the same, weather good or bad, they will look bad. You can definetely not grow a good seed it bad environment but you can get a healthy plant with bad seed if you have good ground and enough sun ;) I believe we are all under our potential due to too much distraction from our bad environment!

February 12, 2012 at 07:42 PM · I have to disagree with you Mr. Streuff. Some people simple cannot become great doctors and physicians,pilots, or a good politician (1 in a 1000 maybe:) etc, no matter how much they apply themselves towards that goal. The same is true for the violin. One can only take the lot and the abilities God has given us and make the most of them. However, that does not mean anyone can be the best.


February 12, 2012 at 08:22 PM · Master Dukes -

Why bring God into it?

I would say you need a few years more experience under your belt before you pontificate with such authority.

February 12, 2012 at 08:53 PM · Why not bring God into it? Isn't He the master and creator of everything?(depending on what you believe) That seems a good enough reason for me. And no I don't think I'm too young to voice my opinions. Everyone can learn something from anyone else.


February 12, 2012 at 10:50 PM · I disagree to the existense of god and that not everybody can be some kind of a "great" conductor coming from the right background.

I know many so called "musician families", who's children are all going to be top professionals. The things you notice there isn't talent, its drill and dedication, good teachers and eary starting (taught by parents). Becoming something great in my opinion has to do with two facts: education (wich equals inelligence to a certain level (ok now we things get complicated if you believe in something like a inborn IQ... and god (sorry))), and dedication.

From myself i know, that I would not know what I know, if I haven't learned it somehow. And fortunately I haven't forgotten this fact or otherwise I would be a bad teacher. And the so called "talent" to me is the "Das Glück des Tüchtigen" (the luck of somehone who works for it). Its the moments of flying, wich you can grow on the ground of organising successfully your life for a greater goal such as music with all your energy and intelligence. Thats what I believe in. If god works for you, this will not.

I know that some things come easier to some people due to better inborn abilities, better nerv system, muscles etc. but I know that everybody comes sometimes to the point where you have to work on yourself. As a technically developed violinist, you maybe have to work on your personality before someone will really consider you as "great". As an great personality with something to say, you may work on technical perfection in order to be allowed to play somewhere where you can reach a big and interested audience. If you grow up with music, it will feel natural to you. But thats not because its inborn, but because its part of your life since you are on earth and you learn it as you learn to speak... same age... intuitively. Doesn't that makes sence to you?

p.s. dukes: I don't think you are too young to say your opinion, definetely not! I like some disagreement. It shows that someone cares about the topic! But we better not talk about religion now ;) I refer here to "george carlin on religion" (find it on youtube, have a big laugh and good night)

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