Kids vs adult amateur or pro playing

February 27, 2017 at 06:34 PM · One of the common threads that we see on is teenagers asking about their future in violin.

I thought it might be interesting to have a thread that compares what it's like playing the violin in childhood vs adulthood. That includes both pro-level playing (perhaps at the different levels, i.e., the public school-teaching pro vs. the teaching/freelancing pro vs. the primarily-performing pro), as well as amateur-level playing.

It might also be interesting to look at what high school violin training is like, versus what a student can expect in conservatory at the undergrad and graduate levels.

For instance, childhood violin for serious young players is often:

Whereas violin for adult amateurs is usually:

(I leave the above to other posters to expand upon, especially what it's like to play as a pro; I just wanted to give some examples of what I was thinking about.)

I reckon that this might be some interesting sharing, as well as useful to students who are trying to figure out what they want to do with their violin-playing skills in adulthood -- and whether or not the things that they love about playing the violin as a teenager translate into things that they'll encounter as an adult amateur or pro.

Replies (25)

February 27, 2017 at 08:31 PM · As an adult learner I'd agree that the focus is less so on competitiveness and pushing through conservatory exams, and more so on the enjoyment of playing and achieving individual goals. I'll disagree on the minimal practice statement as this isn't certainly what I experience, but there are physical and responsibilities of life limitations that competes with the time available that a child isn't subjected to.

February 27, 2017 at 08:41 PM · I think childhood violin education should be focussed more on enjoying playing rather than virtuosity, unless virtuosity is what the child wants.

February 28, 2017 at 12:42 AM · I'm definitely in the adult-beginner category. Personally, I would really enjoy a violin-community or some kind of curriculum for beginners my age that focused on attaining a high level of skill. My aspirations reach pretty far.

What I've found so far to kind of shoot for were the ABRSM exams, I'm not sure if these provide what I want, but it's worth a try.

February 28, 2017 at 01:45 AM · My childhood violin experience was: Teacher who said everything was fine when it wasn't; being forbidden a shoulder rest; a sense of unfounded complacency because I was able to get hired to play in pit orchestras and so on despite never really having worked very hard, which met ultimately with a realization that my fundamentals were actually very weak, which led me to quit at 17. In adulthood I practice because I want to, including studies (I love studies!). Genuine enjoyment doesn't necessarily translate to more practice time, but I still accomplish more. And I seek out opportunities for external evaluation -- even if I have to pay for them.

For Javi, check out the Doflein Method.

February 28, 2017 at 02:45 AM · As a teen, I took only piano and my goal was making it through each recital alive. Now, sixty years later, taking violin as a superannuated teen-ager, my interest/enjoyment is in playing with others for fun; I play in a community orchestra and have friends over for duets, trios and quartets... Wish I had been a string groupie earlier; it's great!

February 28, 2017 at 02:50 AM · I wish I had thought of beginning violin earlier on, although I know it would not have happened, for technical and financial reasons.

As an adult beginner, I definitely play out of enjoyment (that is why I began in the first place) and for the musical challenge it brings. I'd say yes to "Explicitly non-competitive, Rarely if ever externally evaluated, Focused on enjoyment". But I do feel I am missing the group aspect of playing, which almost always comes with a child's learning experience.

It seems like adults tend to progress more rapidly, since they can fully understand what/how/why they are doing x, y, or z. I honestly can't imagine being motivated enough to learn as a child, without understanding all the technicality that playing the violin includes.

February 28, 2017 at 07:33 AM · Back in the 70s in China, not long after Nixon’s visit, I started learning violin as a young teenager and I was quite serious, practiced 6 hr/day. Within one year I worked through Kayser and half Mazas book 1, performing solo in high school and local district. Then something happened to my teacher so I had no teacher for the next 6-7 years. Then life took place and I stopped playing for 20 years before I picked up again in my 40s.

As a kid, I practiced and played a lot more and I was competitive. Those days in Shanghai, you could hear the sound of violin practice came out nearly everyone building where I lived. It was easy for me to compare even though I didn’t think I had chance to be professional given that you’d have to start much younger than I did and to be brought up from a musician family to have a decent chance getting into a conservatory.

I’ve been back to violin since 2007, have a wonderful teacher, on and off due to injury and other distractions. I would say my playing is improved a great deal even when lot of time I only had average practice of 1 hour/week. The main reason is that I have a wonderful teacher. I have lot less bad habits. I practice better. I understand music better now. I am still competitive, but I’m competing against myself rather than other players.

Starting this year, I took an early retirement so that I can free myself up to do more music related things. I’ve currently enrolled in a local conservatory and am playing with advanced kids in a string orchestra. Some of them are pro-oriented and very serious. They all remind me of my childhood in several ways. Most of all, they love to play. They play all the time whether before, after or during the rehearsal break. Never seem to be tired, or concerned if they sound perfect or if anyone is listening.

Mindset is everything. I hope one day I’ll stop my inner chatting and play like these pro-oriented kids.

February 28, 2017 at 08:17 AM · Returning to the instrument as an adult, I am now driven by an inner longing to get better on the instrument so I can play more solo Bach and play them better.

I am in a line of work where there is, let's say, a healthy emphasis on work-life balance. So I get to practice more--three hours a day; more on weekends.

I am interested in neither orchestra playing nor chamber music. I just want to be alone, meditating with the violin.

I am perfectly aware of my place within the pecking order of things. I am not competitive at all. Why should I be?

February 28, 2017 at 01:10 PM · When we play alone, the Music is inside us; when we play with friends we all contribute and share it; when we play to an audience we have to "project" it and adopt a responsible, "professional" attitude, whatever our skills.

February 28, 2017 at 03:32 PM · Yixi you are the only person I've ever heard of being inspired to play the violin by Richard Nixon. :)

February 28, 2017 at 06:05 PM · Haha, Paul! Not a fan of Nixon but it's no joke what changes that visit brought to China. For one thing, we heard Beethoven symphony no 5 was played on the public radio, again and again. Then Seiji Ozawa came with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms... The Chinese door was quickly opened to the world since then.

BTW, thanks for correcting my spelling of Nixon's name.

February 28, 2017 at 09:07 PM · As a kid, I had no trouble finding solid teachers who would accept me in their studios. My job was to be a student and learn, so taking lessons and practicing was a normative expectation. And progress was clearly a goal, even though I wasn't ever a conservatory-caliber student.

Participating in summer music camps, chamber groups, and youth orchestras was a huge part of my adolescence. Classical music wasn't as common a hobby for kids in my hometown in the 1980s as it is in places I've lived since, so it was great to have a space in which I found people who loved what I loved and did what I did. I do remember feeling competitive with other students about learning repertoire (especially wanting to "catch up" since I started lessons in 5th grade, which is pretty late), but I wasn't really on the competition circuit and just did the local music teachers' association contests and our youth orchestra concerto competition. I established tight bonds with my three main teachers and have kept in reasonably close touch with them as an adult. I consider them to have been formative influences on my life.

As I've said elsewhere, going to college in the Northeast and realizing how GOOD all these kids from Philly, Boston, and New York were was a real eye-opener. But Princeton wasn't a big performance school and our orchestra comprised mostly non-majors, so I got to continue to play. That orchestra was perfect for me: it pushed me to grow in new dimensions, with a conductor who considered himself first and foremost a teacher. We played masterworks of symphonic literature and sounded pretty good, especially considering how little most of us practiced. I've rarely since played in such a consistently strong ensemble.

As an adult, it's been a bit harder to find my footing. My parents aren't paying for violin lessons anymore and I'm not a full-time student. As a parent/non-music professional, taking time to practice, taking lessons, and participating regularly in ensembles feels weirdly self-indulgent. I keep thinking that I'm stealing time and resources from my son's education. Shouldn't I be working harder to ensure that he has a solid musical education? Can I justify the $100+/hour that good teaching costs in the Bay Area? Can I justify a more expensive instrument? What about camp? etc.

My husband is also a musician and we've struggled to find time to play together. I feel guilty when I get more opportunities than he does (partly because I seek them out and partly because section violinists are in shorter supply around here than solid cellists).

The hardest part recently has been the lessons thing. I really really miss having a teacher guiding my practice and progress. It's HARD to teach yourself, even with the excellent Simon Fisher books (which are honestly overwhelming). So I've dabbled in lessons. My most recent experience was hugely disappointing. It was, as I mentioned before, expensive. When you're paying for stuff, it feels important to optimize. I felt that this teacher's standards for me were lower than they were for her serious high school students. We probably weren't on the same page as far as goals were concerned. She was, however, very serious and formal in her relationship with me. It felt very business-like–-a far cry from the more expansive, nurturing relationships that I'd had with teachers as an adolescent and college student. I couldn't help but project on to her my own ambivalence about being an adult student. I wasn't preparing anything to play in her studio recital, nor was this ever mentioned as a goal. My lessons were squeezed into available spaces in her calendar, usually midday or early afternoon, which was tricky to manage even considering my flexible work schedule. Sometimes we started late because a high school-aged student would have a lesson that bled into my time--but we usually ended on time. After the summer hiatus, we mutually decided not to continue.

I mention this not to blame this teacher but to shed some light on the weirdness (for me) of being an adult amateur who aspires to make progress, as ill-defined as that is.

But also! last week I managed to play my violin for 20+ hours. I read chamber music with both amateurs and professionals, performed bluegrass and symphonic literature, and then came home and noodled around with my husband and brother-in-law. I learned some new things about left-hand position but I didn't look at a single etude. This week I'll probably touch my violin once, if that. That's the privilege/joy of having violin be an option but not an obligation.

March 1, 2017 at 12:07 AM · That's really terrible about your recently-former teacher, Katie.

When I first started studying with my current teacher, he asked what my goals were, and we continue to discuss them as they evolve. He also knows that goals sometimes go by the wayside as life intervenes, and that sometimes I will come unprepared to lessons because, well, I'm an adult with a life. But I also expect that a teacher with an entirely serious competitive studio wouldn't be similarly tolerant. So the match really has to be right.

I think it's only realistic to have the same expectations of an adult student as a serious high schooler if the adult is committed to the same kind of practice schedule that earnest young squirts on a pre-conservatory track commit to. On the flip side, as an adult, you want your money to be spent optimally, which can lead to you desiring a better teacher than you can get accepted by. The right answer to this might be to take regular lessons with a teacher who meshes better with your day to day goals and commitments, but to occasionally get an extra lesson from a master teacher who can accelerate your learning in some way.

The number of teachers who can teach at the Bruch/Mendelssohn/Lalo/etc. level is significantly larger than the number who can teach at the Brahms/Beethoven/Paganini/etc. level.

March 4, 2017 at 12:16 PM · I played a wind instrument in high school, and started piano at the same time as my son so that I could help him. A year later, I started violin at the same time as my son.

On these boards, we hear a lot about adults learning a lot slower than kids, but in my own experience, it didn't apply -- at least for a couple of years. I not only was ahead of my son, but spent time helping him and improving him, often at the expense of my own practice time.

My son is not less capable than me -- to the contrary, and with me in addition to his teachers, he also has a musically richer environment that I did when learning. I would also say that he appears to have innate musical gifts which are greater than mine, but "innate" only goes so far.

He has since exceeded me, but I don't know where he's going to be in 30 years -- yet another adult restarter looking back to the glory days and wondering about the lost time and trying to get the time to practice and progress?

March 4, 2017 at 12:48 PM · Learning as a child I played in grades 4 and 5. I was never pushed and didn't practice. I had an overbearing teacher that didn't understand kids and caused me to quit.

Learning as an adult leaves me wondering where these competitive communities I hear about kids being involved in are. I never saw them as a kid and no such thing exists as an adult. Community orchestras, chamber music groups, pit orchestras all are things adults do for the love of making music with others. We do it because occasionally when your skill lines up enough with others and you all are in sync making music and being within and part of that group is an amazing thing.

In fact I find that I have to be careful because there seem to be so many opportunities for a violinist especially that you can spread yourself too thin and then you stop improving because you simply do not have time to work on your technical improvement.

I am involved at the moment in two orchestras about 40 miles apart and a chamber music group through a community college that is another 30 miles from the southern most one. I have had to turn down people begging me to be involved in pit orchestras and wedding gigs and other things. Currently I have a Saint saens, a Dvorak, Mozart, Bach, schubert, pieces to learn on second violin, all of which I can DO, but let's be honest my technical proficiency is such that I probably shouldn't be doing them yet. And so, my community and chambers music does not get as much attention as it should because I have to improve technical aspects.

I said all that to say that I am amazed how much there is to do for an adult violinist should they wish in the community, and I am amazed at how little there is in the way of competitive resources , camps and the like that I hear kids have available. If an adult wants to improve it is (in my experience) entirely internally motivated. Kids mostly are externally motivated and thus the need for camps, and competition etc.


March 4, 2017 at 11:25 PM · This is really interesting and inspiring for me to read, great idea for a thread!

Yixi, I'm also intrigued by your post, especially as we are playing John Adams' Nixon in China this week at the LA Phil! What an amazing piece, and one of the few times I'm on stage for more than 3 hours...

One thing I'll throw out there is the fact that at conservatory, it's not a given that your technical training will continue or evolve. It depends on your teacher, of course, but I certainly expected when I entered Curtis that I would continue to be grilled on scales, etudes, etc. I thought that my physical setup would be tinkered with, or thrown out entirely. But it was the opposite! My teachers basically left my playing alone and wanted me to figure things out on my own.

I wasn't always happy about this! I hadn't realized at age 18 that my technical knowledge was basically going to stay where it was until and unless I asked a lot of specific questions. I was either too "busy" or embarrassed to do that most of the time. So I had to wait until my 20s, when I was already working, to figure a lot of things out.

March 6, 2017 at 05:42 AM · Nathan, I saw that opera a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I actually don't have a lot to say about Nixon's actual visit. It's like when you are in a middle of a huge earthquake, you don't know what really happened but only the effect of it. I can't imagine my life would have turned out had that visit not taken place.

If you can get into Curtis, you don't need to be taught:) I heard they are all big fish so no one will say "I'm a soloist", but no one surprises if any one of them wins a big competition or a big job. Was that true when you were there? Our local conservatory is for mortals. Teachers are one thing, the environment is another. I've got private teacher but go to the local conservatory to play with the young musicians and to learn the kind of musicianship I couldn't get from our adult community orchestras.

March 6, 2017 at 02:15 PM · Auer's book mentions that Joachim would give his students very little technical direction -- instead the virtuoso would demonstrate, and then declare "That is how you must play it!" I'd suggest that kids, being more open to mimicry, might gain from this method easier than adults, but Auer makes the point that those who understood rather than simply focused on one or another externally visible aspect gained the most from such lessons.

March 6, 2017 at 10:06 PM · Such an interesting thread.

As an adult, I long for more technical and theoretical instruction. I see where there are a lot of holes in my playing, and I'm frustrated that I cannot fix them quickly. As a kid, I couldn't care less (about technique or theory) so long as I could figure it out, and once I did it seemed to stick much easier and faster than before.

Playing music is the only thing that I do that's purely for my enjoyment, so to be frustrated because I cannot play the music that I want to (and fear that I will not develop the proficiency to do so) is hard. I hate hearing my teacher say, "mmmm, maybe in two years you'll be able to play this." As a kid, that fear was never an issue: if I practiced hard enough, long enough, and wanted it enough I could eventually get to play what I wanted to play. (While I know this is true now: practice practice practice, I am not under any delusions that this will be "easy" or otherwise "doable" the way it was when I was a kid.)

As a kid rhythm was never an issue, it was instinctive and natural. As an adult, I seem to have lost some of that, and it's taking time to reconnect those wires. As such, whenever I pick up my violin I feel like I am a fraud compared to what I was "before" - so so so much has been lost over the years, it's heartbreaking. Still, I love playing and I'm doing what I can to regain as much lost ground as possible.

March 6, 2017 at 11:17 PM · After a 5-hour practice session over the weekend, My wife said she has got my "habit" figured out: my violin playing is my way of dealing with my midlife crisis. I need to think about this one, but it is not entirely without merit.

March 7, 2017 at 01:51 AM · A crisis with a silver lining!

March 7, 2017 at 03:20 AM · Yixi I too was captivated by what you wrote about Nixon's visit to China. As you surely know his reputation as a politician is very poor in the US, and yet even someone like that will sometimes have had some great achievements of lasting value.

I noted Katie's issue with scheduling her lessons. I also struggle to schedule mine, but until I'm ready to commit to a weekly lesson, I can hardly expect my teacher to give me a prime slot in the middle of his schedule. It has to be at the beginning or the end.

March 7, 2017 at 03:29 AM · David, the great thing about a nice long practice sessions like that is when you pick up the violin the next day, you can't but notice that you're better than you were two days before.

March 7, 2017 at 05:42 AM · Even at a place like Curtis, when you hear people doing things that you can't at your current level, you wonder why. Either it's because you don't know how, you aren't working hard enough, or you just don't have "it"... whatever it is that allows "those people" to do amazing things. None of those alternatives is very appealing.

I wasn't ever willing to admit that I didn't have "it"! So it had to be that there were things I was missing, or that I wasn't working hard enough. It was both, of course. I had never developed 4 or 5-hour practice habits as a teenager, so it was no surprise that I found it difficult to do at conservatory. But I expected that someone (a teacher) would tell me what exactly it was that I was missing, and what I needed to put in all those hours for! Instead I had to find out for myself.

March 7, 2017 at 07:16 AM · Nathan, indeed you've found out and we are all benefiting from your teaching. I'm sure in the end you've got a lot more than those who have been spoon-fed. In non-music world, such as law and medicine, we also have learning environment that is very much swim or sink. Law schools often don't teach you how to practice law so after graduation and started my articling, from day one, the law firm just gave me a bunch of files to work on, or rather to make a fool of myself in front of judges, clients and my colleagues. My (American) physician husband described to me the similar situations where medical students being asked to take cases to run without any direction. It's a pretty costly learning experience, I'd say.

Paul, don't tell me you don't miss Nixon a little... these days ;)

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