How do you know when you've reached your limit?

March 14, 2014 at 08:43 PM · How do you know when you've reached your technical limit? Is this question even answerable? Is it relevant? I'd love to hear from anyone who has answered this question for themselves or for a student.

Replies (26)

March 14, 2014 at 09:22 PM · I guess it says more about me than your question - but honestly I don't feel I have a technical limit and wouldn't recognize it if I did.

This is partly because I'm a bona-fide Polyanna but also because the question is too simplistic. Whereas there may be a limit to how fast you can play notes per second, there may not be to how convincingly you can portray the emotion of a piece. I alluded to Segovia in a recent post and this also holds here - I heard him play in his late 80s and he simply did not have control of his fingers fully - but he played more beautifully than ever.

March 14, 2014 at 09:25 PM · When age or disease have completely handicapped your fingers, arms, ears, or mind, you have reached your technical limit.

Death alone can put the cap on your musical limit.

That's not to say you may--no, will--advance more slowly in technical development as you age. But that wasn't the question, was it?

March 14, 2014 at 09:57 PM · I did fine with open strings, then I started twinkle and hit my limit.

March 14, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Greetings,

Smileys you have inspired me to reach for the stars. Thanks to your example I will perhaps one day shoot for twinkle rather than twinkies.

On a less serious note the question is very easy to answer. If you can breathe, are non vegetative and have the right number of appendages (optional) -there is absolutely no point ever when you cannot improve something.-

Over the years people seem to have often handicapped their thinking and personal development by mistakenly comparing themselves to others, whether it be in terms of age, physical structure or some kind of subjective definition of talent.

This is crap.

Violin playing is not rocket science and there are only a very few areas which need to be worked on to add up to the sum total of what we call 'playing.' That is why great players work on the same things as beginners albeit at a slightly more advanced level. Any one of these areas can be conscuisly and systematically improved by the application of basic exercises at any times or at any stage of one's life that one is at.

If this is really bothering you get a copy of The Violin Lesson by Simon Fischer and just get on with it,



March 14, 2014 at 10:45 PM ·

March 14, 2014 at 11:21 PM · Perhaps the real question is how to deal with a plateau in learning. There are times of progress and times perceived stagnation, but I like to think about music development as a life-time process.

This development is not straight-forward, but rather spiral; a violin player hopefully progresses over time, but has to revisit the basic and not-so basic elements of violin playing time and again, at a different level. Times of plateau are potentially fertile if one does not give up, but focuses on other aspects of being a musician.

March 14, 2014 at 11:51 PM · I see technique plateaus as basically irrelevant for amateurs not committed to the "rights of passage" repertoires.

There is a vast quantity of beautiful and/or useful violin music that is relatively easy. I'll take expression over technique anytime.

March 15, 2014 at 12:52 AM · Hi Darlene,

'I'll take expression over technique anytime.'

I would respectfully suggest that this is one of the main components of the idea of plateauing and being limited found in players without (and too often with) professional aspirations.

There is , unfortunately, no such thing. Expessiveness may be an internally generated impulse but the -only- possible way of expressing that impulse is through technique. the act of playing the violin is the use and service of technique both for and as the end. Expressiveness itself cannot be anything more than a limited number of components combined in an infinite way. Anything from getting louder/softer, faster/slower, more accent/less, wider vibrato/any other vibrato etc. is done by an adjustment in the proportions of any aspect of the technique one is focused on in either hand.

Thus a player at any level should , rather than be satisfied with just playing through expressive stuff, decide what they want to express, or experiment -technically- to see what range of expression is available. Without this last approach expressive/ artistic development is dead in the water.

Anyone who is approaching practicing the violin purely to be expressive without recognizing this is rather self indulgently living in the performance zone of 'practice' without having gone into the notion of what playing the violin actually entails. This will reach limits on all fronts for any player within a very short space of time,



March 15, 2014 at 02:54 AM · There is a difference between current limitation and limitation of potential. Potential, as several have said, is only truly limited by an actual physical or mental incapability that cannot be remedied and I think there are very few of us who have significant limits on our potential, save perhaps that my little hands are probably never going to be playing double stops past those frustrating tenths, unless I get a smaller instrument!

But most of us do have current technical limitations--what others have called "plateaus"--and I think we do well to recognize that, as long as we also recognize that these are not the same as absolute limitations! Then we can approach them with reason and hope instead of denial or utter frustration :) (It doesn't help to pound your head against a brick wall thinking you should be able to get through it that way, any more than it helps to assume you can never get through it. Much better to step back and see if you can find or make a door!)

Some approaches I can think of that might help:

-Analyze the actual nature of the problem. Is it one little thing that you just can't grasp? Is it a certain piece that just won't come off? Or is it a large-scale weakness that may require circling back to foundations? Be realistic about what's involved and how you can approach it. Or if you have no idea how to approach it. that doesn't mean it's impossible, it just have no idea!

-Is it realistic to step back and work on the foundational pieces that may be at fault? Or is it better at this time to work "sideways" and find other directions to work that are within your reach?

This was the root of my "impossibles" and I struggled all through college because with all the various performance requirements, I never fully succeeded in fixing my basics. However, at that time I'm not sure I fully could have anyway; I had profs that gave me a lot of the pieces, but I didn't have the understanding or awareness to put them into practice. For me it has taken 8 years of awareness built by actually teaching, lots of research (yay, and some excellent colleagues and coaches to fill in those gaps--but I am now at the point where I truly do feel like anything is possible....if only I had the time to practice it....!!

All that to say, sometimes a step back is ok. Or a step sideways, to look at things differently. Or a going back to basics, especially if you can find someone to work with who can help you with the things that aren't working. Sometimes you can take the long look and then find a good way to plow forward through the wall, but please realize that taking the long way around does not mean you'll never get there! (though it may affect career aspirations and performance deadlines, unfortunately :( )

Hope that's some little help and encouragement. Sorry for the book. Just that, I've been there, and was actually quite amazed when I came out the other side! Even though it was 8 years too late for my senior recital, and in the midst of a season where it's hard to take advantage of it. The potential IS there. You just have to figure out how to unlock it, and hopefully yours does not take as long as mine :)

March 15, 2014 at 03:00 AM · Update-Just read your other blog--sounds like you already have experienced some of what I did, and did take the long road around, but it's sounds like it's been worth it! Loved hearing your story and could so identify. Hope you are not hitting a new impasse now but if so--there are no deadlines in this, the scenery on the "long road" is beautiful, good luck!

March 15, 2014 at 05:19 AM · If you are traveling down a narrowly defined path, then you may reach a limit - for example, how fast can I play Kreutzer #9. However if you broaden your path there will always be some area where you can continue to grow. In fact there will always be some area, some aspect of violin playing where you can improve and grow significantly, which will make you sound better, enjoy playing more, communicate more, etc. Broaden your concept of what constitutes growth. You can build your bow technique. Build your control and flexibility at the frog. Build your flexibility for string changes. Practice etudes in the higher positions. Study new repertoire in unfamiliar styles and see where it leads you. There is always more. And it always involves technique.

March 15, 2014 at 10:39 AM · There is no limit other than in your head. Nobody of us is emotionally strong enough to reach 100 Percent of their potential, I think there is always a way to improve. Two years ago I thought that playing 3 oktave galamian scales at 60 is my limit when it comes to scales with rhythmic quality and good intonation (120 bpm up to 16th notes), now I do them in around 70 in every key, major and minor. There were moments where I couldn't imagine, that I will be able to play, what I can play today and hopefully in 2 years I will have the same feeling about today. The key is to be confident and patient and to imagine where you want to be. The rest is logical thinking, reading and practicing.

March 15, 2014 at 09:46 PM · @Buri,

Twinkle and twinkies go really well together. But if you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.

March 15, 2014 at 10:19 PM · Is that the Suzuki method?



March 16, 2014 at 12:21 AM · when you give up never give up and you will continue to improve and keep the pollyanna attitude and continue to push yourself to learn more and more, when you quit learning, then you have met your limit or when you have a frustrated day and you don't take that energy toward bettering your playing, then you have given up and have reached your limit.

March 16, 2014 at 01:02 AM · Thank you, everyone, for your varied and thoughtful insights. The question was born out of a long encounter with the Bach C major fugue during which I learned a bit more than I had bargained for. Post-fugue syndrome I guess you would call it. But what a work,do not regret a nanosecond of time spent. Am starting easy Kreisler piece for a breather.

March 16, 2014 at 02:27 AM · Greetings,

being in a fugue state is generally held to be a medical emergency...

However, reading between the lines, what you have done cannot be described as some kind of negative situation in which you reached immutable limits. Rather I think you have pushed yourself tremendously and as a result you feel somewhat burnt out. This is how it should be. All that you have learnt so far is in a complete state of free fall as your previous mental structures have literally been torn asunder.

Now, as you sit back and digest, they will reform in a more advanced , structurally stable shape and your playing will be on a wholly new level.

Don`t forget why Bach originally wrote the Fugue. It was his moment of redemption after the most bitter loss a human can endure. He realized that after fighting his way out of the doubt, darkness and resignation (expressed in the Chaconne) he could rise up and continue his sacred mission of ...

well, whatever his sacred mission was. Think I need some prune juice.



March 16, 2014 at 11:48 AM · I spent two years struggling with the darkness of the Chaconne. Now I'm still in the dark. I wish I could say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but unfortunately, I am still searching for the tunnel.

Or to put it more succinctly, if you can't find the tunnel, then you've hit your limit.

March 16, 2014 at 02:57 PM · If you can't find the tunnel then I think you took the wrong road Smiley...

As an inveterate optimist and, as my teacher puts it, a taste that far exceeds ability, I have repeatedly attacked pieces that are beyond my technical ability. Although I can't really play it once exhausted that's not such an issue since once my technique catches up I can return to it with ever increasing prospects.

Which brings to mind:

The road less traveled:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost 1916

The road less traveled invariably has an uncertain destination - oh but what a journey!

March 16, 2014 at 07:56 PM · "The question was born out of a long encounter with the Bach C major fugue during which I learned a bit more than I had bargained for..."

An interesting statement. What is "a bit more than I bargained for"? I'm guessing that it means you might have thought it easier than it looks.

Actually, I feel the G-minor fugue is harder. However, many long sections of the C-major, such as about bars 116-163 or 207-242 or thereabouts can start to sound like someone chopping wood. Or maybe hammering on new roofing shingles...This is also an area that really shows the weakness in an instrument, where a loud, bright new instrument can get really annoying, regardless of how it's played. A mellow old instrument really helps here.

I've always felt that when a plateau has been reached, the most productive thing to do is to just leave the piece for a time--weeks, months, or even years. You may find that when you return to it, it's not as bad as you thought.

March 16, 2014 at 10:12 PM · Greetings,


Leave your plateau,

Feed the catto,

Drink some chateau,

yoga on a matto,

Take a sh@&$

And zatz zatto.


March 16, 2014 at 11:40 PM · Hi again, everyone.

Thank you for your encouraging words, Buri, I will look forward to that new level, sure could use one right now!

Scott, I did not expect it to be easy although after studying the wonderful and obtuse first movement I turned to it with a certain measure of relief (finally! something straightforward!). My comment about more than I bargained for had to do with the length of time to "learn" it and the even greater length of time it took to get it to sound like anything. Chopping wood. Precisely. And my instrument is not a new one. And then I decided to memorize it so I could play it for my friend's 80th birthday which was right before Thanksgiving but that took another four months and when I did play it for them I got all tangled up in the reverso section and had to look at the music. More than once. Well that is probably more than you really wanted to know, and it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Elise, I think I am somewhat the same in plunging into ambitious repertoire perhaps before I was ready. My teacher has indulged me in this although she will steer me clear of anything that she feels will not be productive. Have loved doing the Bach and certainly hope to revisit them again. Maybe when that new level comes along....

March 17, 2014 at 01:49 AM · I think most of us dive into repertoire we're not ready for - whatever that means. When I was 15 years old I fell in love with the Brahms Violin Concerto. I took it to my teacher who told me I wouldn't be ready for it for a long time. So I proceeded to practice it without his guidance. It turned out to play an important part in my development, opening doors for me technically and musically and giving me much joy and inspiration. Did I play it at performance level? Not even close. Was I ready to study it? You bet I was !!!

March 17, 2014 at 07:17 PM · Buri - do students who eat Twinkies and play poorly at their lesson have a "Twinkie" defense if their teacher scolds them.

March 17, 2014 at 11:25 PM · I think you have reached your limit when you start seeing double. The trick is to stop drinking before this.

Cheers Carlo

Edit: sorry I thought this was the AA forum!

March 25, 2014 at 05:14 PM · One should always go forward ! If you start doubting your ability to improve, you should pause for a while and remember why you're learning the violin in the first place ! There is only one way, and that's forward :)

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