Talent for the violin

September 6, 2018, 5:32 PM · I've heard some people say that in order to be really good at the violin, you need a natural talent in order to be good. I've heard other people say that you don't need talent; if you practice enough efficiently you will sound really good. In my opinion, you do need some talent in order to be really good and above the average, for me, even though i practice a lot, i just don't sound that good given all the effort i put in, while for some people, they hardly even need to practice and they sound 10x better than me.

What's your opinion on the topic?

Replies (37)

September 6, 2018, 6:23 PM · To put it bluntly and save you the sugar-coating, yes. Talented people learn the same things faster and more easily than others. But if a talented person doesn't care and slacks off, even a total blockhead could overtake them with enough work.
September 6, 2018, 6:41 PM · Good books are The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated. If the education and practice routine is effective, steps are small, smart, and efficient, then anyone can make beautiful music at a high level. You may consider doing some masterclasses or taking a few lessons with a couple of different teachers to see if you can find a better fit. It sounds like you have wonderful drive, just need to be pointed in a better direction. Whatever strong genetic dispositions one might have, lets call it "talent", there is a lot to being a successful musician. There is pitch recognition, rhythm, technique, well what about sight reading skills, preparedness and professionalism, networking skills, what about interpretation and music history knowledge, and list goes on. I think that there are so many elements to being a good musician that there isn't enough "talent" to cover it all.
Edited: September 6, 2018, 6:57 PM · Some things just seem to come more easily to some people. When you figure out why that is, there is a prize waiting for you in Stockholm. Remember that every hour you spend reading airport-bookstore self-help books is an hour you're not practicing.
September 6, 2018, 10:13 PM · You really need to have the talent of being able to work and focus tirelessly.

Watch Gattaca.

When I look at my high school and university picture book and I contrast with Linkedin, I see that almost every promising talent became a shooting star. The ones who have reached high were a mix of hard work, sacrifices and lots of luck. Talent was marginal in the equation.

Edited: September 6, 2018, 10:53 PM · There's no such thing as being able to focus tirelessly. Getting tired and losing focus after a while are normal, unless one is a cyborg but these don't exist yet. But I agree with the idea of hard work although really hard work itself is only made possible by virtue of other aspects: liking what one is doing, being disciplined and methodical, self driven, logistically having the means and the time requiered, etc. I would also add to the two mentioned 'components' (talent and hard work) a third, good education as in having good teachers. A good teacher will show you how to make a good sound and improv3 technique, then it's up to you to practice and improve. But without a good teacher, you might not know how to, despite your hard work. Having mentioned it as a component, the idea of talent seems to me a simplified even maybe simplistic one.
September 6, 2018, 11:55 PM · "Talent" is a bag you fill up with hard work. Some people have big, full bags. Some have tiny, empty bags.

What's in your bag?

September 7, 2018, 12:56 AM · This is a topic I’m quite experienced with. For the past 3 years, I’ve opened my home to people from all over the world to come live and study with me at my home. Some people stay a week, some a weekend, some a whole month, some more, etc... And almost everyone who comes here practices a lot, and I hear them practicing.

I’ve always known it, but I definitely see it first hand that some people understand things much faster than others. Everyone progresses as a result of hard work, but some people are just on a different level. I say good for those who are talented, but those who have much more trouble understanding are those who are most interesting to me, and I’m trying my best to crack this code (if it’s even solvable). I try so many strategies with those who learn significantly slower. I could write so much more about this because it’s a bit of a multi faceted topic. There’s one particular student that I’m quite invested in at the moment. He ‘s extremely passionate about music and recently quit his job to try to pursue music full time. While he has certain qualities (namely sound and decent technique), there are a lot of basic aspects lacking ( general undesrstanding of music). I tried my brst to give him as many tools and strategies to overcome this, and I’m hoping he succeeds.

I feel that a lot of this is in what I call visualisation. Those who are “talented” practice visualisation. Athletes do it too. That’s practicing away from your instrument, constantly thinking about music in analyical ways, visualizing the instrument, the technique, the ideas, etc.... I think that those who are “less talented” don’t do this or don’t know how to do this, and I’m trying to show them how to do it. I realize that it’s one of the most important things I ever did. It’s not something that you practice, it’s a complete lifestyle

September 7, 2018, 3:58 AM · Keep in mind that it's not just how long you practice, it's how you practice. Effective practice is more important than long practice. You get more out of 15 minutes of focused, targeted practice than a whole day of mindless repetition. You can make surprisingly great strides with the former. The latter just tends to bake in bad habits.
September 7, 2018, 4:53 AM · Talent definitely plays a role, but the amount of 'talent' required in different fields is different, for someone who wants to get to the top 0.1% of the profession.

Wondrous mathematical capabilities definitely requires a good amount of talent. So do many other academic fields. Physics, chemistry, and astronomy to name a few.

But craftsmanship may not require so much, providing that a student follows and practices it before knowing how to read and write.

Playing a violin is a lot more similar to craftsmanship than academic in the sense that the movements of your arms and hands decides the feat you achieve, so I would say it may require not as much talent, but perhaps no less practice.

September 7, 2018, 7:44 AM · Scott, that's a memorable definition of "talent"!
Edited: September 7, 2018, 3:26 PM · There's an interesting book written in the 1980s by a former conservatory professor turned social scientist, Henry Kingsbury, that argues talent is not a quality of the individual, but rather resides between the individual who recognizes talent, and the individual who is recognized as having talent. He draws upon the Parable of the Talents to help illustrate. He believes that identifying talent in another makes one partly responsible for cultivating it.

In the book, he discusses a student singer he followed during his years of research at the conservatory. At her first recital (maybe her sophomore recital?), her teachers had high praise and deemed her "very talented." However, at her end-of-year recital the next year, they found her very unmusical, not talented, and were close to failing her. (One complaint was that she grimaced during the songs.) He argues that if talent inheres in the individual, it couldn't be there one year, and not there the next. Instead, if they say she is untalented, they can abdicate any responsibility for her further music education: "Well, there's little we can do; she's so untalented."
Considering his definition of talent, you would conclude that good teaching from a teacher who has some investment in the student abilities makes "talent."

September 7, 2018, 8:45 AM · Scott’s definition should be a sticky. It is spot on.
September 7, 2018, 9:23 AM · Are there books or resources on how to practice efficiently?
September 7, 2018, 9:26 AM · The Bulletproof Musician blog is a good resource for that.
September 7, 2018, 1:44 PM · Let me disagree with my colleagues and say that talent does not exist, it is merely an invention created by some people to feel better about themselves, and their lack of success.

Because the reason those people didn’t succeed was not that they had no ‘talent’. It’s just that they were lazy, where others weren’t. It’s very simple.

Of course, environment matters. Opportunities matter. And there is quite a lot of luck involved.
But in the end, it all comes down to how hard you work. And if you didn’t make it, it means you didn’t work hard enough.

So if you want to play the violin well, your success or your failure, is entirely up to you.

You say you practice more than others, but get worse results. It means others practice smarter than you, so they achieve more in less time.

Get a good teacher, and practice deliberately, and you’ll be as good or better than those other people.

Edited: September 7, 2018, 2:06 PM · Talent is an ambiguous term IMO. Aptitudes is what enables talent, and there are certain aptitudes that goes a long way in making one's life easier when it comes to music. Perfect pitch, innard sense of rhythm, proprioception, coordination, memory, creativity, discipline etc. Lacking one or more can be overcomed with dedicated work, but those who have it all don't need to spend time doing that, and can in the same duration and effort progress much faster indeed.
September 7, 2018, 2:15 PM · Roger nailed it.
September 7, 2018, 2:23 PM · Roman you cannot explain away the problem like that. Because one could define "talent" as "not being lazy". And I am pretty sure some people are lazy doing X but not doing Y. So there we are back to "talent for doing X", i.e., not being lazy doing X.
September 7, 2018, 2:28 PM · Talent, that's a deep many faceted subject already covered well here.

I think we all have strengths and weaknesses going into any endeavor. Some things you will do better and easier than others. Other things will seem like an uphill struggle. I don't think anyone has a perfectly rounded set of skills without a lot of work.

I believe some people are better suited to playing some instruments physically. Beginning younger always helps. The younger student has had more time to develop skills now hard wired into their brains and muscle memory so that they are building on other things while the older player is still building on the basics.

You start progressing after you begin, if you begin later well..........

If you really want to do something though, human will power can work around many obstacles. There are a few things I think you must have in order to play any instrument. You need to have tone recognition. If a person is tone deaf might as well forget it.

I think most often with violin in my limited and uneducated guess, I would say it's more about coordination and discipline. Many people come to violin from other instruments, so these aren't music idiots.I think patience is another big plus. You'll need to have plenty of patience with yourself. The violin sounds bad in the beginning no matter how good you are. It isn't as if one day a light bulb goes off and everything suddenly sounds wonderful. With violin I'm finding you sort of work into that.

There are plenty of people who have felt or feel the same way you do. If you have determined that you have the time to put into it and have good instruction cherish the small victories and keep plodding along. You will eventually see a benefit. There will be ups and downs for sure.

Edited: September 7, 2018, 2:57 PM · Jean, what you are describing is not talent, it’s drive.
I was referring to talent as a set of pre-acquired advantages, physical or mental.

But you are right, drive does play a big role indeed.

Edited: September 7, 2018, 10:30 PM · In psychology and neuro-physiology, the "talent" is described as inherent ability "to think" fast. It has nothing to do with to be smart (but can lead to this), but with the time the new connections between neurons appear, and how fast the signal propagates.
One can do nothing about it. People try to change it with drugs )))

Individuals with the fast signals have different features: some have better connection gross musculles-brain (and run faster, jump higher or dance better than others), some have very impressive fine motorics, other can solve math fadter than others and so one.
"Talented" people often see cause-effect connections much faster, than otbers, because they process per time bigger set of data with all details.

Furthermore, the one with good connections at the presence of adrenalin perform better, while in "normal" people too much of adrenalin leads to disruption of signal from brain to muscules. In the stress, people can not think, can not play, can not run, hands are cold and stiff, etc. The "talented" people in turn, tend to solve problems that they could not before, dig out from their heads facts that they were not remembering to study at all, they usually in sport perform better, and in music get "drive", speed, and musicality that their teachers never see at the practicing room.

If you born with an excellent fine motor skills it is with no doubts an advantage for violin. As well as to see the reasoning and effects of what you are doing help, to find a correct posture, bowing etc.
However, the screening shows that only 10% of university students is "talented". On real population, i would expect even less.

So, when you contrast your self with your peers, you usually contrast them with "normal" people.

Of cause, "normal" people with the drive, opportunity, and hard work can achieve brilliant results. As well talented people without hard work will never be good at anything.

But if you have no "right" teachers around, it does not matter how hard you work and how talented you are.

It is like with math: does not matter how fast you are able to calculate, if none told you that 2+2 is 4 not 5, you never get A at the final exam.

To find the teacher that fits your needs is the crucial thing number one.


Edited: September 7, 2018, 11:44 PM · Instead of the word "talent", I'd use the word "instinct".

I also agree on the "visualization" part. Many students play by commands and instructions, only few actually "feel" what they are doing.

I'd cut down some sugar than the recipe suggested, because the cake tasted overly sweet to me.

September 8, 2018, 2:26 AM · Like so many debates it all comes down to etymology. Unless you can agree on the definition of "talent" all discussion is futile. But K Ch is pretty funny
September 8, 2018, 3:28 AM · I think Roger's definition is correct. Talent encompasses a lot of different traits/aptitudes which make it easier to learn a musical instrument.

Maybe everyone "can" get to a high level, but it's going to take most people a lot longer.

But if people sound 10x better than you, they're probably practising a lot more than they let on. Nobody can get anywhere without practising.

Edited: September 8, 2018, 8:26 AM · Thanks K Ch for the definition of talent from a psychological perspective. Very interesting.

As I said in my previous post, it’s a complex topic and I would also say that it’s a spectrum and as has been suggested multi-faceted.

There’s talent for understanding (mental) and “drive” / talent for not being lazy haha and other things as well.

In the case of my student that was struggling, it had nothing to do with technique. I would agree that anyone with proper instruction who put in the hours would achieve some form of technical facility. So in that respect, technique is usually “not a big deal”.

He was struggling with the mental aspects of music. He stayed two months with me and practied 6-8 hours a day. I’d hear him practice, and he did everything exactly like he had to. His technique improved for sure, but he couldn’t memorize the most simple things. I had rarely ever seen a case like his. It took him tremendous brain processing power to recall the things that I was asking him to memorize (we’re talking 2 bars of music and pretty much phrases based on simple arpeggios). My main suspicion is that he had trouble visualizing them usic, and I did my very best to explain what he was playing in theoretical terms : “notice that this is an Am arpeggio, the accompaminent is also playing Am, and notice that the same three notes are repeated A C E A C E “ . Things like that, he couldn’t recall. I have rarely encounter anything like this, and I’m quite invested in his education becquse I want him to succeed and if he does, it’ll be proof for those who say “oh i m not good enough”. I tried very hard to make him understand that outside of physical practice time, he needs to spend time listening to music analytically and to spend as much time thinking about music, visualizing his instrument, etc.

On the other hand, this past week, I just had a lady spend a week here, and I gave her a complex piece of 30 bars of music. She had it memorized within 24 hours. She told me her strategy was to visualize it and that my analysis of the music helped a lot.

September 8, 2018, 8:28 AM · Gemma K, you’re right about practicing. I met a fellow who had only been playing for a few years and he told me he never practiced., I found that hard to believe, until one day I saw him at his dad’s workplace hanging out (his father is a huge public figure in France and owns the big ferris wheel carnival in Paris) with his instrument practicing and playing. I must have gotten there at 3pm, and he was still going on til 2-3 am. When I asked him about it, he said he wasn’t practicing, he was having fun... haha
September 8, 2018, 8:47 AM · Perhaps what we are thinking about here rather than "talent" is like the movie "The Natural." My wife and I have a niece who is a "natural" violinist. As I understand the story, when she was 9 years old her mother decided to take violin lessons. So, one day her daughter decided to try to play her mother's violin - first time. She played so well that her mother quit and never played the violin again and her daughter started taking the lessons.

When I encountered this niece as a violinist she was 16 and we played some duets - I think it may have been the Bach Double Concerto. I was so impressed by her tone, power and musicality. Shortly thereafter she won a competition among young Chicago musicians to solo a concerto with the Chicago Symphony, but apparently she "chickened out" before the concert. However, she did find some employment as a teen at a Chicago music store demonstrating violins to prospective buyers and hung out and played some at Bein and Fushi.

All this happened more than 40 years ago. She joined the union and did some violin playing as a "ringer" or pickup violinist from time to time but never made it her career. One other thing about her - she is a genius with an IQ in excess of 180 and is actually outstanding at everything she has ever done.

September 8, 2018, 6:54 PM · K Ch's commentary seems to conflate a bunch of different things, and even as a crude distillation of the science, isn't really correct.

People are born with different genetic advantages and disadvantages, in terms of intellect, physical ability, temperament, and the like. Genes may be activated, or not, by the environment. (This is called "gene expression", and the study of that field is called epigenetics, for those interested in reading more.) Then, our environment and what we ourselves do will influence what we're eventually good at.

There are certainly genetic advantages that are useful for playing the violin. Some of these advantages are good for just about anything -- a great memory, fast processing speed, and the like. Some of them are probably especially advantageous for violin-playing. Your hand shape and size, for instance, can make it easier or more difficult to learn to play.

Certainly some people have more inherent advantages than others. But I would say that excellent teaching (which usually leads to better practicing) and excellent practice, is the most influential in getting good results.

September 8, 2018, 9:27 PM · I do not play myself (my son does). But i have 7 years of experience with stress-resistance, behavioral and Neuro- science, working with both people and animal models etc.
I have seen a lot of people in different conditions, exposed to many different stresses and tasks etc, with different level of achievements in different fields.

And the physical parameters (length of legs, etc, weight etc) in most of the cases is the least important factor of anything. I have seen 100kg figure skater, who performed at the level of young pretty people, jumping 4*360 with no problem, I have seen a giant ballerina, who failed to be a prima, because of the fact that she is taller than any other perspective partner, not because of the lack of talent or professionalism and many-many other cases. For all such carrier "failures", the limit is not in the person but in society. And the social limiting factors or their absence is not a "talent" for sure and is out of scope of our discussion, in spite it has influence of the carrier.

Until you have a real disability, the physical structure of the body has nothing to do with your performance. Take several top players, and compare their hands: Oistach vs H.H or whom you like, Paganini vs Heifeitz etc.
Go to your local orchestra and make a description of a "better" shape...
You will fail. The only one thing is crucial about your hands, if you can control them well enough. That's it.

Warm-up everyone does to awake the connections brain-arms and fingers, and do everything, including better blood circulation to make your hands respond to your brain signal as fast as possible.

"Stiff hand" is one which does not respond to your commands as fast and well as you wish.

Thousands times of scales, you perform to make you fingers "to know and remember" where to land to do not spend time everytime on thinking where it should be.
Because "a habit" propagates faster than actual thinking.

Memorization is crucial for a soloist but in orchestra you need to "think fast", to read fast, to control fast, and to adapt fast.

And here, I repeat my self, really "talented" people is minority of the population. People with high performance you unlikely will see at your local teacher's studio. They are so rare, that some people do not believe they exist, as they never meet them.

"Talented" children could be noticed from a toddler age, and if environment allows, will propagate ending in world top classes in the topic of their choice.
Chances that a "talented" child ends up to have violin is a prime choice is very-very- very low. In such a case we get stars at Heifetz level.

In amateur orchestra their more likely, as most probably violin is their hobby (secondary activity) and they are instead of being violinist choose to be a doctor, a scientist, etc. They do not really have time to practice as long as profs do. But they are still do the job equal to prof. And some community orchestra are with very high audition standards, which members have passed on top of their families and regular job obligations.

It is those people with positive mind, nothing is difficult, opened for any adventures and challenges, motivating others, displaying joy they have. And they know, if they did not achieve any particular aim is only because they did not have time for this, and have other priorities. They can happily sit in the third raw, not aiming to change it.

And the majority are "normal", hard working people. And even the word here, people tend to use is "hard".

And again, it does not matter if talented or not, with no teacher, you end up in nowhere. With no support, you will never get a chance. With no effective practising, you will not progress etc.

I think to have a good teacher and practicing- it is a point, everyone is agree.

Coming back to the original post:
The talented violinists are exist, but the chances that you compare them (especially in plural form) with you is almost zero.
So, your peers are most probably "normal" as you, it can be the methods of teaching does not fit you.

As many others suggested, try to find another teacher, who will explain you the basics in other words and using other methods of teaching, that fits your needs and helps you to progress.
4h a day is quite a lot...

And another very technical question:
1) do you have a good bow? Do you use correctly rosin?
2) is you violin set up is optimal for you? Strings?
3) posture, shoulder rest etc, is everything is optimal?
4) is it only your opinion, or an actual fact? Did you recorded your self from the distance etc... ? Did you liked it?
5) if you are above 21 years old, 30ml of brandy, 15 min before practicing will help. (I am joking).

September 8, 2018, 9:59 PM · Lydia that's really interesting about gene expression - would you say practising more would help 'activate' the genes or am I interpreting it wrong?
September 9, 2018, 12:26 AM · It's interesting that you cite Paganini, K Ch, because he's an excellent example of how unusual physiology allowed him to be a superstar. It's generally thought these days that he had Marfan's Syndrome, which allowed him to be able to make exceptionally large stretches.

Gemma, epigenetic expression is, AFAIK (I'm not an expert in the field, just an interested reader) most notable in the form of the womb environment. For instance, whether your mother is starved or stressed during her pregnancy will significantly influence the expression of your genes. Practice won't change genetic expression.

September 9, 2018, 2:03 AM · How very encouraging, to read that "until you have a real disability, the physical structure of the body has nothing to do with your performance". Unfortunately I suffer from the real disability of age so I must accept I'll never be a sub 10sec 100m runner.

Of course this is all nonsense. We are all capable of a certain degree of self-improvement but constrained by numerous genetic factors that make some people inherently better than others at some things. I'm prepared to bet Usain Bolt never makes it as a soccer player.

September 9, 2018, 3:52 AM · K Ch, you seem to divide people into "talented" (prodigy material) and "normal" oeveryone else). Why wouldn't it be a continuous scale?
Edited: September 9, 2018, 6:11 AM · Not just violin, pretty much in any technique based activity (sports, musical instruments, crafting...) some people, call them talented, motivated, naturally lovers of that thing they do, will have much better results over other mundane people spending the same amount of hours.

I don't think your "problem" is that there's that thing called talent that I don't have, but that you expect you to be better than you are. Well, 2 things: you're not practicing enough or you're being misguided in your lessons (change teacher). Playing the violin, and any other activity, doesn't require you to be a special talented super human in order to achieve a high level if of course you've put the time and effort necessary to accomplish that.

Talent may be is that thing the top of the top have that makes them a level higher than the regular people. In other words, for example, in violin making, any violin will sound superb if it's done correctly, you don't need that "ultra special piece of wood" to create a violin that will perfectly suit Hahn, Vengerov or whoever. Nonetheless, then there are those special violins that are above the rest, call them talented if you want, the strads, Gesu's...

but you don't want/expect to be a strad, do you?

September 9, 2018, 9:49 PM · On re-reading the OP's original post: I think the comparison is masking the real issue. It sounds like the OP is practicing a lot, but isn't making much progress. This is generally an issue with the teacher. Either the teacher isn't teaching effectively, hasn't taught the OP to practice properly, or the OP isn't paying attention and doing exactly what their teacher tells them to do.
September 9, 2018, 10:33 PM · Lydia,
I used to judge teachers by their students. It's not always valid. Over the years, I've just seen too many students who can't, or won't implement what I've told them. I can tell them over and over to practice in groups and rhythms.

Typical conversations:
"Did you use the practice methods we talked about last week, and that I wrote in your notebook?"
"um...no."

"Did you use your metronome?"
"um... I'm not sure where it is."

"Did you order the book I wrote down for you?"
"Um...my mom hasn't gotten around to it."

The term "Talent" also includes the ability to be a good student and a good practicer.

September 9, 2018, 10:35 PM · Yup. Thus the last part of my sentence: "... the OP isn't paying attention and doing exactly what their teacher tells them to do."

(Also, good teachers aren't necessarily good for all students, depending on teaching and learning styles.)


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