Need advice on improving for a middle-aged “returning” amateur.

January 4, 2017 at 08:13 PM · When I was in high school in the 1980’s, my violin teacher was very clear on what one needs to achieve (to a performance worthy standard ) before one could consider studying music in college: a major romantic concerto, two significant movements of solo Bach, and some Paganini. I was working on Bruch G minor ("not major enough"), Bach E major and D minor without the Chaconne ("not significant enough"), and Paganini #16 ("too entry-level").

I did not study music in college and I was and remain very grateful to my teacher for his sound advice.

I returned to the violin four months ago after 25 years. I think being able to play the repertoire mentioned above is still a laudable goal. I would appreciate advice from “returning” amateurs and everyone else on an improvement campaign to achieve that.

Replies (26)

January 4, 2017 at 09:20 PM · If you can find a really good teacher, you will get the guidance you need. Scales, etudes, and technical exercises to shore up your flaws. A good teacher will be able to hear what you need most in your own playing and should put you on a path towards that stuff. It's possible that you might be able to get yourself back to that shape, but the more you work without a teacher, the more opportunities you will have to introduce errors and problems into your playing that will then take 5 times as long to undo.

Ultimately, a teacher teaches you to listen to yourself accurately and to teach yourself, but that's pretty tough to do well.

January 4, 2017 at 09:35 PM · Excellent advice from Christian. Follow it, work hard, and you'll get there.

One thing to watch out for - when you're young there seems to be all the time in the world you need for practice, but in middle age there just doesn't seem to be enough time available because of the responsibilities arising out of being a mature adult. The answer is good time management so that you can get that regular practice in.

January 4, 2017 at 09:51 PM · Find a teacher who has experience preparing high schoolers for conservatory admission, or someone who teaches at the university level. (You may have better luck with the adjunct faculty, who are more likely to maintain private studios.)

Your major challenge will be compressing a pre-conservatory practice routine into your available time; if you're like most adult amateurs, that's an hour if you're lucky, or two if you're especially dedicated.

You don't quite need to maintain the same chops as a kid who is actually aiming to play professional-level repertoire, but they need to be good enough to actually credibly tackle that repertoire.

January 4, 2017 at 09:56 PM · I just saw in another thread that the OP mentioned that he used to do multi-hour practice sessions as a teenager.

Assuming you weren't a late starter, and you did steady multi-hour practice sessions during your teens, it's worth investigating why you only reached Bruch level. You may need to fix some fundamental technical issues, or just become much more efficient with your practicing. A good teacher can help you do this.

January 5, 2017 at 12:57 AM · Thanks everyone. I started when I was about 7. I did multiple-hour practice sessions for a couple of years in my late teens. It petered out when it appeared I was not going to a credible music school. I had always thought I couldn't go further than I did because of my lack of talent.

I do have a teacher who teaches at the university level. She has helped me a lot in the last few months.

January 5, 2017 at 02:15 AM · I am in a similar situation although, I returned to violin almost 10 years ago, and am now in my mid 50's. I reached a decent level and played the main stay repertoire, Mendelssohn, Saint Saens IRC, Lalo, haven't done much with Paganini. I never did learn Bruch in my childhood so I am learning it now.

I still manage to practice 45-60 minutes a day, and I have continually improved for the past several years, but now, I feel that I have reached a plateau and having doubts if I will improve much going forward. I expect that a decline might be soon to come.

I guess my point is, practice as much as you can now because at some point, age is going to catch up with you. I'm curious to know what other think of this. At what age does one stop improving?

January 5, 2017 at 02:36 AM · " I was working on Bruch G minor (not major enough), Bach E major and D minor without the Chaconne (not significant enough), and Paganini #16 (too entry-level)."

I wouldn't call any of these "not major enough" or "too entry level."

I just started teaching two students similar to yourself, two doctors in their 50s who were serious in their youth but now want to return. What they need, and what you need, is not just a teacher but an efficiency expert. Which is where I come in.

January 5, 2017 at 02:46 AM · Now I am deeply interested in what Scott teaches in terms of efficiency. :-)

January 5, 2017 at 03:01 AM · Scott, I agree with you. I should have used quotation marks. Those pieces were deemed "not major enough" by my teacher only in so far as it is related to the technical level needed to audition for a major conservatory.

Smiley, glad to know I have about 10 years before the window permanently closes.

January 5, 2017 at 10:43 AM · Hi,

I have several of Simon Fischers exercise/instruction books,

including one called 'The Violin Lesson'.Personally I'm

finding them great for constant self-improvement....I cant afford a teacher,so I structure my own learning.Maybe these books can help?

I am in my 50s,and am playing better than I ever have before,so dont worry about being too old to learn!


January 5, 2017 at 01:44 PM · Im with smiley ... in my 50s, progress is glacial. Trying to decide whether to try and keep improving or just enjoy playing. Unfortunately I never got near Bruch as a teenager. Struggling with Mozart 5 now.

January 5, 2017 at 02:43 PM · Welcome to the club!

It appears that, as far as the repertoire listed is concerned, you had reached a good level of playing before you stopped. That is good news. You will be surprised to find out how much you in fact remember and know. Second surprise will be that, although it does not take long to activate neural connections in your brain, the rest of your body is older and can not fire up as quickly. This depends on your life stile and if you have been physically active, but re-activating muscle memory can take a bit of time. From your post I do not see if you are past this re-activation stage. In any case, one thing to keep is mind is to have fun and to enjoy the journey. Find a chamber music group to keep your motivation high and have a reason to pick-up your violin daily. Also, learn as much as you can about proper body posture. Revisit the ergonomics of your violin and get familiar with warm-up of shoulders, arms and fingers before you start playing. Avoid getting injured is very important, because the older we are, the longer it takes to recover. I second the opinions to find a good teacher if you can afford it, but in the long run, what matters is to get to the stage when you can teach yourself efficiently. Lastly, if not happy with your violin and bow, start looking for a better instrument. Having a good sounding violin and a great bow is a huge motivation booster!

January 5, 2017 at 03:56 PM · I restarted in my late 50s and am now nearing 70. I continue to improve my technique. I love jazz improvisation on the violin and play with a group. I'm working on the Bach D minor sans Chaconne, which I never played as a youth. The comments about 'not improving with age' are not true. Its all about sustained focused work. Nothing new there.

Rocky's comment about proper stance and relaxed technique are very important. Injuries take forever to heal as we get older. At one point I had to take 8 months off to let tendons heal, and it took another 3 - 4 months to get in playing shape - a lost year caused by a few minutes of poorly conceived, over exercise. Have your teacher coach you / hound you about relaxed muscles. Get some music exercises to play with the focus to improve your relaxed stance and movements.

January 5, 2017 at 04:01 PM · My first job with the students in their 50s has been to convince them that their age is not a limiting factor, but rather lack of method.

January 5, 2017 at 04:35 PM · Mike, when you are ready to write your book about about the disabilities of aging string players ask me to make my contributions too.

My cello playing continued to improve until I was 72, a decade ago (I was very pleased with that), but my violin playing took a precipitous drop at 55 due to cervical disk (neck) problems and partial left hand and arm paralysis due to some ambiguous cause. I could play cello through this, but could no long muster my vibrato. It took a year to even try to play violin again and I have had to revamp my violin vibrato (still working on that 27 years later). My cello chops resurrected within the year. The past 2 years I've taken to viola playing, which I now find easier for me than violin (also the parts are easier) wrt vibrato and the heavier bow is easier for me to use since I started having right hand tremor problems with the chin instruments 2 years ago (no such problem with the cello bow position, however.

Based on my own experience and from observing other aging musical compatriots I hypothesize that the curve of everyone's potential playing skills follows a trajectory similar to that of a projectile under Earth's gravitational force - it goes up and ultimately comes down. If you practice and develop up to your maximum potential you may follow that maximum trajectory over the years of your life (baring mishaps). If you slack off, as so many of us do, but then resume playing and studying, your skills will improve again toward matching the curve of your potential as it exists for your (then current) age. Thus someone who studied in youth and did not get beyond a certain stage will be able in later life to approach the downward trending skill level they would have had had they kept up - but unfortunately, they will not reach the position on the curve for their current age matching their earlier potential.

January 5, 2017 at 07:44 PM · David, Congratulations for coming back. I returned to serious practice over 10 years ago when I was in my mid-60s. It is definitely possible to increase your level of advancement and your overall playing quality. For me working with a great teacher has been key. It just takes patience.

January 5, 2017 at 09:29 PM · Thanks to everyone who has commented. I have been following the posts(on practice, on violin purchase, on repertoire......) by many of you since joining the site in July and was inspired by your dedication to the violin. Thanks!

January 5, 2017 at 10:19 PM · Hi David -- My situation is similar to yours. I started at 5 and played through high school. After 20+ years of not playing much, I started up again about 5-6 years ago when I was 42. One thing that helped me a lot coming back (which Rocky alluded to above regarding ergonomics of your instrument) was to find a correctly fitting chin rest and shoulder rest (yes, I'm a proud SR user!). In all my years of formal training growing up, I don't recall any of my teachers focusing on the fit of the CR/SR. I just used whatever CR happened to be on the violin, and the SR my dad bought me, which was probably the least expensive one.

January 5, 2017 at 10:26 PM · David, et al.,

No question about the laudable goals, but the real question is: what do you want to do with the violin? That is what you haven't said. Do you want to play with a local orchestra? If so, as a paid professional or an unpaid amateur in a community orchestra? Perhaps chamber music is your goal.

To be sure, you can pursue what you did not pursue as a teenager but some of that isn't really necessary to make music and have fun.

It all comes down to your personal goals and how much time, effort, energy and money you want to dedicate to those goals.

January 6, 2017 at 08:14 AM · Gene, your comments on CR/SR are spot on. I have gone through 6 or 7 combinations and now a combination of Kreddle/Kun appears to be working. I warm up my shoulders and neck before each practice and I don’t practice for more than 45 minutes at a time.

George, I have no professional aspirations. I just want to complete, as well as I can, the journey taken by someone who has gone through the training of a conservatory. It may take me ten years or more, I may not be able do some of the repertoire (tenths and fingered octaves could be very tough for someone in his 50’s or 60’s). You are absolutely right! It is not JUST about fun and music. Some friends of mine walk the Camino de Santiago every summer, I want to do the violin. It is all about the journey.

January 6, 2017 at 12:08 PM · David, I don't understand what you mean about the journey. Please explain.

January 6, 2017 at 04:15 PM · Pauline, I think he means there is joy and meaning in the process of learning, not just the goal at the end of the journey.

January 6, 2017 at 07:17 PM · I have started playing the violin after a gap of seven years. Indulging directly into tough pieces of Bach and Paganini can demoralize you because you won't have the same command that you once had. Start your violin warmups. Practice all the scales, arpeggios, double stops etc. Revisit a couple of easy pieces that you have played already and make sure your posture, intonation, bow techniques, and other parameters are immaculate when you redo it. Retrain yourself from the beginning and increase the difficulty slowly and steadily.

Remember the dialog in the movie The Dark Knight Rises. "Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you!" You have been a recluse, devoid of practice for many years. You can't enter the 36th chamber of Shaolin immediately and hope to get through.

January 6, 2017 at 07:18 PM · Pauline, I couldn't have said it better than Jason.

When one gets to certain age, one is motivated to endeavor the end result of which is almost irrelevant. I want to play the violin as well as I possibly could for the memory of my mother who sacrificed during our early years in this country so my brother and I could have private lessons. My four-year old daughter PLAYS (it is really play for her!) her fractional violin when I practice; she WANTS to hear my playing after I tuck her in and falls asleep to the sound of my violin.

January 6, 2017 at 09:41 PM · I think the older adult should think about the type of music they enjoy playing and listening to.

This will let you pick and choose the techniques you need to advance the music you want to play. Also, you can ignore anything else that will not advance you to a goal of playing enjoyable music. So you can plan your practice time to have the most impact on your music making.

January 7, 2017 at 11:05 PM · I also returned to playing just this past September, after taking 20+ years off. I played through high school and then intermittently in college, but pretty much nothing after that. I joined an adult chamber music program with a coach and also started taking lessons again after 25 years with no lessons.

I am finding that my musicianship has grown considerably in the meantime, even though my physical technique is frustratingly out of whack. I knew that my musicianship was growing a lot in college and afterwards, and I used to talk to my high school violin teacher on the phone about it. Now that I am playing regularly again and rebuilding my technical skills, it is interesting to see how the difference in my perspective shapes my process.

A few years ago, a student of mine (I teach high school math) decided that she wants to play the Saint-Saens Fantaisie for Harp and Violin with me. She is now a freshman at Juilliard, and she is keeping me motivated to get my level up.

It's encouraging to read other stories of adults who are getting back into playing after a long time away!

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