Why do some 'peak' early

August 9, 2015 at 05:08 AM · This question could be a little bit too general, but I've noticed that there are some great violinists who peaked at an early age.

I listened to some earlier recordings of people like Menuhin, and Midori, Joshua Bell, and compared them to their later performances. It seemed to me that these violinists did not just stop improving, but they seemed to regress and break down in many ways(in terms of technique/musicality).

Granted, there are many cases where the musician was exceptional when young and is still exceptional(Yo Yo Ma, HH). However, If skill at an instrument is supposed to be progressive and gradual, then why does this phenomenon occur at all?

edit: thanks for fixing the title Laurie!

Replies (21)

August 9, 2015 at 07:25 AM · Greetings,

interesting post but I can't say I entirely agree with the general idea. I heard Midori play live five years ago and have never been to anything better. Just left me dazed.

Technically (I don't agree with musical bit...) some artists do deteriorate or become inconistent. What I think is one aspect is that when they are young their sheer talent overrides less than efficient or natural playing poisitons. I have always had a theory that when Galamian threw a gentle aside at Bell 'If it looks ugly it's wrong'l he was trying to warn him alittle. I can't watch him play but when he is on ther Eli's no one better. But he also has nights when he can be quite below par.

I have heard Menuhin plY concerts where the bow bare

y stayed on the string from beginning to end but just anew magical phrases somehow linger in the memory. On the othe rhand, the version of the Chaconne he does when he is old you can you tube is, in my opinion, for all it's roughness, some of the most transcendental violin playing around.



August 9, 2015 at 08:17 AM · Mehuhin relates how a violinist goes from practicing all day to the practicalities of a professional life. (But I am convinced that in his case the problem was also physical.)

Travelling, time-lags, irregular meals, tiresome colleagues or family, air-conditioning....

Galamian told Kyung-Wha Chung no to start a family until well into her thirties: she would never play so well.

August 9, 2015 at 01:23 PM · There's an old thread here that discusses Yehudi Menuhin's bow arm in some detail:


The bottom line I've gathered from this seems to be that his early teachers were so dazzled by the boy's virtuosity that they did not pick up on and address deficiencies in his bowing technique, which if they had done so might have prevented the increasingly serious technical problems that developed a few decades later.

This recording of a live performance of the Bruch made in 1961 (when Menuhin was in his mid-forties), shows that deterioration in his bowing technique was already sadly under way even then.


August 9, 2015 at 01:43 PM · Alright buri, maybe it was a mistake to include Bell in that category, but those "quite below par" nights seem like an understatement. I just have bad memories from watching him play live years ago.

I was very hyped about the performance, because I had listened to some of his recordings on youtube. However, at the concert he pretty much played an entire cadenza out of tune, and sounded very timid throughout the concerto. Then afterwards, I think he played the Chaconne, and pretty much made up all the rythmes, and tempo and in my opinion, just tried too hard to be expressive/profound while seeming very fake. Bach is my favorite composer, and that experience just ruined it for me. Also, I was pretty annoyed to see those erratic movements. I was beyond disappointed, because it sounded like he didn't even practice or go to rehearsal with the orchestra.

The experience to me was like a bad date with someone that you thought would be great. Anyway, he probably just had a bad day/a hangover or something and forgot to take tylenol, but now I refuse to listen to him play anything else haha.

August 9, 2015 at 02:27 PM · Some say that Menuhin got sidetracked by yoga; I think it was a desperate attempt to regain control.

But go thoroughly through his "genalogy of bow strokes" in his Six Lessons. Nobody, but nobody, else has analysed the sensations and motions with such probity. Which is why I think the problems were neuro-muscular.

But we all age. Stern and Milstein, to name but two, had very fast vibrato when younger, which became progressively slower over the decades (without affecting musical intensity!)

August 9, 2015 at 07:16 PM · Greetings,

Shawn, that would annoy me too. I think it is a slightly different point though. one can, in the same way, go to a midori concert and if things are not going well it is over pressed and scrappy. Menuhins technical problems are well documented and it is in some ways sad to go from the less and less well known early recordings to him on a real off day when one hoped for so much more. A good example of similar burning intensity who crashed is Hassid.

If Michael Rabin had not suffered such mental anguish I don't think he would have deteriorated from a mechanical point of view.

You may be right in noting that the most emotionally intense do seem to burn out. Midori did have her troubled times. Since we are all human , not everyone survives the crisi point of teens in the way or to the same degree

JB, I suspect, plays around too much, but he has a family and is not a fanatic.

The trouble with us mortals is we demand perfect fanatics and get frustrated when we don't get what we want.



August 9, 2015 at 10:17 PM · The times I've heard Bell live, he's been a very fine player, even if he is not one of my favorite violinists of all-time. I presume you caught him on an off-night.

Many players peak technically at a younger age, when they have time to maintain their technique in tippy-top shape. Once they start actively concertizing, they often have much less time to practice. Usually their interpretations mature and deepen with time, though. I think violinists are typically at their greatest in their 40s or so, when their technique is still quite good (if perhaps not as good as in their 20s) but they've matured as musicians.

August 10, 2015 at 01:19 AM · It is the recording studios' fault that we demand perfection. They have trained us to accept nothing less than perfection. If they would refuse to do edits, then we wouldn't be so unreasonable. But then we should blame Glenn Gould who pioneered editing in classical music for perfection.

August 10, 2015 at 06:59 AM · Regarding Menuhin's bow arm, I've heard a story by a Romanian violinist which I don't know if it's true or not.

When Menuhin went to Enescu for lessons, Enescu noticed that his bow arm was not relaxed realizing it would give him problems later on in life and suggested to Menuhin's parents to stop giving concerts for the next couple of years and concentrate on bow arm technique. They refused so this might have some bearing on his deteriorating bow arm.

August 10, 2015 at 03:00 PM · The question is backwards. Instead it should be:

"How is it that someone can sustain a high level career for decades?" Te answer is that, in most cases, they can't. That's why universities and conservatories are filled with great musicians you've never heard of.

The burnouts are the norm, and people just aren't robots. I think if you play professionally, you have more respect for what it takes.

August 10, 2015 at 03:29 PM · We have to constantly renew, but can't find the time (or calm!)

August 10, 2015 at 04:26 PM · I saw Midori play the Mendelssohn last year and she was fantastic. I get the sense that she still practices a lot. I also saw her masterclass when she was in town and it was excellent.

August 10, 2015 at 05:15 PM · Christian, I never said that I do not think Midori is a fantastic player. Having yet to see her live, she has always been one of my favorite violinists due to her highly emotional style. However recently I listened to some of her earlier performances, and was very shocked at how good she used to be.

Scott and Adrian , yes I can see how easily it would be for a musician to burnout.

August 10, 2015 at 09:36 PM · Well, horses for courses. Midori on her worst day over Bell for me any time. She is on the peak.

August 10, 2015 at 10:58 PM · Both Midori and Bell make me dizzy. I prefer to listen to their recordings. :)

August 10, 2015 at 11:47 PM · I've seen performances by some of the players named here, and others, where it seemed obvious to me that they were in search of something different: a different type of sound, a different interpretation, etc. Ideally you strike out on a new path, gather new insights, and eventually rejoin the road you were on as a stronger player.

But sometimes you get sidetracked and keep looking for answers on those side roads. Some of them are worthwhile and others aren't. Some harmonize with sound violin technique and others don't. Once it's just you, out there night after night with no one to offer guidance, it can be hard to know which is which, even for great players.

The alternative is to stick to what works, decade after decade. The results can be spectacular (Heifetz, perhaps?) or frustratingly boring. Some people put Zukerman in that second category, even though I would hear him play any night of the week. By the way, I don't suggest that Heifetz never explored: his jazz records and arrangements prove that he had a probing mind and was a master of various styles. But I never get the sense for a minute that he was confused about his identity.

I agree: it's amazing when someone can maintain the highest level. You have to get somewhat lucky with early training, because that's hard to catch up on later when we're talking about that highest level of playing. You have to then have the wisdom to choose your "side paths" well, always returning to the basics that got you where you are. Violin is pretty unforgiving that way.

August 10, 2015 at 11:48 PM · Regarding violin-bowing problems, I can certainly sympathize for the great players who have developed trouble.

I think some of it may have been due to techniques that caused injury, but I would suspect that it is more likely due to things brought on by other causes and the hazards of aging.

Last year, at age 79 I started to develop a serious problem with up-bowing on violin. This problem has troubled me now for over a year> A partial cure I found was to use a viola bow on violin. It is also helpful to take a small amount of propranolol (5 mg of the beta blocker), but I can't live on the stuff.

Two days ago I did a google search and found these simple exercises: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJP04wQVH30 that seem to be of some help and I have been able to use a violin bow again to some extent.

Another problem I have that contributes to this difficulty is a familial (also called "essential") tremor. But I have had that for decades without it affecting my playing this way.

I can't find my copy of Menuhin's "Six Lessons," but I know I've had it since the days when it was cheap. But I suspect that Menuhin may have experienced the same kinds of right shoulder problems I now have in which I can feel the difference between the way the muscles work together on up and down bow motions. I can also feel the way the shoulder muscles feel with a "proper violin bow hold" and with a more "cello-bow like hold." With this problem, the cello bow hold works better.

It also works better to play (as I said, violin with a viola bow) - or even better to play the viola. And since I also play the cello - I find that my cello bowing is not affected at all.

A few summers ago I heard Gitles play (on line) in his later 80s and he shouldn't have, since he really had no bow control.

Still - it's hard to know when to quit - or why! But "discretion being the better part of valor," it makes sense to know "where to quit!" that is, when to stop performing for others. Some might say, "You've played enough," but that will never be true!


August 11, 2015 at 04:45 AM · Nathan, I do realize that the great violinists are human too, but I didn't really think that they had some of the same struggles as regular people.

It's hard to imagine that someone experimenting or unsure about their identity could look so confident on a stage, but I guess I could accept it to be true. I guess this just means that it's important to practice carefully.

Again, it's not that I think that these top soloists are bad, far from it. I just think that on some of these "off" nights, more than half of the violin section in the orchestra could've pulled off a better solo performance on that given day you know? Heck, back then, I was working on the same concerto that JB played that day, and I'm pretty sure I could have played that cadenza much better than him! However, this does not change the fact that on an "on" day, or even a normal day, he would have played way better than me, or the fact that he is a much better violinist than me overall. I guess it's almost like saying you can play basketball better than Lebron James because you saw him shoot an air ball.

I guess it's sort of a miracle that there are people who still sound amazing like Gitlis(to some extent, maybe not technically anymore) at what? 100 years old?

August 11, 2015 at 09:14 AM · Gitlis is turning 93 very soon.

August 12, 2015 at 04:00 AM · I read somewhere that Menuhin's fall was attributed to him relying too much on his childhood prodigy skills. The implication was that the talent (or call it what you will) that the prodigy is gifted may not sustain and that at some point it has to be relearned as 'skill'. Whether or not it is true, its an interesting concept. There are certainly a lot of prodigy supernovae that do not translate into lifetime violin stars...

But I rest assured that I peaked as a virtuoso 20 yrs into the 40 yrs that I wasn't playing. Now I am gently gliding into my violinistic dotage...

August 12, 2015 at 05:51 PM · I was participating in this discussion forgetting that Josh would be our soloist, conductor and even concertmaster for one piece at last night's Hollywood Bowl concert with the LA Phil! I had the pleasure of being his stand partner for the Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, and concertmaster for his performance of the Bruch concerto (without conductor!) and Beethoven 7 (which he conducted).

I also remembered that I had written a thought experiment, inspired by him, about what impression his playing might make at a standard blind orchestral audition:

Joshua Bell at an orchestra audition?

We had a great time last night, but those are tough conditions to try playing without conductor: outdoors where many players can't see or hear the soloist well! In addition, we are pretty spread out on the Hollywood Bowl stage, so there was a lot of forging ahead, hoping we all found each other.

In any case, I'm happy to report that I don't believe Josh has yet peaked! Or maybe he's staying up there for a while. He does a lot of unorthodox things, certainly, and I suppose time will tell whether they serve him well for several more decades. But as we've already discussed here, longevity is not the only way to judge a soloist. I certainly hope to hear his playing for a long time to come! But if not, he's well positioned to transition to (gulp) conducting, if he chooses. His Beethoven 7 was full of interesting and refreshing ideas, and if the bowings were unexpected, they often forced a new way of looking at phrases. Such are the perils and surprises of one-rehearsal, one-shot-only performances!

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