Lopsided technical abilities

April 14, 2017 at 12:22 AM · I'm a Junior in high school, and I've been playing for a little over two years. I'm currently 3rd chair in my school's large string orchestra and a violinist in an intermediate/advanced quartet with NCCMI. I learn fairly quickly, so I've been able to play in those groups without many issues, but I feel like my technique is rather lopsided as a result of having skipped over so much repertoire. For example, I can comfortably play up to 9th position and I'm comfortable with ricochet bowing, but my colle sounds terrible and I still frequently hit the wrong strings in fast passages.

Right now I'm working on the Rieding Am and Gluck Melodie, and I finished the Bach Am and Bach Double before them. The Gluck feels significantly easier to me than any of those pieces, and I know that's not the norm. Most of the time in my private lesson is spent on repertoire right now since my migraines have reduced my available practice time quite a bit. I'd like to double major in computer science and music in college, but I'm not sure what the acceptable playing level for that is at the schools I might go to (MIT, CMU, Georgia Tech/NCSU as fallbacks), and I'm worried I might not be able to both play the repertoire required well and fill in all the technical gaps I have to avoid wasting time in lessons later on (I don't know what most of them are, to be honest). Does anyone know what that level would be, or how I could quickly identify and fix my problems? Thanks

Replies (37)

April 14, 2017 at 01:07 AM · I also have (VERY) lopsided technique, as a consequence of lots of talent combined with a few more basic issues that my former teachers could not really address.

My strategy: Work consistently through 3-4 etudes every practice day, aiming to finish them to 90ish% polish in 7-10 days.

Supplement this with a few shorter works (musically rich and can be learned in a week, make them progressively harder as you go through them) and one major one (that preferably spans the difficulty gap you are trying to achieve partway) to integrate the techniques into musical experience and repertoire practice.

Odds are, the steady doet of etudes will make the pieces move along much more easily, mostly because the brain is always in critical mode, so it is much easier to quickly spot and efficiently correct mistakes (similar to how even playing a bit of Paganini for fun "magically" reduces technical difficulty for the practice afterwards). :D

Ex: If I had even technique, I could play the Beethoven Concerto. Because I don't, and have not really played anything yet (save Vivaldi A minor and learning repertoire), I currently have Viotti 23 assigned as my main technique polisher, with smaller works such as salut d'amour, Bach A minor and melodie by gluck to finally start repertoire, and in doing so further polish any issues in-music issues not related to etudes.

Hope this helped.

April 14, 2017 at 01:22 AM · Not really sure what's up with AO up there, but I guess etudes can't harm you at all. You need to talk to your teacher about it. Ask what technical set-backs you have, and can we get started fixing them please, and so on.

April 14, 2017 at 02:06 AM · I think I'm just going to roll my eyes at A.O.'s proclamations of genius and ignore his post.

Evan, if you want to maximize your progress, you should ignore repertoire except to the extent that the repertoire is actually teaching skills. Have your teacher focus on helping you with the basic technical building-blocks in a methodical fashion. Your exercises, etudes, and repertoire should all be methodically chosen to build specific skills. Is your teacher aware of your desire to double-major? If you're a junior now, your pre-screening videos will be due by the end of the year. That means that you should probably be working on your audition repertoire right now, and your teacher should have a clear plan for what to do between now and live auditions.

On the subject of specific schools:

MIT does not have a conservatory. Instead, you can audition to take private lessons and have some or all of the cost absorbed by MIT. (When my sister attended, there was a joint program for lessons and classes at NEC, but that doesn't appear to exist any longer.) There is a general music major, but it's a BA and not a BM, and frankly, if you go to MIT in CS (Course 6), it won't leave you much time to do anything else. I suspect that your playing level will be below the expected level for the private-lessons scholarship, which means that you would have to pay for those lessons yourself.

CMU does have a decent conservatory. I have friends who got double degrees in CS and violin performance. Audition requirements are at a competitive level, and given your playing level now, I think you wouldn't be able to meet the repertoire requirements.

NCSU doesn't even have a music major. Neither does Georgia Tech.

I hope you're a truly outstanding student. MIT is incredibly hard to get into, and for CS, CMU is scarcely any less competitive. Other schools that are excellent for both engineering and music are Rice/Shepherd and Johns Hopkins/Peabody, but your playing level would be unacceptable for those conservatories, and academically they have exceptionally competitive admissions.

I also have to ask... Why the double-major? It's a lot of work, since engineering is usually a crushingly burdensome difficult courseload, and music (presumably violin performance, and not a general music-as-a-liberal-art) is incredibly demanding and time-consuming between ensembles and individual practice.

April 14, 2017 at 02:37 AM · Lydia already said everything I was going to, so I'll just add that Georgia Tech would not be my idea of a fall-back school. It is also very competitive.

April 14, 2017 at 04:15 AM · Thanks for the responses! I will definitely ask my teacher if I could orient the lessons toward technique-building and etudes.

Sorry, I was rushed for time when I wrote and didn't think about my using the term double-major. I'm planning on starting out majoring in comp sci and minoring in music, and potentially continuing to get a master's in computer science and finish a bachelor's in music, if I got into MIT or CMU (at NCSU or Georgia Tech I think I'd stick with 4 years of undergrad w/ a minor in music performance). I'm just worried about the performance requirements since I know I won't have money for good private lessons.

I don't expect to get into CMU or MIT, but my academics are in the upper-middle bracket for accepted students, so I'm hoping for a chance at them. I think I'm going to get into GT based on academics and talking with the head of my game development team who's a Jr there and knows a lot of admissions officers, fallback probably wasn't the right word for GT out of state though. My thoughts right now on after college are to become a software developer and play in amateur ensembles/give free private lessons, I definitely don't expect to make a living on music given how late I started.

Thanks for all the advice

April 14, 2017 at 04:39 AM · I don't know that there would be a point to finishing a BA in music at MIT. It'd all be general music courses, which might be interesting but given the cost of tuition at MIT, an awfully expensive way to learn music history and theory.

At CMU (and most other schools), I think doing a master's in one subject while finishing a bachelor's in another is a tricky thing and requires careful discussion with the admissions office. That might be sensible with submatriculation programs in which you are accepted into a master's (often a 5-year program) and then end up extending that out in order to finish out a double major. But I don't think you'd qualify for entrance into a performance major at CMU, period. (And CMU does not offer a performance minor to non-music-majors.) But CMU -- and many other schools -- do allow non-majors/minors to take private lessons with instructors at the school.

Note that Georgia Tech doesn't offer a music performance minor.

I'm going to repeat my usual advice here: Not doing a formal music major, and possibly not doing a formal minor, frees you to place your musical training emphasis where you must want it, which will probably be private lessons, personal practice, and then whatever you want to do for other fun (chamber music, orchestra, etc.). You can take the music classes that interest you without having to worry about the ones that get you the major/minor, so if you want that musical diet to be imbalanced, it's up to you. You also don't want to be faced with ugly decisions between studying for an exam and practicing for a jury, knowing that either decision will hurt your GPA.

Find a school which will be great for your CS major, make sure that there's access to take private lessons for free, and move on from there. (MIT and CMU both look at much more than the academics for admission, by the way. You'll want to have impressive extracurriculars as well, preferably unrelated to anything you do with STEM.)

Good luck with the schools, too, if money is a constraint. MIT and CMU are both staggeringly expensive, and Georgia Tech isn't cheap either for out-of-state students.

April 14, 2017 at 07:02 AM · I fully agree with Lydia. Why don't you focus on CS as a career and make violin playing your big creative stressfree outlet, taking lessons and playing in an amateur orchestra. This is really a very pleasant way to live your life.

April 14, 2017 at 07:02 AM ·

April 14, 2017 at 07:02 AM ·

April 14, 2017 at 01:50 PM · Fundamentally, you need to make a career decision and then go all-in preparing yourself for that career.

Technical careers, like IT or Engineering, give you a little breathing room because they all share many of the same preparatory courses the first year in college (and even partially into the second year). You can change majors during this time with little impact.

A professional music career, especially with a challenging instrument like the violin, requires a career commitment at a younger age for most people.

More years ago than I care to remember, I got my degrees in Applied Physics, but took all the music courses the university offered. Physics was may career, and music an avocation. Career always came first, but there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy learning and playing music.

All of this can be challenging, confusing and rather scary at your age. Thinking clearly and logically about what makes one happy is an acquired skill that takes a lot of introspection AND discussion with people whose opinion you trust.

There are excellent online resources available to help one get their thoughts organized. One pay-service that I suggest you explore (the cost is very modest) is selfauthoring.com. You can also find lots of free videos on selfauthoring to see if it is something you would like to engage in.

On technique, as an amateur player I first find a performance piece I am interested in learning, figure out what techniques need work to perform it, then gather etudes to develop the technique. This makes an efficient use of my practice and play time.

April 14, 2017 at 06:21 PM · @Lydia: I specifically stated to use smaller works that also tackled the technical issues in a musical context, as well as a larger work to promote repertoire progress, since

a) playing just exercises turns you mechanical after a while

b) it gets extremely boring and drains your will to live. :D

I read the entirety of your posts before responding, so please do the same for me.

If you cannot believe me when I tell the truth, that's fine, but you don't have to state it repeatedly.

I get it, you don't see it as possible that anyone can learn very quickly, short of a few thousand magic people who become soloists who learn the Bruch in a year, and get to Beethoven in a few more (as children).

So, it is impossible that such a player, starting at a late age but with talent and a very good teacher, could not make similar progress in a somewhat longer amount of time, right?

That would be insane, right? :D

Everyone knows you have to be a hotshot who trained with some big name teacher, or you can never get results like or similar to that (because talent is apparently concentrated into a few people, who stole it from everyone else).


:D :D :D

April 14, 2017 at 07:24 PM · I am continuing to read the entirety of your posts out of morbid fascination, A.O., but I don't really have the patience to continuously correct things, so I'm contenting myself by simply noting that you're wrong without enumerating everything.

In terms of your actual playing ability, I certainly believe your more recent post where you said your most recent completed repertoire is the Vivaldi A minor and you're working on some intermediate-level stuff, and you have some specific technical skills that aren't typical of beginners. I've put together a picture in my head of how you probably play, and I'm looking forward to seeing the video in the future to see whether or not I'm right. ;-)

On a more general level, the best teachers for beginning and intermediate students generally are not big-name teachers (master artist-teachers, so to speak). There are legions of bad teachers out there, but there are also a considerable number of teachers who are great at diligently building technical foundations at the beginning and/or intermediate levels. Their praises aren't often sung, except occasionally by soloists thanking their childhood teachers, but they do thankless, vital work before a student goes on to a teacher of advanced players, and perhaps eventually a master pedagogue, who will probably get all the credit and glory for their success -- those are the teachers that get listed on people's biographies.

No one is expecting an adult beginner to study with a master pedagogue. A competent teacher of beginning and intermediate-level students is expected and is the right choice.

I can only think of one prodigy who went from starting to Bruch in under three years, and that was Sarah Chang, starting on her 4th birthday, and doing Bruch at 6 years old, with a professional violinist mother. She made her debut at the age of 8 (she'd been studying with Dorothy DeLay since age 6).

But if you look at a timeline of Menuhin, for instance, he starts violin lessons at the age of 4. At the age of 7, he plays a concert in public for the first time -- deBeriot's Scene de Ballet with his teacher (the famous Louis Persinger) at the piano. This is a solidly intermediate-level work. He makes his makes his concerto debut at the age of 10 with Lalo's Symphonie Espagnol (slightly more difficult than Bruch). The next year, he begins playing other concertos, notably Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. That's a more typical prodigy trajectory.

April 14, 2017 at 07:25 PM · Evan, this discussion reminds me of something: When you choose a school that doesn't have much in the way of applied violin faculty, make sure you take a trial lesson from one or more of the faculty members in advance. You might discover that you don't like the potential teachers available to you, and if that's really important, that might be enough to cause you to choose another university.

April 14, 2017 at 07:55 PM · I would like to point out that my teacher is not a famous pedagigue, I was simply making an exaggerated point.

He is just very, VERY good at teaching. :)

April 14, 2017 at 08:02 PM · Everyone's progress is different, and everyone has different abilities. A. O. is probably coming from a personal point of view and putting him/herself in the shoes of a learner similar to him/her.

April 14, 2017 at 08:57 PM · Actually, Sarah Chang (or so she said in an interview) got into Julliard at *5* years old with the Bruch concerto. But likewise, she is the only person I heard of so far that made that kind of progress so fast. It's just so extremely rare...

April 14, 2017 at 09:00 PM · "O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us"

Robert Burns, 1786

April 14, 2017 at 10:46 PM · Would studying some of the sonata repertoire help? Can you play a slow movement beautifully, like the slow movement of the Brahms D minor? If the music grabs you, it might help you to progress to playing it properly.

April 14, 2017 at 10:50 PM · Thanks for pointing that out Lydia, I was under the impression that I could get performance minors at CMU and Georgia Tech, but I had only talked to general admissions and the Comp Sci faculty about it at those schools so I guess they just meant general BS or BA in music. Definitely will have to rethink what to do if I went to them, at CMU I'd probably stick with a computer-science related minor in that case. I'll try to get trial lessons and check out the music departments specifically before I start applying, thanks for all the advice.

I don't think I'm exceptionally talented A.O., I think I've just been thrown to the wolves a few times and neglected large tracts of technical foundations along the way to scrape by. Even if I could pull off the Bruch Concerto somewhat convincingly after 2 years, I wouldn't be able to use that as an accurate indicator of my progress since I struggle with etudes from Wolfhart Bk. 2. It's also a far more significant feat when you're in early elementary school and haven't had years to develop verbal communication skills, I presume.

April 14, 2017 at 10:55 PM · I presume so too, but musical prodigies are usually smart for their age, including language. :)

I was not trying to assume anything, just explaining from a similar point of view.

I know, it is very frustrating when you feel ready for things much nicer-sounding than you currently play, but you don't have the fhops tonplay it how youn want (but we can fake most of it to most people, so yay?) Lol... :D

April 14, 2017 at 11:34 PM · I am not sure if you really need to have a minor or a major in music. Having gone through musical degrees myself, I would say that these days, musical degrees sound nice, but they don't get you a secure and self-sufficient job. I have friends who have PhDs in music theory from famous music schools who could only get jobs teaching at small liberal arts colleges, not even able to make ends meet. Another friend of mine who has a DMA in piano performance from Juilliard, won a major competition in Leipzig, could also only find a job at a small liberal arts college, albeit he can teach piano privately and have great income that way. So, if you are determined to go on finding a career in computer science, I would say that a major in music is an overkill with unnecessary extra coursework which you might not enjoy.

However, if music is something you would like to keep doing as a hobby for life, I would recommend just continue to take private lessons. But very importantly, (as you also mentioned that you are not exceptionally talented), I strongly recommend you taking some music courses in music theory, ear-training and sight singing. In some schools, these courses are collapsed under one umbrella called musicianship. These are skills which will help you develop musically. And if that happens to fulfill the requirements for a minor, I would say go for it. If not, it's ok. It should not become a burden or a degree which you “have” to finish.

April 15, 2017 at 06:08 PM · It amuses me to see people squabbling over whether Sarah Chang learned Bruch at 5 or 6 years old. Only violinists...

April 15, 2017 at 06:37 PM · I well exceeded the statistical averages for Georgia Tech and was not accepted. That's aside from the slew of other involvements and circumstances listed on my application, but I'm not going to go into those. Probably wouldn't consider it a fallback school if I were you regardless of your academic position (perhaps unless you actually live in the state of Georgia then your chances are much more favorable). Especially for CS of all majors. They also do not have a music performance program. They have a marching band an orchestra with musical technology classes.

A. O. you're rather irritating with your incessant, baseless claims and self proclamations of pure genius. You're likely just as terribly average as the rest of the population. "If I had even technique, I could play the Beethoven Concerto." Okay and if I had a 36 on my act I could go to Stanford. If I practiced more I would have better intonation. If I studied more I could have better grades. None of that matters because I don't. Stop trying to lead people astray with these nonsensical fantasies that you gloat of to compensate for your perceived lack of societal acceptance without them.

April 15, 2017 at 06:54 PM · As an aside... I have often been asked by prospective students about double majoring in music and I tell them that it is possible, but inevitably will take them at least 5 years to complete 2 degrees because of the great time demands of the music degree and that they will probably cheat both degrees. Another point is that most liberal arts schools have seen a big drop in music major applications, especially in the string area. This is because the likelihood of getting an orchestra or college teaching job isn't very high. (I have a student, for example who can play Bartok 2nd concerto with great expression and accuracy, but has been faced with seeing at least 100 very qualified people auditioning for a single position in second tier orchestras.)

The solution we hope to this is by our initiating this year a secondary degree in music for students wishing to enhance their music performance but also make it possible to have a primary major in, for instance, engineering.

To qualify for the music degree they must have the same playing level as someone we would accept as a performance major.The performance requirements are identical to those of a performance major (orchestra, chamber music, full recital) but require only 8 hours of theory, musicianship, and history. There was considerable interest in this degree and we had 5 people audition on violin for it this year.

We are hopeful that those who pursue this degree will make tons of money in their day job and become donors for orchestra and arts organizations.

April 15, 2017 at 07:41 PM · I had to laugh at Bruce's conclusion! That's a great idea, though.

Even, I would suggest contacting the music departments at the schools you're interested in now, and arrange to chat with the chair of strings or whoever in the violin faculty you're interested in studying with. Don't wait until the fall, because by then it will be too late to properly plan for auditions.

Have an honest conversation about your two years of experience, your currently playing level, and your goals, and see what advice they offer you.

Find out if your playing level is high enough for their orchestra. If orchestra is graded, find out what the expectations for the grade will be -- for instance, you are at a level where you are going to find most orchestra parts quite difficult, which will require a lot of practice time if you are expected to play them well, which may significantly detract from the personal practice time necessary to build a proper technical foundation.

Similarly, find out if your private lessons will be graded, and if so, if you will receive that grade from your teacher, or from a jury. Find out what the practice-hours expectations are. (An hour a day may be tough but reasonable on an engineering schedule if you are very disciplined. Two hours a day of good practice will be very tough. Four hours a day will probably be right out.) Find out what the graduation recital expectations are, if any -- one of the filters for getting into the program may be the faculty's determination of whether or not you'd be able to meet the playing standard for graduating in 4 years.

My guess, Evan, give your 2 years of playing and your teacher's eagerness to push you into the upper orchestra at your school, is that you've been given the semblance of advancement without getting a really good foundation. If you can, now is the time to go back and solidify the basics. Otherwise you're just building a wobbly house on a shaky foundation, and you'll have to go back and tear the whole thing down and start all over again with a proper foundation. This tends to be a lot more time-consuming and frustrating than doing it right in the first place.

April 15, 2017 at 08:51 PM ·

April 15, 2017 at 08:59 PM · FYI I'm closely related to someone with a 36 ACT and 1600 SATS (verbal and math) who was *waitlisted* by Stanford. Their loss.

I think Baylor's new secondary major program is a great idea, but it is certainly not for the intermediate player who may be reading here.

April 15, 2017 at 09:52 PM · So A.O., I'm going to try to make the assumption that you're insulting people because your Asperger's is causing you to fail to assess what you're writing as insulting, not because you are trying to be insulting.

First, people tend to reflexively react badly to "I'm a genius". Unless you are in the company of people who all share that self-assessment, the statement is considered self-aggrandizement and is considered to be impolite even if it's true. (I have met quite a few actual geniuses over the course of my professional career. With a couple of exceptions -- most of them high-profile and widely thought to be jerks -- they were characterized by their thoughtful humility. They didn't need to imply in any way that they were smart. It radiated quietly from them in the way that they asked really great questions and got other people to share.)

Second, and closely-related to the first, is that people almost always react badly to "X is easy" when X is not easy for them. The claim of a miracle cure for X makes everyone suspicious, as well, and suspicious people are more likely to react with hostility.

Third, people tend to reflexively react badly to being told what to do in a way that implies judgment. Advocates of "the one true way to X" tend to make everyone twitchy, especially in Internet forums -- it smacks of a religious argument and it tends to lead to offense, especially when it becomes a steady refrain across multiple topics. My general impression is that Americans are more offended by being told what to do than people in other cultures, but it might just be that Americans are louder about having taken offense. :-)

The polite way to phrase this is, "X works for me, but it might or might not work for you", without implying that the audience being addressed might be inferior to you. Or "I tried X and it made it easier for me to do Y; you might want to see if it works for you." Or for something that you haven't done personally, "I read X interesting thing in Y source." You can also potentially increase empathy and reduce the impression of braggadocio by saying, "I struggled with X when I tried Y, and then I tried Z and it helped in the following way."

April 15, 2017 at 09:53 PM · I have a friend that would be considered a "minority" student with a 35 on his act, class valedictorian, Future Business Leaders of America State Treasurer, top regional mathlete oralist, and a top regional tennis player who got rejected from U of Chicago and Northwestern. College admissions are brutal.

April 15, 2017 at 10:34 PM · If I were hiring young programmers now, I might care a lot more about their github repos than where they graduated from, though. :-)

April 15, 2017 at 10:53 PM · @Lydia: Thanks for the reply. I apologize if how I word th8ng aggravates anybody, too. :)

I think I type how I speak, which carries over badly when you cannot meet me in person and actually see me illustrating what I'm talking about (or simply see it yourself).

In the future, I will make sure I "convert" my typing to my "maybe" voice I use when thinking to myself. :D

April 15, 2017 at 10:56 PM · I wrote a few minecraft mods back in the day Lydia, when do I start? :)

April 16, 2017 at 01:20 AM · Your github repos should reflect capabilities useful to an employer. :-)

April 16, 2017 at 02:42 AM · A.O.,

I understand you, as I have read much about how neuroatypicals are different from neurotypicals in various books.

On the other hand, I also don't respect people who just "roll their eyes" over other people's comments, or simply say that other people are "wrong". These people here seem to think they know and have experienced so much more than other musicians here, and yet I also find their comments to be just as offending at times.

My best recommendation to you is to just keep your opinions quiet, as most people will find it unusual and unacceptable, whether it is because of your presentation or because they just simply find it unbelievable. Let those who want to speak their mind speak. Sometimes being normal or accepted by the world is not always the right way of living.

April 16, 2017 at 04:44 AM · You might as well just call me out by name. If I'm offending, be precise about what you're taking offense to.

Laurie's rules for the site request that readers point out if someone posts something that's wrong. Various posters are known to have particular quirks, and disagreements eventually get short-handed rather than writing out the "why you're wrong". (Topics of this sort seem to include old vs new violins, Chinese violins, shoulder-rests, Suzuki, the Old Masters vs Those Youngsters, and now, apparently, gut strings and HIP.)

April 16, 2017 at 05:31 AM · After reading all this, please humour me: I love this site. There is no quirkier place on the internet that yet makes perfect sense to me. Happy Easter everyone!

April 16, 2017 at 07:18 AM · You're a junior in high school and somewhere around the Suzuki Book 5/6 level in terms of repertoire. Unless you're willing to drop everything else, put in 4-5 hours of practice a day, and be ready to deliver a good Solo Bach movement and a major concerto, at least Bruch or Lalo, by next January (eight months?), pursuing a music major with the aim of landing a professional playing or teaching position seems unrealistic. Certainly there are outliers who can accomplish such a feat, and I've known some students who have taken a gap year or two in order to focus solely on playing in order to meet the minimum standard for their desired conservatory applications.

If you're going to major in computer science, you're not going to have much practice time your first year, as you spend 30+ hours a week in lab figuring out inheritance and polymorphism, sorting algorithms, and combinatorics. I learned that the hard way!

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