Are adult learners doomed to analytical playing?

June 13, 2016 at 10:37 PM · Thinking of post titles is hard...

I am 28, and I just started to learn the violin last year. I just hand a random, and probably abstract question pop into my head.

With all the endless things to learn on the violin, and with music in general; I think it's sometimes hard to see what the future could possibly hold for me. Will I forever be playing music according to the great masters, and using their interpretations of various pieces? i.e., fingers, bowing, shifts, etc. Or, in the distant future, would I eventually gain enough knowledge to be able to create this for myself?

Without being introduced to music from a single digit age, with out going to university and getting a degree in music, would the "average new adult violinist" eventually be able to spend hours practicing his/her own interpretation, working to express the heart and mind as to the way I want the music to sound. Figure out my own fingerings, expressions, the composers intentions, shifting, etc?

I don't know if this is a silly question. We could easily sit here and say that anything is possible with a lot of work. But, maybe we could discus what all the above takes.

Thanks in advance.

Replies (39)

June 13, 2016 at 10:47 PM · The violin is as "analytical" as you want to make it. I think one of the differences between adult students and kids is that adults want to understand it whereas kids just want it to sound good.

June 13, 2016 at 11:04 PM · One can order an espresso ...

or start from preparing the soil, grow the plant, harvest the beans, roast them, grind and finally make some coffee.

One can touch the screen on iPod...

or learn how to play violin.

Choose your struggle and your pleasure!

June 14, 2016 at 12:47 AM · You will be very analytical until that time when you don't need to be.

May the force be with you!

June 14, 2016 at 01:21 AM · Even from the very beginning, interpretation can be personal. This tends to be more explicitly the case for people learning improvisational styles, but it's true of classical as well.

June 14, 2016 at 01:54 AM · Agree with Lydia. I am just over a year in as an adult learner and am starting to have more of a feel for the music, instead of just looking at it as a technical challenge. For example, certain fingerings are jumping out at me; shifting becomes intuitive; notes that require emphasis; phrasing; better understanding of composer's intentions etc.

A few things that I can recommend which have helped a lot:

1. watch as many masterclass videos as you can. Some that I particularly like are Benjamin Zander, Maxim Vengerov, Pinkus Zukerman, Zakhar Bron. Start with Zander, he is brilliant.

2. buy some sheet music without fingerings, eg most of Schirmer's "The Violin Collection" series.

3. Listen to music by a variety of top players. Each has their own interpretation and you will start to notice and appreciate the subtleties, things you like/don't like etc

4. Do lots of etudes. They are like weight-lifting for your brain.

As for your comment about what the future holds, this is a trap of our society. Always has to be an end goal. That's an erroneous pattern of thinking and can ruin your enjoyment of the instrument in the short- and long-term. Try to improve constantly, but love the process as its own end too.

June 14, 2016 at 03:18 AM · Greetings,

the question depends on the various meanings you attach to 'analytical.' In the past , great teachhers like Flesch and Galamain have always talked about 'practice time ' and performance time' or building time vs whatever. I dont quite remebe rthese days. What they are trying to tell us is that whatever level of paying you are at, including a complete beginner , there are times when we need to think very analytically about technique in orde rto build the skilss to express what is in side us, and then there is always time when one plays from the heart to an an audience even if one is in the practice room and you are just plucking open strings. The distinction is important but dangerous when taken too far, as in the cae of sevcik who believed one could build a player by reomving the subjective elemnt from technical work at all times. In fact, technical work is on ocassion considerbaly more useful when approached from an expressive perspective.

The music you personally want to express is already inside you and comes out when you sing, most of the time.... So if you continually look inwards to what you feel about music then the selction of bowings, bow speed, sound point and the rather limited range of techniques availabe on yje violin will indeed be available to you from an analytical perspective but you and any other adult can put them to the service of your music without thinking twice about it.

The short verison of htois answer is probably ,yes'. Time for lunch,

Buri

June 14, 2016 at 03:44 AM · No, you're not doomed! At some point, my teacher started to insist on playing "from the heart". Not long before she passed away, I was perfecting my first "real" piece (not by a well-known composer, but getting away from the graded books). After a few weeks, she heard me play it, took out a pencil, and scribbled out all the dynamics, etc. She liked my interpretation better! Now that she's gone, I have to rely on what she taught me about finding my own fingerings, shifts, etc. as I practice all these string quartets that don't come with any fingerings attached. But I can't say all of this would have happened if I hadn't worked with this particular teacher. Each teacher has his/her own teaching style.

June 14, 2016 at 05:43 AM · This is an interesting question from the OP.

I think beginners and in fact everyone should have to think for themselves. That is what teaching is all about.

And yes, music should be published without fingerings and bowing marks, and then we have to analyse the technical and musical aspects ourselves. Teachers can guide and suggest, but only after input from the pupil first. What is printed on the page is only a very rough guide anyway.

June 14, 2016 at 07:17 AM · Greetings,

my somewhat tongue in cheek response is that yes, what is on the page does indeed sound like a very rough guide at times....

There are differnet schools of thought on this and I am not one hundred percent in agreement with Peter over the no bowings and fingerings thing. I learnt a greta deal about Bach from Szeryngs bowings and fingerings. I became dumber from Being forced to use Galamians fingerings and bowings which i now think Re out of date and rather mundane. Francescattis bowings and fingerings for Mozart somatas would best be viewed as an insight into his playing than burned with guide book for mky VCR

But beginne rstudents need to start somewhere and even up to a fairly high level it is not unreasonable to learn a good players fingers first and then strive for individuality.

CheersBuri

June 14, 2016 at 08:14 AM · I certainly don't disagree, Buri. Sometimes printed fingerings can be a help, but I've just spent a lot of time blocking out fiingerings and bowings on an edition of Beethoven sonatas. (Henle) I spent as much time doing the office work as actually trying out my own versions.

But I must be on the right tracks if you only disagree maybe 50% so maybe I have a future after all!

Just a little tease about your comment "master the heel and you have mastered the bow." (Hope that's an accurate quote). What about "master the bow and you have mastered the violin?" (I think old Pinky would agree with that ...)

June 14, 2016 at 08:57 AM · Greetings,

Ive never been sure if heel refers to the bow, getting better shoes or someone your girlfriend is being unfaithful with so I remain ambivalent on the subject. I have often found that the bowed and fingered editions that go as a bonus with urtext editions from people like Henle are absolutely awful for some reason. Some bonus! An interesting problem with the Beethoven and Mozart which sometimes slipped by unnoticed until it is too late is that there can be radically different piano parts as well. That can make a huge difference to the performance. I still find Oistrakhs editions to be extremely sensible and within the bounds of decency. A timeless musician, albeit rather on the podgy side.

Cheers,

Buri

June 14, 2016 at 11:04 AM ·

June 14, 2016 at 11:27 AM · Stephen, he was quite obviously referring to the fact that if you master bowing with high heels on after your recital you can pretty much bow wearing any shoes.

June 14, 2016 at 11:47 AM · If Oistrakh and Zukerman had played the Bach double together then they could have been billed as Pinky and Podgy ...

June 14, 2016 at 11:49 AM · The highest heel I've ever known was my first wife ...

June 14, 2016 at 02:12 PM · All your replys are wonderful, thank you.

I guess I'm just a bit worried because I have no idea how to express or change expression within my playing. I suppose that's another thing to learn on this long and challenging journey.

June 14, 2016 at 02:33 PM · If you want to immediately work on personal expression, practice playing and improvising the blues. You learn 3 dominant chords and a couple blues scales, and from there on it is up to you to decide what comes out of your violin.

Baroque violinists learned to improvise before they learned to read music. Paper was expensive, and any decent performer was expected to improvise after playing the melody once. Try learning and playing like Bach did on his violin. The blues is just a simple modern way to do that.

June 14, 2016 at 03:04 PM · One piece of advice I can give you:

28 is not old whatsoever.

If you stick with it, you will have been playing the violin for 17 years until you get to the age at which I began learning it myself.

Just take lessons, play, practice and enjoy it all.

June 14, 2016 at 03:35 PM · That is what my teacher tells me at times. Just play and stop over thinking it... haha. I'm very analytical, and like to know everything I can about something I'm doing.

June 14, 2016 at 03:38 PM · I really don't think anyone understood the question. Of course we have to analyze the music and every action we're doing. We have to figure out to the millimeter our bow use, find fingerings, construct a whole from parts, etc.

But that is not the point. Every great violinist I've had contact with thinks in those terms--or they never become successful. The point is mentality during execution: can all that previous technical work fade into the background in the adult beginner's mind so that music can be made? Can the adult beginner play from the subconscious after the analyzing and practice?

If comparing the adult beginners psychology to that of the adult who started in childhood,it's a bit of an unfair comparison. For one thing, it still takes the child years to get to the place of being able to analyze and then perform subconsciously (assuming we think we know what's going on in their head in the first place). For another, much of that ability to perform subconsciously is developed in the formative preteen and teen years when students are fired up about showing off or winning auditions or competitions and thus devote the hours necessary. And if they get into conservatory, there are years more of the grind. Adult beginners, even serious ones, rarely put in the hours and years necessary to get to that level of subconscious execution and confidence. I've had many students who practice 3-4 hours a day. That's unheard of for adult beginners, even if they advance. The fact is, most adults don't last that long, which is why many teachers refuse to take them on in the first place.

June 14, 2016 at 04:03 PM · Creativity arises from technical mastery. I have found this to be true in everything I have encountered in life.

But it seems especially true, to me, in art and music.

For example, you cannot create expressive dynamics until you have some level of mastery of the bow.

Yet the great teaching methods all seem to have the same thing in common: combining freedom of expression with basic skill building.

So Auer and Galamian don't have you just saw the bow over open strings until you can produce a consistent tone. They want you to vary speed, pressure and rhythm.

In other words, play with the variables to find what sound gives special meaning to you as you practice. Soon you will find yourself playing that simple etude in a variety of styles.

June 14, 2016 at 04:08 PM · Scott Cole: some adult beginners do practice 3-4 hours a day.

June 14, 2016 at 08:41 PM · Although exercises are important to build your technique, sometimes you have to take a break and play from the heart. Mike Laird's suggestion about blues is a good one. I play fiddle in bluegrass jams, which is another good expressive outlet. Sometimes late at night we'll wander off into swing tunes, and by then I've almost forgotten about technique and am just pulling sweet notes out of my violin and feeling the groove.

So although you shouldn't completely give up the analytical side of music, you should spend some time in non-serious groups. You'll find the heart and soul you're looking for, and you'll have a lot of fun too.

Oh, and speaking of adult learners, I have played other instruments before, but I only started violin at age 59. Now I'm playing bluegrass fiddle, orchestral viola, and second violin in an informal chamber group. Variety is the spice of life (and a good way to learn).

June 15, 2016 at 12:59 AM · "Scott Cole: some adult beginners do practice 3-4 hours a day.."

Yes, I'm sure a few do. But this would be very unusual, and typically adults practice more like 30 minutes a day, based on the ones I've had. But my comments concerned typical students and not the 1 in a million.

June 15, 2016 at 01:06 AM · Greetings,

Scott, with all due respect , I think evryone understood the OP's question quite well. My interoretation of it, is roughly ' I equate being expressive on the violin with the selection of bowings, fingerings etc. that exemplify my personal feelings. Since I have only a rudimentary knowlege of such things, the fact that I cannot bow or finger a part means I cannot express my feelings. '

The OP then made the rather too large jump to 'since I cannot express my feelings I am doomed to being analytical , analytical being the state one is in when one is not expressing onself.'

What was pointed out was that the connection ' expressing ones feelings ' can in fact take place with the bowings and fingerings of a superior player. It simply isnt an either/ or correlation. The use of 'analytical', in this context is not helpful.

As you rightfully point out, musicality is only expressed through an analytical approach to playing. The idea that we just feel music an dlet it happen is basically the road to sloppiness and those players who do seem to work that way but play well are actually continuously analysing to some degree or another. They might well improve by making the analysis overt though.

This concept of sujecting any aspect of violinlaying to straightforward analysis is very much the basis of things like the Violin Lesson by Fischer and is at the root of current progress in adult beginner development approaches.

It does however remain true that we do need to play from the heart without thinking about technique or analyse in some stages of our practice time. Presumably, hopefully, on such ocassions the necessray analysis has taken place and the player is ,'listening' with all their might in order for the necessary adjustments to take place.

Cheers,

Buri

June 15, 2016 at 02:57 PM · Hi Corey, as others have suggested analysis is the way to artistic freedom. In interpretive art, expression of immediate, emotional states is relatively unimportant. Of course under certain conditions, life situations, rapport with fellow musicians and audience, etc., an artist may feel emotionally inspired and inject some of that immediate feeling into the performance. The listener may or may not perceive it. But the opposite is also true; artists need to be able to communicate emotional content despite conflicting emotions, or even downright boredom.

But what is this emotional content performers need to interpret? If you take a look at the process of composition it is highly analytical, before or along with all the synthesis. To be certain, the composer may have experienced a certain emotion which inspired a certain idea or motif. But the act of composition happens long after the instance of that particular emotion.

Can't really cover something like emotional content in a single thread, but composers use things like key and tonality (major/minor,) modality, more recently atonality, dissonance and consonance, tempo, rhythm, rubato, acceleration/deceleration, contrast, sudden change, gradual change, texture, timbre, harmonic and melodic space, tension and resolution, form, etc. The more you analyze and understand such elements in a composition, the better chance you will have of unraveling the emotional content contained therein.

So how do we take all of those elements and produce it on our instruments? First you need to deal with the peculiarities of a given instrument, i.e. learn technique. I think technique can be divided into two categories: basic and applied. Basic technique has to do with controlling the peculiarities of an instrument. Applied technique has to do with producing the various requirements of compositions.

On the violin the most basic skill you need to develop has to do with overcoming the asymmetries of the violin and bow. The notes get closer together as you go up the fingerboard. The soundpoint has to change to produce a consistent tone, as you shorten the string. The lower strings are thicker than the higher strings. Each string feels very different for the fingers, hand and arm. Each string level and corresponding trajectory feels very different for the bow arm. Each string responds differently across the 4 strings, but also at various soundpoints. The bow is heavier at the frog, lighter at the tip. The combined flexibility of the stick and hair varies along the length of the bow. Etc....

As such, the first basic skillset the student needs to control includes evenness, steadiness and sameness, of tone, timbre, articulation, pitch, rhythm, etc., before she can control expression, which is really just controlled unevenness.

So, regardless of where we may be along our violin journey, we're not doomed to analysis, but rather liberated by it at every step.

June 15, 2016 at 03:25 PM · Stephen,

Based on the answers, no, I still don't think everyone got it. Many answers suggestd there was a question whether or not to analyze music, or advocating for more or less technical work.

The question as i understood it was a psychological one--whether are more or less prone to play analytically (and thus with more inhibition) than those who start younger. My answer is, based on my experience, yes, it is much more difficult for the adult beginner to become uninhibited. It doesn't really matter how the technical decisions are made, actually. The student can get fingerings or bowings from Galamian, teacher, etc. but the difficulty of letting go is still there. Probably not the answer adult beginners wish to hear. Sorry.

June 15, 2016 at 04:01 PM · Above, Corey said, "I'm just a bit worried because I have no idea how to express or change expression within my playing."

I enjoyed Mike Laird's reply and I think he's got a good point.

But what if you're working on "Minuet No. 1" or something else from one of the earlier Suzuki Books?

Buri's suggestion (I think he is the one who made it) is to sing it.

But still ... then what? That's where analysis helps. If you're not doing vibrato or "expressive intonation" yet, then it's pretty much all about your bow. How do you create the phrasing and the articulation to match your voice? You do it by varying the sound point, the bow speed, and the downward pressure ("weight") that is applied, and by taking your bow off and on the string in different ways (more smoothly, more harshly, etc.) to create different effects. This requires a lot of experimentation, remembering what kinds of things resulted in what kinds of sounds, and a great deal of guidance from an adept teacher.

Tell us what piece you are working on and maybe we can provide some more specific thoughts.

June 15, 2016 at 04:06 PM · Scott, I guess I don't equate playing analytically with inhibition. The higher the skill achieved, the higher the level of analysis. Think of an accomplished tennis player analyzing the possible moves with each stroke rather than simply trying to get the ball back over the net, or in volleyball or basketball, where athletes have more 'hang-time' than mere mortals to analyse the defense and the target, all the while remaining in the 'zone.' The question of how to achieve performing in the moment is a different thread all together (and involves a whole other kind of analysis...). Inhibition is not so much about the conscious or unconscious mind as they pertain to analysis, as it is about being self-conscious. Can an adult learner overcome his self-conscious self, get over himself? Is it easier for a child learner? That's a different skill set, which depends on a lot of factors apart from analytical practice and performing.

Edit: I'd further suggest that it's our ability to analyse a situation during performance which helps to pull us out of our self-conscious selves and back into the moment, back into our bodies.

June 15, 2016 at 07:55 PM · Greetings,

As far as the original post was concerned, the question was based on a few misconceptions. The primary one being, in my opinion, that the tessence of interpretation lies in the best choice of fingerings and bowings. That misconception needs to be dispensed with, i think.

On top of these there are individual choices concerning tempo, dynamics, style, vibrato and so on that a beginber can make. A good teacher can offer the student a choice of fingerings or bowings at times or point to different recordings for ideas etc.

unfortunately, or perhaps interestingly, the discussion got side tracked by the also too vague use of the concept of beib analytical. There is absolutely no doubt that Scott ir correct in describing the building of violin technique as an analytical process There is no other road and , as an aside, nothing worse than teachers who cannot explain how this is to be done and rabbit on about being expressive yadsa yadda to the poor befuddled student.

However, I am sure Jeewon is correct in thinking about the issue of inhibition as separate. on the whole, as Scott pointed out, adults are significantly more inhibited than children as arule. It's hardly surprising. A lifetime of the inner self yacking away, while one tries to negotiate the viccissitudes of the modern world is not helpful with violin playing. Jeewon touches on what i think is the crucial factor in blocking all our inhibitatory (?) baggage: being in the present moment when we play. I have seen this hundreds of times at Alexander Technique seminars where the player pays attention to the primary control and somehow the playing takes care of itself , allowing expressiveness to flow out. In almost all cases the player is not aware of the music they are producing and complain of a loss of expessiveness. This is due to the false mental constructs we usually carry around about what we are actually producing on the violin. Many players associate great effort and even muscular tension with expessiveness. Mostly this is actually connected with constipation.

However, you dont need an AT teacher fuddling with your neck while performing. One can get bsck into the present by choosing to focus on one specific aspect of playinf or sound or whatever. Nothing wrong with calling this analysis or objectivity or whatever as long as it blocks the inner voice from discussing just comitted errors or talking about how you want to sound in the nexr few bars or any other non present situation.

In peformance I think the degree one is analytical is quite variable. Assuming the practice has taken care of how one wishes to play a work it seems to me we are in a higher order state of awareness that is respoding to sound, seeing mental images and so on. My most intense experience of this was performing Vivaldi's summer where for some reason in ghe slw movement I felt transported to a typical sultry Italian pastoral scene and seemed to be actaully experiencing the feel of trees and the humming of insects. Like wise I have ocassioally played works where the programming during practice has been so intense and detailed that i was hardly aware of playing until i heard the clapping at the end. However, such ocassions are rather rare I think. More often than not the degree of attention and automaticity we use varies according to the demands of the moment.

Cheers,

Buri

June 15, 2016 at 10:18 PM · All of us here need analytical practice for some of the time, just so we can then stop analysing and just play! (Each at his/her own level.)

June 16, 2016 at 01:16 AM · I agree about the importance of choices of tempo and such. If the OP wants to explore some ideas there, I strongly recommend the master class on the Beethoven F Major Romance Op. 50 by Roy Sonne (on YouTube). What you are learning there from Roy can apply to everything you play! It does not matter one whit if you cannot play that piece yet.

Then after you see Roy's videos go ahead and watch Capucon play the Op. 50 romance. Wow.

June 16, 2016 at 02:16 PM · "Scott, I guess I don't equate playing analytically with inhibition"

Jeewon,

Not to belabor my point, but to me it's like someone learning to walk and constantly thinking "right foot, about 18 inches, left foot, 18 inches, right foot, slightly less for that rock,...")

Much of the discussion hinges on the level of execution: is the action something that must be internalized so that it is no longer a conscious action, like walking or breathing? Certainly even the best virtuoso thinks about something while they play--everything can't be automatic (lest the performance just sound phoned-in, something I've heard from several big names that won't be mentioned...).

As an experienced orchestral musician, I try to work out everything I can, such as fingerings. But often I have to sight read, in which case all those decisions run in the background and my fingers and bow make choices before I even realize it. So one can play analytically with inhibition, or analytically without inhibition.

As an amateur "pianist" I can make all those decisions and analyze my piece to death. I understand the harmony, figure out fingerings, tempo, articulation--everything. I have a whole method of practice rhythms that I've used for years on the violin I can use. I just can't play the piano spontaneously or with virtuosic speed, or really let go and just trust my fingers.

June 16, 2016 at 03:57 PM · Double post-apologies.

June 16, 2016 at 04:19 PM · It's not empirically related to age, however. I don't think there are enough "serious" adult students (meaning "late-beginners") to establish a pattern. Many kids will also play "too analytically/less free". With this in mind, just go forth and keep practicing intelligently, rather than worrying too much about whether infants have an edge you will never have (and truly, as an adult you have other advantages they lack.)

On the other, derivated subject, playing analytically is an intrinsic process to learn any given piece, despite your inclinations and/or personality type. It's really inappropriate to pretend "musical playing" is separate from technical fluency, and viceversa (both extremes produce IME and opinion, very undesirable results.) But it's GOOD that adults "tend" to be analytical, as that it's a strength, and does not mean they can't also learn to "let go" in due time (in fact, advanced repertoire is just very difficult to play if both processes have not been mastered, at the very least concerning the work in question.)

If I was forced to choose between the two, I would go with the analytical approach-but I've heard pieces played a la Sevcik, which although good for training the fingers and the brain, is not "true music", so to speak (nothing wrong with Sevcik, BTW.) That said, in my younger years many students had that false dichotomy in their heads, in which they criticized really good players for being "too technical/cold" and boasted about their poor tone production and out of tune playing because it was supposedly "more musical"-humans tendency to compete can be so absurd at times.

Moral of the story is: analytical learning/playing isn't mutually exclusive with musical expression/freedom-not ideally.

June 16, 2016 at 04:31 PM · I wonder if students sometimes confuse clean playing with cautious playing, when they hear it in other students (versus professionals who can generally be clean without being cautious).

June 16, 2016 at 04:38 PM · I'm totally enjoying all of these discussions. haha.

June 17, 2016 at 03:41 AM · I don't think you're belabouring the point at all, Scott. And I think we're largely in agreement, just using different terminology. Maybe analysis isn't the best term to cover everything, as Buri alluded to above. But my point is that some kind of processing occurs during performance at every level, and not just internalized, habitual actions from procedural memory. I'm not suggesting that we must keep analyzing rudimentary motions as we develop, though at times it is necessary for advanced players to revisit basics, even to the point of staying aware of some specific motion in performance, until we allow it fade once more into the background. We are not machines reproducing identical actions and processes. Even for repeated motions, each instance is slightly different and so there is room for error even for the most habitual motion, like walking. Also, much like walking in unfamiliar territory, or riding a bike downtown at rush hour, acting too automatically can lead to disaster when playing with others. Reacting to a dynamic situation, such as traffic, pot holes, street car tracks, and jaywalking pedestrians, the experienced NYC bike messenger analyzes the safest route in a split second, where the weekend road warrior might crash. I'm suggesting an analogous situation, such as playing in a quartet, or solo with an orchestra, requires such split second analyses and decision-making. Of course it's a different kind of analysis than what a beginner does, but it's not simply automatic, it depends on the level of execution as you put it. Automatic, habitual, internalized--these describe states which are neither good nor bad, just as they are. The context determines their value. In a dynamic context, without adaptation, habits can be counterproductive. I guess I'm calling such adaptation a kind of analysis.

But ultimately, as Buri said, interpretation is about much more than fingerings and bowings. Once the player reaches a point where she can make a phrase sound identical using completely different bowings, or have such mastery of the left hand that a broken upper string has no ill effect on the passage, she is truly free to express. But I don't think such expression is spontaneous in the way an angry outburst is spontaneous. It's not simply an emotional reaction, but a creative act. Enescu said something like, "you must learn to dance in chains," by which he meant you have to move freely while remaining within the constraints set out by the composer. To the composition itself, you could add: the orchestra, the pianist, or other players in a quartet, the way the strings respond in the relative humidity, the acoustics of the hall, etc., a dynamic context. Split second analyses and decisions can make or break, deflate or exalt a phrase.

June 17, 2016 at 06:51 AM · Jeewon

If I may say so, a very well thought out, and analytical post. Very helpful to many players on this forum.

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