Violin is hard

Edited: March 1, 2018, 2:21 PM · Trying to learn to play the violin is the most difficult endeavor I have ever attempted. Right now I'm barely a beginner.

For me, it is harder than piano.

And if it makes you feel better, it is harder than operating on a person.

One could teach the technical aspects of operating to a modestly adept person. I don't think everyone could learn how to play the violin. It is just too hard.

So, to those of you who can play and have contributed to vcom with advice, know-how, and inspiration, I salute and bow down before you, anticipating one day, hopefully, to join your ranks.

Excuse me, now, as I slink off to practice....

Replies (44)

March 1, 2018, 2:31 PM · The difficulty of any task or subject varies from person to person due to differences in mentality and ability. Learning to play the violin is not easy, but I wouldn't say it's insane difficult. In other words, it's doable.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 3:16 PM · I too developed a new level of admiration and respect for the pros. One has to do it to realize what it takes to achieve such a level. That said, I started at 50 and by the time I turned 56 I was playing with a local community orchestra the Beethoven 2nd symphony and don’t consider myself particularly talented. There is hope, and all you need is persistence and motivation (and an average budget to support it). That said... I have miles to go chiselling at the iceberg still, but the journey is personally enriching.
March 1, 2018, 3:12 PM · You will get there yourself Toby by dilligent practice of one to two hours a day under the guidance of a competent teacher. It is indeed a hard thing to play and I think smaller increments of 15 minute practice is more effective then an hour straight for newer players trying to strengthen fingers and relax hands and the upper half of the body.

Setting goals for yourself to work toward such as learning a new scale a week or honing your favorite tune etc. is an effective method to work harder and more focused in your daily practice.

March 1, 2018, 5:03 PM · Viola is more hard.
Cello is even harder
Double-bass is the hardest!

Welcome aboard! Have fun.

March 1, 2018, 5:07 PM · It really isn't particularly harder than piano (or classical guitar), but they have almost opposite learning curves.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 5:21 PM · So the more you play, the easier it gets?

Hahahaha, no, violin curve is actually a damned almost vertical line always, while piano starts almost horizontal, easiest instrument ever, and then it starts slowly to go vertical. Violin is plain simple harder than piano, that's a fact. Piano is easy as pie. It takes several years to sound decently on the violin if you practice regularly, leaving prodigies aside. It takes a few months to play piano decently, creating a beautiful sound. It actually takes a few days to play a melody decently, even with a few chords here and there. There are dozens of variables when playing the violin, and in the other hand piano is one of the easiest to play at the beginning.

Now, when you get to the advanced-high intermediate levels, piano starts to get closer to violin, and then in high levels they are both one of the hardest instruments to master.

March 1, 2018, 5:44 PM · There's some truth to the violin being "easier" once things become natural. Then it's just a matter of learning new repertoire and to keep up your technical equipment via diligent, careful daily practice. Once things "click", it gets much better.

Getting to said "click", however, varies tremendously from student to student (regardless age), and is easier said than done.

I do not like comparing instruments' challenge levels, however, as I still think both classical guitar and piano are difficult instruments to master as well, even if differently.

Of course, it's way easier to play a piece semi-convincingly on the piano for more beginners, as the learning curve to even sound decently on the violin (including a solid tone and beautiful vibrato) is absurdly high. Beginning violinists should compare their progress with themselves over the years, rather than complaining of how they can't still play like their favorite violinists-yet they should use these artists as inspiration to keep moving forward. Good violin playing is not impossible, just extremely labor intensive; I promise, however, that at some point, it will get easier.

(Another specific difficulty for our beloved instrument is that it requires more daily work than most instruments, IMHO-it's harder to get away with not practicing, and there are "very few" Kreislers in the world that can manage such a "feat".)

Edited: March 1, 2018, 5:49 PM · Tim: I believe you've been playing for three or four years. You wouldn't know. Never heard someone with a few months of piano experience play decently, but it might be just me.

But let's stop. It's not a pretty discussion, too often it ends up simply being a circlejerk. Not particularly pleasant to read.

March 1, 2018, 6:04 PM · ANY instrument can be insanely hard. It depends on the repertoire. In the 17th century they didn't need to get to the higher positions. We've been both blessed and cursed by people like Paganini and Heifetz that raised the bar. And likewise in piano--it's as difficult as the repertoire you choose to tackle.

If you want something easier, go to medical or law school.

March 1, 2018, 6:30 PM · Developing the sense of "good playing" can be hard. It requires a good ear to pick up aural responses of your playing, such as bow change, tone colour, phrasing, volume, etc. And for simplicity sake (obviously not able to speak too deeply into this since I don't play the piano), I think there are more physical variables involved in the tone production of the violin, versus the piano. Which I think is why people say it's "easy" - a beginner of piano can play a few simple tunes in a matter of months, but it won't be a few years on the violin.
March 1, 2018, 7:59 PM · « Developing the sense of "good playing" can be hard.«  I think this could be said of any instrument, even the simplest. Mastering any instrument is difficult, but certainly mastering sound production on fretless string instruments does require some extremely refined motor skills that goes beyond that of many.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 8:11 PM · it was the OP who said violin is hard, and I agree. but the only other instrument I can compare it with is guitar. I started guitar when 10, violin at 22, I'm now 64. I can play some pretty decent lead guitar, but imho, violin is much harder than guitar, at least for whatever level I've achieved on either.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 8:58 PM · What makes violin easier than surgery is the fact that if you make a horrific mistake you can just do it over.

And yes, violin is harder than piano. I play both with approximately equal skill, so I know. But of course getting to the highest level of anything is a competition. Demian is right about the learning curves. You can get to mediocrity much faster on the piano simply because intonation is not an issue. If you press the key for middle C, it's going to sound the same as if Horowitz pressed it.

Edited: March 1, 2018, 10:41 PM · Tone production on piano is hard. It isn’t a naturally singing instrument. You need exceptionally good teaching.

ETA My daughter would scream and run at the sight of blood. Sure, she is only 7 but I don’t think being a surgeon is in her future. She can, however, hit any notes on violin, right on pitch. People are different and IMHO, that’s a good thing.

March 1, 2018, 9:55 PM · Paul-
When I speak of violin being more difficult than operating I'm referring to the idea of knowing where your body parts are in space and the integration of the tactile with either vision (surgery) or hearing (violin). I just find there are way many more items to pay attention to with the violin from a purely technical aspect. I'm not addressing the consequences of a mistake, just which is harder.
March 2, 2018, 4:53 AM · No doubt violin is hard. I am a professional violinist and I still vividly remember walking out of my first lesson at the age of four thinking 'Omg it is crazy how many things I have to think of at the same time!'
Violinplaying involves many complex movements at the same time and/or right after eachother. It is very difficult to learn without a teacher. And it requires almost unlimited amounts of patience.
But it is possible. Just look at how many people here started as adults, practiced in their often limited free time and have reached a level high enough to enjoy playing their instrument, play chamber music and in orchestras.
March 2, 2018, 5:08 AM · Anyway the sheer complexity of these tasks is why we assign them to our children. Because it's good for them.

Kiki I agree with you about tone on the piano. Again, it's easy to get to the stage of mediocrity, but getting the piano to sing (or even to get a very smooth legato) requires a lot of study under expert tutelage.

Toby yes of course you're right. A urologist friend of mine told me he could make a fortune just doing laser lithotripsy and how easy it is. But he also told me once in a while "something happens and you're on your own."

March 2, 2018, 10:05 AM · Strange enough, I’ve seen an old abstract from Etude magazine in 1917, said that piano is more difficult for someone especially elder ones, because two scores of different notes involved, which is very unsuitable for some people without special divided hemisphere function, for their brain cannot control.

In my country we think violin is very complicated to master at a considerable level, but it is very strange that in other countries there are so many little prodigies, for example kids playing Paganini primo concerto at merely nine or ten, in my country this phenomenon is nearly absent, because this concerto is required in high level course for pupils of seventeen to twenty. Maybe difficulty varies among ethnics.

March 2, 2018, 10:55 AM · It's an interesting question about piano vs. violin. I know an excellent professional pianist who decided to take up cello at age 60 and is enjoying that but making glacial progress. Another guy in his late 40s who's never played an instrument before, he took up cello and one year later he's doing Book 7.

@tutti, if there is an "ethnics" factor, I think that's more likely to be a function of parenting rather than intrinsic pupils' talent.

March 2, 2018, 11:04 AM · How hard can it be?

After all, some little 5 year old kid from Salzburg could play the violin blindfolded...

Edited: March 2, 2018, 11:33 AM · @Paul Deck, many Romanian and Albanian kids also playing violin well at a very tender age, don’t know why, in 1980s there were numerous Tedi Papavram in Tirana. Though parents can urge kids to progress, I wonder how could they progress so fast, I knew some virtuosi in my country (which are pupils of privileged maestri) started to play tough concerti only after tenth year of violin learning, kids with merely three to five years’ training playing concerti will be regarded as ‘prodigies’, I guess there are some ethnic factors but I am not sure, but I indeed find that in some ethnics kids show more early talent than some other ethnics, in YouTube I once saw five years old North Korean kids playing classical guitar, inverosimil.
Edited: March 2, 2018, 2:16 PM · I always envy how fast a kid can progress. First they have no issue with moving their fingers fast, then with a brain still in development develop neuropathways I can only dream of, and then grow up to have perfect pitch. There is a clear physical advantage in starting young, which establish a strong foundation to built on top of. If they are focused, they can learn in a week what takes me a month... remaining focussed is however their challenge!
March 2, 2018, 3:37 PM · I agree with those who mentioned the steep initial learning curve (compared to piano). My high school teacher told me recently "Violin is a journey. I'm still learning." For some reason I found this reassuring.

It's non-linear, certainly. There's the initial hump of establishing basic first position/bowing technique and then there's a lot that you can play before what I think of as the next big leap, which would involve shifting and vibrato. And then there's the getting-out-of-intermediate-repertoire swamp which can go on seemingly forever, especially for those of us who didn't wholly absorb the gospel of focused, slow, methodical, rigorous practice when we were young.

At many points along this trajectory, though, I've been able to use my instrument to play with others and provide enjoyment to others. It's good to find opportunities to do both of these things as you continue on your journey, for they will balance out the intensity and loneliness of focused solo training.

March 2, 2018, 6:29 PM · My undergrad degree was in biology with a focus on neuroscience. As far as I know, literally the only ethnic advantage that actually exists in learning string instruments is average hand size. It turns out that East Asians have the longest fingers, relative to body size, of any ethnicity. But that's only an average. It certainly doesn't help me, seeing as I have the shortest fingers of any adult I know! Everything else is environment. It may be true that speakers of tonal languages also have a bit of an advantage in intonation, but language is of course an environmental factor.

Scott: you're absolutely right. I went to both medical school and law school, but I think self-teaching viola as a late starter is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. (I started in my teens, so not super-late, but late enough that every teacher I asked said I was too old to learn to play even passably.) There's always another level. I feel it's only recently, after 17+ years and at the point of finally starting to work on virtuoso (beyond "advanced") repertoire, that the learning curve has started to get a little bit less steep.

I don't think there's any age without its particular challenges in learning a musical instrument. Children can learn motor skills quickly, but often lack attention span. Adults are more likely to be able to focus, but have a harder time picking up new motor skills, often lack time to practice and take lessons, and there's also the cultural barrier of many teachers being dismissive of late starters. That said, the key at any age is motivation. As an adult, playing in ensembles helps, especially when you're in the intermediate-repertoire plateau where improvements in technique are hard to see and rarely enough on their own to take the next step up.

March 2, 2018, 7:11 PM · out of 25 responses, only one is from the OP, Toby Yee. I think Toby could use a little more encouragement.

Toby: I've pretty much put my whole life into this instrument. Sometimes I get discouraged when I hear really good players, and think, maybe I've wasted my life on this little wooded thing. But then I think 'what else better could I have done'...I can't think of anything.

it may sound schmaltzy.... do the best you can, and play it for the sheer joy of it.

March 2, 2018, 7:30 PM · Robots agree, it is hard-

Edited: March 2, 2018, 8:30 PM · Kids progress fast? Asians do, but many kids as far as I have seen, who enrolled in conservatory courses, progress poorly, Asians can play tough concerti within three to five years, but kids here will do so at ninth or tenth year (the average age to enter first level course is nine), in a word Asians have more ‘prodigies’.

Asians have higher rate of absolute pitch. It is trained in Suzuki method as early as possible, but what is the function? Because AP is not trained in traditional method, some pupils have AP because they have demonstrated AP before they picked up instrument, not trained later. In fact, human language is embodied in relative pitch. I agree that AP is related to early onset of learning, because Eastern Europeans as well as Jews have higher rate of AP than Westerners, though Slavic languages and Hebrew are not tonal .

I think in some ethnics at a given age, kids demonstrate more intelligence, Asians at a tender age can solve tough mathematical problem, though UK is considered as cradle of modern science, kids have problem even in dealing with simple calculation, I’ve seen a documentary about mathematic eduction in primary schools of London and Shanghai, that’s the difference. Naturally, in PISA test as well as other intelligence test, young Asians score higher, their brains are more developed than kids of the same age of other ethnicities.Return to topic, kids of some ethnicities progress fast, because they demonstrate the ability to absorb what teachers have taught, this ability is related to early intelligence, maybe resulted from both cultural and biological factors, if kids cannot absorb, teacher will not teach tough concerti unless the parents demand so, for example it is useless to teach primary school kids advanced physics.

March 2, 2018, 8:31 PM · Hi Toby,

I think if you grew up playing the violin it would just be second nature...

"And if it makes you feel better, it is harder than operating on a person." I think all 99.9% of my colleagues and friends would feel the opposite.

Edited: March 2, 2018, 10:26 PM · Too funny. I played piano for 20 years before I ever picked up a violin. And while technique was hard, especially that pesky stick thing, for me it was a revelation. It made so much more sense to the way my brain works than piano ever did.

At any rate, I got some good advice when I first started that may help during that early painful period, Toby. When you first play guitar, if you strum right you can play a song that at least sounds decent fairly quickly. When you play piano, the note is the note and the machine takes care of making each one sound the same and sound good if you hit the right one. (This advice did not include a performing surgery equivalent).

With violin, there are 100 things that when just slightly off make it sound like you are slowly torturing a robotic cat. So instead of trying to make all the things work from day 1, forgive yourself and focus on one thing at a time... and buy earplugs.

March 2, 2018, 11:39 PM · Thank you for all the wonderful and insightful responses.

Really, I love my violin and try to play it three or four times a day for short stretches (retirement is great).

My teacher is nice to me and I watch all kinds of youtube stuff (love two-set).

Dorian- I could teach you what to do and you would be able to do it way faster than you teaching me the violin.

March 3, 2018, 12:41 AM · Violin is undoubtedly harder than piano, if you are a late starter. Absolutely, no question!

If you start learning either of them as a child, then at least violin still has a very concave learning curve, meaning that it’s still harder up to some advanced level, beyond which I think it’s just a matter of personal capabilities as to which instrument is more challenging.

I started both violin and piano at the same time as an adult. Exactly after 15 days of learning piano (around 3 hours per day for both lesson and self practice) from absolutely nothing, I was able to play a passable version of Romance D’Amour together with some Etudes. Two months later if could play half of River flows in you. My friends love to hear me playing them. About violin, it’s still very scratchy now, after 2 years. My friends still think I’m terrible at it :-))

March 3, 2018, 6:21 AM · I'll be honest: practicing along with my kids, I initially thought I'd be able to do some modest public performances in groups in a couple of years. Instead... it's inspired me to pick back up the trumpet, which I actually sound pretty good on.
March 3, 2018, 11:19 AM · Have you tried to peel kids away from Nintendo Switch? Do they look unfocused? Nope. They can go on for hours, hyper focused, if anything.

For some kids, making music is their game.

That doesn’t mean they enjoy repetitive and methodical metronome practicing though. That is where work ethics and dedication come in, both from the children and their parents.

March 3, 2018, 11:28 AM · another adult learner here, I came from a background of guitar, but never really gelled with it (it didn't seem to speak in the way I wanted to speak if that makes sense).
I knew it would be hard, and initially I made OK progress, but I couldn't afford to keep up the lessons at the time, and progress plateaued. So, I knew it would be hard, and was prepared for that, but what I think I wasn't prepared for was how unforgiving an instrument it is. You can't just pick it up and play (well, I can't anyways), after about 3 years now I have to get my ear in each time I pick up the instrument, I have to get my bow aligned just right, all these things have to be considered, and if you lose focus for even a moment, it bites you back hard.
On a whim, over xmas I picked up a cheap clarinet and had a few lessons with a local teacher, wow that thing is so much easier. After 4 weeks of about 2 hours a day, I was at grade 1 standard. I reckon it took me a year to get to that on violin.
But I'll stick to the fiddle, found a teacher (who also leads the community orchestra I play in) who has agreed to give me some lessons, so hopefully I can start to make some progress, or at least have enough information to make a decision about whether to keep up with it.
March 28, 2018, 4:10 PM · You have no motivation. Of course you can't play, if you think like this. All great violinists were patient and practiced. You're a beginner. You will be a beginner for a long time. Many people these days have none of the dedication needed to master things that take so much time. Persevere.
March 28, 2018, 10:30 PM · Scene: In a medieval inn, two disreputable characters are drinking in a table near the fire. The names are lost in history, but by the impulses in their hearts, let’s call them Saddist 1 and Saddist 2.

Saddist 1: I want to create a legacy. Some evil Mcguffin that will mess up and torture the next generations.

Saddist 2: What do you have in mind?

Saddist 1: Something like an unsolvable puzzle. I like the idea of something that people will spend years of their lives trying to get right without success. I have even decided how to lure them into trying it: It will be a musical instrument.

Saadist 2: Oh, that’s a great idea. But in the end, all instruments are difficult at first, but once they have the hang of it, they are no challenge.

Saddist 1: Oh, this one will be.

Saddist 2: How so?

Saddist 1: For starters, this one will need constant tuning. And I mean constant. The player will never be sure if it’s playing in tune or not.

Saddist 2: Like a stringed one? Like a guitar?

Saddist 1: Yes. Something like that. How can we make it harder?

Saddist 2: What about removing the frets? That way they will never be completely sure where they are putting the fingers.

Saddist 1: Great suggestion. I also think that we have to make the fingerboard more difficult. Like something no normal hand can manage. I got it! We will put the strings so close that only the tiny part of the finger will be allowed to touch them. And if you have big hands, you are screwed!

Saddist 2: I like it! But that will be no challenge for those with small hands…

Saddist 1: Unless we separate the notes in the string so much that small hands can’t reach them!

Saddist 2: Hahaha! Yes, that’s messed up! What else?

Saddist 1: Let me think… Posture. We have to think of an impossible posture to play.

Saddist 2: Oh, oh. I know, I know: Make them hold it between the shoulder and the chin. But make it too small to do it comfortably but too big to be able to use something to help holding it!

Saddist 1: I like it! But how to force them to do that?

Saddist 2: Maybe by making them play with something different from the hand? What about a long stick?

Saddist 1: That’s great! That can occupy them for years and years just to learn how to hold it and move it right!

Saddist 2: Then, we have it. I think I can picture it in my head. And I have some friends in Cremona that are fantastic about fooling people in believing that they use magical varnishes and wood from fairy land. With their help, this instrument will sell like chocolate!

Saddist 1: Yes… Now we only need to convince people that no music is complete without the instrument…

From a nearby table, three heads look at them.

BB&M: Excuse us… We couldn’t avoid listening to your conversation and we think we might be of help… Our names are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Believe us: If we put that thing of yours in our compositions, everybody will fall into the trap…

Evil laughs from all of them. Saddist 1 raises the glass and starts a toast.

Saddist 1: Very well, gentlemen. We have created a cruel joke that will haunt musicians for centuries: An instrument impossible to tune right, impossible for almost any hand, that needs to use the body in an impossible way, and that will hurt and damage every neck trying. And we will call it “Violin” .

All, cheer: “Hear, hear”

Far from our evildoers, a long somber figure listened with attention. His face hidden by the shadows of the corner. Slowly, he stands up and in a deep confident voice, he says:

NP: Bring it on…

With slow awkward strides, Niccholo Paganini exits the scene…

March 29, 2018, 1:44 AM · ...but for the real sadists, the instrument would be the viola, and the man taking up the challenge would be William Primrose.
Edited: March 29, 2018, 2:08 AM · Historically, viola appeared before the existence of modern violin, as for viol or viola da gamba, I do not know whether it is intrinsically bound to modern violin or viola. In etymology, a violin is a smaller viola, just like a mandolin is a smaller mandola, a mandola is suggested to inherit its name from its almond(mandorla)-like shape.

I remember in an early interview of violist Yuri Bashmet he said that viola came first and older than violin.

The art of instrument performance is keeping progressing along history, not only in quality but also in difficulty, dated back to the day of Paganini, not so many violinists can play Capricci, which were seen as insurmountable, but today in the earth how many students can do so? It is similar to the development of human and science, any university graduate today thrown back to the age of 17th century would be regarded as omnipotent because this one knew more than the majority, in a society made of illiteracy.

Edited: March 29, 2018, 4:55 AM · Imagine how hard violin would be if we had to play the kind of chords that guitar and piano are expected to play. We are let off the hook somewhat!
March 29, 2018, 6:28 AM · Christopher Payne, some of the triple-stops we have to play (on viola, anyway) are shaped exactly like some guitar chords. Which would be fine, except the neck is much smaller. All my years playing guitar trained me to place all the fingers at once, which isn't always the best way for viola. This continues to be a hard habit to break.
March 29, 2018, 10:11 AM · ?
"Imagine how hard violin would be if we had to play the kind of chords that guitar and piano are expected to play. We are let off the hook somewhat.."

Violin chords are much more difficult than piano or violin, not only for intonation, but for sound quality. Any type of chord on the piano is exactly the same shape regardless of octave, but it changes as you ascend the fingerboard. Try playing any of the Bach fugues and then get back to us...

Edited: March 29, 2018, 11:10 AM · I know they are more difficult - that's what I'm saying. We have chords in the repertoire but we are not quite in the same league as say, jazz guitarists and pianists both in the scope of the chords and the depth of knowledge. I would say that very generally, violinists don't have much knowledge of chords and chord progressions on their own instrument. As it is so difficult, it is not expected of us to the same degree. It's rather like those time management things in a factory or something - if a task is easy for somebody and they finish it quickly then they are given more to do. A beginning pianist or guitarist can learn a tune quickly while the violinist is still trying to play in tune, hold the thing right and produce some kind of decent tone! Piano players and guitarists have nothing better to do than learn harmony!!!
March 29, 2018, 12:21 PM · Ok.
I have a confession.
After all the viola jokes and watching Yuri Bashmet a zillion times on you tube I’m gonna try the viola soon.
I wonder if self-flagellation with barbed wire would feel better.

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