Do we all have a limit to how good we can get on the violin ?

January 29, 2017 at 10:12 PM · Does each individual have a limit how good they can get on the violin (or any other instrument) ?

For professionals who have been playing for over 30 years : do you think you have improved over the last 5 years ? Or did you get to a certain standard and that seems to be it ?

My apologies if something like this has been covered before but I was thinking today that even if we all practise 8 hours per day then we are not all going to end up sounding like Heifetz.

Replies (29)

January 29, 2017 at 10:24 PM · I think everyone can continue to improve, but where the rate of improvement starts to slow down is a function of age (which controls brain plasticity and myelination rate), amount of practice time (and how well that time is used), quality of teaching, and the limitations of one's technical foundation (the more fundamental problems that haven't been fixed, the shakier any attempt to build on top of it).

January 29, 2017 at 10:29 PM · I would say it boils down to (in order of importance):

1. Natural ability (if very high, you need a very good teacher etc)

2. Age

3. Practice quality

4. Practice time- iffy, because less than 2 hours of very slow practice a day I have found to be more than enough for anything (and I learn very quickly). :D

January 29, 2017 at 10:56 PM · Your question is definitely common among adult beginners (about half of my students are just that). Are you asking for the answer in your case, or in the instance of professionals that have been playing a very long time?

To answer your first question: it is my belief that no one has a set limit on their own improvement. But of course, our efforts will have increasingly diminishing percieved returns over time. Just WHEN this happens, though, is dependent on many different factors, including age, attitude, and naturally occurring talent.

In addition, everyone has a different "skill cap," and this is based on naturally occurring talent for the most part. Talent is a multiplier of effort, so some have to work less hours to achieve the same result. At some point, a person with low talent will have to work so many hours to get comfortable with a piece that they will get discouraged before ever finishing. That doesn't mean they should quit; it just means that their goal should switch from technical improvement to artistic development and a broader range of repertoire at their comfortable level. After a while of this, their technical skills will start to improve organically.

Lastly, as our skill grows, our perception of our efforts can get diluted by the fact that not only has the difficulty of our music increased, but we are swimming through a broader range of material. To go from playing music that was only a few lines of very simple material to movements of concerti that are now a minimum of 30

lines of very dense material represents an order of magnitude increase in the amount of effort required to get though "one" piece. For this reason, I encourage students to think of these concerti as many different pieces that simply have the same name above them, so they don't get into the habit of thinking "this ONE piece is taking sooooo long..... I must have stopped improving!". No, that is actually 30 small songs that we're eventually going to play in succession.

With you being an adult beginner, I encourage you to focus on your enjoyment of learning and not on quantifying your improvement. Then you will improve far more in the long run instead of burning out early. With joy comes progress.

Of course, I recognize that your question might be simply one of curiosity, and not pertaining to yourself. So, regarding your second question:

I'm pretty sure if you asked any professional if they are better today than they were 5 years ago, they would say yes (barring unusual circumstances). Their technical skill might be similar, but now they've covered more music. Or maybe they've had a set of life experiences that allows their playing to be more mature. Perhaps they've become more comfortable showing their emotion to their audience.

And if you watch videos of a high level pro like Sarah Chang, I think her playing now vs her playing at 20 years old is very palpable. I think this process continues until a player's physical age prevents them from improving, but that's usually quite old.

I would say more, but I'm typing this on my phone and my thumbs are getting tired!

January 29, 2017 at 11:23 PM · What constitutes "Good?" As a fellow late-starter (I was almost 30 and that was 40 years ago) I understand your question because I faced it myself.

What are your goals? Will achieving your goals satisfy your definition of good? I would hope that accomplishing those goals will satisfy your definition of good.

If you practice and study you will improve your skills and knowledge.

FWIW: I studied with a teacher for over 30 years till he died. I surpassed most of my initial goals and now have a small cadre of students who I teach basics and then pass them along to other teachers. I played with community orchestras (second section)until some family health issues made nighttime rehearsals and performances unrealistic and do the occasional solo performance in church. I'm not a professional just a skilled amateur. By my own measure I'm pretty good, not great, just good and I enjoy playing my violin every day.

January 29, 2017 at 11:40 PM · Legendary cellist and humanitarian Pablo Casals was interviewed by George Carlin. Carlin asked him why, at age 93, he still practiced three hours a day.

The Maestro’s response: “I’m beginning to show some improvement.”

This is quite inspiring to me. And in my own modest way I also feel that I'm continuing to improve in some ways. No, I'm not 93 but I am past 60. But there are different ways to define "improvement". I find, for example, that I actually learn faster now than when I was younger. I also find that I am less tired at the end of say an orchestral rehearsal or concert than I used to be years ago. My playing is more efficient; I make my hammer blows tell more readily. When I prepare a solo piece for performance, I try more than ever for a finished performance with more control over not just notes in place but dynamics, nuances, etc., etc., toward as completely convincing a performance as I can, lacking in almost nothing. A finished performance of say a Beethoven sonata is so much more important than whether I can do double harmonics. OK, that was an obvious example. But my point is that my priorities are towards a finished, mature rendition of whatever it is I'm performing. I think that we all have the potential for continued musical growth and insights.

But if we're talking about pure technical facility, I think that everyone comes to a certain ceiling. And I think that we arrive there pretty early. I think that this aspect comes down to our individual muscular and neurological systems, inherent reaction time, etc. Who was really the fastest gun in the West and why? From what I heard, in fact gun slingers often practiced a lot - like we do - for accuracy, etc. But when it comes to basic reactions, we have what we have. What good teaching, proper technique and good practicing can do is eliminate hindrances in the way of our full potential.

When it comes to something like the first movement of the Sinding Suite, I don't think that anyone else quite brought to it simultaneously the speed, coordination, accuracy, presence, razor-like edge as well as the peculiarly haunting quality that this and the other two movements of this piece inhere. It's just hair-raising and it has an emotional effect on me as well. If I were to practice it for the next 100 years I couldn't do it. But I have a lot of company.

January 29, 2017 at 11:47 PM · It's interesting that you bring up this question, Brian, since I've been recently wondering along the same lines, although in a general manner: Is it possible to ever finish mastering the violin? Or are there always more areas which could be enhanced?

Watching videos of young professional violinists made me especially curious about this (they've mastered so much already, how much better can they really get?) Although I suppose with age comes more experience, so that is already an advancement.

Just sharing your same thoughts; don't have much insight.

January 29, 2017 at 11:59 PM · I would also add in cultural limitations ( at least at the moment ), with there being unofficial (and sometimes official) age limits on certain opportunities, as well as difficulty with access to quality training in certain countries with specific bans ( Saudi Arabia comes to mind ). I think that brain plasticity is probably higher than people imagine in adults ( the adult brain is not fixed ), but subject to much individual variation.

January 30, 2017 at 12:58 AM · Erik : I have asked the question more out of curiosity than any reference to myself. Whether I improve or not, I still practise the violin every day. It is just a habit with me. Now and then I have a really good day (complete with both arm and wrist vibrato)....that is what keeps me going. Of course the next day it all seems to have disappeared but I do not worry about that any more : I just keep slogging on.

January 30, 2017 at 01:24 AM · I think I would have to work extremely hard to keep improving. Five years ago my answer would have been different. But I'm over 50 now and I'm reaching the point where my effort is going to shift to enjoyment at the expense of improvement.

January 30, 2017 at 02:23 AM · Rapahel: Heifetz had help because of the Russian bow hold, it makes fast passages very articulate and sharp.

The speed is a genetic Heifetzian predisposition, but most people could probably play it at that speed (quarter to 128) with some drilling. :)

January 30, 2017 at 04:02 AM · Innumerable people had the Russian bow hold - including me for a number of years. In my considered opinion, nobody quite equaled Heifetz in this sort of thing with any sort of bow hold. Not even Milstein, who said that you have to be a great violinist, yourself to realize just how great Heifetz was. I can imagine a few like Nadien coming close. But putting everything together as I mentioned above - not just the speed - the way Heifetz did was unique. I clocked it at about 112-116 to the dotted quarter - it is in 6/8 time with 2 groups of 6 1/16th notes to a measure. 100 to the dotted 1/4 would be quite respectable in this sort of thing. Most people in fact could not play it at that speed accurately with ANY amount of drilling. Where I agree with you is that the facility for speed was a genetic predisposition with Heifetz and indeed, that is the main practical point I was trying to make above in terms of technical improvement of a certain kind. There are many other aspects to technique, of course. Really, everything is technique, including tone production. To me, technique is the bridge between the inner ideal and the outer reality.

When my first teacher auditioned for Auer, he thought he did a pretty good job and asked Auer - "Professor, what do you think of my technique?" "Technique?" replied Auer, "Have you heard Heifetz? Have you heard Elman? THAT'S technique!" Notice how Auer included Elman, never noted for blazing facility. The lesson was that it's not just facility, but knowing what to do with it. But my earlier points about facility and the potential for speed is that those sort of aspects tend to inhere a particular ceiling.

Reducing the Sinding to an analysis of facility almost seems an impertinence in the face of the devastating - at least to me - emotional impact of this performance.

January 30, 2017 at 04:28 AM · That Sinding Suite recording with Heifetz is impressive indeed. I don't really think that much of the piece, but Heifetz's playing makes it interesting ... his playing kind of grabs you by the lapels, if you know what I mean.

This one is pretty good too:

January 30, 2017 at 05:31 AM · Since no one knows their own limits, just keep doing your best. Worth noting that some advance faster with certain techniques that others find more difficult, and viceversa, and that sometimes, when something special "clicks" you may go through a playing transformation where everything starts to comes easier (though this still takes rigorous training and a continual, conscious labor of love.) Everybody is different, but can also keep getting better, with persistent work.

(Be wary of injuries or playing with tension, as this can actually make you go backwards, and/or never let you achieve your true potential.)

That said, saying "if I practice 234535974897142398 hours I'll be like or better than Heifetz!" is probably a rabbit you won't want to chase. Be the better player you can be, not someone else.

January 30, 2017 at 11:35 AM · Probably not, but there's a limit to how much patience anyone has for investing time, with diminishing returns at some point.

January 30, 2017 at 01:10 PM · Believe there are limits, and you will find them.

Practice thoughtfully and consistently

challenge yourself

be mindful of your posture and tension

listen to yourself and others

seek inspiration

seek criticism

And you will always improve.

January 30, 2017 at 02:47 PM · I would imagine there are some fundamental limits, but the nature of everyday life for most of us means that few will ever even approach them in practice. Having a job, travelling to work, looking after a house etc. fundamentally limits the amount of time available to most of us. I know that if I had access to an infinite amount of money, I would certainly have more time for practice!

January 30, 2017 at 06:53 PM · Some even argue that motivation, as well as the executive functions that make up work ethic are strongly genetic. So that could be part of the limitation, with all else being equal.

January 31, 2017 at 08:41 PM · I think the question about limit itself worth some examination. Since we don't know how far we can go, why not instead of asking "Do we all have greater potential on the violin than what we thought?"

Improvement of any skills involve a great deal in our mindset: what to be focused on in each moment and what kind of questions we are ask. I'm afraid asking about our limitation doesn't help us to improve, but more likely to lead us prematurely giving up on something we could achieve.

Case in point, I recently had some issue of keeping all fingers down when playing double stops in 3rd with fast shifting. Since I'm over 50, a natural question came to my mind that maybe my fingers have met their limit on such technique. Immediately, I started a debate in my own head and put this assumption to test. I slowed down and practiced with softer touch for a few minutes each day on these passages. I noticed that each day I had noticeable improvement and three days later, I had no problem achieving what I thought might not be possible.

The bottom-line is that, by merely asking certain general questions about our future self, it may affect our motivation and attitude. There is no right and wrong answers to such questions, and yet assumptions will be made when not careful. I want my assumptions to be productive for rather than limiting to my future; therefore, I ask not about my limit, but about my freedom and how to achieve that.

January 31, 2017 at 09:05 PM · We should have an open mind. When I looked at the sam franko cadenza for Mozart G major ( which I learned decades ago) two months ago, I thought it was impossible. After working on it for a month, it came back!

We should not set any limits for ourselves, regardless of age.

February 1, 2017 at 03:31 AM · I hope I didn't give the wrong idea in any way in some of what I said above. I was focusing on just a couple of particular aspects where certain limits for velocity and coordination are likely a genetic predisposition of muscles, nerves and reaction time. However, even there, we can't always be sure of what those limits are as they may be obstructed by faulty technique which may become un-faulted.

One reason why I've been continuing to improve in some way or another even in recent years that my attitude is one of insisting to myself on improving. It's good to have a goal to push ourselves to improve. A public performance is an excellent vehicle for this. I may dutifully practice my daily scales and exercises (and I do), I may have fun reviewing solo pieces and I may have to do some serious cramming sometimes to get some very challenging orchestral material into my fingers for this gig and that. But for me, there's nothing like a solo recital or solo with orchestra to push myself to my best current potential, especially since it's been many years since I've taken any lessons. I'm my own teacher. I'm very performance-oriented. Any decent, and fairly careful work on anything is beneficial and everything finds a place in the mix. But when I casually review repertoire for myself, past a certain point I start to feel that I'm getting all dressed up with no place to go. In a casual review of repertoire for myself or when occasionally teaching myself something new, it's frankly hard for me to bring myself to work a challenging piece really into my fingers past a certain point. In something that I'm reviewing, I'll remind myself of where the challenges are, and hopefully get a new insight for a bowing, fingering or phrasing here and there. Depending on the length and difficulty of the piece - and whatever else is going on in my life at the time, this may go on for a few weeks or even just a couple of days. That's all fine up to a point. But it's not the kind of work that will get something difficult or awkward necessarily into my fingers.

I'm always basically in good shape due to my systematic daily practice of scales and exercises. But getting repertoire into my fingers - and into my soul - for really delivering and projecting as convincing a performance as I can in public, inheres a whole other dimension. And it's a great feeling to have a number of pieces in your fingers at that level. With all the technical work, all the thought processes from the long interpretive line, down to phrases and nuances to the applied technique to make these speak convincingly, to related choices of bowings and fingerings, etc. - all of this sort of work and this kind of project can't help but bring about significant improvement.

PS Stay tuned for an announcement in the spring re my next recital!

February 1, 2017 at 07:29 AM · Hmmm, Raphael, now you made me feel perhaps I gave the wrong idea what I said above. If anything, your words are so much more interesting and infinitely more informative and wiser than many. I've learned so much from you over the years. Thank you!

I have to confess that I'm a kind of person who likes to ask questions that I haven't heard people are asking in an interesting discussion. Since everyone is kindly responding to OP's question about limit, I thought it might be interesting to also think about the question itself and possible assumptions behind or implications it could lead to. For one thing, when I talk about my limits, which I have tons, I also feel that I might just be making excuses. And you know what, I have a sneaky suspicion that thinking about limitation is more of a grownup thing. I'm saying this because since my early retirement, I have the time to play with serious young musicians in a conservatory orchestra. I've been so impressed by their attitude and way of handling issues. They don't overthink and worry about too much, but just play whenever and wherever they've got their hands on the instrument and have a great time. I think this is the only way we can keep growing -- instead of worrying about what we can't, just do what we can now and see what happens the next.

I think the idea of recital is a great way to keep one sharp. I'm building my repertoire and I love to do chamber work as well as solo pieces and perform as much as I can.

Lastly, given what's going on in the world, let's be reminded how privileged we are because, no matter what happens externally, we can put our fingers on great pieces, feel and taste them, and be inspired in ways that most people in the world have no such access.

February 1, 2017 at 07:56 AM ·

February 1, 2017 at 12:51 PM · Yixi - thanks! But I think that your postings are quite thoughtful, too!

I think that there are various types and levels of improvement. Just learning something new, conceptually, or coming to think about something in a different way is a kind of improvement. It may or may not manifest itself as an obvious and quick change for the better in terms of what's actually coming out of the f-holes - but it finds a place somewhere.

Yes, sometimes we can over-think something too much. I understand that Heifetz once said to Erick Friedman "Don't think so much, just play". And I'm reminded of a violent but (to me) amusing scene from the movie, "The Good the Bad and The Ugly": Elie Wallach's character (The "Ugly") is confronted by an enemy who's been stalking him. The enemy tracks him down to a rooming house where "Ugly" is taking a bath. "Ha ha, at last I've caught up to you!" he says with his gun drawn. "I'm gonna savor this moment and kill you real slow...I'm gonna..." Suddenly "Ugly" whips out a gun of his own from just next to the bathtub and kills his enemy, who got distracted by his own 'rhetoric'. He then gives his slain foe this post-mortem advice: "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk!"

February 1, 2017 at 03:10 PM · Yixi -- I agree with you, why think about your "limit" when you can focus on improving? What good does trying to establish a limit serve?

Considering recent events, it appears that it is extremely difficult to predict the future :-D

February 2, 2017 at 02:50 PM · The curve representing each person's maximum ability (for almost everything) is a trajectory similar to the maximum range trajectory for a thrown ball (or batted baseball) with the height representing ability and the "distance" representing time or age (barring impairment caused by injury or severe illness).

If you did everything from the earliest time of your life to study the violin with total dedication you would follow "your" maximum trajectory. Even if you do that, after some time (age) your abilities would decrease because of the natural aging process. If you take up the study of violin later in life, that idealized maximum curve will still apply, but you will be way below it and no matter how hard you work, the best you could hope to approach will be dictated by your age and condition. If you had studied violin years before and are resuming after decades of not playing - the best you can approach will still be dictated by the downward slope of that trajectory.

If you are self-taught at any time in your development, this will further limit your growth. Lessons with a real professional - even coaching can open your eyes and ears to growth potential and give you practice routines to enhance your technique and musicianship in ways you cannot imagine without the experience.

I base this view on my own experience and observations of others over the 78 years I have played violin alone and in various ensembles. For slouchers (like me) improvement can easily continue into one's 70s (at least it did for me on cello; on violin, injury ended my potential for improvement in my mid-50s). I think I am safe in saying that cellists tend to gain an extra 10 to 20 years of top-level playing because of the less injurious (and more natural) posture required for cello playing.

(I had the good fortune to attend a 2-hour masterclass by Midori last Sunday morning during which she worked with 4 good teenage violinists [good? the 4th player did the Ysaye Ballade -absolutely impossible fingering! Midori kept her violin in her case after that one, but when she played little bits after each of the other kids -1. Mendelssohn VC mvmnt-1 , 2- Bach 3rd Partita, Prelude, 3-Mozart VC #5, mvmnt-1; her command of the sound, dynamics and expression made my eyes water within in a few seconds every time. I think that at 49 she is at the top of her curve.)

To Brian Kelley, the OP, I enjoyed an October weekend in your fair city (Cairns) 30 years ago following a week of meetings a little to the south, along the coast at Mission Beach. Unfortunately the jellyfish were out in force and I did not get a chance to swim in the ocean.

February 2, 2017 at 03:26 PM · As far as being self-taught at some point, I think that might work better for some more advanced players. This is something that the pianist Alfred Brendel recommends in order to find a truly unique sound. After all, classical musicians receive by far the most training, and I have wondered whether some of it is really necessary for some people, or whether some of the later training ( perhaps MM or DMA ) is pursued out of feelings of obligation to do so.

February 2, 2017 at 03:36 PM · As a 36 yr old almost 2 years into learning the violin I can begin to see how impossible it is to get to a place I could have been had I started very young and pursued the violin with passion and dedication.

However, I no longer worry about it. I practice as much as I can and keep my dedication. I can still reach a high level for an adult learner and intend to continue improving until that level is reached(AKA the rest of my life.)

I just posted a video of me playing "Air Varie" from Barbara bebers Solos for young violinists. I started in on it because it was at my level and challenging but doable. 3 months later as I struggle with keeping to 104 bpm through the staccato passage and the slurred 16 notes and the spiccatto and the double stops...not to mention keeping good technique and in rhythm and dynamics I still have a very rough and imprecise play through. And that piece is nothing compared to say Sibelius. Literally so far from it in difficulty that someone who can play Sibelius well considers Air Varie to be easier than I consider the very first thing I played 2 years ago.

Not to say I will not still strive for that level but I am starting to see the realities. They are real and daunting.


February 2, 2017 at 04:32 PM · Of course we're all limited. That goes without saying. We are limited technically, emotionally, and intellectually. It's very difficult to move the needle on the last two--I see fewe people who become brilliant or totally lose their stage fright. My experience playing alongside top players is that their processing speed is just faster than others. Top orchestras are full of minds with lfast processors and lots of bandwidth and great memory. Few miraculously acquire such traits as they age.

But most people can make huge technical strides. Unfortunately, most people don't know how to practice, only understand their own mind too late, or won't devote the time necessary to do it.

The thing that limits most musicians from reasonable and steady improvement is sheer laziness.

Myself included.

February 2, 2017 at 07:26 PM · Let's get some conceptual clarification here:

When we talk about limits, comparative limit is one thing (i.e., to compare ourselves to others to see the limits, which is valid in a competitive environment that you want to see where you're standing and how far you can go). Absolute limit" is another -- the limit that is within oneself due to our biological "hardwiring" and personal history. I think a good understanding of the latter can be very hard, but without which, no meaningful other-comparison can be made.

I assume the OP is primarily concerned with the latter ("absolute limit"). Well, the label I use is problematic since we don't know exact limits we have other than the general ones everyone has talked about. However, what we can do is to just pick one limit we can identify and that is workable at a time, test it vigorously to see whether our assumptions are correct, and how we can deal with it. In other words, we can always turn what we consider as limit into learning opportunity.

For me, I am over 50 with more than 15 years of violin playing, on and off, and I am still taking lessons from a good teacher I've been with for more than 8 years. These days, one of my limits I'm working on is over-analyzing. Instead of saying this is who I am, I try to learn how to think more kinesthetically, especially in tone production. Instead of focusing on technical details of the bow arm, I'm now focusing on how the right hand FEEL the tonal quality. I can't explain this well, but I'm sure many of you know what I'm talking about.

So I propose let's talk about limit and how to use our limit as a opportunity to learn and improve us as a musician as well as a human being.

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