The More Repertoire the Better?

October 27, 2013 at 05:21 AM · Is it really true that it is best to learn as many pieces as possible before age 24, if you plan to play violin as a profession? I had read once somewhere that Joshua Bell had said that he wished that he had learned more pieces at an early age and also that Midori learned a concerto every two weeks as a teenager. Obviously, these are super talents, but I am just wondering about the advanced middle to high school aged student. Is that the rule of thumb or not so? My child learned two full concertos last year (Viotti 23, Kabalevsky Concerto, And Mozart 3rd Concerto 1stMvmt) and feels like working so long on the pieces cause them to become very dull and monotonous. He presently plays very comfortably at a level six with good intonation and tone.

Replies (22)

October 27, 2013 at 09:51 AM · My own experience is that music learned thoroughly when in one's teens is likely to stay for a lifetime. A lot of the cello repertoire I learned between the ages of 13-20 is still in my head half a century later, even though I haven't needed to play it for many years.

I wish I could say that about some of the stuff I was taught at school and university!

October 28, 2013 at 03:10 AM · Thanks, Trevor. I am pondering the idea. I wonder what is the rule of thumb with most teachers.

October 28, 2013 at 08:20 AM · Surely one does not forget everything learned after 20? Though come to think of it, the first piece I learned by heart for performance 3 years ago seems to have 'eroded' :P

October 28, 2013 at 08:55 AM · learning as much pieces as possible before you hit 20 is not much of a challenge. how many of the pieces can you actually understand? i believe that understanding a piece in depth opens new opportunities as far as interpretation is concerned. no matter the level of midori's playing, i doubt her capacity of assimilating one concert every 2 weeks both personally and musically.

menuhin could play a handful of concerts, but failed the audition with ysaye when he couldn't play an arpeggio. not a loss for menuhin as we all know, but nonetheless a lesson to learn considering what can happen when "pieces" are in focus.

the mere expression "the more, the better" implies that something is compromised. that something is most often technique and understanding. on the other hand, everything that we learnt as kids, stays with us forever, but in this case, maybe there are also some expenses that come with it.

October 28, 2013 at 11:21 AM · "menuhin could play a handful of concerts, but failed the audition with ysaye when he couldn't play an arpeggio. not a loss for menuhin as we all know, but nonetheless a lesson to learn considering what can happen when "pieces" are in focus."

Never heard that story before - but doesn't it say more about Ysaye than Menuhin? I mean the proof of the pudding is in the eating not in its molecular structure :)

I would have thought it a great advantage to have the notes for concerti in your head even if unmusical - they can always be developed later....

October 28, 2013 at 11:37 AM · i think it says a lot about them both. :) menuhin tells the full story in "unfinished journey".

no doubt there are many conflicting opinions and i acknowledge and respect them all.

October 28, 2013 at 12:42 PM · I'm not sure that it wasn't a loss to Menuhin - He did have that mid-career crisis, didn't he? And Enescu was a person to whom technique came so much more easily than musical passion (I remember hearing that his technique as a pianist was better than that of Schnabel) and his whole philosophy was overly optimistic - I wonder whether Ysaye might not have picked up on the problems that Menuhin was to have later and done something about them.

October 28, 2013 at 02:15 PM · So with the exception of Mircea, do you all agree that a child should learn as much as possible provided that the technique is mostly there? My child's teachers with the exception of one who teaches her in a masterclass Skype type situation (Conservatory Professor,as needed), seem to be of the rule that one does not past advance to a new piece, without the repertoire interpretation, rhythm and technique firm and solid. What appears to be almost adult level playing to me the non-violinist.. The new teacher (weekly in person) seems to be of the same idea. It is hard for my child to achieve the adult level technique due to the fact that he is a child, though when I watch videos of some pre-college recitals at Julliard, I can see that my child is well advanced in their playing.

Just hitting the 'tween age'. It gets so darn boring working on one page each week, sometimes only a few lines, and all the rest is scales and technique, etudes.

My child sees kids of equal level and technique on Youtube covering much more repertoire. Much of which is far from perfect and he wonders; why not me?. My child looks at this and thinks these kids are doing these pieces because they play better than him ( and he is an awesome player), it also affects his self confidence as a nagging negative thought of equalness in his mind.

His x-teacher talked non-stop about the interpretation of the pieces and a tiny bit of technique, and the lessons which lasted 1.5 hours, stayed on the same piece for a few months. He also was very rude and kind of obsessional about the technique being properly played and to his exact standards. After one year, the teachers expectations were not reasonable not matter how much talent my child possessed, we decided to switch teachers. The new teacher is young and fresh and regaining his trust, but appears to be not concerned about working through much repertoire, we are hoping that this will change.

Possibly the deep dive into the piece would be interesting with some advanced pieces, but with something like Viotti and Kabalevsky it just became dull after months, esp. with a chastising ill natured instructor, who btw, was a university professor of violin.

October 28, 2013 at 02:22 PM · Here is an extraordinary example of a professional musician's memory saving the day:

October 28, 2013 at 08:34 PM · Noel-as a teacher myself, I think there's a balance to be had. A concerto every two weeks is a bit much for almost anybody, i would think :) but I agree that a student really should be able to move through repertoire regularly IF his/her technique is up to the level needed for that repertoire. "Regularly" is hard to define, but for my motivated students it is not unreasonable to learn and fairly polish a movement in 3-4 weeks, depending on how easily it fits in their technical level and how long it is. We pick and choose which pieces we take fully to performance level and often overlap the polishing of one piece with the familiarizing of a new one, so we can often get through 6-8 pieces or movements over the course of a school year.

It takes longer, though, when a:the piece is an overly huge technical stretch, or b: the student is not practicing enough or does not know how to practice the piece well. (A) is usually a flaw on my part-if that happens, I have misjudged the readiness of the student or missed pieces in preparation. (B) may be the student's flaw or mine or both, and we usually spend lesson time making sure the student knows how to practice the challenges and think through the interp-if it still comes back unready, a lack of practice time or focus is usually the culprit. Could either of these be happening in your son's case? I feel that generally, getting a piece to performance level should not be too much of a chore unless the student's practice or the teacher's preparation has been a bit lacking. In my experience 80-90% of the time it's a practice issue, and it's usually split between student needing more help to practice well, and student just needing to focus and put the time in.

hope that helps-I was going to ask some other questions but I have to go teach :) good luck!

October 28, 2013 at 11:29 PM · Broadly, it's easier to memorize things when you're younger. I find that how well repertoire has stuck with me is far more dependent on the age that I learned it, than the actual difficulty of the work. (The same holds true of my memories of books, movies, TV shows, academic knowledge, etc.)

It's best to have the things you work on be at a range of difficulties. That way, you move through some things more quickly and other things are more of a challenge, and you can build repertoire while still pushing yourself.

October 29, 2013 at 01:20 PM · " it's easier to memorize things when you're younger"

This is common dogma - but is it really true? I think at the least its person-specific, just like everything else. I'm surely an exception - I couldn't remember anything by rote as a child - not even my alphabet which I finally mastered in my mid teens. I did a lot of acting but somehow the words always came out differently every time I was supposed to say them. And I could not memorize two lines of music for my violin.

Fast forward. Now in my early dotage ;) I can memorize. I have performed several full pieces from memory and have now memorized a significant one (Beethoven romance in F) without much difficulty. I am also well on the way to doing a full concerto (playing it is another issue :D ).

Why this is so I have no idea - but I have a sneaking suspicion that a major reason older people can't memorize is because they have been led to believe that they can't and they are not expected to. I do find that retention is not that the best - if I stop playing it for a priod I have to relearn.

October 29, 2013 at 02:27 PM · Memorization is a skill itself. I was taught to memorize pieces at the outset since childhood, so it's no big deal now with new pieces.

Some people do work through a lot of repertoire as pre-teens and teens. It's often a good thing to be working on a variety of things at different levels and with different goals for each piece in mind. For example, a more virtuosic piece that's a stretch, a concerto movement, and an "easier" piece to be polished performed in the near future.

A caveat is that to rush through a ton of repertoire without specific goals can be counterproductive in the longer term. There is a rhyme and reason why many teachers require learning pieces like Conus or Viotti before the standard, meatier stuff.

The college teacher sounds like some university professors. They may be extremely picky with one piece, with the tacit understanding that you will apply those principles on your own to other stuff that you are working on now or in the future. I've studied with people who spend an hour dissecting 3 lines of music. They're basically showing you how to listen very critically and analyze things in depth - how to teach yourself.

I agree it can be demoralizing for a kid to be stuck working on one piece for an entire year if their heart's not in it. It may be that the teacher needs to adjust her/his style and expectations to keep your child motivated.

October 29, 2013 at 02:57 PM · "... it can be demoralizing for a kid to be stuck working on one piece for an entire year if their heart's not in it..."

Yes, but that's not the student that was originally proposed, one that was aiming for a professional career. For those students, yes, I believe that they need to learn as many as possible. I don't think they need perfect understanding--that will come with maturity. And besides our understanding of music and what we want to do with it changes throughout our lives.

Also keep in mind that implicit in the goal of learning as many pieces as possible (well-learned, not sloppy) is also the goal of learning as much technique as possible.

October 29, 2013 at 06:29 PM · Even though im not old im probably too old to for a professional career and thats fine with me. Even though most of the pieces are fairly short and not too technical, i like to memorize them since i usually play them enough that it should be memorized. I'm not sure if this is for most adult beginners, but I know scales and arpeggios that cover all the notes I know for (basically all of) first position and about a handful of polished rep. We hardly do etudes and the etudes we did, I couldnt really understand what they were ment to teach so we moved on.

Some lessons are dedicated on what/how to practice certain parts or the whole piece. Usually those lessons arent much fun :/. The good lessons where i know what im supposed to know are always fun. Usually when we start to really work on unfamiliar parts we warm up with what i know to see what needs to be polished up, then take on the new parts to see how to practice what needs to be practiced. After that we combine the two near the end. We learn rep, we basically learn the notes then learn how to play it properly.

After reading stories here im starting to wonder is this how most teachers go about teaching, more or less?

October 29, 2013 at 06:33 PM ·

October 29, 2013 at 11:29 PM · I normally commit a huge amount of material to memory for work, and I read a lot, consume a fair chunk of media, etc. As I've aged, this ability has diminished markedly. It's especially noticeable with the violin, though -- after a ten-year hiatus, memorizing has become much more difficult, regardless of the difficulty of whatever I'm playing or how easy it is to memorize the thing in general.

October 30, 2013 at 06:27 PM · the better repertoire the better! ;)

October 30, 2013 at 07:22 PM · But what about the OP's particular situation? Is this just the tip of a normally silent iceberg? I find it hard to believe that this good student's teachers are unaware of the learning / memorising potential that they may be failing to tap, and surely they aren't the only teachers to take such an approach of learn slow and thoroughly rather than quicker and broadly (for now). I know my own situation would be vastly different being not young nor particularly advanced, but my teacher moved me along through those Handel sonatas the first time and she made sure I learnt everything I could do at the time, but she reiterated nearly every week that I would be coming back to these for years with more skills and they would seem different each time. So that way I could progress through but never delude myself that something was mastered,. It's always an enjoyable new challenge the next time.

October 31, 2013 at 12:27 AM · Thanks so much to all of you for your time and opinions! It really does help me to make sense of it all.

I will mention the idea of either playing repertoire that he can move more quickly through or just sticking with the same level and trying to move ahead at a quicker pace. Mine is the child who tops the charts on school test statistics, but must learn while up out of a chair and walking about the room, or singing or doing three different tasks all at once and learns best when the focus is broad rather than pinpoint, not sure if this is so great for violin learning at least in the classical repertoire. He is though, oh so musical, with many beautiful musical ideas to share someday, provided he sticks with it and has the right teachers. We pray each night for the perfect match teacher and for good teachers in general, because they are most definitely holding the reins of the future of the violin masters to come! :)

October 31, 2013 at 04:47 PM · Maybe you can go to a different music studio/lessons place and try talking to different teachers there and ask about their teaching practices? Try to find one that compromises between your ideals and what needs to be done by the teacher.

There's nothing wrong with a second opinion on subjective matters

November 4, 2013 at 06:02 AM · I am approaching this from the perspective of a mature-age (40-something) student. I have found that there should be time for practice and time for playing. Time for practice is for scales, arpeggios, other exercises and set pieces my teacher as set for me. Time for playing is learning pieces I want to play, or just playing for fun.

I learned the accordion for a number of years when I was younger. As soon as I could play a scale on the violin I started playing some of those pieces. I learned them in C-Major and it was no great stretch to apply them to the D-Major and A-Major scales. To me this felt great because I was "learning on my own".

Eventually I spoke to my teacher about this. She has no problem with me doing that... with one caveat. I am not to get sloppy. If I am learning to play other music, it is important to consider the basics: intonation, posture, bow hand and so forth.

To return to the original post, there are two things I would say. First, it is my experience that what you learn at a young age stays with you. Secondly, as long as the student is completing practice to the teacher's satisfaction, I think it is perfectly acceptable for the student to learn pieces on their own (as long as circumstances allow it). If the student is learning classical pieces in class, where is the harm in learning contemporary pieces outside of class?

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