At what age do we plateau?

February 3, 2017 at 03:33 AM · At age 56, even with daily practice, my progress is slow. I am starting to feel that I am hitting a plateau. Sure, I can still learn new pieces, but my technical proficiency is not improving. We obviously cannot improve indefinitely. Eventually, age will catch up with us. At what age do we plateau?

Here are my thoughts. I would assume the plateau age depends on our level of proficiency. For example, if an 80 year old picked up the violin for the first time and practiced every day, they would surely improve. But if that same 80 year old was a virtuoso violinist earlier in life, then I would guess they already peaked and are on a decline.

In some sports, ladies gymnastics for example, a 22 year old is considered over the hill. Other sports that require less athleticism, people can continue to improve and compete on a world level into their 30's and 40's. While violin does not require the strength or flexibility of gymnastics, it does require a good degree of athleticism and dexterity. Therefore, one might conclude that violinists have a similar "shelf life" issue as athletes.

What are your thoughts on this?

Replies (97)

February 3, 2017 at 04:05 AM · I am in my 40's and took up the violin about 6 months ago after having completely abandoned the instrument for 25 years. I reached what can be considered (ever so generously ) an upper-intermediate level (Bruch G minor, about half of solo Bach, Paganini #16) in my teens.

Still in my reactivation phase, I am right now reworking through the Bach E major Partita with my teacher. I notice this time around my intonation is better and I have a better sense of the ever presence of joy and sorrow in Bach. But speed is another matter. For example, I was able to play the Preludio with quarter note being at 100 to 110 in my teens. Now, at 90 or so, everything gets very sloppy.

I don't know how long my reactivation phase will be and I guess I will find out more about the impact of ageing on me as i relearn more of what i once knew.

February 3, 2017 at 04:15 AM · That's an interesting topic. The plateau-hitting age seems to depend on several factors, e.g., the height of the plateau (maximum proficiency), starting age, maintenance effort, etc. Also the proficiency level at the end of high school seems to be a good measure of maximum proficiency of lifetime.

February 3, 2017 at 04:39 AM · Bruch is definitely advanced, not intermediate.

I am both more proficient and less proficient than I was at the end of high school (essentially when I quit playing for the first time). I think for most players who go on to conservatory, though, they improve steadily as long as they keep taking lessons seriously -- generally through the end of grad school.

I don't have the same left-hand facility, but I think that's probably 90% a matter of practice and not fundamentally physical. There's some technique that I've learned since then, mostly around extensions, and a few new tricks, and I expect that to continue to expand as I do more virtuosic works.

I have better right-hand technique, I think, than I used to. It's different technique, but I am probably overall better with the bow than I was as a teenager.

I'm still taking lessons, which is undoubtedly contributing to gradual improvement. But I really don't practice anywhere near enough. I think if I could manage 2 hours a day instead of 20 minutes a day, I'd still be improving significantly on a consistent basis, at my relative old age of 42.

February 3, 2017 at 06:32 AM · I agree with Lydia completely. I'm taking lessons on and off for the past 8 years or so. Whenever I'm off lessons due to various reasons, I experienced setback. Lately I've been taking weekly lessons. My progress is noticeable technically and musically on a daily basis. I'm also over and just retired so now I can have quality practice for 3 hours/day.

At what age do we plateau? I would think there's a huge individual differences.

What's most interesting is that, as an immigrant, I know it's so easy and tempting to blame any obstacle I experience on my "poor English". As a woman, playing the gender card could also come handy for me at times. As we get old, age becomes an easy thing to blame. But in each case, these factors may just be red herring and this kind of thinking can be self-sabotaging.

February 3, 2017 at 01:26 PM · I'm 68, and over the last 10 years I find I have to "relearn" stuff, and not take so much for granted. So far my ears and joints are holding up o.k. but I am more aware of my tendons (Viola Elbow!) I now use for myself the many "hints and tips" that I have devised for my students over the years..

February 3, 2017 at 04:39 PM · I don't think hitting a plateau is a matter of age. If it were, I would have hit before I started lessons...I think plateaus are normal and we just have to work thru them. Plateaus may become longer when we face more difficult challenges, physically and mentally, but that is related to (in)competence, not the calendar.

February 3, 2017 at 05:03 PM · We "plateau" after we die.

Another version is that, we never "plateau", but in fact transcend into a new reality where, upon an informal audition, everyone could choose a fiddle straight from Stradivarius, Guarneri, Guadagnini, etc.... and be asked to join the rehearsal of "The Orchestra of Angels" or "The Quartet of Cherubs" after the tea time.

February 3, 2017 at 05:34 PM · Then there is the violist who died and went to the underworld since he was such a horrible person. He is given a wonderful Maggini viola and is given the principle position in the Hades orchestra sitting next to William Primrose. The conductor, Arturo Toscanini, tells the players to get out the music to the Strauss Waltz. After a couple of hours playing this piece the violist realizes that there is no fine.

February 3, 2017 at 06:28 PM · Fine what?

Also, why is Toscanini down there? :D

February 3, 2017 at 08:06 PM · I suppose the "plateau" is influenced to some degree with the amount of practice you put in. I know that for myself an hour of quality practice a day is the absolute minimum to see any degree of progress (very slow at that). Lessons are also important I think as a good teacher will point out shortcomings and assist in correcting deficiencies that I would otherwise be unaware of myself.

February 3, 2017 at 08:27 PM · I don't think I'm on a plateau; it's still up-hill and getting steeper.

February 4, 2017 at 01:45 AM · I agree that it is not so much a matter of age as at what point in life you put in the work. One way (probably the only way) I know that I am still improving is that I can sight-read more and more of the music in orchestra each time we start work for the next concert. As far as the work for my lessons goes, it is almost always a plateau, and then once in a great while a little jump forward.

February 4, 2017 at 02:18 AM · I have been thinking about what do we mean by improving? Technically, most of us are probably somewhere between "twinkle twinkle, little star" and " the last rose of summer." One way to measure improvement is to move ever closer to "the last rose of summer." Another way is to play the same piece, say a movement of solo Bach, better. If we can not move either way, which is unlikely if we practice, we plateau.

February 4, 2017 at 04:13 AM · Like David, I'm a former advanced student who returned in mid-life. I just started practicing and taking lessons again 3-4 months ago, so it's too soon for me to have reached a plateau. I feel that my potential is greater now than when I was 15. Back then, I practiced out of a desire to surpass those around me, and to please my parents. Now, I practice for deeper reasons: a love of music itself and for the psychological and spiritual insights that accompany the quest for mastery.

On a more practical note, I think one of the best ways to measure progress is to record yourself regularly. This way, you can more objectively compare your playing 6 months from now to your playing today, and most likely, see the improvement.

February 4, 2017 at 05:37 AM · I agree with Jason, record oneself helps to keep track of detailed improvement. Also for me, progress is much more than mere technical ease, but more importantly the progress in following areas:

1) Repertoire building

2) Musicality

3) Sight-reading skill

4) Efficient Practice

5) As a chamber and orchestra musician

6) As a performer

7) As a composer -- yes, we have to write our own cadenzas from time to time.

Just to list a few...

In other words, a good violinist must be a good musician, and a good musician can't be weak or stop learning in any of the above areas.

February 4, 2017 at 05:06 PM · So, presumably not to worry if you're on a plateau or on the uphill trek? The bad news is if you're going downhill!

Btw, my most treasured personal possession next to my number 1 violin is my age card :)

February 4, 2017 at 06:52 PM · Refuse to be "plateau-ed", either by yourself or a teacher. No scientifical proof of such plateaus. Keep working intelligently, and strive to find "improvement" after each practice session (sometimes it's much easier to find faults that acknowledging what's going well or improving.)

That said, finding problems with one's own playing is good, so we can work over any "plateau"-like obstacles.

February 4, 2017 at 07:26 PM · Perhaps, another way to ask the question is when do we peak? More prescisely when do we peak technically since that is more relevant to aging.

Great soloists do peak at some point and they become less assured technically. The relevant question for me is this: Can an amateur violinist who returned to the instrument (like the OP, Jason, myself, and a few others who posted on this thread) ever within his lifetime achieve his own objective, which could be something like playing at the level of, say, the CM of the NY Phil. The answer for me is NO. I just have to be happy with whatever incremental progress I make each day.

February 4, 2017 at 10:20 PM · Great discussion! As a professional, I face this question with both fear and hope every day... Staying curious and continuing to perform will let you keep improving. Staying active and regular in your habits will slow down those things that inevitably decline.

February 4, 2017 at 10:50 PM · Please also see this similar current thread:

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

February 4, 2017 at 10:53 PM · @David, we can only talking about our own peak retroactively, yes? How does such after the fact talk help me now?:) Can I, an amateur violinist who returned to the instrument, achieve my objective to play like a pro in a large orchestra? I don't know because first of all, I don't know what is like to be them exactly. But I do know myself well enough that if I am committed, work hard and smart, there are always nice surprises beyond my imagination ahead of me. Playing like a pro is nice, but this is too limiting. What if you do get there and play like a pro, then what?

In my life, I set quite a few big goals and have achieved. It felt great for a short while but always followed by anxious feelings for the next something. I recall someone (Scott Adams probably) said, goals are for losers but system is for winners. Now in my 50s, I like to have a system/program that will keep me growing but not confining myself to specific objective/goal that I set at each point. I'm having weekly lessons working on building repertoire, taking orchestra course at the conservatory and attending chamber music workshops. I am too busy and having too much fun to worry about what I can't achieve down the road.

Remember the Chinese old saying? "There are mountains outside the mountain, sky beyond the day."

Edit: Just saw Raphael's post. Yes, same issue and more discussion.

February 5, 2017 at 01:11 AM · Yixi, I agree we can improve incrementally. The peak for us is not in the past but is so far in the future that we may not get there. And that is ok! I am perfectly happy spending rest of my years meditating on solo Bach. I don't really need to play anything else.

February 5, 2017 at 02:21 AM · David, my point is we can't tell when and what our peak will be until after it has occurred; therefore, it's a counterfactual speculation that is not very helpful for self-improvement, IMHO.

February 5, 2017 at 03:51 AM · Yixi, we don't have to use such fancy language : )

Let's say Smiley, the OP, had a stand partner back in high school. While one may be a stronger player than another, it is fair to say they were within shouting distance of each other in term of technical level. The stand partner went on to become a fine professional violinist.

Question: can Smiley, who returned to the violin 10 years ago, get to be within shouting distance of his former stand partner today?

February 5, 2017 at 04:49 AM · I assume David Zhang is aware of who Smiley's former stand partner is. :-)

If not, that's a very amusing irony.

February 5, 2017 at 01:23 PM · What we often forget is the simple role of a violinist: to entertain, to communicate, provoke emotions.

images, invoke memories.....

This is no athletics, so no objective measuring will give you an exact time of "peak" or decline.

You could be 80 or 11, play a simple tune and bring a single listener to tears. ....

or you could be 23 in your prime years and play like a robot where 1/2 of the concert hall will fall asleep. How do you measure that?

Violin playing is like a magic. Keep it alive! Every day is a gift to you and your listener(s).

February 5, 2017 at 01:55 PM · I have just begun to learn violin (for the first time in my life). I am 66 years old and have psoriatic arthritis. Some days my back and/or hands will not tolerate playing, so progress is pathetically slow. But I press on in the hope that eventually I will be able to make the most beautiful instrument in the world sound like the most beautiful instrument in the world...and not a cat in suffering. :D Haven't peaked yet!

February 5, 2017 at 03:10 PM · To say that every mountain can be overcome is only because of ignorance of how high mountains there are. That applies to life in general too. Some people dont like to think of the higher mountains and some people do, but both can continue to climb as best they can.

February 5, 2017 at 03:49 PM · Maybe we should think in terms of how each piece of music plateaus for us, not our age.

Any experienced musician, probably even top ones, will admit that the last 5 or 10% that a piece needs comes at huge cost. Some people are indeed limited. Perhaps they lack the speed necessary, or a decent trill, or that tiny bit of bow control needed on stage. that's understandable. But most people really do not have the will to push that last little bit because it take exponentially more time and energy.

"To say that every mountain can be overcome is only because of ignorance of how high mountains there are."

Maria, the American self-help philosophy of telling other people to "never, ever give up" can be moronic and self-destructive in its extreme. I think that sometimes the smartest thing is knowing exactly when to quit and move on.

February 5, 2017 at 05:38 PM · David, I think the question you are really asking is, now that I've re-started, how good will I get? The only way you can answer that question is just by doing it. But I am sure you know that already. I can tell you my own experience since I re-started (I am substantially older than you): at first I see-sawed between wildly unrealistic expectations and thinking I could never play even competently again. Things calmed down over the years and now 10 years later I think I have the answer. To frame it as an answer to your stand partner question, no, I doubt very much I am as good a player now as he is, assuming he kept going all these decades. But it does not matter any more. Not because I no longer care but because I am having so much fun it is not an issue. I am playing repertoire I only dreamed about earlier on, have performed more than I ever did in school, and play in an excellent orchestra with a smart conductor. Really what more could ask for? All those speculations are normal but they are really not very relevant in the long run. And this talk about age just drives me crazy. Who cares if your neurons are not firing as quickly as in the past? Just enjoy making music.

February 5, 2017 at 06:20 PM · Very well said, Alice! I think I'm in very similar situation you have described now but you have expressed so much better what I have tried to say.

Maria: "Some people don't like to think of the higher mountains and some people do, but both can continue to climb as best they can." What about the thing called self-fulfilling prophecy? Those who believe they can't, they will always prove themselves to be right. Same can't be said about those who believe they can.

I think any rational person will naturally want to assess what is within one's ability to achieve specific goals before start or continue to their action towards achieving them. Broad questions such as peak of our ability though, can't be intelligently answered without further looking into what people are really asking and what motivate them to do so. It's like when your husband or wife asks you, "Is the honeymoon over?" What does it mean and how can you answer that? Why does he or she even ask that question? The answer has to come from somewhere else, right?

Scott Cole: "But most people really do not have the will to push ..." Right! And I'll say, if they keep pushing, they may or may not succeed. But, for whatever reason, when people stop pushing, the game is over.

February 5, 2017 at 06:43 PM · Danilo Prefumo, the author of the sleeve notes to Franco Mezzena's recording of the Viotti violin concertos, pointed out that the last 9 of the concertos are stylistically different to the earlier ones:

in the use of a larger orchestra (Viotti was based in London at the time), the pathos of the slower movements, and less virtuosic writing, which may have been a consequence of the composer's waning confidence as a performer. Viotti composed those final concertos between the ages of 37 and 60, and died when he was 65.

February 5, 2017 at 07:28 PM · "At age 56, even with daily practice, my progress is slow. I am starting to feel that I am hitting a plateau."

You don't have to be 56 to have this impression. There isn't a single plateau -- there are a series of plateaus, and you may have the illusion that you're making great progress and climbing new mountains while you're actually simply exercising the capacity you have latent or have already gained.

The next real summit is inevitably difficult, and requires new learning and often unlearning of what had been good enough for the previous stage.

Until you reach the level of the current Paganini, and until the next one arrives to raise the bar further, there is not necessarily a fixed level which one reaches with age and time -- merely the limits of what one reaches with the cumulative experience so far.

February 5, 2017 at 10:22 PM · There are walls and there are brick walls. It comes down to each person whether they'll get past these obstacles.

February 5, 2017 at 11:03 PM · Question: can Smiley, who returned to the violin 10 years ago, get to be within shouting distance of his former stand partner today?

Hi David,

I think the answer to that question is clearly "no." My stand partner went to music conservatory and has spent considerably more time on the instrument than I have and during an age where progress was much more rapid. I'm fine with that and that is not the question I was asking. Let me re-phrase the question.

I have thrown out the hypothesis that the age we peak depends on our technical proficiency. Just to clarify, by peak, I mean our technical peak. I consider myself a proficient amateur and I get the sense that I am peaking now at age 56. Let me quantify what I mean. I have been working on scales in 3rds for about 4 months now. And while there is progress, it is VERY, VERY slow. I feel that I am forgetting other skills at about the same pace that I am learning to play 3rds.

If my hypothesis is correct, then my stand partner who is a much more proficient violinist than I am might have peaked some time ago. Hopefully, my hypothetical stand partner reads this and chimes in :-).

February 6, 2017 at 12:10 AM · Smiley, thanks for starting such an interesting discussion. i have benefited immensely from it.

February 6, 2017 at 05:14 AM · Peaking and plateauing are different issues. But both are based on the notion that learning is linear, which I think is limited and limiting. I subscribe to Jerome Bruner's spiral model of learning where each component is revisited repeatedly and periodically, so that with each revisiting, of whatever component, it is understood in a wider and larger context, an ever growing experience, limited only by our own mindset and time. That's what it means to say we work on basics for our whole lives.

February 6, 2017 at 05:28 AM · Thinking about Smiley's experience described above, and my own, I wonder if it's not so much that it's hard to learn new technique per se, but that learning new ways of doing things requires overcoming a lifetime of other habits. In the case of thirds, for instance, Smiley has probably been playing thirds for decades -- presumably with suboptimal technique if they're still a struggle now.

Habit is extremely powerful -- especially if you conscientiously practiced things one way and are now being asked to do them another way.

February 6, 2017 at 05:38 AM · Hi Jeewon, good to hear from you again! As usual, your advices are always some of the best. Will look into Jerome Bruner. Thank you! As for understanding in a wider context, I don't know if this experience of mine counts. I find each time I attend a large event such as international violin or string quartet competition, just as a member of the audience, I could learn so much about musicianship and string playing that I always come back become a different (usually better) player. Partly it seems that the music I work on makes more sense and I have new ways of thinking about practicing or playing.

Yes, always work on the basics. Also for me, whenever I hit a wall, just by doing slow practice(started at quarter note 40bpm and gradually speed up), most issues I've noticed can be fixed within hours, if not minutes. Of course, taking lessons also help to fix the problems I am not even aware exist.

Edit: Just saw Lydia's last post. I find most of my lessons are about correcting my habits (lately it's seems all about thinking too much). I have been taking lessons on and off over the past a few years. Off mainly when I didn't have a lot of time to practice or my teacher was too busy touring or other personal matters. Now that I'm back weekly lessons, I found my learning is enormous. I think there are some very, very talented few violinists can teach themselves pretty well. I saw a couple in my whole life. I definitely need teacher to progress.

February 6, 2017 at 01:48 PM · Hi Lydia,

I can't agree more, yes my technique IS sub-optimal. Perhaps as you say, the longer we live, the harder it is to correct our bad habits. I am currently studying with a teacher that has amazing students. She made the statement that I could have been an amazing violinist if I had a different teacher in my youth. I think she sees my problems and unlike her prodigious elementary school students who seem to pick stuff up in 1 or 2 lessons, it takes me months to learn the same thing; or should I say, unlearn the bad habits that are in the way. Aside from the physical limitations, maybe it is the "unlearning" that slows down our progress as we age. It goes to show how important it is to have a solid foundation from the beginning.

February 6, 2017 at 02:05 PM · Wonderful discussion. Congrats all.

As an amateur violinist but a professional psychologist with one of my specialties in career development, allow me to add my two cents worth.

MOST people, in any occupation or type of career you can think of, plateau in their careers. One reaches a certain point of skill, knowledge, success, status, or just plain comfort, and one plateaus.

But if you look at the people at the very, very top of any occupation you can think of, they don't let themselves plateau.

Allow me to tell you a story about a person who was famous in his field (not music), and a former colleague of mine met who him at a national workshop. Zig Ziglar was perhaps the most well know sales trainer and motivational speaker of his time (he passed away a few years ago). A long time ago, my friend Mike bumped into Mr. Ziglar in a crowded hallway of the hotel where the conference was taking place, and politely asked him, "Mr. Ziglar, can you answer a question?" Mr. Ziglar answered Mike's question, and then asked Mike a question: "In your experience, what would you say about this....."

Mike answered, and the two of them ended up in the coffee shop trading stories and ideas for about an hour.

Then Mr. Ziglar looked at his watch and said, "Ooops, I've got to get going to give another talk."

Mike said, "I can't imagine the demands on your time, so to take the time with someone like me (who nobody ever heard of)..."

And Zig Ziglar replied: "THAT'S HOW I STAY AHEAD."

Jascha Heifetz once said, "There is no 'top.' There are always further heights to reach" (or something like that).



February 6, 2017 at 03:06 PM · Even Aaron Rosand finally retired, although at 87 he was 20 years older than Heifetz had been when he ceased public performance. I think it would take an ardent, insensitive narcissist to not self-recognize fading powers. The plateau may be harder to recognize, with luck it is a lofty and lasting one.

I was in my early 70s, when it was clear to me that my cello playing was not getting any better (it would have plateaued decades earlier had I studied and practiced more). My violin playing was certainly improving into my mid-50s when cervical disk problems messed up my left hand and put a stop to that. When my right hand also started to give me problems at age 80 I decided to work with a heavier viola bow - and thus started my viola "career," which at age 82 is still on-going and improving. (Had a good chamber orchestra concert yesterday -as principal violist!!!)

So - YES we reach plateaus, but if we have even some soundness of mind and body we can likely find some new thing at which we can start so low, that we can continue to improve for a while.

Maybe the question is not whether we reach plateaus but how high we can make them and how long we can maintain them.

February 6, 2017 at 03:09 PM · I think there's also the high likelihood that what is optimal for us changes with time and experience.

As I grew, I went through a number of chinrest and shoulder-rest configurations as a kid, including a period playing restless, before eventually settling into something once i'd reached my adult proportions. That meant adaptations in my left-hand technique, including having to adjust to different-size violins that were either "too small" or "too large". Ditto the bow -- too long or too short?

And the teachers I went through during those years disagreed on how a fractional should be sized. For instance, do you keep the kid on the smaller instrument for a longer period of time because it makes it easier to use the whole bow and handle left-hand stretches, or do you push them up to the next size sooner because you figure that as an adult they'll be small and they need to have technique that is adapted to the fact that a full-size is kinda too big?

I've made changes in my playing due to (non-violin-related) injuries. I've adapted to the requests of various teachers and their own particular physical approaches to the instrument. I've had my instincts changed by their preferences -- for instance, multiple small shifts or one big shift? More weight on the string or more bow to get projection? And so on.

One change often triggers a cascade of changes. I've changed bow-holds multiple times, for instance, and each change means different physical approaches to right-hand strokes, and a new set of weight/speed/sounding-point combinations to be learned.

Complex systems optimization is hard!

February 6, 2017 at 04:33 PM · Smiley says: "I have thrown out the hypothesis that the age we peak depends on our technical proficiency. Just to clarify, by peak, I mean our technical peak. I consider myself a proficient amateur and I get the sense that I am peaking now at age 56. Let me quantify what I mean. I have been working on scales in 3rds for about 4 months now. And while there is progress, it is VERY, VERY slow. I feel that I am forgetting other skills at about the same pace that I am learning to play 3rds.

If my hypothesis is correct, then my stand partner who is a much more proficient violinist than I am might have peaked some time ago. Hopefully, my hypothetical stand partner reads this and chimes in :-)."

Excuse me, you rang? Haha.

You ask a simple question which does not have a simple answer. I think Lydia makes an important point here: "Thinking about Smiley's experience described above, and my own, I wonder if it's not so much that it's hard to learn new technique per se, but that learning new ways of doing things requires overcoming a lifetime of other habits. In the case of thirds, for instance, Smiley has probably been playing thirds for decades -- presumably with suboptimal technique if they're still a struggle now.

Habit is extremely powerful -- especially if you conscientiously practiced things one way and are now being asked to do them another way."

The longer a student has been doing something wrong, the more difficult it is to fix the error in technique. If this is true of thirteen-year-olds who have been playing incorrectly since age nine, imagine how much more so it is true of middle-aged amateurs who had less than optimal teaching in their youth.

For me, I was making definite technical progress as long as I was taking regular lessons and practicing hours a day. Then I had children. There is always improvement to be found stylistically and musically but I don't think my technique has really changed much in the last twenty years, either up or down.

For those who are mathematically inclined: there is a difference between hitting a plateau, and hitting a limit. A plateau is flat. A function can continue improving for any X out to infinity while still never exceeding a limit. For example, when graphing the function f(x) = -(1/x) when x is positive, you can see that as x gets larger and larger, f(x) gets closer and closer to zero--but it never actually gets there, let alone passes it. So the function continues to increase but it has a ceiling.

I would say that my playing is close to my limit, hopefully still continuing to improve but only by very small increments. I would never feel comfortable playing the Waxman Carmen Fantasy in public, and I would never waste my time and money trying to audition for concertmaster of any orchestra at my own orchestra's level or above. It is not in my future; it exceeds my limit.

Can Smiley aspire to match his former high school standpartner if he puts in enough time, with the best possible teacher, at this point in his life? No. It exceeds his limit. But that doesn't mean he can't continue to improve for as long as he wants to.

Bruce: that is hell for second violins as well.

David Z: did you know who Smiley's former high school standpartner was when you posed your hypothetical? Because if not, that's an amazing coincidence.

February 6, 2017 at 04:53 PM · Another quote that occurs to me related to this topic (especially regarding the issues of age and health):

"It ain't what they take away from you; it's what you do with what you've got left." - Hubert H. Humphrey



February 6, 2017 at 07:01 PM · Comparing ourselves with others is one big root of our suffering. My guess is that it's a habit/mindset that we are easy to fall into. I hope psychologists can shed some lights on the harm of this habit and how to stop this.

Rationally speaking, unless we are in an adversarial situation like in a war, however other people are doing should not be relevant to our own pursuit. Even in highly competitive settings, such as during international violin/string quartet competitions, you'd see that the contestants are always focusing how they can do their best rather than how others are doing.

Smiley said that his teacher "made the statement that I could have been an amazing violinist if I had a different teacher in my youth." I'm sorry Smiley, I'm sure you love your teacher and I don't mean to criticize her, but I also have to point out that for a teacher to say such thing to one's student is a bit odd in many ways: at least she was explicitly criticizing your former teacher and implicitly making an excuse for herself for not being able to help you to be the best you aspire to be. Most of all, what the kind of mindset we are holding on to if we keep talking about could have, would have and should have?

Wow, I just realized that fixing bad habits takes a village.

February 6, 2017 at 07:54 PM · Hi Yixi,

I should probably clarify the context of my teacher's comment. During my son's lesson, my son made a disparaging comment about my violin ability. We study with the same teacher and she has 3rd graders that can play circles around me. After my son's disparaging comment, my teacher came to my defense to say that I could have achieved a very high level with the right teacher. I didn't take it in a negative way at all. My teachers were great, but the level of instruction has improved dramatically in the past few decades.

Mary Ellen,

Thank you for posting that mathematical analogy. It is good to think of my progress that way and it is good to know that I will continue to improve albeit at a slower pace. But I hate the fact that I am trending towards zero. I would like to modify your equation to f(x)=(5 - 1/x). At least I am trending towards an "intermediate" level, thank you very much :-).

But you also seem to be supporting my hypothesis that at a higher level, one peaks at an earlier age. You achieved a very high level of playing and reached a plateau 20 years ago. My level is relatively low compared to you so I am just now hitting my plateau. BTW, sounds like you have some first hand knowledge of my high school stand partner. Do you know her :-)?

I thought of another analogy today. Last year at the age of 55, I became very interested in tennis. In the past year, I have played quite a bit and I have made tremendous progress. That is possible because I am a relative beginner. But I certainly wouldn't expect Roger Federer to hit a growth spurt in his mid 50's.

I think this is pointing to the conclusion that early progress comes quickly. But as we advance in any endeavor, it becomes increasingly difficult to improve. Scott Cole made the point earlier that the last 5-10% polishing of a piece requires huge effort compared to the first 90-95%. I think that is a microscopic view that supports the claim that progress in general becomes increasingly difficult the better you get.

February 6, 2017 at 08:06 PM · "I think this is pointing to the conclusion that early progress comes quickly. But as we advance in any endeavor, it becomes increasingly difficult to progress. Scott Cole made the point earlier that the last 5-10% polishing of a piece requires huge effort compared to the first 90-95%. I think that is a microscopic observation that progress in general becomes increasingly difficult the better you become."

Agree 100%. I was continuing to improve in the decade after graduate school, when I was still taking occasional lessons and doing intensive practice for auditions. But the big leaps occurred while I was in school.

I've never met anyone who was playing at a regional orchestra level in their mid-20s who was able to jump levels (i.e. win a big five level orchestra audition) later on. I don't mean that someone whose first job is in a regional orchestra might not win a bigger job later, but in such cases I would say they were playing better than their pay grade early on. They may have had a regional orchestra job but they weren't regional orchestra-level players.

At this point I must insert, again, it is unbelievable to the average high school student or amateur how well one must play simply to win a regional orchestra job. I am talking about relatively small gradations in ability, at least from the outside looking in.

As far as Smiley's teacher's comment, I've said similar things to adult students on rare occasions myself. It is always in the context of "you have the raw material" which is a compliment to the student, not a shot at a teacher who is likely long since retired if not actually playing in some sort of celestial orchestra. I would never make such a remark to a student fresh from the previous teacher.

Bruce, I'm still stuck on your Hades Symphony. Was William Primrose really an awful person? Because your anecdote is a little harsh with respect to him.

February 6, 2017 at 08:13 PM · " not a shot at a teacher who is likely long since retired if not actually playing in some sort of celestial orchestra."

I don't mean to be morbid, but at my age, the only contact I have with my former teachers is through the obituaries.

[edit] Just realized, that's what you were implying with your "celestial orchestra" comment. Sorry to be so thick headed.

February 6, 2017 at 08:30 PM · I was just thinking about thirds, and why they wouldn't get better. I'm coming up blank. That's not something where age would really make much of a difference. Thirds are a matter of proper hand placement. For very fast thirds, general left-hand agility and precision help to ensure that pairs of fingers go down and snap up in a perfectly coordinated way -- even if you have carpal-tunnel or other physical-impact velocity issues they can be overcome with a drill like Schradieck (barring major issues like arthritis and whatnot). So what's the blocker preventing your progress, Smiley?

I have always sucked at thirds, and I hate practicing them, but even now, when I work on them, they get steadily better. (My teacher basically carved out the double-stop thirds and tenths sections in the exposition of Paganini No. 1, and the effort of playing the Sevcik exercises that go with them was actually quite useful. I didn't stick with it long enough but I mean to go back to it.)

February 6, 2017 at 08:36 PM · Smiley and Mary Ellen, thanks for the clarification and additional insight. I might be overly sensitive to this sort of thing, but I'm also extremely lucky to have a teacher who is very sensitive about student’s mindset. Although she has taught highly accomplished young students (e.g., Timothy Chooi), I don't feel I've missed out or being damaged at youth somehow. Over the years I've gone to the same studio with these great young players for lessons, all I was made to feel was inspiration and privilege. I also find helpful that my teacher doesn't make general assessment about my potential but pointing out my particular strengths such as musicality, analytical ability, etc., so I can work on my issues without losing perspective. She could have made me feel otherwise and to be full of self-doubt, but I'm sure she made good efforts not to do so. Violin learning is such a personal thing...

I don’t have kids, but I’m attending the local conservatory and playing with highly accomplished kids in an orchestra. My husband and I are the only two grownups in this orchestra. I guess we are thick-skinned. But I feel the kids don't see anything odd about this and I’ve learned so much from their healthy mindset – just play and enjoy. My experience in adult community orchestras tend to be much less fun chiefly due to the amount of talking about their limits and lacking. So at least you see where I come from and why I reacted the way I did.

February 6, 2017 at 08:51 PM · Hi Yixi, I believe that's what Carol Dweck would call a fixed mindset. Regardless of intention, the effect is the same. We must have similar taste in self-help gurus :) I came across Scott Adams ideas through James Clear's blog in this article: Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead. Though I find Adams a bit ornery, he does seem to have a singular point of view (e.g. how he called the recent US election more than a year ago:

I first read about the idea of a spiral model decades ago in the Pace method (a summary here,) which is based on Bruner's learning theory. Then I discovered Bruner through some of his essays.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a great collection. Here's an article about it and some of Bruner's ideas from my favourite book review blog, From the article on Bruner:

The title of the collection comes from Bruner’s childhood fascination with the symbolism of the right hand as the doer and the left as the dreamer, and it is this toxic divide between the two that he sets out to counter with equal parts insight and irreverence. Articulating the same essential concern that Susan Sontag echoed two decades later in lamenting how the artificial divide between intuition and intelligence limits us, Bruner pits himself “in the role of a would-be mediator between the humanist and the scientist” and gently guides the metaphoric left hand to tickle the right, which has become “too stiff with technique,” into creative awakening.


As Yixi says, we can widen our current spiral by immersing ourselves in excellent models. And I think complete immersion is one of the advantages a pre-college or conservatory student has, not only immersion in lessons, master-classes, chamber music, orchestra, juries, recitals, summer camps, competitions, ear training, analysis, theory, etc., but being in such an envrionment amongst peers. I wonder what such a learning-environment-amongst-peers would do for adult learners.

But that's just part of the disadvantage. While I agree it's impossible to know one's potential, one's actual limit, it's true we all have practical limits, which includes self-imposed limits. And I don't think anyone can say what anyone is willing to pay or do to grow beyond these 'soft' limits. Mary Ellen has said that the opportunity cost is too high for her to try to reach beyond her current station. I'm not going to argue that, but I would suggest that is a soft limit, not the same as one's curve approaching infinity. The only way she can find out how close she is, is to actually push the curve and see.

What is an adult learner's limit? Sure they're at a great disadvantage in terms of training when compared to a professional track young student. But I think their apparent lack of progress has more to do with practicality, which often has a lot to do with mindset, than any actual hard limit. It's not too different from a young student on the cusp of committing fully to serious practice, but is held back by the enormity of the task, fixed in old thought patterns, insecurities and self-fulfilling prophecies.

February 6, 2017 at 08:53 PM · This is probably the subject of another thread, but here is my analysis regarding thirds. There are two areas that I find especially challenging. First, making smooth string crossings. It requires shifting and sliding with the finger on the common string, and coordinating that with the bow and the string change. Second, my 4th finger is quite curved, so I struggle getting the 4th finger high enough, especially when the 2nd finger is low. My teacher is teaching me to lead with the wrist when shifting, but because of my curved 4th finger, it is difficult to get the proper hand position while maintaining intonation.

February 6, 2017 at 09:05 PM · I wonder if doing something that would totally disrupt previous habits would make it easier to re-learn a technique as fundamental as shifting. Going back to a shoulder-rest for a bit, perhaps?

February 6, 2017 at 09:05 PM · By all means start another thread (and post a video :) Smiley. It's a worthy topic!

What you describe involves many complex motions already. Are you limiting to 1st and 3rd positions or going beyond? Along with all the regular stuff, often too much pressure too soon from the strong fingers (namely fore and middle) always gets in the way of shifts in thirds. Fluid motion depends much on finger balance and independence (which in turn also depends on a malleable hand.)

Edit: I like Lydia's idea of disrupting actions. That's the thing about breaking habits, it's often quicker and easier to disrupt them than unlearn them. Of course once the new pattern is discovered, often a Eureka moment, you still have to remember to keep disrupting the old habit until the new one is stronger.

Edit 2: You always have to pay attention to middle and end positions and postures. Often neglected in the practice of thirds is parallel 4th and 2nd shifts. E.g. working on 1/3, 2/4, 1/3, 2/4 in C maj. G/D to D/A strings. Practice 3/2 to 3/2; C/F to E/A and back. Practice 4/1 to 4/1; D/E to F/G and back. When shifting to D/A remember to use the old interval to shift back down to first position.

February 6, 2017 at 09:11 PM · With all due respect, I think there is a limit for each individual. Not everyone can become a Heifetz, even with an infinite amount of time in which to develop. Limiting factors include fine motor skills; speed of thought--or if you want to talk about muscle twitches and neuron firing, go ahead; hearing acuity; personality traits (flexibility vs rigidity); and so on. Not everyone will be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, either, no matter how hard they train.

I would agree that most people's limits are likely quite a bit higher than they may think, but one must acknowledge that anatomical and mental differences among people can also result in differences in achievement.

I have seen the results of a few individuals' inability to accept a limit, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it can wreck lives. I'm thinking in particular of a cellist who was profiled in Humans of New York, getting ready to take an audition for the LA Phil. He had been taking auditions for 20 years and never got a job. He certainly did not have a self-limiting mindset; he was convinced that if he just kept working hard, eventually it would happen for him. Those of us on the outside could discern based on Youtube videos that not only would he not advance past the first round in the LA Phil audition, he would never advance past the first round for any orchestra. Think of how much happier and more productive a life he could be having if he could channel his energies into his strengths instead of continuing to bang his head against the brick wall of his limitations.

February 6, 2017 at 09:27 PM · Yep, I absolutely agree we all have hard limits. But,

“Do you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children? That Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was completely uncoordinated and graceless as a child? That the photographer Cindy Sherman, who has been on virtually every list of the most important artists of the twentieth century, failed her first photography course? That Geraldine Page, one of our greatest actresses, was advised to give it up for lack of talent?”


Michael Jordan was cut from the high school varsity team. He wasn't recruited by the college he wanted to play for. He wasn't drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him.


Boxing experts relied on physical measurements, called "tales of the tape," to identify naturals. They included measurements of the fighter's fist, reach, chest expansion, and weight.

Muhammad Ali failed these measurements. He was not a natural. He had great speed but he didn't have the physique of a great fighter, he didn't have the strength, and he didn't have the classical moves. In fact, he boxed all wrong.

[from Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success]

To focus on our hard limits only serves to lower our soft limits. I'm not saying we should throw caution to the wind. We all have our own risk tolerances. But there are limits and there are limits.

February 6, 2017 at 09:34 PM · Mary Ellen, it may be against some conventional wisdom to suggest but it's not inconceivable that the cellist who was profiled in Humans of New York is happy doing exactly what he is doing, but then I don't know him. I know I'm very limited therefore I always question if my assessment of my limit itself is limited also. How do I do that? By suspending my judgement on negative self-talks and testing/pushing my limits if they are worthy testing. When it comes to something I'm passionate about as this violin thing, I stop testing when I'm tired. And I'm not tired yet :)

Jeewon, it's an honor to be able to think like you do. Thank you for the additional information too!

February 6, 2017 at 09:44 PM · He did not come across as happy. "It can be pretty heartbreaking" is a direct quote. He also mentions preparing for three months, flying across the country (keep in mind cellists have to buy an extra seat), and getting cut off after twelve seconds. It is not a kindness to pretend anyone can be anything if they just work hard enough, if they just want it enough.

To say that one can always improve is a true statement. To say that one can improve to the point of reaching some particular very high level is much more dependent on the individual and is not true more often than it is true.

February 6, 2017 at 09:52 PM · Mary Ellen, we basically agree on a lot of things, most of all, we all have limit. What we disagree is also fundamental -- what is wise or kind way to look at and address one's identifiable limits. While taking general human limit as a given, I think the jury is still out how far each of us can go -- not in a way by comparing with so and so, but how far the journey each of us take can lead us. I think giving up too soon often is when people, for whatever reason, acted on self-limiting assumptions. Surely we see a lot more examples among musicians we know of this problem than the extreme case of the cellist. I don't see any of us here would go that far as he did; on the other hand, the concern for me about self-fulfilling prophecies is very real on a daily basis.

Ok, back to practice. :)

February 7, 2017 at 03:37 AM · I think it makes sense to think about one's limits in a realistic way so that our precious time can be allocated in a reasonable fashion.

Some people may want to take the gamble on the outside chance that they'll succeed with something, but many others will not.

February 7, 2017 at 04:08 AM · I won't argue against this as a broad principle. The problem is this is kind of too broad to be of much help. For one thing it depends on what we mean by succeed. If I had specific external objective, such as becoming a concertmaster in the best local semi-professional orchestra, or playing like my teacher, then I better have my head checked. But if we are talking about whether someone over 50 can be proficient in certain technical stuff, unless she has physical disabilities, I'd say it would be premature to give up due to age. People are basically more adaptable than we often imagine. For instance, I started yoga in my late 40s and I'm now more flexible than I was in my 20s.

For me playing the violin is more of an inward journey of life. I want to be as good as I can be, whatever it means. I think I will pleasantly surprise myself so long as I train myself in the similar manner as those who work towards a violin performance degree, and my teacher stick to the same standards she sets for these students. How do we measure success in such case and what are the chances of success or failure? Only I can answer, isn't it?

If I could share a recent example to illustrate why I think we need to resist the temptation of some habitual reaction to a problem. I had problem with 3rds for a while and still do. Last week when working on the 1st page of the Mendelssohn piece, I felt I lifted fingers too much to compensate. The first though came to my mind was "I too old to do this so maybe I should change fingering from 1/3,2/4,1/3 to 1/3 1/3 1/3." I immediately rejected it because since my hands are normal and healthy, why not look for a solution instead making excuse? I tried a few things (playing slowly with softest finger pressure as I could make). It took a few minutes to figure out the fix but more than a couple of days to nail it. I don't know how quick other people can fix this type of problem, but really, does it matter?

February 7, 2017 at 04:56 AM · Mary Ellen and Lydia, I know who Smiley' former stand partner was. I also want to say how much I appreciate the advices you provide here.

February 7, 2017 at 12:41 PM · This thread seems to accentuate the differences between the realists and idealists. As much as I respect and admire Yixi's positive attitude, it is idealistic, but not realistic. I would even reject Mary Ellen's mathematical explanation that we continue to improve until the day we die. When I am 80 years old, and my reflexes are slower, vision is impaired and arthritis sets in, I don't think I will be improving much. I really like Jeewon's link "Forget about setting goals. Focus on this instead."

February 7, 2017 at 03:20 PM · My point wasn't that we necessarily continue to improve until the day we die; my point was that continued improvement does not mean unlimited potential. You can continue to improve while still limited by a ceiling. And conversely, acknowledging one's own limits doesn't mean improvement isn't still possible. Sorry that wasn't clear.

February 7, 2017 at 03:24 PM · Smilley, if you like what's said in "Forget about setting goals. Focus on this instead", then you and I are on the same page because that's exactly what I am trying to say all along.

Thanks for starting this very interesting discussion!

February 7, 2017 at 04:12 PM · I don't think Yixi is just being positive or 'idealistic.' After all, she's speaking from her own experience about her own 'reality,' and how it has determined her past, and now affects her current violin life. It sounds like she's got herself immersed in a serious, positive learning environment, something I think most adult learners have difficulty finding (I've heard the amateur music world can be quite petty and competitive in the worst ways--who knew!) and has reason to be more than positive about her own journey. Would she be where she is now had she thought, "I've peaked" 10 years ago, and never sought to expand her musical world?

I hope I'm not being too presumptuous, but I think what she is suggesting, what I'm saying, is that mindset determines our 'reality' to a greater extent than most of us would care to admit (without getting into aphorisms about glasses of water, etc.)

"Knowing exactly when to quit and move on," is at the heart of many of these discussions about ability, limit, potential, etc. But who's to say when that point is exactly? Who's to say what is worth anything? Mary Ellen looks at that cellist's 'career' and says what a waste. Someone else might look at her career and say the same (CFAs, not me ;) That's what happens when you judge merely by appearances and external comparisons. All anyone can say is, "I would not be satisfied with what that person is/has/does," and even then we wouldn't really know. Because mindset determines our 'reality.'

February 7, 2017 at 04:28 PM · I reject the comparison of a decades-long career with two stable jobs and hundreds of productive students to decades of tilting at windmills, even from different vantage points. There are objective realities in life. And at any rate, the cellist's own words suggest some dissatisfaction.

I also reject the "mindset determines reality." I am not going to stop being honest with students whose ambitions exceed their realities just because telling them the truth might be limiting them. If a student is not going to get into Oberlin, I will say so. If a young poster on has soloist ambitions when it's clear to anyone knowledgeable that such a future is impossible, again, I will say so. It's no kindness to anyone to suggest that their limitations exist only because they think they do. Yes, many people impose more limitations on themselves than actually exist, but that doesn't mean that limitations in general are only a product of one's thinking.

I don't know a single professional performer who thinks it's ethical to give false hope to students.

February 7, 2017 at 05:23 PM · For amateur violinists, it is ok to be "idealistic," since we have implicitly accepted our limits by our decision years ago. I would not encourage my daughter to pursue a career as a professional classical violinist unless there is clear and objective evidence that suggests she has an above average probability to succeed.

February 7, 2017 at 05:31 PM · Mary Ellen, you might reject it, but I assure you there are plenty of people in the world who would make the comparison and not see much of a difference. By the way, by CFA I meant a Chartered Financial Analyst, someone who might think your talents in mathematics were wasted on a "...decades-long career with two stable jobs and hundreds of productive students..." It all boils down to values doesn't it? You can't imagine what some foolish cellist could possibly contribute to his slice of the music world, however small that may be, and find any value in it. A CFA might not see any value in scraping horse hair across a wooden box when there are billions to be made. What's more real, a billion dollars, or an emotional connection made through pressure waves propagating through the air? And since you insist on bringing this discussion back to students, many parents would say making music is a frivolous waste of life, and it's not a kindness to allow any young person to pursue anything remotely related to any of the arts.

What one values is determined by mindset. What one values, one makes real. I use single-quotes on purpose because I don't think there exists a single reality for all. I'm pretty sure we're not getting into metaphysics and epistemology, right?

But I didn't think anyone on this particular thread was talking about pie in the sky dreams of being the next Heifetz anyways. I thought we were talking about reaching a point of diminishing returns and knowing whether and when to quit.

February 7, 2017 at 05:36 PM · Jeewon, you are not being presumptuous but you've expressed the same message much, much better than I can. Thank you!

I might be called an idealist or a dreamer, but talking about reality is also one of my favorite subjects. Thanks for getting me start on this :)

Clarification #1: Reality (R1)and what we perceived to be reality (R2) are not the same thing. Stories of other people, even our own past are R2, which are subject to all kinds of falsehood. R1 and R2 both will affect how our future reality will become. In this sense, I don't think anyone here can reasonably reject "mindset determines reality", after all, how we become so far in achieving anything. Note that we are not saying mindset is the only thing determines reality. Nor anyone is saying we shouldn't look at our limits. My question is, when it comes to someone's future plan, how can know for sure what is our understanding of the R2 will be same as that person's R2 down the road?

Let me tell another story to illustrate my point. I grew up during the communist China's "cultural revolution" and I missed a lot of educational opportunity for at least 10 years during my early childhood. I taught myself English by listening to language tapes and shortwave "The Voice of America". I came to Canada with $30 in my pocket in my mid-20s and spoke very broken Chinese English. I didn't ask what was my limits because they were too many to count. I kept doing what I like and completed undergraduate, graduate degrees in philosophy and then a law degree. Went on articled in one of the best law firms in town when 40% of law graduates in my year couldn't find an articling position anywhere. Now, if you'd asked me back then what would be the chance for me to achieve all that, I'd say not much. Many "realistic" people (including some professors) told me again and again not to waste my time and resource in pursuing this language-laden path as an adult ESL with limited means, but instead, I should be realistic, finding a job, any job and work my way up. What they didn't know, and some still don't understand is that, they have a different sense what is real for me than I do, and naturally so because they are not me.

No one can be in other people's shoes. So, let's create an environment that best allows each of us walk and finish our own path. This may be the kindest thing we can offer each other in this world.

Edit: just saw Jeewon's last post. Sorry, I can't resist the chance talking a little metaphysics and epistemology ;) Well said. Love the horsehair part in particular! :D

February 7, 2017 at 05:42 PM · Hi Jeewon,

I am asking the question at what age we plateau. If we reach a plateau it does not mean we cannot still enjoy playing the instrument. I never suggested that I am contemplating quitting even if I reach the conclusion that I have reached my technical peak. Quitting and peaking are two separate conversations.

February 7, 2017 at 05:52 PM · If I believe I peaked, or can't achieve certain technical stuff due to age (something I can't change), will I still be curious to see how I will grow in this field as though I didn't have such belief? Unlikely. This is the center concerns for me in this debate -- we are what we believe in the sense that beliefs we choose to have can open and close doors. Choose carefully :)

February 7, 2017 at 06:08 PM · Limiting ourselves serves no purpose,unless you are obsessing about something all but unattainable. You should never work/practice to reach your "limits" that no one really knows, anyway. You keep working so you improve and become a better player and musician.

Thirds, fingered octaves, tenths, double harmonics, complicated bowings, a beautiful and resonant tone, et. al. are doable for quite a bit many of players who think they never can achieve proficiency because of superficially "logical" excuses. Sometimes something clicks, and a student begins advancing by leaps and bounds compared to their earlier rut.

Has nothing to do with blindly believing you are Heifetz's match, or that you could beat any concertmaster in the world, but I believe with the proper training and right attitude, high-level proficiency should not be thought as something merely for an elite few. We should encourage others and ourselves to become the most amazing players they (we) can be, rather than focusing on any current deficiencies. It is not arrogant nor inappropriate to keep working hard to be able to play satisfactorily whatever piece you have in mind, though the road will rarely be "easy"-nothing to lose by keeping one's dutiful labor of love to keep advancing.

Age is no big deal, barring medical problems, though it usually makes progress slower depending on the particular violinist.

No offense or argument intended, however.

February 7, 2017 at 06:24 PM · Hi Yixi,

Here's a more inspiring mindset. One could take the view that as long as we are learning new pieces, we are improving. You start working on a new piece you never played before. A few months later, you are able to play it. You couldn't play it before, now you can. That's improvement.

What has really struck a nerve in this discussion is the mindset that we have an upper limit. To some, that is unempowering. I don't feel that way at all. To me it is just being realistic. Expecting too much can also lead to disappointment (e.g. Mary Ellen's cellist friend).

February 7, 2017 at 06:28 PM · Nobody is talking about quitting. And I don't see a waste in anyone pursuing any activity for non-monetary reasons. That is quite different from seeing a waste in spending possibly decades of one's life in a quest for what is objectively unattainable for that person instead of developing one's actual strengths in a different direction.

I am also not talking about monetizing one's talents nor am I dismissing value in a journey. I am talking about the waste of expending energy towards an impossible goal.

I assure you, my mathematical gifts are quite modest when compared to the real mathematicians, and I most certainly did not pass up the opportunity to make millions in choosing the violin over mathematics. Objectively speaking, I think I could have achieved an MS in mathematics but not a PhD. If my violinistic gifts were equivalent to my mathematical gifts, I would have made a competent violinist piecing together a life of freeway philharmonics and private lessons, nothing more.

February 7, 2017 at 06:31 PM · "Expecting too much can also lead to disappointment" Yes, Smiley, but I'm an idealist as well as a stoic. They don't have to be mutually exclusive: hope for the best and embrace all the outcome with grace. Life is good. :)

February 7, 2017 at 06:43 PM · Here is a link to Stephane Grappelli at age 67.

I know that he is playing his own music, as opposed to music that "must" be played as written, but give him a break, he composed it on the spot.

February 7, 2017 at 06:44 PM · As amateur violinists, we can exist in our individual reality which is 100% valid as suggested by Yixi and Jeewon. I think Mary Ellen was referring, by and large, to the young people what are aspiring to be professional violinists. For them, external reality matters.

The business model of classical music, at least in the North America, is collapsing. Professional violinists at almost every level are over-worked and over-trained for the compensation they receive if you consider the hours they have spent on the violin since the age of 5. Some people who entered professional orchestra years ago may have trouble winning auditions today if they were not grandfathered in. External reality matters.

As one who spent some years of his childhood in china before his family immigrated to the US, I greatly admire Yixi’s achievement in Canada and her courage to overcome obstacles. But that may not be detached from external reality. In the 80’s and 90’s, with China opening up, in some areas of the legal profession, people who had law degrees from (North) American law schools AND were able to speak/read/write Mandarin had a distinct advantage over those who didn’t or weren't. This of course is just a general observation. I am not saying this necessarily applies to Yixi's case.

If 1.5 billion Chinese eventually come to appreciate classical music the way the remaining audience in the West do, the business model of classical music may yet survive. Again, external reality matters.

February 7, 2017 at 06:49 PM · "As amateur violinists, we can exist in our individual reality which is 100% valid as suggested by Yixi and Jeewon. I think Mary Ellen was referring, by and large, to the young people what are aspiring to be professional violinists. For them, external reality matters."

Thanks, David, that's exactly who I was talking about. I'm not going to impose any limits on amateurs or students unless they ask me about a future in professional music, and at that point I will be honest.

February 7, 2017 at 08:31 PM · David, the universities I attended (University of British Columbia and University of Victoria) and the law firm I articled and subsequent law and policy jobs I've done have no use for my mandarin whatsoever.

That said, the external reality does matter in that I was and am still very lucky to be in Canada, which is open and supportive to immigrants like myself. Although, in the same situation, different attitudes make a night and day difference. You can have everything you've got yet limit yourself by comparing with the very best in the class or even in the world. Or you can choose to focus on your strength and pursue your dream, which should not be limited to specific goals. (See the article Jeewon linked about Goals vs Systems for more detail).

I understand Mary Ellen's genuine intention to protect young students, or should I say, I painfully understand that? Many of us have parents and teachers with such good intention and we have to put our dream on hold until much later. To be honest is extremely praiseworthy; to help students set the kind of mindset that they will be more creative, flexible and resilient, you are doing them a much greater service, IMHO. By that I mean, for instance, realizing that life is not a script that will turn out as what we planed, we will reach a conclusion that (as I finally did) the goals (within a system) we set for ourselves are not the ends but the means to an end: to achieve a meaningful and happy life, no matter what we are ended up doing for a living.

February 7, 2017 at 09:58 PM · **sigh** I agree with much of your last paragraph but I don't think you understand where I'm coming from at all, if you are implying that I am acting with good intentions in a way that harms the student.

I am speaking from decades of experience encountering dozens of young violinists with unrealistic professional aspirations, some my students, some not, and hearing dozens of professional orchestra auditions with the knowledge that many candidates just spent hundreds of dollars and weeks of their life in pursuit of a goal that will never be theirs.

It's not my intention to cause anyone to put a dream on hold. Freeing young people from a dream that will never come to fruition so that they can invest time and energy in another dream that very well may take their lives in a wonderful direction is in the end a kindness even if it hurts someone's feelings in the moment. I think you said this too, and that's the part I agree with, but what I want people to understand is that YES it is possible to state with certainty that some young musicians should plan to keep music as their avocation while pursuing a different professional path.

I'm not killing anyone's realistic dreams. And every professional reading this knows that.

February 7, 2017 at 10:51 PM · Agreed Mary Ellen, but I'm nervous about the part where you said you kept improving... "and then I had kids." Now that we've just had three of them, I'm going to try to schedule some more etude time! :)

February 7, 2017 at 10:57 PM · Oh sorry, Mary Ellen, I didn't mean you did any harm to your students. Sorry, if that's what it came out to be, please accept my apology.

I'm a blunt person and what I do for living, I have to give people bad news all the time, as professionally required. I'd be the last person criticizing anyone for being honest. What I have in mind was something else -- that those who (myself included to some degree, I was a nurse in China in my early 20s and I hated every moment of it and didn't know how to cope) went on to "practical" professions based on our parents and teacher advice, only to find out where our true passion and what makes us happy later in life. I wouldn't say we were ill-advised though, only that we were unhappy due to the different kind of false hopes about success in life led us this far. In hindsight, I believe there are better ways, beyond goal-oriented framework, to prepare ourselves (at any age) for challenges and setbacks and be happier. In fact I think music training is one of the best kind applicable to many other disciplines. Anyway, it's a subtle difference between the two approaches we have. I'm not sure I can make it any clearer.

Edit: Sorry, we digressed.

February 7, 2017 at 11:08 PM · "Agreed Mary Ellen, but I'm nervous about the part where you said you kept improving... "and then I had kids." Now that we've just had three of them, I'm going to try to schedule some more etude time! :) "

Unless you are the one nursing the babies, I think you probably still have more time than I did. :-)

February 7, 2017 at 11:17 PM · Keep working-it will pay off, regardless age. I am betting Mr. Hsu has not really reached his technical peak, though of course I may be wrong. Being 56 *by itself* is no obstacle to continuous improvement and playing refinement, be it thirds, or anything, really.

Violin playing shouldn't be seen as a "high paying career or bust" proposition, and many freelancers and teachers actually enjoy their non-big orchestra, non-soloist role. Whether you make big bucks or not, be happy with your choice, if indeed it was yours.

Now IF you want to be wealthy/well-off and are not comfortable with the very possible prospects of "not making it" (competition is high, even if you are a highly proficient player), then study whatever else makes you happy or feel "safer" economically.

As for the thread's subject, humans are generally highly adaptable. Though certainly not all will be able to play the whole repertoire fluently, I don't doubt many can "overachieve" quite more than what they think-believing in "ceilings" is therefore counterproductive, as it provides us with a "escape" of sorts ("I am not improving because my muscles are now too stiff", etc., whereas one is better served thinking "how can I overcome my current limitations?")

Of course, there is a lot of innocent or not so innocent delusions in students and parents about people's possible careers. The arrogance of some border on the absurd, though sometimes it's mere ignorance of the facts. But I feel that is another discussion-"you will never be a soloist/concertmaster/big orchestra member" is a different issue than whether our lack of progress is dictated by individual "peaks" that we cannot hope to surpass.

February 7, 2017 at 11:26 PM · Yixi, thanks for the clarification, that actually helps a lot. I think the jump you were making that I was certainly not intending to imply was that shooting down one unrealistic dream went along with imposing some "practical" dream instead.

I don't go there. Actually I have a son about to graduate with a degree in philosophy and I have two degrees in music performance; I hardly have the moral high ground when it comes to "practical" degrees and careers. I don't tell anyone what I think they should do, including my own kids. I just tell them what I think they should *not* attempt if it's in my field of expertise, based on as accurate an assessment of their abilities as I can provide.

February 8, 2017 at 01:56 AM · Waxman at age 12? Where do you even go from there? Just mind boggling.

February 8, 2017 at 02:03 AM · Wonderful! This is just as amazing, if not more:

Here is my blog about it with the story behind the couple:

Where is our limit? I'm going start a discussion on this. Hopefully we'll continue our chat there.

February 8, 2017 at 03:33 AM · "I've said similar things to adult students on rare occasions myself. It is always in the context of "you have the raw material" which is a compliment to the student, not a shot at a teacher who is likely long since retired if not actually playing in some sort of celestial orchestra. I would never make such a remark to a student fresh from the previous teacher."

Why not? Honest appraisals of inferior teaching may be no less beneficial than appraisals of lack of playing potential, and, notwithstanding that teaching involves the successful engagement of the learner as well, surely there are often good grounds to evaluate some teaching negatively, and teachers students would be better off avoiding.

February 8, 2017 at 06:23 AM · I don't badmouth my students' recent or current (orchestra) teachers, ever. It's unprofessional and confusing to a student for whom the previous teacher may still be a figure of respect. That doesn't mean I don't voice disagreement when necessary but I do so using respectful language: ("I have a different opinion," or "That isn't how I teach it.")

February 8, 2017 at 06:43 AM · I stand corrected Smiley. I must've been channelling Scott or something, when he wrote about knowing when to quit. But in a way I suppose I was also thinking of a mental quitting, which is kind of what Yixi and I have been talking about.


"I am talking about the waste of expending energy towards an impossible goal."

I wouldn't want to live in a world where no one attempted the impossible. Just because by all objective, measurable, professional, external accounts, someone has failed at something, it doesn't mean we can say whether the attempt was a waste; only the risk taker alone can judge that, and his assessment will probably be an outcome of his mindset. That's all I'm saying. And I applaud you for being an ethical teacher by discouraging what you deem to be too great a risk for a student to take. Still, no one can predict the outcome of such a risk, and the impact it will have, whether a failure or success or something else altogether, on the risk taker. (In my own then fixed-mindset way, I walked away from teaching for similar, though perhaps misguided, reasons. I've taught a few students who everyone told to quit; I told them to quit; threatened that I would quit on them; some of them quit; one wouldn't quit, and went on to finish masters in performance and is now working. Others I've quit on went to other teachers and entered performance programs, though I've lost touch since then. Too stressful for me. I didn't welcome stress back then.)

But no one was talking about this stuff until Heifetz and cellists banging their heads and windmills and the ethics of telling kids, "all you have to do is work hard." Nobody said that.

But Carol Dweck does say what you say to kids (and by extension what you tell yourself,) affects how they respond to challenge and failure. If you believe that ability, intelligence, talent, etc. are fixed, innate, immutable, that successful people are the way they are because they just have it, and you are praised for being smart, intelligent, talented, you will be motivated by such praise, and the appearance of 'having it', and will do everything to maintain such appearances, including lying, cheating, and quitting to avoid failure. If you are convinced of the plasticity of the brain, that through incremental learning and hard work you can increase ability, intelligence, talent, that people succeed through hard work, learning from failure and trying harder, then you will be motivated to learn, to welcome challenge, to overcome adversity, to succeed. Dweck says that doesn't mean that all are created equal or that anyone can achieve anything if only they put their mind to it, but that, in her research, groups of kids who are taught a growth mindset (whether from a high or low achieving school) make vast improvements in academic achievement, whereas those who are, even briefly, induced into a fixed mindset perform worse on standardized tests, display fixed-mindset behaviours, and go so far as to lie about their results to maintain appearances, or say they would cheat to do better next time.

But there's more...

Other mindset psychologists at Stanford and UC Davis are discovering how mindset can even affect physiological responses in the body, and other things:

Kelly McGonigal (14:25m):

Alia Crum (18:20m):

Alison Ledgerwood (10m):

Michelle Charfen (19:20m):

So, could mindset have an effect on how we practice and progress in the short and long term? I think the last video, a talk about parenting, might be the most relevant for our mindset during practice.

-say what we want, not what we don't want

-listen not just to the sounds we make, but also to your self-talk; be aware; self-empathize

-be calm and centred

-use non-violent communication; have unconditional positive regard;

-keep working on a growth mindset; cultivate basic abilities; be willing to make mistakes

-withhold judgment; simply observe; reframe judgment into description

-practice a radical self-acceptance

-our self thoughts are not truths; we can choose different ones

-be at peace

Yes, external reality affects us all. But you can't do anything about external factors. All performance psychologists suggest focusing on things outside your control leads to a whole slew of self-defeating thought and behaviour. And that's the beauty of working with systems. You set up a regimen of things to do, things you can act on, things that will get you closer to where you want to be, and just chip away at it, tweak it, test it, work it.

February 8, 2017 at 01:41 PM · Thanks for your post, Jeewon. I think you're right in that in all the factors which can affect your playing, your mind has to have the greatest effect, and not only in the immediate and nonsensical sense of having or hoping to have false thoughts change your future, but in the sense of having unconscious barriers to progress.

I had a lesson last night where my teacher showed me a simple bowing sequence which I didn't get. I might conclude that I have an older brain which is degraded so missed it and will need more lessons on the subject or an older-brained teacher or something else, or try to recognize that I didn't get it because of the additional noise I had and have in my mind, the silencing of which would better allow me to absorb the utterly simple movements, and that I need to do less mentally rather than more to achieve it. Whatever.. the fact is that trying to associate the problem with physical or age limitations don't accomplish anything when it is mental.

February 8, 2017 at 03:18 PM · This discussion is running out of room. There are some really great insights. Thanks to all who posted. I'd like to end on a high note. I have concluded that at the ripe old age of 56, I still have room to improve. Yay!! Who knows, maybe I'll even tackle Tchaik one day.

I struggled for a couple of years trying to learn spiccato. I haven't worked on it for a while and this morning I picked up my violin and voila, it just came together. I'm not sure where that came from, but I will give credit to all the positive energy in this thread :-)

February 8, 2017 at 03:20 PM · Smiley, didn't you learn the Tchaikovsky last year? I recall you posted that it didn't seem too difficult -- a statement which by itself is a pretty good indicator of how much you've improved your technique over the years.

February 8, 2017 at 03:35 PM · Yes, I did spend some time learning the first movement but some parts are still out of reach. I have set it aside for now. I'm currently working on Paganini Cantabile and Bruch; I skipped over Bruch earlier in my development, so I'm filling that gap now.

BTW, Mary Ellen played the solo violin part of Bruch with our youth orchestra a few eons ago. Even though she was my stand partner, I'm just now catching up to her level back then :-). She did an amazing job on it by the way.

[edit] I watched the videos posted by Jeewon -- really excellent videos. They illustrate the concept of mind over matter. What we think, can make a big impact on our outcomes. While I tend to agree with Mary Ellen that we all have a ceiling, with the right mindset, the height of that ceiling can be raised.

February 9, 2017 at 06:18 AM · Hi J, I think 'false thoughts' is a good way to put it. I spent a lot of time with kids who wanted to become performers, but couldn't bring themselves to do what they needed to do to get there. In my experience those with such false thoughts always operated with a fixed mindset. Goals were really just wishful thinking they held up to maintain the appearance of talent they were told they had from a very early age. I wish I had had the language to understand and communicate it at the time. But as you were able to do, my strategy for them was to train them to quiet their minds, to silence the noise of negative self-talk, so they could focus on the task at hand. So a fixed mindset was the main barrier to progress for those young students also, and the solution purely mental. What I taught them was very similar to the list from that last video I posted above, along with action planning and putting a system in place (though I didn't know to call it that at the time.)

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