What it takes to become a violin soloist

October 23, 2015 at 01:17 AM · Excellent article and required reading for any of our younger posters who are wondering about their future as soloists, or why we are so unanimously negative when asked.



October 23, 2015 at 01:41 AM · What I find to be interesting is that everyone is glomming onto this quote:

"...what she found is best put by one former soloist, 'For every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.'"

Notice that this is simply a quote; I don't see any evidence in this article that her "study" actually yielded those statistics.

October 23, 2015 at 01:59 AM · The article doesn't seem to make any distinction between those learning the violin with the specific goal of being a soloist and those learning for other reasons. I'd be interested to see how she chose her test subjects.

October 23, 2015 at 08:39 AM ·

October 23, 2015 at 09:09 AM · And 9 will post consistently here! ;-)

Actually, I haven't read the article yet. "Glomming" is new to me, too.

October 23, 2015 at 10:15 AM · "glom" is a verb that means "grab" or "adhere" or "seize". Yes, it's an American thing. Laurie's usage seems correct to me.

Lots of careers are either extremely stressful or even depressingly boring. Lots of people suffer from alcohol or substance abuse. We should not make light of these problems or propagate false data.

Type "ten professions with highest suicide rates" into Google, and you will not see "violinist" or "musician" on the lists. Maybe these are not considered "professions" by the folks making the lists, who knows. Doctors are usually at the top. I noticed that "scientist" and "chemist" are sometimes on these lists -- that's my field -- but curiously I don't know any chemist who did himself or herself in. Probably the most famous case of a chemist committing suicide is Wallace Carothers, the inventor of nylon. He struggled with bouts of depression from childhood.

Did Carothers's career kill him? Do careers make people depressed? Or do people with depressive personalities choose certain types of careers? Have cause and effect been established?

Studying a musical instrument is healthy for a child. Anything can become unhealthy if it is abused.

October 23, 2015 at 10:31 AM · One thing that I haven't found in any responses to the posts of wannabe soloists is that for many young folk, the ENERGY and DRIVE produced by the ambition to be on stage as the focus of the audience's attention is what gets them practicing.

As they move on into conservatory (or not, into a uni. music program) most 'get it' that their ambition probably won't pan out: it's the statistics at THAT point which are most relevant--teachers, orchestra players, audience members, amateurs come from that pool.

For the ones who are terminally disappointed, it's sad and maybe dangerous; for the rest, however it is part of the reality of growing up--to know that, no, you won't be president, an astronaut, win the Nobel, etc. Part of learning to love and enjoy the talents you have...but won't have if you don't keep on playing.

It's a hard call for a teacher in any creative field--that balance between encouragement so the talent is cultivated and reality so the student isn't unnecessarily disappointed. Never black and white.

October 23, 2015 at 10:37 AM · I assumed the Ten Students in question were ten potential soloists.

Some of Auer's best students ended up in the film industry. No shame in that.

October 23, 2015 at 11:52 AM · The author's study seems to be focused solely on students who are specifically soloist-track, playing competitively on the international stage starting at an early age -- essentially a study of violin prodigies. (If you want to read more than the article, a chunk of the book can be had for free on Google Books.)

All the people on V.com asking, "Can I become a soloist?" are nowhere close to being part of that pool, which should in and of itself tell them a lot about their odds of a solo career.

October 23, 2015 at 12:31 PM · There's something to the idea that if you're a teenager and you have to ask total strangers on the internet whether you might become a soloist, the answer is "No, and probably not a section player in a paid orchestra either."

October 23, 2015 at 12:46 PM · To be fair, as a teenager I had no more idea of what it took to become a professional musician than do many of our younger posters, and I ended up as a principal player in a paid orchestra.

I think the "statistic" from the article that so many are quoting in social media is completely made up but the basic premise--that the sacrifices necessary to have the *possibility* of a solo career are potentially life-blighting and even so the odds of success are low--is accurate and frightening. One could say the same about many other fields as well--elite gymnastics comes to mind as being even worse, and at least young violinists are not in danger of devastating injury or death every time they practice!

October 23, 2015 at 12:50 PM · Maybe some new dreams are in order ... this one sounds more like a nightmare.

My current dream is to get every artificial in Zapateado to speak and to develop enough callous so the left hand pizz. will stop killing my fingers. :-)

October 23, 2015 at 02:00 PM · Kimberlee, I'd agree that new dreams are in order -- I would love to see, in the U.S., some kind of network of quality amateur orchestras that allows the many people who reach a very high level of playing to continue to do so into adulthood, whether they major in music or in something else. In other words, you can go ahead and be a doctor but still keep playing at a satisfying level. It seems to me, and I just don't have the firsthand experience to know for sure, that in Germany and other European countries there are quite a lot of amateur orchestras that are on a level with many of the regional orchestras of the U.S. Seems like that kind of thing would actually grow the audience and economy of classical music. I feel like our field is saturated and competitive because it tends to be small and frankly, a bit unwelcoming.

As for those with the drive to become elite soloists, I've had the wonderful opportunity to meet many of these aspiring musicians, both as editor of Violinist.com and as a teacher. They tend to have a great deal of self-motivation. No parent or teacher can provide the sole motivation for that kind of work. More often, I see the (sometimes rather surprised) parent following the child's lead. It's a role that requires a great deal of time, money, persistence and energy, to be sure. But no amount of Tiger-mom will or berating can produce an elite musician where no will or passion exists on the child's part. That said, it is a rather insular culture and I'd be interested in reading what this book reveals about it.

By the way, the weekend vote is about this topic, come have a say: http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/201510/17117/

October 23, 2015 at 02:13 PM · But is it the stress of a soloist's career or aiming for such a career that causes the high percentage of mental issues?

I'd like to think it is because prodigies and violinist who succeed at becoming a soloists tend to have highly artistic minds and this high level of sensitivity to the world might make everyday life difficult?

October 23, 2015 at 02:16 PM · I think it is more the stress of an unusual childhood, which some children are better equipped to withstand than are others and some parents are better equipped to compensate for than are others.

October 23, 2015 at 02:30 PM · That makes sense, we are trying to balance our daughter's desire to play on a high level and her childhood.

Her former teacher insisted she must aim to be a soloist (the teacher sent many kids onto Juilliard Prep and a few to Juilliard), and it was not good thing for my daughter.

She really just want to play violin on a super high level.

She played for a Curtis faculty recently and what a wonderful thing the teacher appreciated the fact she is nine and it is okay not to know what she want at this age. The teacher only focused on how she can improve her sound...and said nothing of life as a violinist.

October 23, 2015 at 03:06 PM ·

October 23, 2015 at 03:16 PM · True on law and medicine. We know from personal experience medicine is filled with part time contract physicians who, many themselves do not medical insurance paid by the very hospitals they work for.

Pretty good does not get you job and professional development opportunities. You have to be incredibly be good and also, be lucky in medicine. Sounds like it is the same in classical music.

October 23, 2015 at 03:22 PM · Being pretty good at plumbing or home renovation can land you pretty good money these days. I know a guy who is into high-end home renovation and his small business is taking in millions of dollars a year.

October 23, 2015 at 03:25 PM · @Laurie--I like the way you think ... I like your dreams. :-) And, you often find a way to make them happen.

PS--Last I checked, it wasn't against the law to make beautiful music as a hobby ... in the not so distant past, amateurs rivaled the professionals in a variety of fields (i.e. Bobby Jones)

October 23, 2015 at 04:08 PM · One thing about plumbing and home renovations is that those occupations can tear up your hands.

The comparisons to medicine as a career are interesting. If you ask a lecture hall full of freshman biology students how many of them want to go to medical school, more than half raise their hands. Only a few will actually become doctors. But, how many medical doctors in America are making more than $100,000 per year? I don't know but I bet the number outstrips violinists by a huge margin -- a factor of 100 at least. Maybe 1000. Some fields just contain a greater total amount of money and people than others. There are about 750,000 doctors in the US actively involved in patient care and the median salary is probably in excess of $200,000. The part-time contractors that were mentioned -- the folks that do a few shifts in the ER every week -- those are the ones earning $100,000 with plenty of time left over to practice the violin.

October 23, 2015 at 06:33 PM · Laurie's comment on high-level amateur orchestras is an interesting one, particularly her comment about such orchestras rivaling regional professional ones in Europe (in terms of quality).

In the US, major cities often have at least one high-level community orchestra, although in truth many of the players in such orchestras are music professionals that don't perform for a living (such as public school music educators), and a significant number of the "amateurs" may actually hold performance degrees but at this point in their lives are in some other career. But in major cities it's also not unusual for players of that caliber to be strewn across multiple community orchestras rather than all concentrated into one orchestra, so you get a diffusion effect in terms of quality. The quality of the conductors is also pretty variable, which means that both the ensemble and the conductor can lead to varying levels of satisfaction.

Also in the US, in many places, more accomplished players who might otherwise play in a community orchestra actually take up freelancer spots in regional per-service professional orchestras. This is more likely to be musically satisfying, although it also has its trade-offs.

October 23, 2015 at 08:34 PM · Here in France, the musical establishment has an "all or nothing" approach, but as Laurie suggests, amateurs in Britain, Germany, and other north European countries, take their music very seriously.

As an expat Brit, I sometimes feel a bit like a missionary. Food's great, though!

October 25, 2015 at 06:57 PM · By the way, other things constant(given a bunch of star students in Juilliard, Curtis, etc.), do you think appearance matter, especially for female violinists?

Maybe its my bias, but I think most famous female soloists have above average looking. Stage performance is multidimensional and at least it may be easier for the agents to promote.

October 25, 2015 at 07:03 PM · Appearance matters for both male and female musicians. That said, I think that anyone who takes reasonably good care of himself/herself physically can make a good appearance, with the right photographers, wardrobe, make-up and aura of self-confidence. But yes, you do need to bother to do that, it is part of the package.

October 26, 2015 at 12:33 AM · Paul, you are correct about the pay of part time doctors, so yes, my comparison not so great.

David, you are funny, thanks for the considered but still light-hearted writing.

Jen Wen, I think appearance matters a lot these days, very said because think of the old time Russian treasures such as Elman and Oistrakh....they aren't really "pretty". My nine year old child even commented on how the living performing violinist really do put on a "show" on stage when the "sound" often does not follow ;)

October 26, 2015 at 01:31 PM · Great article and even better discussion here!

Chongwei Yeung, I'm with you on the following, as part (but certainly not all) of the reason:

>I'd like to think it is because prodigies and violinist who succeed at becoming a soloists tend to have highly artistic minds and this high level of sensitivity to the world might make everyday life difficult?

PS: okay, I just now posted a blog about Sibelius, who suffered from depression, as do many creative artists, so maybe that colored my response/agreement here. But I'm still nodding emphatically at your comment.

October 26, 2015 at 03:42 PM · Terez,

I will have to read your writing on Sibelius tonight then!

We sometimes worry one of our child's gift in music is evidence of an overly sensitive mind....but I think trying to stop her from expressing herself through music wouldn't do any good if she is prone to depression. She does have moments of preferring Mozart Sonatas to Kreisler's Prelude and Allegro so that's good, right?

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