Age of the violinist VS years playing the violin

August 26, 2016 at 08:05 AM · Hi, I've been asking this question since I started playing the violin last year:

Why does it matter age so much, instead of the years you've been playing the violin?

I don't know, imagine a 14 years old violinist who can play the Mendelssohn violin concerto really great. Everyone would say that violinist is a prodigy.

Nevertheless, if a 26 years old violinist do the same, it does not impress that much, and almost everyone would focus on the mistakes and point them out.

Let's say the 14 years old violinst started at age of 4, but the 26 years old started at the age of 21 years.

Isn't the 26 years old violinist way better than the first one?

That violinist clearly is accelerating and learning to play the violin way faster than the kid, so in 5 years more there will be a clear difference between them, being the kid worse than the old violinist.

Nevertheless, I'm 100% sure any music school/conservatory would pick the kid.


Replies (34)

August 26, 2016 at 08:17 AM · How good will the 14yo be by the time he is an adult? At 26 you should be already working as a musician, if that is your career path.

Cheers Carlo

August 26, 2016 at 09:06 AM · Because 10 years of learning from age 5 will get you much further on the violin than 10 years of learning from age 25.

I wish it wasn't so but that's the way it is. If you are a late starter like me than tough luck !

August 26, 2016 at 09:55 AM · Very interesting post , don't give up your dreams , doesn't matter what people might think and say , you are enjoying music and play your best and people around you support it and love it , it's amazing.Its what music for I believe . Same here when I asked people opinion about being professional in violin playing when I am already 34. Get rejected right away. Now I am thinking , this kind of career , you are young there is hope . You are over 30. You are retired . Game over ;(

August 26, 2016 at 10:37 AM · The adult beginner often thinks too much: the endless physical repetition still has to be done. And "conditioned reflexes" acquired in childhood seem tobe more deeply ingrained.

I started at 15yo, but with a background of piano (a skilled left hand) and choral singing (an alert ear). I did a music degree (UK), but for orchestral auditions I was in competion with those who had played up to ten years more than me. My playing was ok, but unreliable. One is then over the age limit for acceptance in further studies.

I have had a deeply satisfying life playing gigs and teaching, where my late start has helped me to find solutions which my colleagues take for grantetd.

August 26, 2016 at 12:06 PM · It's just like language. Suzuki was right about this.

Send a 7-year-old kid to Japan for the summer, and they come back fluent in spoken Japanese (nearly at the level spoken by their Japanese peers).

Now you try that. Three months in, I bet you won't be able to place an order in a noodle shop without pointing.

As you age your brain changes. And I'm sorry to say, by and large it gets better at nuanced decision making but worse at raw learning.

August 26, 2016 at 01:08 PM · Raw learning? What does that even mean?

Yes children learn some things better than adults. A child will pick up language intuitively by age 2 or 3. But that doesn't mean they are necessarily better suited to learning an instrument.

Adults have huge capacity to learn, in the right environment. That is why university can take in a high school graduate and spit out a nuclear physicist or brain surgeon or maths professor or whatever. Could a 7 year old achieve that in 4,5,6 years? No. They will perhaps have made it through arithmetic and basic algebra.

Children have less developed brains which are less adept at a lot of things to do with learning violin - eg coordination, concentration/focus, perception, problem solving, critical thinking, time management. They also have less worldy and emotional experience and will require more time to achieve the same level of musical appreciation and interpretation.

Furthermore, many kids who practise long hours are doing so under parental pressure, whereas an adult will be entirely self-motivated which will translate to higher output.

Most young-adult learners will not become pros but that has very little to do with brain capacity and more to do with time/money constraints, priorities, distractions, inadequate tuition etc, and the fact that most simply don't want to.

August 26, 2016 at 01:32 PM · I just love the phrase

"enforced daily playtime"

August 26, 2016 at 01:42 PM · The 26 year old isn't being compared to the 14-year-old, or even to 9-year-olds who have also been playing for 5 years. The 26 year old is being compared to other people in their age cohort, many of whom have been playing for 20+ years and have been able to play Mendelssohn for at least 10 years. Why would conservatories take a 26-year-old who may - or may not, there's so many factors that go into musical progress - have potential for a professional career by the time they're 40, when they could take a 26 year old with a proven track record who is already playing at a professional level?

August 26, 2016 at 01:57 PM · Here's the problem with the OP's premise. A 14-year-old who started at age 4 and is playing a good Mendelssohn is not a prodigy. They are, in fact, unimpressively average for decently-taught regularly-practicing players who start at age 7 or earlier. (Kids who start very early don't necessarily get that much of an edge up, because of their less mature coordination, concentration, etc., so the difference between starting at 3 and starting at 7 tends to erase itself out by the time the kid reaches high school age.)

By the time a student plays the Mendelssohn, assuming it really is an appropriate work for them (i.e. they are not butchering it), they have already overcome many of the most significant challenges in violin-playing. And the 14-year-old still essentially has half of their professional training years left to them -- another decade takes them through a master's -- in which to go from a solid foundation to real mastery.

A 26-year-old who is playing a solid Mendelssohn after 5 years of study is practically unheard of (can anyone name an example?). Even if they cut their subsequent learning time in half, and could achieve a professional level of mastery in 5 years, they'd be 31. Most people don't want to wait that long to start a professional career, and importantly, very few people have the kind of financial resources to be able to devote their 20s to preparing for a career that isn't going to pay well.

There are people who do become pros in their 30s, but they typically don't become performers (or at least don't earn their primary earning from performing, though they may do some gigging). They might actually be at the level of that Mendelssohn-playing 14-year-old, in fact.

August 26, 2016 at 02:12 PM · Irene, you're missing the point. My question is what you affirmed:

"The 26 year old is being compared to other people in their age cohort"

That's what makes absolute no sense to me.

Why would you compare violinists by age instead of by years playing the violin?

Why would you compare a violinist that's been playing for 14 years to another that's been playing 7 years (they both have the same age)?

Clearly, a violinist who accomplish to play something in 5 years is better than another one who accomplish to play that very same piece in 10 years.

Why if the first one started at age of 17 years old is considered an absolute zero in terms of entering a conservatoire (17+5=22) but the second one is so admired by conservatoire professors (5+10=15)?

My point is, if it took 5 years for the 22YO violinist to play a piece at a certain level, and it took 10 years for the 15YO violinist to play that piece at the same level, in the years training under a great teacher in the conservatoire, the 22YO violinist will learn way faster than the 15YO violinist.

Besides all of this, another great point to know is that the 22YO violinist is there because he wanted to, and the 15YO is there because their parents wanted her son/daughter to be there.

L. Leong, it's an example, I don't know what's considered a prodigy, it's so subjective. I am giving examples so you can understand my questions.

August 26, 2016 at 02:37 PM · OP, you are making the error of assuming that learning to play the violin is linear. It is not. Frieda's comment about the last 5% - 10% making the difference between sounding like a professional vs sounding like a good amateur is spot on.

August 26, 2016 at 02:41 PM · The concept of a critical period is a heavily debated one. It has been proven for certain things one should normally be exposed to in their environment such as vision ( instead of covering the eyes with a patch for the first months ). When it comes to language, the evidence is confusing at best. When it comes to first language acquisition, all we have to go off of are feral children who didn't learn to speak until after puberty. Such children have not been successful at learning to speak, but it has been impossible to tease out other variables, such as the child being handicapped to begin with and the effects of other abuse.

The telling experiment would be to take healthy babies and deprive them of language at birth, observing them over the years, but there are some obvious ethical issues there. When it comes to second language acquisition, linguists have disagreed even more, giving vastly different cutoff ages for being able to pass for a native, ranging from 6 to 15. Defining what native even means opens a whole other can of worms. Different areas of language differ, with vocabulary having been established not to have a critical period. Many say pronunciation has one, but quite a few exceptions have been found and it is unknown what contributed to this exceptional learning and whether other adults and teens who learn foreign languages with accents and poor grammar do so because of biological reasons.

When it comes to music, meter recognition is thought to potentially have a critical period, but one might also learn this by typical exposure and does not necessarily need to learn the terminology early on. There has not been significant evidence pointing to a critical period for other aspects of music learning and studies on ultimate attainment have been poor; using subjects with widely varying experience levels and backgrounds who started at different ages. Obviously, culturally, we have jumped the gun, assuming biological constraints where they may not exist, meaning this hypothetical 14-year-old will look far more attractive to society as a potential pro violinist, whether age really matters or not. I am glad this question is being asked, and as a society, we need to have more of an urge to question such matters.

August 26, 2016 at 03:15 PM · Tim,

Conservatory professors prefer a 14 year old because the kid has the luxury of time as well as flexibility. A 26 year old does not. Beyond a certain level, the learning curve resembles a logarithmic function.

Violin teaching is a serious investment for teachers, almost as much as learning for students. If you were the violin teacher, who would prefer? As an adult beginner, you may not like it, but that's the nature of the game.

To be able to play a reasonably good Mendelssohn at any age is commendable, but not stellar. Also if your ears are not well trained in music, there are certain things that you cannot even begin to notice.

August 26, 2016 at 03:27 PM · The reason no one cares is that adults aren't judged by how long they've been doing something, but rather by their level of expertise. Years of experience are a positive, but skill is the primary factor.

So when an adult is taking a professional orchestra audition, nobody really cares if that adult has been playing for 5 years, or 20 years, as long as they have the necessary skills. Nobody cares that the 26-year-old adult playing 5 years is as good as the 14-year-old kid playing 10 years, especially if neither of them are playing at a pro standard. Similarly, nobody cares if a 26-year-old adult playing at a pro standard started at age 3, or age 12, or even age 18.

Up until age 7 or so, maybe even age 9 or so, it almost doesn't matter when you start. So that 14-year-old has probably had 5 really solid years under their belt. This will be, to some degree, a function of the rapport between student and teacher as well -- a match of communication and teaching/learning styles. That's why taking a trial lesson is important to both student and teacher.

As for what teachers look for... From my experience, teachers tend to like students who incorporate input very rapidly. If you're an immensely-talented 26-year-old playing the Mendelssohn, with the ambition to go pro, and the financial wherewithal to make that feasible, and in a trial lesson you prove exceptionally quick on the uptake, there will be superb teachers willing to take you on.

August 26, 2016 at 03:30 PM · One more thing: By the time that a 14-year-old playing the Mendelssohn reaches the age of 26, they will probably have had 15 to 20 years of orchestral experience, at least 8 of which will probably have been meaningfully pre-professional.

The 21-year-old late starter, at 26, might not have any orchestral experience, or if they do, at best likely 4 years, at the community orchestra level, which is useful but usually less meaningfully pre-professional training. No pro orchestra wants to be training a player from scratch, even if they're a good violinist.

August 26, 2016 at 07:21 PM · I think that what we need is Old Concert Artists and the youth orchestra system for adults. The latter could be accomplished by eliminating maximum ages and precisely defining which level the ensemble seeks to target.

August 26, 2016 at 08:32 PM · L. Leong, I'm talking about teachers in decent-level music schools or conservatories. We're not talking about level of expertise to enter an orchestra. The topic is "why does it matter so much the age in an audition to enter to a conservatoire instead of the actual talent that a violinist can have that let him/her play in 7 years what others have taken 11 years."

If a violinist in 7 years accomplish what another violinist has accomplished in 11 years, a teacher will and should go with the first one as he/she is going to be a better pupil cause he/she clearly goes faster and has more talent. The time spent in that violinist is going to be more productive and more efficient as he/she has talent to absorbe and learn faster. Nonetheless, and the real world, real audition in a conservatoire, they will see "oh, the 11 yo violinist is 17YO, and the 7 yo violinist is 24YO. Sorry 24YO violinist, you're too late".

Nevertheless, when you go to a conservatoire, all of that talent fades out and what matters is the younger, the better. It doesn't matter that one of them have been playing for 4 years and another one for 8 years.

If I were a teacher, clearly I would pick the violinist who happen to have more talent with the violin, that is, learns faster than others.

August 26, 2016 at 09:54 PM · I think multiple people have disagreed on the absolute age / talent thing already, because children who begin very early don't necessarily learn much in those early years. It's more realistic to start counting years of effective playing starting from about age 7.

It's certainly true that teachers like students who learn really quickly, and the faster the better (assuming that this is mastery, of course). This is attractive in a student of any age, and when teachers are trying to decide whether or not to take a student, the student's ability to improve on-the-spot, in response to the teacher's instruction in the trial lesson, is usually taken as a proxy for how quickly they can improve and therefore how much the teacher will be able to accomplish with them.

I would say that teachers care much more about that speed of immediate improvement, than they do the total years of playing, because the previous years show only how quickly the student has been able to improve to date and not how quickly they will improve with more training right now. For instance, a student might plateau and now be struggling to get better than they had been, so past learning-speed is not indicative of future learning-speed. Conversely, a student might really have struggled with something, slowing their progress for a while, but once they've overcome that roadblock, they've been speeding ahead.

If you're 24 and auditioning for a conservatory, playing on par with the 18-year-olds, I'm not sure you're at a significant disadvantage admissions-wise. You'd still be under 30 when you complete your bachelor's program, and would still be eligible for a ton of training opportunities. If you have a great trial lesson with a teacher, and they want to take you on, and your playing level and present rate of speed of improvement suggests that you'll complete the program on par with the other entering freshman, my guess is that you'd have no problem getting admitted.

August 27, 2016 at 04:13 PM · My hat is off to you, Lydia! I have yet to see you write anything at this site that I could disagree with.


August 27, 2016 at 05:41 PM · I agree... Lydia always posts good stuff.

In response to the OPs question I would say that by and large it is because that is what traditionally has been done and thus, traditionally has worked. I get your point, that an adult with the time and dedication and resources SHOULD be considered based on factors other than age. Perhaps, as trends in our society concerning age, race and sex change those adult learners will be more and more accepted.

The reality is, however that those adults that fit within the paradigm of conservatory bound violin performance degrees are and will be such a vanishingly small percentage that their numbers likely will never make an impact on what has traditionally worked.


August 27, 2016 at 09:05 PM · It might be worth considering the fact that this discussion is by and large hypothetical. How many of you know someone who started after the age of 18, and by their mid-20s, was playing at a level that's competitive for conservatory admissions, who wanted to become professional, and actually tried to apply for a conservatory at that point? My guess is that it happens so infrequently that it's almost entirely a theoretical question.

The reason I draw a line at 18 is a practical one. Late starters who are still high-school age may, by devoting hours a day to highly-focused high-motivation practice, be able to achieve a level of competence that does not necessarily get them into a conservatory, but still allows them to enter a bachelor's program that leads to a music degree, letting them spend their college years practicing the violin for hours each day. (Even lesser schools often have perfectly competent teachers, too, especially for students at that level.) Add on four more years to get a master's and PhD (and perhaps more than 4 years, since not everyone manages to complete the PhD in 4 years), and you're looking at a very solid 8+ years devoted to full-time musical training -- enough to argue that the most talented will be indistinguishable from their peers at that age.

But someone who starts post-college might very well already have taken on significant student debt to get their initial bachelor's. Then they're likely spending their initial violin-playing years holding down a job, which rarely leaves one the energy or luxury to devote to become a good violinist. Then if they contemplate full-time training, they're looking at going back to being a full-time student, and taking on more debt, for an uncertain future career that in all probability isn't going to pay much, especially in relation to what they'll spend getting to the point of being able to play professionally. This is a viable life scenario for very few people.

I've met plenty of adult returnees in community orchestras, including adult returnees who only reached a mediocre level in childhood and have improved greatly in adulthood by taking lessons and practicing diligently for years. But I don't think I've ever met anyone who started in their twenties or later, and reached an advanced level, although some reach a very respectable intermediate level -- enough to fit well into a community orchestra, play chamber music, and so forth. (And late starters on the cello seem to have an easier time of it than late-starter violinists.)

I'm sure there are some, but I'll point out that plenty of players plateau at the intermediate level -- they never quite reach the level of the Mendelssohn, but they might be able to play a respectable de Beriot 9, say -- even if they start in early childhood. So for an adult starter to plateau at that level is still quite respectable.

August 27, 2016 at 09:44 PM · Adult returnees can be better than that, but how good you were when you quit makes a big difference, I think. There are adult returnees around here who were exceptionally accomplished as children (there's a guy around here, for instance, who's a former Galamian student and apparently used to hang out with Perlman), who even after time away, still retain a fairly significant chunk of their old skill.

Being a returnee myself, with almost 20 years off the violin, I think I play about as well now as I did at around age 15, overall, though I've certainly replaced elements of my technique in ways that are objectively better than what I did back then (a different vibrato, a different approach to sound production, a better physical approach to double-stops, etc.). While I don't think I'll ever reclaim the same level of precision and control, I'm reasonably confident that I'm becoming a steadily better violinist. It's an interesting question to contemplate whether a steady 2 hours a day of practice would result in improvement as rapid as a teenager's, though.

August 27, 2016 at 11:36 PM · No age is better-it's just ideal to start earlier for many obvious reasons. Older pupils learn differently, and just need the right motivation, learning environment, teacher, and situation-putting those together for an adult is the usually rare part. But it's ALSO difficult for kids to learn the violin and get to a high level if they don't have the proper training and environment.

I agree with the assessment that all that is important at any age is current playing, not their previous learning history (14 vs 5, etc.)

August 28, 2016 at 03:18 AM · I remember the intermediate years as being kind of agonizing. It felt like I was improving very slowly if at all. Going from doing de Beriot works at age 9, to Mendelssohn at 14, was a purgatory of a zillion crappy student concertos (seemingly endless de Beriot, Viotti, Rode, etc., for which I never heard recordings and really had no notion of how they might sound if played well), interspersed with short works (lots of Kreisler, the Bartok Romanian Dances, etc.). Technical fundamentals were being built very solidly, but I was so frustrated that I came close to quitting several times during that period.

August 28, 2016 at 03:35 AM · I really can't stand all those Beriot, Viotti, and Rode concertos either. You can always tell a study disguised as a concerto by looking at the piano part. Nowadays I wonder if a student would be better off studying chamber parts and then playing those along with recordings.

At the age of 50, improvement is slow for me, but I know I'm better than I was when I left off at 17, which was not very good.

August 28, 2016 at 02:13 PM · Lydia, along the lines you are discussing but slightly off topic, what would qualify as a returnee? Anyone who has picked up the violin before? Someone who has played for a minimum of a year? Does length of time play into it?

I guess one could say that I am a returnee... I played in fourth, fifth and sixth grades but certainly never practiced with any dedication. However, In practice I say I am new to it because when I picked it up again I had to learn the instrument all over again... Down to the string names.

Of course other factors in ease of picking it up or not come into play, I have about six years of guitar instruction, I can read music well and have a good understanding of music theory..I "think" I will be able to reach a good mendelssohn level if I continue practicing as I am though I have a long road ahead of me and I "started" at 34 and have been playing for a year and a half.

Do I categorize as an adult learner or a returnee, assuming one cannot be both within the parameters of this discussion?


August 28, 2016 at 03:52 PM · I would categorize you as a returnee. Adult beginners pick up the instrument for the first time in adulthood. Or at the very least, never had any instruction in childhood (public-school group instruction does count), even if they got a violin and tried briefly to fool with it.

August 28, 2016 at 05:07 PM · Very interesting... And does being a returnee translate in your opinion to you as being more likely than an adult beginner, all other things being equal, to reach a higher level? If so does that mean that you think that it is learning while young that matters or the extra time that matters?


August 28, 2016 at 05:35 PM · I think intermediate-level returnees have a significant advantage. I'm not sure how much of an advantage beginner-level returnees have, though.

August 29, 2016 at 04:52 AM · So Tim, I saw you posted in the other thread, "I swear I've never seen a community (and I mean here all the worldwide violinist community) that's so close-minded and discourage beginners so much."

I suspect what you call "close-minded" is actually "the fruits of hard-won experience". Violin-playing (and violin-making, and violin buying-and-selling, etc.) follows certain well-established patterns. There are deviations from the norm, and the norm is actually pretty wide to start with, but there aren't many wild outliers.

Similarly, the community is very welcoming of beginners. It's just cynical about starry-eyed dreams, because experience shows that beginners with big dreams tend not to achieve those dreams. The ones who persist may achieve something else that's very satisfying, and beginners are encouraged to focus on the journey and not the destination, as a result.

The community is also cynical about the results of self-teaching, or the purchase of VSOs, or other ways that beginners cripple their efforts to learn the violin. Obviously, people both try to self-teach and buy VSOs, and some people are satisfied with the results, but it's only fair to warn people that these things lead to suboptimal results.

August 29, 2016 at 05:40 AM · I love beginners of all ages. But if an adult beginner asks me about the possibility of eventually becoming a professional violinist, I am going to tell that student the truth, which is that there is no chance. For most child beginners, this is also the truth. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should start studying the violin at the very beginning with the idea that it will become a career, just as nobody should start taking gymnastics with the plan to compete at the Olympics and nobody should take ballet with the plan to dance at the Met.

People should begin the study of the violin because it appeals to them (or to their parents, in many cases). They should continue it because it is enjoyable to get better and better at making music. At some point those with the potential to become professionals sort themselves out.

I would invite the OP or any other adult beginner reading this discussion to focus on becoming the best violinist he can without a fixed end game in mind. If after several years the OP has achieved a conservatory-admittance level, I then invite him to come back to this discussion and explain to us how he did that, so we can revise our opinions of what is possible.

Up to this point, the highest-achieving adult beginner I have ever met was at about the Bach a minor level, and honestly I was very impressed. Nevertheless her playing lacked a type of "ease" that is easier to recognize than it is to describe.

Editing to add that I consider it a moral imperative to explain the facts of musical life to a teenager playing Accolay (or even Bruch) who thinks they are on the track to becoming a soloist because they have a high seat in their youth orchestra. I don't go around collaring such students on the street and shouting at them, but if they ask my opinion (and posting on this forum is asking for a unlimited number of opinions), I am going to tell them the truth.

August 29, 2016 at 03:25 PM · I also think that the starry-eyed beginner who just loves the violin so much that he feels he has to play for a living! is still in the glow of new romance and does not have any understanding of what it's actually like to play for a living.

This happens in other professions, too. The kid who loves tinkering with computers and playing computer games has no notion what it's like to be a professional software engineer, much less a professional software engineer working for a gaming company (most are brutal sweatshops that exploit the heck out of their employees).

August 29, 2016 at 06:05 PM · I don't think this community is close-minded at all. Rather, there are knowledgeable people in this community who can answer questions with confidence. Unfortunately, the answers aren't always what people might want to hear.

I've given up on replying to the weekly "can I be a professional?" queries, because I've learned that my response will not be accepted. To the casual observer, it looks like sour grapes to say "no, sorry, 20-something beginner, you won't be able to follow your dreams," because in almost any other industry it would indeed be absurd to tell a 25-year-old that. To truly understand the nature of the industry, you really need years of extensive exposure. People know, vaguely, that it's "competitive," but they usually have absolutely no idea what that actually means--even highly educated and intelligent people who live within a stone's throw of a world-class conservatory, as is the case in my town.

I would never tell a self-professed amateur on the Internet what she would be able to achieve in terms of playing for her own satisfaction, first of all because her standards for her own playing would be none of my business, but secondly because there's no value in doing so. If someone came here and said "I'm 45 years old and picking up a violin for the first time. Can I ever learn to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto for fun?" I honestly don't know if that person will ever be able to play it *to her own satisfaction* or not, but I would encourage her to have a great time trying! On the other hand, if someone is truly asking if she has a chance at being a professional, there's almost certainly a yes or no answer to that question. The people who reply do not do so out of "bitterness." They reply because they know the answer. Unfortunately, it's easy for the starry-eyed hopeful to interpret a no-nonsense depiction of reality as bitterness, because well, the reality of this industry is harsh.

August 29, 2016 at 06:06 PM · I also think that the starry-eyed beginner who just loves the violin so much that he feels he has to play for a living! is still in the glow of new romance and does not have any understanding of what it's actually like to play for a living.

This happens in other professions, too.

It happens to all professions, because we are most aware of the 'big ones' and we forget the many average people, group we most likely belong to, that conform pretty much everyone in any profession. We see Hilary Hahn and forget the thousands of 'ordinary people' whose face or name we will never know nor particularly care that are lost somewhere in a big orchestra, and the absurd amount of work they did to be there.

I find the Expectations vs Reality pictures particularly funny, considering other professions like Police or Doctor.

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