Is another ten years too late with my background?

August 29, 2013 at 05:30 AM · I'm 27 years old, and I'm certain that performing violin - in some capacity - is my calling. While I fully accept the risks of pursuing my passion, I often wonder if the risk is too foolish given my background.

I had my first violin lesson at 5 years old, and after just a few weeks, it ended.

At 12 years old, my passion for classical music was pretty clear, so my parents let me have lessons - this time by my own choice. I excelled at the violin, and was eventually accepted by a well-known teacher. She told me I had a lot of natural talent, but that I needed to practice more. And that was the issue.

At 14, another excellent teacher - a former student of greats, including Isaac Stern - took me on as a student for free, in exchange for gardening work. When I simply didn't practice enough, she rightfully let me go. At the time, I couldn't figure out why I didn't have the concentration, energy, or motivation to practice more than - say - a half hour. And this problem was not just with the violin.

At 18, I sounded pretty good, but I was far-behind technically. To my surprise, my no-name state university offered me a spot in their violin performance program. The head professor told me that I sounded great, but that my technical skills needed a lot of work. Two years into the program, my violin professor 'let me go' due to not practicing enough. Again, I felt terrible, but understood her decision. What I couldn't understand was my lack of motivation; I simply did not have the frame of mind, focus, or presence of reason to plan out a practice session and go at it for three hours (w/ breaks). This lack of desire and motivation - almost a numb, fog-like affect - had been present since I could remember. It felt normal at the time. I didn't think that it could be anything but normal.

From 20 to 24, I rarely picked up the instrument, and then there was a breakthrough. During a check-up, my doctor insisted that I get evaluated for mental health issues. After several intensive weeks evaluation, I was diagnosed with 'atypical clinical depression.' I resisted the diagnosis, because to me, there was nothing I had known different from my own thoughts. I couldn't imagine that there was anything that could improve my lack of concentration, energy, and poor mood. But I was wrong. It would be an understatement to say that treatment (medication) changed my life and gave me an identity. I think most people who are treated for depression go from no identity to some identity. I would later find out from my parents that a psychiatrist had diagnosed me with depression when I was 11, but declined to prescribe me medication because he thought I'd grow out of it.

After learning about the author David Foster Wallace's death (which had occurred just a few years prior to my diagnosis), I asked my doctor to put me on Nardil - the same medication that had allowed Wallace to be so productive for many years. Nardil is a powerful anti-depressant, and studies show it is more effective than SSRIs. The problem? It's powerful and creates very serious allergies to certain kinds of food (but it's really not a problem - it's just over-hyped that way...). But it works, and it literally "cured" my depression - an imbalance in my head that I was completely unaware of. It's a strange feeling to suddenly experience "normal," because you kinda feel like you've missed out on living. But the treatment works so well, you put that in perspective, too. It's probably like being blind your whole life, and then suddenly being able to see colors. That's the analogy I'd give.

I went back to practicing violin at 25, and actually had the new-found ability to practice, and stick with it. I was still only good at Book 5 - maybe 6 of Suzuki, but could play what I knew well enough to (1) do weddings (2) play at a restaurant and (3) busk regularly on campus. Grad school and pressure from parents shaved off a lot of dedication I had to the instrument from 24 to 27.

So here I am, now free of school, done with the degree, and more independent... and still certain that I want to perform. I have good form, but intonation issues are often obscured by my vibrato. And the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A (movement 3) is too technically challenging for me in parts... strangely. That's a sign of technical issues or gaps.

The below link is how I currently sound (no augmentation; the echos are in a real room).

Given my background and current ability, would it be realistic for me to pursue a professional career by around 37 - in ten years? I currently practice 3+ hours per day and have been doing so for the last year without issue; the improvement has been dramatic. I'd like to think that if I choose this route - as opposed to a normal career - that in 7 to 10 years I could possibly audition for a very good orchestra, or maybe even go solo for small, community gigs (or, not?). And please assume that my mental health issues are in full remission.

Replies (21)

August 29, 2013 at 09:37 AM · I have absolutely no idea of what chances you have of 'making it' but I have to say it would be a crying shame if you didn't pursue it. Listening to those sound grabs, you have some great phrasing and put beautiful life into the music, great bow grab on the strings.

I don't question why those previous teachers took you on, and they must have wanted to strangle you when you couldn't work hard. Working with another good teacher and mentor who can work with who you are now, you'll become the violinist you are meant to be. The career? someone else will have to talk to that.

August 29, 2013 at 11:43 AM · John,

You sound great, but ...

There have been many posts on this subject. If you search the archives and read through them, you will probably find your answer. The truth is, there are lots of talented people out there that pursue music from an early age, even practicing 3-4 hours a day from age 8-10. Those people attend Juliard, graduate, and still have a tough time getting into an orchestra, or figuring out how to make money performing. The performing arts are struggling to survive.

If you cannot imagine doing anything else, then go for it, but don't expect to make much money at music. I would strongly recommend a backup plan.

August 29, 2013 at 12:58 PM · John - just to add a bit to what Smiley said, with which I am in total agreement. Partly, the answer to your question depends on what you mean by performance. If you mean to play classical music with a good enough orchestra or chamber group so that you can make a living as a performing classical violinist, your chances at this point are vanishingly small. If you mean simply that you want to play with some good amateur orchestra or group, you can probably do that. The real question for you is how to make your living. I assume that you have a day job. Do not give it up. Unless you ultimately want to go into music teaching, which might require a degree you don't have and need to get, you are unlikely to be able to make a living as a professional classical musician. It is possible, however, that you might ultimately be able to make a living or at least some money in jazz or some other related field, but that is not my expertise are at all. Others will comment on that.

August 29, 2013 at 01:43 PM · I would have thought that you should make some progress even on just half an hour a day, so it seems your depression didn't just affect the amount of practising you were able to do, but also its quality. And now you can give more time, why not explain to your original teacher what happened and try to get her back - or have you forgotten how to garden (me, I'm "gifted" with brown fingers)?

August 29, 2013 at 03:50 PM ·

August 29, 2013 at 06:07 PM · You're going to get a lot of different advice on this website, and I encourage you to listen to someone who's been there: me.

I came from a very similar background as yours, having started violin at 12, trained mostly through public school, and thoroughly unprepared for my college experience. I must have driven my professor crazy because he knew of my potential, but I was handicapped by my lack of technical foundation and serious unmotivation, which was caused by a combination of being overly sensitive to criticism and a sense of loneliness that compelled me to seek friendships over the practice room. I've also suffered from depression over the years, and I think it's great that you found a way to overcome your shackles. Anyway, I quit my performance degree after a year and didn't return to the violin until I was 28. Here I am, ten years later, playing in a symphony and teaching lessons, earning a living doing what I love.

Here's the deal. You need to do what compels you, and if that's practicing three hours a day, then go for it. Meanwhile, you will need a way to support yourself, and if you're thrifty and smart, you'll be able to pursue your music and keep a job at the same time. If you can find a supportive teacher with a good game plan, fork out the money and save yourself some time and heartache. I couldn't manage to get that for myself, and it took a lot longer, especially when you hit those slumps and no one is there to pull you out.

Then, find as many ways to play with people as you can. Find a suitable community orchestra, and other like-minded people who want to play chamber music on a regular basis. Find venues to perform, even if it's open mike night at a local diner. Play at church services and nursing homes.

Most importantly, go where you're needed. Most major cities don't need a late bloomer, and the competition for a chair in a major symphony is definitely not the place to start. The symphony I perform with pays, but it's not full time, and since it's in Alaska, they are always in need of violinists and violists. So, move to Alaska and audition for the Anchorage symphony once you get your skills up to that level (some symphonic repertoire is as difficult as any concerto), and once you've played for a few years with a community orchestra, and I'd bet you'd get in. :) But like I said it's semi-professional, and most people teach lessons or keep a real job to pay the bills. I personally wouldn't care about the money, so long as I get to play the music, which is worth more to me than anything.

Anyway, the only thing I regret is all the times I listened to the people who said it can't be done. Even if it couldn't, I wouldn't have felt fulfilled unless I'd at least given it a try. I can't tell you how many doors have been shut, how many plans have fallen through. The future is never certain, for anyone, no matter their lot in life. Only you know how much you want it. When times get too difficult, you may find that being a full-time musician isn't really what you wanted after all. Then find a different way to be happy, no worries! Or, you may find that you can't give it up. If that's the case, then don't. All musicians have made a big sacrifice to be where they are, and the happy ones think it was worth it.

Be creative. There are as many ways to be a musician as there are musicians in the world. Setbacks are only a time to reevaluate your motives and determine what direction to go next. I tried quitting a couple of times in there, when venues got scarce and there seemed to be no point to it, but I simply couldn't. So, I pray that God continues to put opportunities in my life to express myself through my music, and so far, He's been pretty good. :)

Good luck, and stick around, 'cause I'd like some progress reports! You can find my journey, all the way from 2004 until now, in my blog I keep here.

August 29, 2013 at 08:49 PM · John - I am glad Emily weighed in on this one because she is one of the best examples of someone with a sense of adventure and the kind of gutsiness and drive you need to try to do something that most people could not dream of accomplishing. She has done a terrific job of making a good life for herself as a musician after a late start and is a success story for late start musicians. Whether or not you could do what Emily did or something like it, only you can figure out. However, a good deal of what she said is consistent with what other people on the site have said, and she is candid about her path and choices. She has a day job to support herself: teaching. Her orchestra job is semi-professional. She lives in Alaska. If what you want is a full-time job performing, then even Emily, with all her drive, talent and vision, which are an inspiration to all of us v.commers, has not achieved what you seek. Her advice is good, but you must look at it carefully to determine to what extent what she has achieved is consistent with what you seek, and what you are willing to do to get there. Good luck!

August 30, 2013 at 12:59 PM · Emily's post is all you need, IMHO. I would only add that there is no reason not to have violin playing remain a part of your life no matter what you end up doing for a living. Get into group playing wherever & in whatever form you can find it.

August 30, 2013 at 01:30 PM · Thank you for the advice.

August 30, 2013 at 02:22 PM · Does anybody simply play for the enjoyment of creating beautiful music?

So many posts on VCom "is it too late for me to become a pro player?" etc...

What's wrong with simply becoming as good a violinist as you can be as part of being a well rounded Renaissance man/woman?

Maybe you work as a greeter at WalMart, or some such vocation. But someday you may be playing your violin in the shade of a spreading chestnut tree in the park, just for fun. Unbeknownst to you at the time, but some fine young damsel is smitten by the glorious music you are creating. Next thing you know, you're married to a beautiful young heiress and you're set for life!

Do you realize that it is a wonderful talent to simply be able to play even at the level you are currently at? I am a middle aged beginner, and I aspire to someday simply play as well as you do now.

August 30, 2013 at 02:36 PM · Seraphim - is full of people who play only for the pleasure of creating beautiful music. I am one of those people. I never wanted to be a professional. However, John R. asked a question, and we attempted to answer it. I hope he will become one of the multitude of us who play solely for the pleasure of it, whether or not he is able to ultimately become a pro.

August 30, 2013 at 04:17 PM · It's all too easy for other people to say "do what you love, follow your heart, blah blah blah." The problem is that those people have no stake in the outcome. It's going to be your income, not theirs. And moving to Alaska is not the answer. Don't eggs cost like $6 each?

Frankly, I don't understand how someone could have gotten through grad school (if I read the original post correctly) and still have problems with a Vivaldi concerto. And on 3 hours a day? How could you even teach if you couldn't demonstrate Vivaldi to the 9-year-old to whom such repertoire is appropriate?

It's like wanting to be a math professor and you just can't master long division.

Someone in grad school should be playing Wieniawsky, Sibelius, Bach, and Paganini.

Don't ruin a perfectly good hobby.

August 30, 2013 at 06:32 PM · Wow, Scott, you really have outdone yourself with your sourness today! Eggs are $2.39 a dozen, unless you can score the cheaper B grade eggs, which have more creative shapes and taste just as good. You yourself heard his playing and complimented it, although now I see you've deleted that, for whatever reason. You don't have to play Paganini to be a good teacher; so many more important factors contribute to the makings of a solid teacher than that, and as long as one doesn't teach beyond one's realm of competence, students will gain from the instruction of a violinist whose gift happens to be teaching. If someone, for some random reason, moved to Soldotna just to learn the Paganini caprices under my tutelage, I would thank them kindly and suggest moving to a different town to study under someone more qualified. And John clearly has the skill to play Vivaldi A minor competently; he's just being your typical perfectionist.

Whatever you do decide to pursue, make sure you seek to obtain the training and skill level required, simple as that. And while eggs aren't that expensive in Soldotna, the price of gas is currently $4.11. So charge a little more for lessons. :)

August 30, 2013 at 07:06 PM · In defense of the OP, he isn't saying that he attended graduate school in violin performance. He has an advanced degree in a wholly unrelated field, and has rekindled a love for violin and music and is honestly curious about the potential to develop some sort of career given his level of commitment (3+ hours a day).

August 30, 2013 at 07:35 PM · Emily,

No, just my usual skepticism and realistic view of making a living in music, which is difficult under the best of circumstances. The reason I deleted my original post is that let myself get drawn into one of those "here we go again" scenarios. Must try harder....resist...resist...

August 30, 2013 at 11:03 PM · Scott, your original post was not a 'go follow your dream' post anyway. you should have left it there. I thought it had good advice. For what its worth. Someone someday might have read it and learnt.

Que sera sera.

I still think as I said originally, John needs to sort out the monkey by pursuing the violin craft. whatever happens in terms of making a living, well, will happen. he possibly won't, he possibly partially might, he possibly might barely.

In a way, I wonder if age and experience is actually a positive in this case. there's more to life, there's more than one way to skin the cat. We no longer see closed doors as a reason to sit on the mat and cry, but as a reason to turn to a new direction and just find the other door and go in to the next room. Might still be as dull or awkward as the last room, but possibly not...

August 31, 2013 at 01:02 AM · For the record, I never said follow your dreams and they will all come true. Basically, we create our own destiny by knocking on doors, choosing available paths, and realizing our desires as they morph and adapt to various circumstances and situations that present themselves. A lot of people pursue music only to find that that's not really the dream they had in mind, and that they will do better pursuing happiness in another format. In my life, music has been like water, constantly finding its way downhill, and fulfilling its own destiny, one way or another. I'm not really in control of everything that happens, but I'm always trying something, and that's how my path has been formed over the years. If musical venues dry up around here, I'll probably look for someplace else to go and try my luck there. There are no guarantees in life. Orchestras fold, people move, health fails, kids happen, etc. So, musicians do what they can and make the best of whatever situation life gives them. I feel like I'm being totally realistic in saying this.

August 31, 2013 at 09:37 AM · All you can do is try, but keep a back up plan too... I've been playing for less than 6 years and am half way through conservatoire. I'm doing well, but I have a back up plan with the knowledge that few people 'make it'.

August 31, 2013 at 07:05 PM · Seems like Emily said, get a day job, and also follow your passion. Not unreasonable advice even for pro-level, fab players. Making enough $ to live on, doing music alone, is a real challenge.

August 31, 2013 at 09:10 PM · It's a balancing act for everyone, pros and amateurs alike--and everyone in the middle, too!

September 3, 2013 at 12:50 AM · Honestly, you probably won't make it into a professional orchestra that pays the bills. Not for lack of trying or even for lack of ability.

It's just really, really hard.

You compete against hundreds of people who are incredibly good players, who were educated at the very best conservatories, and who have played professionally for years for a spot in a regional orchestra that pays less than managing a retail store in the local mall.

If you love the violin, play. Just play. So what if you don't make most (or any) of your income from playing? Hell, I have a masters degree in violin performance and I make at least 80% of my income as a public school music teacher. That doesn't mean I don't practice and hold myself to a high standard. Even if your main job isn't playing the violin, you can still be a violinist.

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