Could I make it as a professional violinist?

March 14, 2012 at 06:04 AM · Hi all! My name is Caitlin, I’m 13 years old and I love playing the violin. :) I could go into great description why I do, but I’ll just jump right to the point.

I’ve only been playing since I was about 11 (2-3 years now). As high school nears and I set more goals for myself, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do once I go to college. For the past month, I’ve been debating whether or not becoming a professional violinist could be a possible pathway for me. I wanted to ask you all for your opinions – do you think it’d be doable for someone like me who started so late?

A bit about me and my level right now: I recently switched violin teachers (my last teacher overestimated me and never gave me any technique training) and I’ll be having my first lesson with him this weekend. He’s a well-respected teacher and promises to completely rework my technique with lots of etudes/scales, and give me some student-level concertos as well (Accolay, etc.) I’m a first violinist in an intermediate-level orchestra as well as concertmaster at my school orchestra – but that’s not really something to be proud of. I’ve played piano since I was four, and I’m probably a lot more talented in it but I know for sure I enjoy playing the violin more (again, could go into detail about this but I’ll skip it). I’m nowhere near as good as any of the child prodigies out there. However, I truly love the violin and want to make something out of it.

I know there have been similar topics about this but I just wanted to get your opinions on my particular situation. Do you think I could make a good living as a professional violinist if I choose to major in music? I know it’s not realistic to try to be the next Sarah Chang, but I’d definitely like to be a member of an orchestra or two that could support me. In my wildest dreams I see myself as a first violinist in a world-class orchestra, but I’m not sure if that could happen. Ideally, I see myself in 15 years as a first violinist in a respectable orchestra or two and maybe substituting for a top-tier one. I’m willing to practice hours a day if that’s what it takes (the good thing about starting late is that you have more willpower)! But before I decide to focus on violin so much, do you guys think that’s a reasonable goal for me? And if not, how far do you think I could get?

I don’t want a sugarcoated answer; I want your honest opinions. Thank you!

Replies (36)

March 14, 2012 at 06:47 AM · Caitlin,

There have been many similar posts recently, and you are sure to get the whole gamut of answers, ranging from "go for it" to "it's impossible you're nuts." The fact is, there is no way for anyone to make that prediction. 11 is rather late, but I started at 11 or 12 and make a living at it. (It's definitely better than 18 or 21 as some posters have been. Then you're talking seriously late.)

The fact is, we don't know your physical, mental, or emotional capabilities. Can you learn very quickly and retain knowledge? Do you have good muscle memory? Can you play under pressure? Do you have a concept of sound? Do you have fast fingers? Good ears? I have talented young students, but even having taught them for some time now, it would be very difficult to say with certainty that they have ALL that it takes to make a living at it. Also keep in mind that in so many ways, you will not be the same person at 22 that you are now. It may not be a satisfying answer, but the fact is none of us can really know because we don't know YOU.

March 14, 2012 at 08:26 AM · Hey, you seem to be a very reasonable person, with a very informed assessment of your own standing in the world of violin. Just like you, I began piano at 4 and violin at 11. I was also concertmaster of my public school orchestra, but unlike you, I didn't have a firm grasp of what was ahead of me or what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be. I ended up being crushed in college, but after I moved to AK, I dug up my violin, practiced hard, and,under the careful study of various gurus in the internet world, was able to join a semi-professional orchestra and happily fill a studio of hungry students.

Consider teaching. If you don't like teaching, find other venues to support yourself while you build your repertoire. (The best teachers find themselves compelled to help others, and search for ways to communicate ideas.) I hope you possess this drive to share your knowledge.

Hopefully, your new teacher will give you a clear view of your future and provide a navigable path. Your job is to practice effectively, to be honest with yourself, to believe in yourself, and to shoot at the stars. Remember, though: even stars require aim.

March 14, 2012 at 01:05 PM · Hi Catlin. You sound like a mature young person, and express yourself very well. I might have given the same answer as Scott almost verbatum, including the fact that I, too, began about your age, and I'm a professional. Emily also gave you good food for thought.

Your new teacher is indeed the one to pose your questions to - but not at the 1st lesson! Wait at least 6 months or so. Even if you get good enough to become a professional player, you need to understand that it is very difficult to make a living as a professional performer and has been for a very long time. What the socio-economic situation will be 10 years from now is anybody's guess. You ought to have a back-up plan tp help support yourself. Just keep that in mind somewhere. Meanwhile at this point just work hard and carefully. When you're in highschool and are considering colleges, that will be an important point for re-assesment. And keep loving the violin and music. Good luck!

March 14, 2012 at 04:16 PM · It's possible you may get more joy from the violin if you end up going the amateur/semi-pro route (i.e., getting the absolute best training you can, practicing a lot, going for every musical opportunity you can, but not working as a professional performing musician)... I'm not a full-time professional performing musician, never will be, but I'm subbing with a local semi-pro group and playing with some professionals. Every rehearsal has been a miracle of excitement and new discovery for me, no matter how tired or distracted I am. I've had moments where I've thought to myself, I wish I could do this forever, I wish I could do it always, every single day of my life!!!...but realistically, I know it wouldn't be so special if I was doing it week in and week out for year after year.

Not saying what you should or shouldn't do, just wanted to share my personal experience, that sometimes you actually get more joy out of music when performing is not your primary profession.

March 14, 2012 at 04:45 PM · Caitlin,

One thing I didn't mention was the other unknowable: the state of classical music and teaching 10 -15 years from now when you will attempt to begin earning a living. If you said you wished to do something in computers, we could say that there would doubtless be opportunity, although we couldn't say in exactly which areas that would be, especially as new areas are constantly popping up (social networking) or disappearing (the PC?).

It is likewise difficult to make about the state of classical music but we can make some likely generalizations.

The first is that classical music saw its heyday some 40 years ago, and is in a state of a gently and ever-declining plateau.

Most orchestras slog along, but there won't be any growth to accommodate new graduates. In other words, no new orchestras popping up.

School string programs are in the same state: there only seems to be attrition and not growth. In my area, 4th and 5th grade strings were recently eliminated. That means fewer teachers are needed, both private and classroom. And less work for luthiers.

And so many kids now are from single-parent or split households that the learning of a classical instrument is not an option. Quite often I hear from a parent "Johnny was with Dad all week and his Dad hates to hear him practice." I also heard a Dad say "I want him to take lessons but his mom thinks it's for sissies."

Other sources of income for string players peaked a few decades ago. In the 70s, large string sections were in vogue in country music and one could go to Nashville and make a living doing sessions. That has mostly dried up with the movement of the studios to cheaper places and with the string sound falling out of fashion. A few years ago, a conservatory grad in NY could get freelance work or could count on Broadway shows. Much of that has permanently dried up.

Social changes also affect classical music. The rate of marriage is in decline, so that means fewer weddings to play. Those that are getting married are in demographics that are less likely to want or be able to afford string players.

Classical music isn't dying out or likely to go away. I would just expect more of a very slow decline in opportunities and more of a "lottery effect" where just a few can really make it.

So as Raphael say, play, enjoy, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to pay the bills with it.

March 14, 2012 at 04:58 PM · Of course this is true. But the other side of the coin could be (and me speaking as an optimist) that people start coming back to serious music and maybe even more people will want to play for pleasure. That would re-kindle the concert halls and give more work to professional teachers and players.

But if I'm in a pessamistic mood, then the version Scott has portrayed may well happen.

It was good 40 + years ago when I was already playing in orchestras. I suppose the golden era was about 1950 - 1990 - a mere 40 years.

March 14, 2012 at 05:55 PM · Peter,

I'm not sure I'd call my view "pessimistic" so much as just realistic. While certain ideas come and go (the skinny suit now touted as fashion is a particularly silly example), it does seem to me that the activities that people enjoy have a certain lifespan. Some of these include:

-thoroughbred racing (so 1930s!)

-casino gambling (does anyone do this any more?)

-racketball (so 80s!)

-disco clubbing

-bowling leagues

-rollerblading

-pro sports (apparently the heyday of sports such as baseball and basketball has peaked with American viewers).

-Tennis

-Facebook (anyone still doing this?)

March 14, 2012 at 06:08 PM · according to John Sloboda, the world's leading Music Psychologist and Cognitive Scientist and professor of Keele University UK, in his groundbreaking book "Exploring the Musical Mind" (2005) in his study about musical ability he writes "We now have evidence from a number of biographically based research studies (Ericsson et al 1993, Sloboda and Howe 1991, Sosniac 1985) that confirms that music is no exception to the general rule that 'practice makes perfect'. The study of Ericsson et al. Shows that student violinists rated as excellent by their professors have, by the age of 21, accumulated an average around twice as many hours of practice over the lifespan (10,000 hours) as more average players (5000 hours). Sosniak, in a study of 24 top pianists in the USA, showed that none of them showed particular signs of exceptional ability at the outset of training. Exceptionality was something which developed gradually through the early years of formal training. Indeed, the notion that very early achievement is the normal precursor of adult excellence finds very little support in the documented research literature...It is not very easy for a young person to accumulate 10000 hours of practice between starting an instrument (typically around the age of six or seven at the earliest) and the age of 21. To get some idea of the workload that figure implies, one can calculate that the accumulation of 10000 hours of practice would require two hours every day of the year for 14 years."

March 14, 2012 at 06:16 PM · Yes I would agree, Scott, you are being realistic. I didn't mean to imply you were being pessamistic! (Although my words could easily have implied that, I agree).

March 14, 2012 at 06:29 PM · you will have to practice at least 4-6 hours from today EVERYDAY for the next 7 years to get good marks from your violin professors . This will leave you little time for doing anything else besides school. What are you doing on the internet? Go practice.

March 14, 2012 at 06:30 PM · Caitlin, you're the only one who can decide. Scott's reasoning is very logical, but no one knows for sure. There are almost 7 billion people in the world and with more people to appreciate music you have no way of knowing what possibilities exist or may exist in the future.

March 14, 2012 at 07:30 PM · Do a double major in college. That way if you change your mind, you'll be well prepared for a bail out.

March 14, 2012 at 10:16 PM · Have you attended any of the Friday Night Recitals at the Colburn School?

You should take the opportunity to check out what other kids your age are performing like. :)

March 14, 2012 at 10:25 PM · This brings me to a good point. Have you ever seen " The Soloist?" I have the book and the movie. In the very beginning Nathaniel Ayers was only in Middle School when he played the Double Bass ( Was it in the 8th grade or 7th?)Anyway with lots of hard work and determination he eventually made it to Julliard, one of the most elite music schools in America. He also played on a $100 bass that his mother bought for him. I think you should continue. But that's just me. If you love what you're doing go for it.

March 14, 2012 at 11:44 PM · Greetings,

good point but please beware of using cellob and especially double bass as an analogy. At risk of causing offence in other camps, it does seem that these instruments are somehow moe `natural` and can be learnt somewhat later. I have seen this over and over again.

An old friend of my youth was a less than diligent double bassist who suddnely decided at 17 that he wanted to be a pro. He went from very little to good enough to get into Guildhall in a matter of months (very intelligent guy). Graduated , got into the London Symph and is now director of the guildhall School.

Chances of doing that on the violin.

Virtually nil.

Cheers,

Buri

March 15, 2012 at 04:10 AM · "Anyway with lots of hard work and determination he eventually made it to Julliard, one of the most elite music schools in America."

...and then a homeless guy

March 15, 2012 at 11:31 AM · which might be the better option .

Faux Buri

March 15, 2012 at 11:43 AM · "An old friend of my youth was a less than diligent double bassist who suddnely decided at 17 that he wanted to be a pro. He went from very little to good enough to get into Guildhall in a matter of months (very intelligent guy)."

Oh, Buri, I though you only needed a long weekend to become a solo bass player? (wink)

I have to be careful too as I have some very good friends who are excellent bass players ...

March 15, 2012 at 07:32 PM · @Scott Haha I forgot that part. But it's really your choice to choose.

March 17, 2012 at 06:45 AM · I think that it really depends on how fast you learn. :) I, too, started at 11 too, but my current teacher believes that if you're meant to play the violin, you will, no matter what age you start. Another example is a great violinist I knew who started at 13 and still managed to get into great orchestras.

So what I'm trying to say is that if you start late, but achieve the same or more as someone who started much earlier you shouldn't have anything to worry about. The rate of your progress is key, that depends not only on yourself, but very much so on your teacher. A teacher could make or break your progress, imo.

However, if the world is like Scott said, making a living out of music will be hard for every musician. XD so I guess it's a risky career choice right now unfortunately.

March 17, 2012 at 12:47 PM · I just read the first Caitlins post, so I am sorry for resaying something already said.

I think starting with 11 is quite late on one hand, but on the other hand you are absolutely right what depends the will power. When a child is very young and starts violin playing not too much will happen until the age of 8 or 9. To me thats the age where you can tell if a child has not only musicality but also will to play the violin. I have some pupils who started with me at the age of 11 and its mostly a pleasure to teach them. First because they understand what you are saying immediately and second they have already got some musical sence and taste and own ideas. There are of course exceptional kids who develope that even earlier. Wich brings me to the second point why I think you can totally give it a shot: You played piano since you are 4! Thats a huge benefit and I find that violinists who can play piano very well (almost all of them can play piano but I have especially Szeryng and Julia Fischer in my mind) are playing more interesting with more sence of structure without that violinistic ignorance one can hear in some performances.

My advice ist that you tell your teacher exactly what your goals are, even if it may sound wild. If he knows where you want to go, he is the best person to judge what you will need to get there. And i am sure there is a way. If you would be 16 or 18 its a different world, but with 13 you have some years to go, you will not be the youngest professional but still you can get very very good with lots of good (!) practice and teaching. I wish you good luck. I have been an rather late starter with the violin too, ok I started first with 8 but had a break of 2 years between 14-16 or somehting like that. I only started to get serious after that and I think I got quite far for that. ;)

March 18, 2012 at 02:52 AM · My recommendation: start practicing hard! The sooner the better. Play in an ensemble that challenges you and make sure you practice your scales and other technique every day. If you are patient and consistent there is no reason you cannot succeed.

March 18, 2012 at 02:06 PM ·

March 18, 2012 at 02:21 PM · Caitlin, your modesty is refreshing, and you clearly love music. (There are a number of threads from high octane teenagers more concerned with being admired!)

For a quick (slick?) answer, can you fit in the mythical 10,000 hrs of productive practice before the competition deadlines? If like myself you can only manage, say, 5,000 hrs, you will have to enter ensembles by the back door and then be appreciated for your numerous qualities!

Orchestral playing destroys your technique since you spend hours not hearing your own playing clearly, but it is excellent discipline and you make loads of friends! But as others have said there is less and less money around for large ensmbles.

Chamber music is heaven: a team of soloists, and a medium where composers have often put the best of themselves.

I have always put my teaching first - nuturing talent rather than displaying it. I don't push even the most talented towards a career, (where music often takes second place to shady dealing, jealosies etc.) although I fully support those who receive the "call"!

Your own talent? From 11 to 21 we change a lot in body and mind (you girls become gorgeous and some of us boys even learn to wash!). What we found easy has often has to be rebuilt more conciously through heavier limbs and mind; on the other hand a sluggish child sometimes turns into a graceful and dynamic teenager..

Remember that as a passionate amateur, (or semi-pro) you can play what you like, with whom you like, when you like! Bliss!

Best wishes,

Adrian

March 19, 2012 at 12:46 AM · Caitlin, I’ve seen people learn to do amazing things in short periods of time and retain the lesson, young ones and older ones alike. I agree with all the folks previously that recognize that it is the character in a person that will most likely determine success or failure. Don’t get me wrong, just because a person has loads of determination doesn’t ensure them success, especially when it comes to making a living as a professional musician/instructor. But having a goal can be a very good motivator.

I think Scott’s comment about the chances of success in a certain field or occupation is insightful. I agree that it is important to have a “fall back” or plan B for going forward in life. Sometimes the best way to enjoy something that you truly love is to make sure to do it for fun. Not for a living. Sometimes making a living doing what you love is a sure way to happiness. Life is funny (ha ha) that way sometimes.

You are young enough that only time, you and those willing to help you, will tell if you have success in your quest. One thing for sure, if you stay determined, never lose track of your goal and be willing to go the extra mile you will probably have success. Or at least get close to what you intended.

My son started learning guitar at age 5. He stopped lessons at age 15 and undertook teaching himself. That was nearly ten years ago. He is a fairly accomplished guitarist for being mostly self taught. At this point he realizes what it takes to earn a living as a professional. He also realizes how lucky he is to have a degree in computer network security. Having said that he really, really enjoys what he knows and continues to learn about guitar.

Keep your goal in sight and always have a back up. Stay determined and never lose sight of where you want to end up. Work hard in a focused manner and you will most likely realize your dream. Enjoy your journey; music is the gift for life that will always be your anchor.

The path is narrow yet traversable,

Steve

March 19, 2012 at 01:51 AM · I would like to 'second' Steve's recommendation! I have several cousins who are professional musicians. One in particular is doing extremely well at this point - but she also took great care to make sure she had a 'plan B.' She pursued a bachelor's degree in education just in case her musical aspirations didn't pan out as planned.

If I were you I would strive to do my very best at achieving the goal of becoming a professional musician, but also ensure there is a 'backup plan' just in case. Things happen, and one cannot always anticipate the economic climate - often the arts are the first to get cut when the economy goes.

Good luck and I think it's amazing when individuals so young are so aware of what they want in life! I hope you achieve it.

March 19, 2012 at 07:30 AM · I just read through this topic - and what a positive nook! Wonderful responses and advice - probably because the opening post was so reasonable and modest.

I'm another amateur - but one that never tried to pursue music as a career. I got a 'calling' into science and that has worked out pretty well - and now gives me the resources and time to immerse myself in playing. Not only do amateurs with other careers enjoy the choice of music but (and this is a bit sad in a way if there are talented musicians who can not) they can also afford the best equipment and the best lessons. I suppose that way we support the pros who make this world of music possible...

March 19, 2012 at 04:15 PM · Elise, I hope all my past students have followed your example! I have a very small list of profssionals, for the simple reason that nearly every one still plays!

April 2, 2012 at 10:22 PM · Wow, I completely forgot to check up on this. I never expected to get so much feedback. Thank you all for your insight - I read each and every one of your responses! I wish I could reply to each one but that would take too much time.

I guess what I'll do is try my hardest at the violin in hopes that one day I'll be able to succeed with it, but I won't neglect my studies so that I'll always have a "back-up plan".

I agree with what several of you noted; being a musician definitely isn't the best career path to choose right now (and a violinist at that!) If I do decide to go down that road I'll make sure I'm advanced enough to do so.

Wish me luck, and thanks again for all your answers! If anyone has anything to add, feel free to do so. :) I'll definitely come to the Violinist.com discussion boards if I have any questions throughout my "journey", you guys are a really helpful bunch!

April 2, 2012 at 10:53 PM · Good luck Caitlin - and do drop in and let us know how it is progressing.

If I were ** yrs younger I would do the same :-\

April 3, 2012 at 11:58 PM · THat's not how you spell five....

April 4, 2012 at 02:56 AM · Reminds of my days programming in Basic. When you try to display a number that is too big, it just displays **

April 5, 2012 at 09:16 PM · Here's a thought. Assuming that most people that play the violin are obsessed by it. I know I am, I assume everyone else is too. But that's another tangential discussion. When I was a kid becoming a professional musician was never an option. I took piano lessons and that was about it. Then off to college and medical school. I often think about and dream that I could have been a world class solist if only I had been given that choice. Chances are though that in the best circumstances I would have a job as a musician. That could be teaching, professional orchestra, weddings or whatever. And that's what it would be a job. Nine till five or again whatever the job demands. And presumably that would mean having to play what one is told, and when to play it and when to stop and when to go home. But as an amateur, I pretty well much get to make all my own choices with my teacher's permission, of course! I guess I feel very lucky to have been born with more than one passion and one obsession.

April 5, 2012 at 11:19 PM · Quote Robert Cunnah: > Assuming that most people that play the violin are obsessed by it. I know I am, I assume everyone else is too"

Aint that the truth! I've prolly got 20,000 hours in over 35 years, and still aint that great. Still pluggin' away tho.

Quote Adrian Heath: Chamber music is heaven: a team of soloists <

If I was Caitlin, into classical music and had the skill, this is what I'd try and do. Not depend on the violin to pay the mortgage, play for pleasure, and if there's a few bucks in a chamber group, all the better.

April 6, 2012 at 07:23 PM · Yes Dave, I've been thinking that there ought to be a sort of Violinists Anonymous that I could join that would help me overcome my addiction. Or perhaps on second thought, I'll just become an alcoholic. Easier in the long run!

April 9, 2012 at 03:10 AM · Caitlin, if you are good at math and have a head for quantitative things in general, may I respectfully suggest that you pursue a career in either mechanical or electrical engineering because there will be very solid, financially secure careers (with good fringe benefits and management advancement potential) in those areas for decades to come, and you can enjoy the violin even more than all but the best professionals because you won't be struggling to make your living doing it.

The people you'll be competing with for orchestral jobs in ten years are those who, at your age, were trying to be the next Sarah Chang and thought that was completely realistic.

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