Violin-playing in real life (or “why after 50 years I still can't play the Bruch G minor”)

January 27, 2018, 2:49 AM · I recently went though a pile of my old diaries dating from the 70's and 80's – was that busybody really me? An absorbing full-time job, 2 or 3 hours a day spent commuting, two evening orchestral rehearsals each week, regular sessions with piano and string quartet, concerts almost fortnightly. All that and a social life too!

Conspicuously missing from my activities was any time spent practising the violin. Technically I'd become virtually stuck at a level not far above that when I left school. This was occasionally commented upon by string coaches, e.g. “You do realise you shift position all wrong?”; “You don't use your little finger, do you?” (this was unfair; I often use my little finger).

However, while my technique stagnated my sight-reading improved out of all recognition, I learned to play while listening to and watching everything going on around me and became deeply absorbed in the chamber music repertoire. For a while jobbing with various local orchestras and choral societies became a useful source of pocket money. I got to play in the Royal Albert Hall, St Paul's Cathedral and in both concert halls of the South Bank and finally (this is still about 1985) found a good seat in one of London's best amateur orchestras. I was 35 - you know what happens next.

My point for discussion is this, if you're a dedicated striver that's great – more power to your elbow – but there are other ways for amateur violinists to enjoy music-making than bashing through Bruch in the bedroom.

Replies (54)

Edited: January 27, 2018, 7:12 AM · I know exactly what you mean, I have been playing since I was 9 yrs old and am 59 now, I could play the Bruch easily when I was 20, but not now, too many years of getting better as an orchestral player and no time practicing. Add to this the aging process, arthritis ( well a bit anyways) and put life in the mix and you have exactly what you describe.
Edited: January 27, 2018, 3:01 PM · I know what you mean, too. I started playing when I was 6 or 7, could just manage to play the Bruch when I was 20. But by then I had decided to put my energies into studying literature. I am now 76 . . . As an amateur I played in some community orchestras, but eventually got frustrated with practicing difficult scores to be performed only two or three times. I had a busy academic career to deal with. Learning the first violin part for Borodin's Symphony #2 sticks in my mind as the point where I began to think I needed to try something different. So I went over to "traditional" music, and now I spend more time fiddling in a Cape Breton group that performs regularly in a pub. Some pieces in this repertory are as challenging as as a Bach partita, while others are quite simple, and it was a surprise to discover rather late in life that I could learn the traditional music easily by ear, and even to improvise. Not something that was encouraged for classical violinists in my generation, but it's the most musical fun I can imagine at this point in my life. The company is excellent, too, and there are no hierarchies for age or skill.
Edited: January 28, 2018, 8:33 PM · I'm not so concerned about Bruch, but I sure would like to be able to play more of the quartet literature. If pounding away at Bruch (or Kreutzer, etc.) will get me there, then I'm willing to do some of that. For a while, anyway. I've decided to coast on whatever skill I have when I hit 60. If that decision is made for me before then, well, so be it.
January 29, 2018, 9:29 AM · *sigh* You basically have described my adult music life. And yet, like Paul, I'm at the point of wishing for more. It's a tough habit to change.
Edited: January 29, 2018, 3:08 PM · I've played the Bruch several times - in the cello and violin sections of various orchestras. At my time of life, together with being a violin late starter (post retirement), that must be the best I can reasonably hope for!
Edited: January 29, 2018, 7:58 PM · An important benefit of learning the Bruch is that, when anyone asks you about your "level" on, you can say you're at the "Bruch Level." You see, the Bruch Level is marginally higher than the Mozart Level, and higher still than the Accolay Level, and much much higher than the Seitz Level or the Rieding Level.

Likewise, if you're 13 and you're at the Bruch Level, then "follow your dreams." But if you're 17 or 18 and you're at the Bruch Level, then "major in biology."

So you can plainly see that the Bruch Concerto is indeed the dividing line between the haves and have-nots of the violin kingdom.

January 29, 2018, 8:20 PM · That puts the matter in a nutshell.
January 29, 2018, 8:21 PM · Hey Paul, what pieces are similar in difficulty to Bruch?
January 29, 2018, 11:26 PM · I have always thought Bruch is just another concerto until I joined What is the big deal?
January 30, 2018, 12:56 AM · From this thread one thing led to another and I ended with this video. Totaaly related and hilarious.
Edited: January 30, 2018, 2:17 AM · Just to rewrite Paul slightly, if you're 17 or 18 and you're at the Bruch level, play quartets instead!
Edited: January 30, 2018, 9:35 AM · Bruch is often the "gateway" concerto to the professional Romantic concerto repertoire. If you can play the Bruch well, you can handle a substantial percentage of the repertoire played professionally in the concert hall / recital hall, including most chamber-music 1st violin parts.

(Hah, we even say "the Bruch" rather than Bruch No. 1, or even the fairly common Scottish Fantasie, and everyone knows what is meant, despite the fact that Bruch wrote three violin concertos.)

You could use anything else at the same level as a proxy for that, but because the Bruch is so commonly taught as that gateway concerto, it tends to be used as the signifier for that level.

Relatively similar difficulty: Mendelssohn concerto, Sarasate Zigeunerweisen.

Edited: February 4, 2018, 10:33 PM · I get that. What I meant was why do we need to divide people ( haves and have nots) this way? To become a “good” violinist, one has a long way to go even after “the Bruch” is solidly in the bag.

I don’t have any first hand experience. Is the distance between Bach A minor and Bruch G minor any greater than that between Bruch G minor and, say, Last Rose?

Edited: January 30, 2018, 12:01 PM · Enjoyed the video, Carlos -- thanks for that. Very funny. Id' be happy to jam with those guys anytime!
January 30, 2018, 12:01 PM · I think to go from Bruch G Minor to Last Rose is much much farther than from Bach A Minor to Bruch.

I was only partly kidding about the Bruch being a "dividing line." Of course you could say that one who can't play Accolay isn't going to be a "good" violinist, but as Lydia said (more eloquently than I, as usual), the Bruch actually gets you knocking on the door of pieces that pros actually perform with orchestras, like the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius and whatnot. The Tchaik and the Sibelius are significantly harder still, but a 16-year-old who can play a solid Bruch has a shot at learning the harder ones within the next several years. In stark contrast, a 50-year-old who can play Accolay well (but not Bruch) has no hope of ever playing Tchaikovsky.

January 30, 2018, 12:20 PM · Just because you CAN play a romantic concerto (all the notes, in the right order) doesn't necessarily mean that you or anyone else will find the experience musically satisfying. I suspect the satisfaction for the player is in the process rather than the result, while the satisfaction for the listener is..? I frankly can't see the point in setting oneself "levels" of this sort unless your extra expertise is applied to repertoire which you may actually get the chance to play in public or in ensemble to a standard which is recognizable as music. Of course, that's just me talking!
January 30, 2018, 2:15 PM · Would you guys say that Saint-Saens is of similar difficulty to Bruch?
January 30, 2018, 3:07 PM · I realized many years ago that the demand for me performing a violin concerto like Bruch was much smaller (or non-existent) than the demand for me playing chamber music or orchestra. So I stopped practicing violin concertos and focus on chamber music instead. This is music I love to play and when working with the right people we can get to a level where a performance is appreciated by the audience. As an amateur it is very difficult to find an orchestra who would let you play the solo part of Bruch. Even a second rank orchestra would probably hire a pro for that.
Edited: January 30, 2018, 6:18 PM · I recently heard a “star” student perform one of the gateway pieces. It was obvious she needed to go back and learn the piece slowly.

Just because a teacher deems a student ready or a violinist thinks they’ve l/earned it, doesn’t mean they are proficient.

Even my skill level is no where near where it once was, I’m happy in knowing I have the potential to play it (once again one day if the stars align.) That said, I enjoy playing and hope my health stays well enough for me to improve to “my old self”

Edited: January 30, 2018, 6:49 PM · I should clarify that when I say "Bruch level", I mean that the piece is played well -- i.e., at tempo, in tune, with good tone, and a stylistically appropriate interpretation. Such a student won't sound like a professional soloist (or a fully-developed artist), but they should sound comfortably in command of the instrument, and the performance is pleasant. I am very aware that many students scrape through Bruch at a marginal level -- we've seen quite a few videos along those lines here on over the years -- but a strong argument should be made that those students are playing inappropriate repertoire.

I would argue that by the time a student reaches intermediate level, everything they play should recognizably be music. If a student isn't producing a decent tone with enough control to be expressive, or can't play reasonably in tune, they should be mastering the basics on beginner repertoire.

Harrison, Saint-Saens 3 is somewhat more difficult than the Bruch.

Edited: January 30, 2018, 8:05 PM · Thanks, Lydia. It is crazy fast.
January 30, 2018, 8:10 PM · “I should clarify that when I say "Bruch level", I mean that the piece is played well -- i.e., at tempo, in tune, with good tone....”

Shouldn’t that be true for any piece, at any level? I mean that expectation is not unique to Bruch or “the Bruch level,” right?

January 30, 2018, 8:52 PM · I like this post. It's very life is more about the journey than the destination.

You're enjoying every note instead of just running for the next concerto. I wish I could enjoy music like this - I hope to one day.

January 30, 2018, 9:52 PM · Steve, your initial point (i.e., there are many ways for amateur violinists to enjoy music-making) is so obviously true. What I find interesting is what might be behind the need for this discussion. From your title, there are the fact of Bruch No.1, age, and "real life", whatever it means. Like Michael, said, if we treat violin playing as a journey, whatever and however one decides to explore, it's entirely one's own concern.
January 30, 2018, 10:28 PM · David, sure -- at least at the intermediate level and beyond. At the beginner stage, skills are still emerging. In some players that turns into advancing without improving, leading to harder and harder pieces that continue not to be well-played.
January 30, 2018, 11:30 PM · OP, I happen to be one of those who works only on solo repertoire (solo Bach, standard concertos and etudes). There are only so many hours in a day and I would rather spend my three hours on music that I enjoy and that would make me a better violinist.
January 31, 2018, 1:32 AM · Each to his own. I prefer chamber music and I think practicing a string quartet part can be just a good tool to become a better violinist as practicing a concerto. And on top of that I get to practice playing with others, adapting to them and understanding my parts role in the piece. I would probably never get that opportunity with a concerto. I do play some solo repertoire and sonatas and small pieces for violin or viola and piano.
January 31, 2018, 2:13 AM · Bo,

I wonder if part of it is a personality thing. More competitive people might prefer to work in a section of string music where they are the star, opposed to a more democratic chamber ensemble.

Interesting potential field of research.

Edited: January 31, 2018, 2:55 AM · I was a bit over-forceful in expressing my view, but it had the desired effect! I'm grateful to hear it partly echoed by Bo and Michael, and equally glad to hear the contrary opinion from David. But yes, Yixi, we all have our own unique mix of experience, ambition, circumstances and opportunities. My prescription is actually a description of most of my musical friends and colleagues and I can see might not apply in more sparsely populated parts of the globe!

When it comes to the musical profession it's probably inevitable (although I think it's a shame) that aspiring players are judged entirely on their ability to run faster, jump higher. I'm not so sure as Lydia that complete musicality can be taken for granted in anyone who can play the notes with the qualities she lists. Ensemble playing is as much about listening as playing; the ability to hear simultaneous musical lines and hold conflicting rhythms in your head. I don't know how you'd teach that, but shouldn't ensemble playing become a part of the standard orchestral audition?

Edited: January 31, 2018, 7:47 AM · Steve,

I agree ensemble playing is great in developing musicianship. I played in youth orchestras and chamber groups throughout my teenage years and learned a lot.

After being away from the instrument for more than two decades, my perspective is slightly different in that I am more aware of the fact that I need to make the best use of my time or I will never get to play the music I wanted to play. I don’t want to start that debate again but age does matter.

Edited: January 31, 2018, 10:22 AM · I agree. I had a hiatus of almost two decades, when I played very little. When I came back to the violin, in my mid-fifties, after a serious health crisis, I took lessons from an experienced and excellent teacher to try to recover my technique. Making the best of my time, though, was what mattered, with the changing horizon as one grows older. What I wanted above all was to play Bach well, and especially to master as much as I could of the Sonatas and Partitas. And some of the other other baroque, classical & romantic repertoire. I enjoyed some community orchestra work but my interests began to shift. As for chamber music, I love it, but in my circles, & not being a professional musician, it has been difficult to find other people with a similar interest, and the time available. Since I'd always had a strong interest in folk music and "traditional" music for violin, it was was easy to find a ready place in open sessions and fiddle groups. It felt good to drop some of my embedded classical prejudices. I believe you can learn a lot and develop as a musician as you grow older, if you're willing to move laterally, learn new directions, and don't stay stuck on mastering the great romantic and modern concertos. I'd like to try more jazz.
January 31, 2018, 10:24 AM · *Complete* musicality is very different than having a basic level of musicianship. :-)

There's a certain baseline level where you can say, "Oh yeah, this sounds like music." The player has a sense of the shape of the phrase, uses appropriate dynamic contrasts, and the like.

Interpretive maturity is learned throughout one's lifetime.

January 31, 2018, 11:04 AM · "Complete musicality" of course is nonsense - I meant to imply that in the context of an audition there are important musical skills - those that relate to ensemble playing - that can't be judged from the performance of a concerto movement. That's why I believe most professional orchestras apply a probationary period to new recruits.
January 31, 2018, 8:43 PM · Oh Steve, a concerto is part of an orchestra work. That is, when a concerto is properly learned, we need to know what orchestra (or piano) is doing just as much as our own part unless it comes to Cadenza. This is the case in performebce,masterclass and auditions. Sonatas too are in fact chamber music because without working with a pianist, we are not properly learning the piece.
January 31, 2018, 10:04 PM · Well, teachers generally dictate to students how a piece should be interpreted, so students treat it like details to work on. So how do students actually learn to interpret music properly themselves?
January 31, 2018, 10:25 PM · Ella,

This is why I love my current teacher. Besides the amazing stories and history.

When discussing such things he will tell me what he thinks, what he thinks/knows others think, and then ask me what I think. If what I think is a load of crock I expect him to call me on it.

To me this is positive reinforcement and a good way to learn.

February 1, 2018, 1:31 AM · Yixi, that's absolutely how it should be, but is it always? I expect most of us have participated in performances where the soloist blasts through the piece as if the orchestra wasn't there. I also know from personal experience that not all professional orchestral players (of the older generation, i.e. mine!) are good chamber-musicians. In recent years we have the example of elite, handpicked orchestras of which the reviewers often write that they play symphonies "like chamber music". The last time I saw they LSO the thing that impressed me the most was the uncanny way the string-players moved together, with minimal direction from the conductor.

OK, these days most aspiring violinists who reach "Bruch level" and above also get considerable exposure to chamber music too, but wouldn't it be a good idea if at audition they were actually asked to sit in on a string quartet playthrough with the judges?

February 1, 2018, 8:21 AM · Ella - Interesting. After learning the notes and dynamics, my teacher encourages me to interpret the work for myself, then we discuss from there if it makes musical sense or not. They call me on it if I'm going too much or too little, or not phrasing things correctly, or getting muddled about where the phrase is going. I end up spending A LOT of time on each piece "for an amateur" but... when I complete a piece it feels more like mine and less like "what my teacher told me to do" because I understand what is happening. Seems that I'm in the minority with my teacher-student circumstances?
February 1, 2018, 9:07 AM · I believe that many principal player auditions include chamber-music in the final round.

Ella, my experience is much like Pamela's. The more lost I seem, the more my teacher makes very specific suggestions, though. I think that when I was an elementary-school kid, my teachers were more specific about interpretation, but once I'd gotten a feel for correct style, they stopped being so specific. Dictating exactly how all teen/adult students should play something, in a way that's identical to what the teacher does, is generally a sign of poor teaching.

February 1, 2018, 10:11 AM · If a teacher is unable to instil in a student, over a period of time, the ability for the student to analyze their own playing, identifying problems and their solutions for themselves, then I feel there has been a failure somewhere along the line, not necessarily on the part of the teacher, of course.
February 1, 2018, 10:13 AM · I agree with you Trevor! That goes for anything, not just violin.

Edited: February 1, 2018, 10:10 PM · Steve, it's true that not all professional orchestral players are good chamber-musicians. But in every community orchestra I tried, it shows right away who has worked on "Bruch level" reps and who hasn't. Right now I'm (someone in her late 50s) in a conservatory orchestra playing with all young musicians (some are majoring in collage music performance). All of them are playing at advanced level. I have to say that the joy to play with them is something I've never could imagined in any community orchestra or chamber group. My point is, we enjoy music more as we become better musicians, which means hard work. As one of my old teachers used to say, why should anything be easy? In other words, if it's not hard, we are not learning. But then again, not everyone wants to be a lifelong learner. That's ok too.
February 1, 2018, 10:46 PM · One of my teachers gives me great suggestions, but gives me some freedom in interpretation as well. Another teacher, on the other hand, seems to be more dictative, though I'm totally free to ask questions. I guess we all feel situations differently.
Edited: February 2, 2018, 12:45 AM · Some of my favorite recordings are simpler pieces played by Heifetz. They are so expressive. I quite agree that it feels like too much emphasis is placed these days on playing the violin fast. In some cases I feel like it stiffles the piece. I was reading recently about how two greats played one of these concertos that we consider a standard for soloists, at quite different tempos, one fast, one slow, but that they were equally expressive and compelling. I wish I could recall the specifics but my memory is horrid. (Lol, I hope it wasn’t here.)

There is technical difficulty but also artistry and grace. It reminds me of how Olympic ice skating moved to two part scoring to balance how overweighed technical difficulty was becoming in the sport. They recognized how much was lost with the technical bias.

Circling back to the OP. How much does technique and mastery contribute to the enjoyment of playing? It can be nil. Some just love playing and literally don’t care how they sound except to themselves. One of my friends is this way. Occasionally some, like Lindsay Sterling, stir something in (other) people that they think is fantastic. (Personally, her playing makes me cringe. It seems like people think she’s a good violinist only because someone started a rumor that she is. Social media for the win.)

It’s all in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Ensemble experience is essential for violinists to truly play a piece unless it’s written to be unaccompanied IMO. The awareness of other parts and how they come together is hard to develop without that experience. I was lucky to start playing chamber music at an early age and to have a sister to play duets with. But many don’t get those opportunities until middle school or high school, and a few, not until they reach college. I was privileged to have teachers educate me about different periods and styles of music historically, and a mentor encouraged me to explore other genres of music early as well. Both can really add to the understanding of a piece and to music in general, to play together with other instruments and in other forms.

February 2, 2018, 2:01 AM · Jane,

I have to agree with your point about it being essential to play in an ensemble.

Today I had my first experience as a soloist in front of a medium sized ensemble - it was our first time rehearsing an arrangement of the Telemann viola concerto I was working on for that class. It is a completely different experience from playing alone, and also completely different from playing in the ensemble as a 'member'.

I think what stuck out most to about the experience was that because we were working through several pieces, I went from playing a viola part that was half notes written by a first time composer, to playing Telemann, to playing another student composed piece as just a cog in the ensemble. It gives you a lot of perspective. Going home I had another bit of perspective - I was much more motivated to practice than usual!

(For those interested, my playing was indeed a complete disaster as well! But worth the mild sting of embarrassment. The path to success isn't a branch between success and failure, rather a highway with little stops at failure along the way. Think of them as pit stops for motivation.)

February 2, 2018, 2:14 AM · Jane expresses my feelings perfectly. Little "easy" pieces played well can be just as much a joy to the player as hard pieces played, and much more of a joy to the listener. And the repertoire is so wide I feel it's an opportunity wasted to always bring out the old favourites that everyone has heard played better. For 30-odd years I've had a regular annual concert date with piano, and the composers we've played in our 10-minute slot include Coleridge-Taylor, Cui, McEwen ("Scotland's greatest composer") and Percy Miles, as well as lesser pieces by greater composers. I love researching the vaults of IMSLP to find pieces which have never received commercial recordings (no competition) and spend hours trying to get them to sound as well as I possibly can. Yixi, it isn't easy and I'm still learning, but at 68 I know and accept the limitations of my fingers.
February 2, 2018, 9:24 AM · Steve, now I understand where you come from. I agree with you. Sorry if I sounded disrespectful in my earlier posts.
February 2, 2018, 10:17 AM · Not at all Yixi - just the legitimate cut and thrust of debate!
February 2, 2018, 12:48 PM · Michael, if you are like me, you were probably much more sensitive to your playing and demanding of yourself than your counterparts. In plain English, you probably sounded better to your ensemble than to yourself.

I say relax, listen, and enjoy along with practice and the rest will come together.

February 4, 2018, 10:27 PM · I've never been able to play the Bruch, not as a teenager and not now. I have friends who can play the big romantic violin concertos and play them well; I'm not, and never have been, part of that group. Perhaps it's just not my niche--I don't listen to violin concertos for fun, either, and it was never a dream of mine to play one. On the other hand, after a long break from playing in grad school and when my children were young, I have steadily improved as a chamber and orchestral musician throughout my 40s and early 50s, and become a violist in that time too. I'm going to play my first solo concerto ever with a community orchestra (Telemann viola concerto) this spring at age 52. It's not technically difficult but everyone I've played it for has recognized that it is a beautiful piece. It's one of the few concertos that moves me emotionally the way orchestral and chamber music does. It seems to me that one of the pleasures of getting older is that you can decide that these rankings and hierarchies and categories that the rest of the world wants to impose on your musical life are just so much noise, and ignore them.
February 4, 2018, 10:48 PM · Jane,

Defiantly correct. While it was indeed a bad playing of it, there were several outside factors (not the least a tempo about 30% faster than expected involved).

No one really cared about the mistakes as it was a first reading.

Exhilarating - it's easy to see why people can get addicted to the experience though.


Enjoy the Telemann. I find I too much rather enjoy playing in an orchestra chair.. even if from the back desk!

February 5, 2018, 1:46 AM · My sole experience as a concerto-player was about 20 years ago in Brandenburg 4. The orchestra was conductorless and the responsibility of directing (getting them all to start together in the same tempo) was such that it left no brainspace for nerves. Went like a breeze!
February 5, 2018, 9:02 AM · Michael, I'm interested in hearing more about your arrangement of the Telemann. Why do you need to arrange it beyond what's already out there? Another nice thing about it is that even as written it's not too difficult for a decent amateur group. But it's only for strings, which can make the wind players feel left out :-(

I've been thinking about the fact that we are going to play it on modern instruments with modern bows, but we don't have any other choice, since we're not a Baroque ensemble. Is there a way to arrange it that might make it sound more Baroque style even on modern instruments?

February 5, 2018, 12:49 PM · Hi Karen;

Our school doesn't have a dedicated string program - but we do have a budding chamber music program that is now in it's 4th year. Because it's still very new things are a little hit and miss with who we have in the ensemble.

The way it currently works is there are two roles each participant fills; arranger/composer and performer. So everyone writes chamber music and everyone performs it.

The problem with the Telemann is the scoring compared to what we have in the ensemble. It's scored for continuo, 2 violin, and 1 viola + viola concertante.

Our ensemble includes:
4 vocalists
3 keyboard players
1 flute
1 clarinet
1 trumpet
1 trombone
1 cello
1 viola (Hi!)
3 guitars
1 ukulele
1 electric bass
+Mixed percussion that we can get the vocalists use/get people whos instruments aren't being used to play.

Because of the variety and the limited class time it's important to make as much use of the ensemble as possible. That makes playing with some voicings and changing some instrumentation. Not everyone has to be playing at all times, but it's important that everyone gets a chance to play some of the time. This is much easier with original compositions compared to a delicate arrangement such as the Telemann, however I saw it as an opportunity to act as a soloist in a point in my journey where it wouldn't otherwise be possible.

So I arranged it, leaving the solo line intact and voicing the other voices with different instruments, using techniques such as voice exchange, hocket, etc, to make it interesting but not overly cumbersome.

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