Too late too start violin

September 2, 2015 at 12:51 PM · I started violin at 10 and in two years became a grade 7 level. Now a year later at grade 8. I'm wondering if you think that I have a chance of becoming a professional musician because I didn't start at the same age as every one else. My dream is to become a professional violinist someday so it 10 too late?

Replies (50)

September 2, 2015 at 01:18 PM · Without knowing more about you and your playing ability, your teachers, your's difficult to give you even a remotely accurate answer as it pertains to you specifically.

But in the big picture?

Yes. That option is available to you.

People like to throw out absolute numbers:

"If you don't start lessons by the age of 6, it is too late!"

Don't take those numbers too much to heart, they are only guidelines.

September 2, 2015 at 01:18 PM ·

No, I dont think it is too late. I started to play when I was 9. Right now I am 17, playing along with others who started at the age of 4-6. If you will work hard, there should be no problem for you to become a professional violinist.

September 2, 2015 at 01:44 PM · I started when I was seven and a half. By many, that too is considered late. I think there is a certain balance, a certain learning curve - if you start earlier, it will take longer to learn, but if you start later, you'll be able to learn faster. Within a range, of course.

I also want to be a professional violinist. My advice (that I'm trying to follow right now :) is this: play as much as you can. I don't know how much you practice, but it should definitely be in the 2-4 hour zone if you want to pursue music. Play in as many events as you can. Join more orchestras. Find other musicians and play chamber music with them. Perhaps you can talk to your teacher about doing a solo recital or splitting a recital with another student. I find it helps to make lists of goals for every week, e.g., doing the basic building work on this piece, memorizing that piece, learning this etude, practicing those scales, etc. I wrote a blog on goals a little while back.

And don't forget to enjoy it! Music is a wonderful thing - don't ever give it up. Good luck pursuing your dreams!

September 2, 2015 at 02:04 PM · Learning the violin is not like training to become a Jedi!

"you're too old to begin training!"

(and even with that, Luke made it)

Everybody is different. Some come through at incredibly young ages, others learn at much later points in life. While most experts agree that starting early is easier/better, don't let your age discourage you! The world of a professional musician is already pretty demanding, don't let insecurity about your age affect your performance! Start at 10 or 20 or 30, if you dedicate yourself and if you have talent, and if you get lucky (luck plays a huge role there) you may succeed! There is no 'cut-off' age for becoming professional player.

September 2, 2015 at 05:03 PM · not at all. it's a great age to start.

September 2, 2015 at 06:00 PM · It's true that most professional violinists started very young, but it isn't an absolute. One of my former colleagues, a really excellent violinist, started at age 12. It's rare but with talent, a good teacher, and a LOT of hard work, it has happened.

September 2, 2015 at 06:28 PM · You have received encouraging advice, all of it correct to some extent. However, you have not specified what you mean by "professional." If you mean can you become a top-tier international soloist, e.g., Hilary Hahn, or a member of a top-tier orchestra such as the NY Phil or the Boston Symphony, the answer to your question is that you probably started too late. If you mean becoming a teacher or a member of a regional orchestra, the answer is probably yes. You should clearly try to work as hard as possible to go as far as possible. You have a great potential future as a professional of some sort, but the upper reaches of the profession are likely closed off to you at this point. Good luck and enjoy the talents you have!

September 2, 2015 at 09:57 PM · I don't think a top-flight orchestral career is out of reach of someone who starts at the age of 10 and is immediately serious, and gets good teaching and appropriate support.

By implication, the OP is 13 years old and playing at a grade 8 standard -- hopefully, with technical mastery of the grade 8 material, not struggling and slopping through it. There are plenty of moderately seriously students who started much earlier who are also playing at roughly the same level.

The OP has four years left before conservatory auditions. Should be fine with very hard work and superior teaching.

September 3, 2015 at 04:03 AM · I started at ten, and like you, progressed very quickly. I had a top-notch player/teacher from day one. That helps. A lot. I also had years of piano before violin, and had classical music in the home and in concert all the time.

I don't think if I started earlier I would have been better. Three or ten, NYP wasn't ever my pay grade. (And that's fine.)

A friend of mine started even later and is in a Big 5. Fabulous violinist, unusual talent, and whip smart.

Keep practicing, listen to as much music as you can stand, and then listen some more, utilize youtube (I didn't see film of Heifetz until college!), attend concerts, concentrate on being the best you can be without worrying about what everyone else is doing, and good luck!

September 3, 2015 at 01:14 PM · One approach is to learn the violin for the sheer joy of playing it as well as you possibly can without sacrificing too much of the rest of your life, whether that be school, friends, sports, church, or whatever. The age of 13 is an age where you can afford to practice the violin to the exclusion of TV, video games, and sleepovers (a nod to the "tiger parents" reading this) but not at the exclusion of exercise or homework.

September 4, 2015 at 02:00 AM · I started at 13 and have had a career but mainly as an alternative styles player.

I think it's possible but you would have to work. There will be plenty of other people with a head start but competition isn't everything.

Advantages to starting later:

. A clear memory of a time when violin was not part of your life helps you understand beginners if you teach. Also, understanding how you related to music before you were musically educated is very important to understanding your audience. You probably won't take music for granted as something that's always been there.

. A more questioning approach to learning is likely rather than taking things on faith as an impressionable 6 year old.

. More likely to be independently driven as opposed to parent driven.

Disadvantages to starting late:

. A certain lack of fluency in skills like reading music to the highest standard.

. The early years are a time when you learn technique and music like a language. You may not ever have the same ease and fluency as somebody who starts very early (then again you might!).

. When it comes to college audition time you will be up against people your own age who have had a huge head start during very formative years.

However, don't worry about any of this. You don't have to follow the regular model. Just keep going and keep enjoying it - if it takes you to being a professional that's great but if it doesn't that's fine too. You can still play even if you are not being paid (full time anyway) and you still have something unique to say in your music as a human being. It is a tough profession that only gets tougher but there are niches.

The anxiety of comparison is a music killer and can lead to a lot of heartbreak along the way but making music doesn't have to be that way. The violin world is in a rut and they will try and send you down the same old channels as they don't know anything else. For some of this you may not be on schedule. Or, you can find your own way...

September 4, 2015 at 11:36 AM ·

September 4, 2015 at 01:30 PM · Here are the OFFICIAL guidelines:

Begin at age 3:

Guaranteed soloist, fabulous career, fame, riches, etc.

Begin at age 5:

Able to get into Julliard, win local competitions, etc.

Begin at age 7:

Maybe able to get first chair in the high school youth orchestra, if put in 10-12 hours of practice a day.

Begin at age 9:

Doomed to a life of mediocrity. Uncles and aunts clap politely when played for at family reunions, etc.

Begin at age 12:

Are you kidding? Might as well put the violin in the fireplace and call it quits.

Begin at age 15:

Forget it. Best you can do is study the O'Conner method and become an embittered, hard drinking, fiddle player with paranoid delusions about Shinuchi Suzuki conspiracy theories.

Begin at age 17:

Take up the electric guitar, or drums and start a garage band.

Begin at age 45:

Better get some serious ear protection...All hope is lost.

These are the immutable truths, that cannot be changed.

September 4, 2015 at 01:30 PM ·

September 4, 2015 at 02:40 PM ·

There is a quote from Roosevelt, "Believe you can, and you're halfway there."

The hardest part for some is believing the quote. Are you one of these people?

September 4, 2015 at 03:00 PM · The problem, Charles, is that halfway there doesn't even get you a toaster or a set of steak knives.

September 4, 2015 at 04:01 PM · I think this one is more appropo:

September 5, 2015 at 01:59 AM · I think it's a fact that generally speaking, violinists that started young are not so good at playing by ear and improvising. It's like the brain has made it's pathways for music making and if there has only been reading and absolutely no improvising or playing tunes without sheet music then that particular creative door has been welded shut.

Just my theory (also based on years of observation) - you start later you may be ahead as an improvisor/ear player.

September 5, 2015 at 03:49 PM · "I think it's a fact that generally speaking, violinists that started young are not so good at playing by ear and improvising..."

Damn, I was going to stay out of this one. However, the above statement is too ridiculous to let stand. Sorry, you can't cover your bases by using the phrase "I think it's a fact."

September 5, 2015 at 06:09 PM · Well of course a lot still can but it's a fact that the majority of violinists trained from an early age find improvisation something hard to get into if they haven't done any at all. I think it's a similar thing for playing different styles - players become set in a certain approach and sound. Excuse me if I sound dogmatic in any way, it's just the way I've seen it over the years with students and peers and it's only a fact (generally as I said) from where I stand. Also, you see it in violinists that try to cross over, it's as if they have an accent.

However, it's better now than it was in the past (just in my opinion!) :)

September 7, 2015 at 03:07 AM · Having two children who play (one violin and one cello), I conclude that aptitude for playing by ear and improvisation has nothing to do with the age at which they started but a great deal to do with their individual personalities that were formed at very young ages.

The individual expectations of teachers vary quite a bit as well. Probably there are lots of teachers would think that it's a useful skill to think of tunes in your head, whether it's The Star Spangled Banner or Christmas carols, and play those right off on your violin in any key. Probably there are not very many teachers who spend lesson time learning *how* to do that or listing it as a line item on a practice chart, thereby displacing 15 minutes of Kreutzer.

September 7, 2015 at 03:11 AM · Few will care how old you were when you started, only how well you play "now."

September 7, 2015 at 11:20 AM · As someone who started playing by ear in my mid 50s after a classical training as a kid, I would say that playing by ear is simply a skill that can be learned like any other through practice and problem-solving. Nothing mystical about it...

To Kayla I would say that if you have achieved a true Grade 8 level in 3 years you have above average aptitude - after all the Grades are designed to represent a year of work for an average player so you are already 5 years ahead of the game. With your ability a professional career is surely open to you if you continue to do the work.

OK, so you're unlikely to become a top-rank concerto soloist. But then again, the huge majority who started as tinies won't achieve this either, as it takes a very special combination of gifts.

What I say to all the young musicians who post here is to urge you to explore a wide range of music as you develop, beyond the usual classical repertoire. Early music, Jazz, and all kind of traditional genres offer a great deal of fun, viable careers, and focus more on musical creativity than on virtuoso skills. Don't work yourself into a narrow box...

September 8, 2015 at 11:30 PM · Violinists starting young has nothing to do with them having trouble with improvisation. Improvisation on violin is really difficult for a variety of reasons, the first being that takes so long just to teach kids to make a good sound. Press a key on a piano and there you go, decent sound. Kids can improvise in a very rudimentary fashion within their first few lessons. Not so much on violin. You can spend a little bit of time on improvisation with beginners, if you're creative, but out of necessity the vast majority of the time has to be spent on technique.

September 9, 2015 at 10:22 PM · 42 years ago I had the opportunity to share a master class experience with a number of the young violinists who were studying in the Heifetz Master Class at USC (that was almost half my lifetime ago). I vividly recall a young Vietnamese (18 year old) woman who said she had started at age 13. She was fantastic. after running through the Heifetz routine of 3 octave scales (in various double stops and fingered octaves) and arpeggios, she played through the Bruch concerto with piano accompaniment. What impressed me almost as much as her playing and sound, was the fact that her hands where only about half as wide as mine - and yet she could do all that stuff - that amazingly.

Many people start violin at 9 and go amazingly far, so 10 is close enough to that age. I started at 4, and I don't think it helped me much at all - except to make whatever I can/(could once) do second nature by the time I was a teen a long, long time ago. What I did gain was largely from the inspiration and determination that drove me after I reached age 13.

The real key to what you want is in your right arm and hand. I have know a few female virtuoso-level players and you could tell even at a young age that they had the sound that came from a "magic" right arm. If you have that now - great! If not, work on it!


September 9, 2015 at 10:24 PM · My girlfriend started when she was fourteen, and ended up going to Rice to study with one of the best violin teachers there! absolutely no not too late.


September 9, 2015 at 10:42 PM · My point about improvising is that somebody that has always played by written music and nothing else is more likely to be thrown when the music is taken away and they are told to make it up (or play by ear). Their brains have made the connection that music is made by reading notes and that is very strong. Of course it can be learnt like anything but my point is that when it comes to improvisation (for instance) it's a disadvantage starting early if (I emphasize if) there has been no practice of this skill. It would be the same if all teaching was by ear and improvisation and then at the age of 13 you were to start reading music. I'm sure I've heard somewhere that violinists that started on Suzuki and played by ear had trouble with reading? Can anybody verify that?

So yes, there are the difficulties of the instrument but I believe that the system of violin teaching is very exclusive of certain musicianship skills and creativity. We teach out certain things then become teachers who also don't teach those things.

September 10, 2015 at 02:30 AM · I started at five (so very young) in a Suzuki program. And yet somehow I am very good at playing by ear and also at sightreading. Go figure.

September 10, 2015 at 02:30 AM · Double post, sorry.

September 10, 2015 at 03:19 AM · Would it be fair to say that at some point we know the instrument well enough to hear a random note from some other source, say piano, and find it on our own violin? Part of ear training?

After that point, isn't it a matter of how much we prefer/use/practice visual vs auditory cues?

Would playing in a group be a factor?


September 10, 2015 at 01:59 PM · One possibility is that sightreading/note-reading ability and playing-by-ear ability are orthogonal skills. One is not dependent upon the other nor mutually exclusive of the other. Blaming poor note-reading skills on early ear-based Suzuki training or poor improv/ear-playing skills on early note-reading dependency embodies a conclusion that I don't believe is based on sound evidence. I have trouble memorizing, but I was not asked to memorize hardly anything as a child. I'm quite good at sight-reading. Are they related? I don't know. I was one of those kids who got a new etude every week, so I had a lot of practice sight-reading.

Edit: I agree 100% with Sarah. Improvisation on the violin is intrinsically hard. For an intermediate player like me (my basic skill level is around Suzuki Book 7-8), even if I were to perform a relatively basic piece from an earlier book, for example the Vivaldi A Minor, I would work on individual passages carefully to get them perfectly in tune, smooth out the string crossings, etc. In improv there is no opportunity for that kind of polishing whatsoever. So, if you don't have rock-solid chops in your hands for string-crossing, shifting, intonation in various types of scales, arpeggios, scales in broken intervals, etc., then it's *really* hard to make it sound good. People tend to get frustrated when they hear themselves and think, "Geez, don't I play any better than that?" And we all know what happens when you post a youtube where you play three notes out of tune: People start giving you advice about how you need to study Simon Fischer scales or whatever to improve your intonation.

September 10, 2015 at 03:11 PM · I really admire those that can take an unknown piece of music and make it even remotely musical on the first play trough. I have to have it clearly established in my mind and using the score as a reminder before the music comes out. Even taking a segment out for an intro requires a lot of forethought and concentration. On the other hand by the second verse of most country and western songs I can play a basic break.I guess I mainly hear a sound in my mind's ear. Maybe more adult supervision is required.


September 10, 2015 at 04:44 PM · I understand what Christopher is saying (I just don't agree that starting at a young age is the reason for the phenomenon). It's a recognized hurdle in string education and one that many are working to overcome. But there's also the possibility that people who enjoy and do well at violin are the ones for whom reading music is easy. Some people are naturals at the process of creating sound from instructions on a sheet of paper, and for others that process is confoundingly unintuitive. And really, if you think about it, there are so many variables that it's a miracle anyone can do it at all. "This mark on this piece of paper means you should make this sound. We're going to call this sound A. To get it you do this extremely complex set of motions. Now follow the directions at split-second speed and string a ton of sounds together with correct pitch, rhythm, dynamics, character and good tone quality, and make it tell a story while you're at it, and also be able to understand the notation system and why things are written down the way they are." For some people, who may in fact be quite musical, that process of translation is so unnatural as to drive them away from violin, and the problem is that there isn't much place for those people in formal violin education.

On the other hand, those who complain about lack of creativity in string players are usually jazz musicians, and jazz isn't for everybody either. (What's that meme going around about how when you reach your 40s, you finally realize it's okay if you don't like jazz?) I don't think we all have to play jazz to be real musicians. But it is a problem if you've been playing an instrument for five, ten, fifteen, twenty or more years and you cannot sit down with a diverse group of people and comfortably find some way to make music without paper. Unfortunately, violin is so technically challenging that without systematic technical study (which just takes time, time and more time) most people will not have the chops to do the above, as Paul was saying, even if they have the ear. So it's kind of a Catch-22.

September 10, 2015 at 06:46 PM · Everyone seems to recognize that it is unlikely to realize even a reasonable level of technical skill on the violin without formal instruction. In my view improvisation likewise benefits from having a teacher. I had three years of lessons (jazz piano, long ago). If I wanted my improv skills to improve significantly, I would find a way again to have lessons.

I suspect a lot of very young violin students are encouraged to do some improv because it's a way of "keeping it fun" while extending their practice time in spite of their short attention spans. But then once they've reached a certain level, the "games" go away because it's time to "get serious" and not waste time that could be better spent on scale, studies, and repertoire. And the improv skills are quickly atrophied.

September 10, 2015 at 08:51 PM · What did your improv lessons look like, Paul? I'm interested because I do teach improv, but I don't have a model to do so because it was never taught to me. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how best to teach it, but it is certainly more difficult to teach than repertoire.

I agree with what you say about "fun," too. Learning the violin can be a surprisingly Puritanical experience, where "fun" music is indeed presented as something inferior to "serious" music. While it's certainly good to challenge ones own ear, I agree that "fun" doesn't mean "less important." But then I actually don't always find improvisation fun. Sometimes it's fun, but sometimes it's stressful, like any other aspect of performance. And I'm not someone who lives to do it, either. I enjoy it and I do it because I think it makes me a better musician, but the best musical experiences of my life haven't been during improvisation.

September 11, 2015 at 02:59 AM · Sarah, it's been an awfully long time since I had any of those lessons. Actually I had improv lessons at two stages of my life. I had a couple of years of jazz lessons in high school (ca. 1982-3) in Ann Arbor (that's near where I grew up) and then another couple of dozen lessons during my postdoc years (ca. 1994) in Evanston. I'll give you a couple of examples of improv lessons. One time, my teacher in Ann Arbor taught me the "standard" two-and-three comping rhythm for bossa tunes. He wanted me to be able to play through ANY bossa in the Real Book with *strict* obedience to the written rhythm of both the comping rhythm (with the right accents and general feel) AND to the rhythm of melody line as written in the book. Obviously the point was to develop independence of the left-hand comping from the right hand line, and it can be pretty hard on the tunes that have the most extended syncopation. This teacher also taught me how to "build" and "shape" a solo over several choruses and how to listen for that feature in the solos of top jazz recording artists, how to exploit riffs, how to "go outside," how to introduce modal/quartal harmonic ideas within the framework of a conventional standard (Cole Porter type) tune, etc.

I remember my Evanston teacher showing me (and writing down, I still have it in his hand, on staff paper) a uniform system for playing melodic lines, including improvised solo lines, on the piano using "block chords." Initially I was appalled by the sheer simplicity of the system, and I asked him, point blank, whether it wasn't awfully restrictive, since it was based more-or-less on a pentatonic scale. He told me to try playing through the melodies of several standards on my own, and he said I'd be impressed with how well the tunes mapped into the system. That turned out to be surprisingly true, but it wasn't 100% infallible. So at my next lesson, I brought a few tunes where I had circled melody notes (mostly passing tones) that didn't map to his system, as if to prove its weakness. He chuckled at my petulance and proceeded to show me a simple refinement/extension of the system that covered them all using mostly diminished chords. He demonstrated the extended system to me by playing something. I was floored. I wanted to play like that. I worked on that system as hard as my time allowed (I was job hunting, so not much time) but I still use the system today. And I don't consider it a "lick" or a "crutch." I consider it a tool of expression. At other lessons he taught me some general approaches to chord alteration, etc. He was a guy who favored very simple, general concepts as a starting point. That's often the trouble with improv -- where to start.

Incidentally when I showed up to my first "improv lesson" in Ann Arbor, my very first assignment included two Scriabin preludes.

September 11, 2015 at 09:58 AM · Sarah - perhaps you're thinking a little narrowly about improv.

Obviously, jazz is improv in its purest form, but as you say, not everyone's cup of tea.

But improv is also used extensively in pop, rock, blues and in every fiddle tradition, where playing by ear and improvising variations, harmonies etc is at the heart of the process.

And of course, there's an extensive history of improv in Western art music which for some reason seems to have almost died out.

So you and your students have a rather larger menu to choose from than you seem to imply.

As for structuring your teaching, there are a couple of pretty decent books on jazz-oriented fiddle improv if you search Amazon, and our own Christian Howes offers extensive materials in his Creative Academy, which covers a wide range of genres. I'm not a member, but his public domain stuff is always great and there's a free trial.

September 11, 2015 at 12:55 PM · Geoff, I'm aware of everything you say, and I do perform in some of the genres you mention. I also know about the materials you listed. I was just saying that in my experience, jazz musicians are the most strident about how classical musicians are automatons, but that's because jazz and classical are both somewhat academic forms of music that people feel they "should" enjoy but often don't. It's like squabbling between two brothers.

Paul, thanks for your reply! Those lessons sound awesome.

September 11, 2015 at 04:12 PM · One of the reasons jazz musicians are so strident is because, just like classical music, modern idiomatic jazz is a highly evolved art form where the standard for what is considered "good playing" is extremely high. Not only does it need to be "impressive" but it needs to be different from anything anyone else has ever played. Not just slightly different phrasing or dynamics or tempo, which is how individual performances of the Mendelssohn E Minor Concerto differ, but entirely different notes and even modifications to the harmony and structure of a tune. A jazz violinist's playing is going to be judged against the best piano and horn players of our time. The novelty of the violin sound is not sufficient to earn them a pass to play inferior music just because violin is technically harder.

September 11, 2015 at 04:57 PM · That's right. The violinist is also at a further disadvantage because 1. he's most likely not been taught to fulfill any function other than as a melodic instrument, so neither his technique nor his ear allows for that and 2. absolutely nothing about the layout of the instrument provides any help whatsoever. It's incredibly difficult to understand theory and chords if your only musical training has been through the medium of violin. It can be tough for someone coming from a background of piano or guitar who is not also a violinist to understand what a tall order it is to play jazz violin. That's why I enjoy talking to you, Paul!

September 11, 2015 at 05:21 PM · Can we clear up this "fun" vs. serious thing?:)

First of all music is a sensual pleasure so we hopefully enjoy it. Enjoyment being the bottom line I know that classical players enjoy the music they play or at least strive to! In that sense it's fun. Likewise, jazz musician, folk musician, rock musicians also enjoy the music they play. Also, those players have tedious work to do to get to the "fun" stuff just as classical players do. I must say it kind of jarred when I was at Guildhall doing my jazz post-grad and talking to classical musicians who would exclaim "fun" when I would tell them I was playing jazz. Yes, we have fun sometimes just like classical musicians but also sometimes we are playing something we feel is deep and meaningful just like classical musicians and sometimes we are just as stressed out by something as classical musicians. Reaching a stage where things sound spontaneous and yet in the pocket takes a lot of work!

Tying this back in with the original topic, let's look at how a young beginner can have the creativity and ear playing squeezed out. So, the young kid is given a nursery rhyme to play. However, certain notation/rhythm/note range has not been introduced yet so the book dumbs down the nursery rhyme to simpler rhythm and notes. The kids comes back the next week playing the nursery rhyme, partly by ear, playing the correct notes and rhythm according to what they have always heard. The teacher says "No Jimmy, you are playing this wrong. Now, you have to always follow the notes that are on the page. Oh, and don't do anything other than what I set you - no noodling around or you will get into bad habits!"

A younger kid will take this all on face value and will stamp down the urge to play by ear or experiment with the instrument. It goes on like this. Later the kid is given studies and is told to play all notes evenly without the proviso that you don't play music that way - "Ok, got it. always play notes evenly no matter what!.."

Improvising can take many forms and is not just something for jazz players to play a solo. It's a very powerful learning tool to noodle around a tricky spot, finding all sorts of different approaches to a problem. Much better and musical than running up and down scales in my opinion. Later, it opens a lot of doors. Spontaneous playing involving accompaniment, fills, variations - not just solos. Classical players could benefit from it enormously if not just for making up specific studies to deal with a problem. I appreciate that there is not so much time in a lesson and not every teacher is equipped but at the very least the student should be made aware that as well as playing from the written page there is playing by memory, playing by ear and improvising. Encourage them to pick out tunes, experiment and make things up. This way they will have more options in the vast world of music making.

September 12, 2015 at 10:53 AM · Sarah

I'm sorry I misunderstood what you were saying.

I've just been reading your blog and it's the best thing I've seen on the Mark O'Connor fiasco.It's clear that you have thought far more deeply about this issue than most, including myself!

I know we're hijacking the thread, but it's probably run it's course anyway.

If you read the history of classical music, improv was a highly valued skill at least until quite recently. Does anyone understand why it died out?

It's well recorded, I think, that in their lifetimes Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms (amongst many others) were lionised for their improv chops - in some cases more than they were known for their composing.

It's clear that the modern picture of classical music as a genre where the dots rule all is historically false, and radically false at that.

My own improv skills are, to put it mildly, modest, but I do find it great fun. It's a pity that so many young people are deprived the challenge and the pleasure. For example, although the classical music teaching in my high school was quite exceptional, I never improvised a note.

What was different about earlier music education which enabled a Bach or a Beethoven to master their instrument and also the art of improv? What did earlier teachers understand that so many modern classical music educators have lost? It's not unreasonable to say that in many ways the standard of classical musicianship has regressed.

September 12, 2015 at 05:12 PM · Geoff wrote, "If you read the history of classical music, improv was a highly valued skill at least until quite recently. Does anyone understand why it died out?"

I wonder if recording technology is to blame. Recordings enable the listener to scrutinize one's playing to a degree that is not possible during a live performance unless one has an extremely well trained ear. (Did he flub a note? let's play it back another few times and see.) Look at the comments on some YouTube videos and you see things like "F# was flat at 4:52." Recordings also allow lay listeners to learn the pieces very thoroughly, including the "standard" concerto cadenzas. The performer who decides to improvise a few of his own variations to the D Minor Chaconne is taking a risk that few if any can afford. Only more recently, I believe, are we seeing more performers writing their own cadenzas, but even this is not improvisation.

Either that, or maybe folks who like to hear improvised music have realized that they can indulge that desire in other genres.

September 13, 2015 at 12:48 AM · It's never happened to me....

September 13, 2015 at 11:55 AM · Hi Jenny -

Yes - I too was taught that improv in classical music was restricted to some aspects of the Baroque, but when you dig into it you discover that it's a pretty major misrepresentation. Improv appears to have been central to the Baroque and remained a highly valued skill well into the Romantic period.

Here are some quotes from a good blog on the topic that demonstrates the central role of improv from Baroque onwards:

"J.S. Bach ... was renowned as the greatest improviser on the organ in Europe - Bach put improvisation skills at the center of his teaching."

"Handel wrote one treatise on performance – and half of it was devoted to improvising dances and fugues."

"Mozart was most famous in his day, according to scholars, 'first as an improviser, then as a composer, then as a pianist'."

"Beethoven wanted nothing more than to study with Mozart, and they met a total of one time, at a party. This was Beethoven’s one chance to impress Mozart, to show everything he knew – and to do it, Beethoven asked Mozart to give him themes to improvise on..."

"Schubert was almost completely unknown as a composer in his day – but he was renowned as an improviser"

"Liszt ... always closed his concerts with virtuoso improvisations on the themes of the local operas and ballets currently being shown."

And so on...

Dueling Banjo style improv contests seem to have been common and popular.

On violin, I think it's well accepted that Paganini routinely improvised on themes suggested by the audience.

So I think it's fair to ask the question, why did improv die out in the classical tradition?

September 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM · Paul

I'm sure there's an element of truth in what you are saying, but I can't help feel that there might be deeper sociological reasons, for example the increasingly restrictive social conventions of bourgeois Victorian society...

I wonder if anyone has studied this - it would make for an interesting PHD topic!

September 14, 2015 at 06:39 PM · Geoff, thank you for your kind words and for reading my blog. I think one of the biggest culprits in killing the improvisational cadenza was Mendelssohn, who (as far as I understand) was the first to write out a cadenza note-for-note in his violin concerto. I'm sure he didn't achieve it single-handedly, but I think it was the beginning of the end.

October 7, 2015 at 10:55 PM · "I started violin at 10 and in two years became a grade 7 level. Now a year later at grade 8."

So, that makes you 13? You still have four or five years before you finish your secondary education? Without hearing you play, it is hard for anyone to know for sure, but I have a hard time imagining that it will be an issue if you continue to make progress over the years that remain.

My students who start younger make slower progress in the first year or two than my students who start older. There are developmental reasons to start younger, but really, what six year old is actually in a position to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives? There is something to be said about maturity.

If you were 18, and just beginning, I would have a very different response, since by that point what you can do as a career will have more or less already been determined by your childhood experiences and learning something entirely new means delaying a career and possible professional education for several years. There is a point at which it just isn't practical to expect that you can be a professional violinist, but that is not to say there are not exceptions, nor am I willing to say you have absolutely reached that point at your age.

October 8, 2015 at 12:38 AM · Play, LOVE it and work hard! See what happens ... :-)

October 8, 2015 at 03:33 PM · I believe Szeryng started "late", or his early career was interupted.

I started at 14 3/4, but I have always honed teaching skills rather than sheer virtuosity.

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