Standards for Music Performance Major?

Edited: April 20, 2019, 6:34 PM · Hello,

I’m just wondering approximately what level a violin student should be at in sophomore year of high school to even consider majoring in music performance in university. What repertoire should the student already have played?

Disclaimer: I am not planning to go this route for many reasons. I’m just another curious soul who is running out of time for violin. *sigh* only 2.5 years until university. I probably won’t have time for violin :(

Thanks for taking the time to read!

Replies (19)

April 19, 2019, 2:12 PM · It depends. The required repertoire even to audition for acceptance at a top conservatory is quite rigorous. However, there are second-tier universities that offer performance degrees that are much more accessible.

For the top schools: you need to have at least one of the Bach solo sonatas (including fugue), a Mozart concerto (4 or 5), a 19th or 20th century major violin concerto (Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, or harder), a showpiece or two. And of course all of the pieces one learns on the way to becoming ready to learn such repertoire.

You might get into a noncompetitive program that offers a BM in performance with Bruch, Lalo or Mendelssohn, a couple of contrasting movements of Bach (not necessarily one of the fugues), and a less strenuous showpiece.

April 20, 2019, 1:11 AM · And to add to what Mary Ellen said: In general, also an etude. In top schools, that's expected to be a Paganini Caprice.

There are some programs that might accept you with more intermediate-level repertoire -- Kabalevsky, say, and maybe a solo Bach movement, and/or a Kreutzer etude. But those will be noncompetitive to the point of generally accepting warm bodies. (These are also more likely to be BA in Music with a Performance concentration, rather than a BM in performance.)

April 20, 2019, 12:57 PM · I would say if you haven't played a Bruch or Lalo level piece well by that time you're behind.

Project yourself out to your senior year: by then you should definitely have "mastered" at least one major concerto (all three movements imo), at least one major showpiece (Intro and rondo, Ziguenerweisen), and a complete Bach unaccompanied piece.

And when I say "well" I mean "Very well": very few (if any) mistakes, consistent pro level tone and intonation, a bow arm developed to the point of high control, and no sloppy, glossed over passages.

Edited: April 20, 2019, 12:58 PM · Double post
April 20, 2019, 8:52 PM · At a minimum, a standard concerto (romantic era and beyond), some solo Bach, some Paganini.
April 20, 2019, 10:16 PM · It's important to understand this process. Sure, they can tell if you've got good technique if you can play the Sibelius Concerto flawlessly. But mature and subtle interpretive prowess is important too. Hence the Paganini and the Sarasate. The solo Bach is mainly a test of your hubris and ambition: At that level you're not really ready for it.
Edited: April 21, 2019, 11:04 AM · I think one has to make a distinction between the minimum standards necessary to get admitted to a performance program, and when it's actually reasonable to enter such a program when one is barely playing at the minimum standard.

If you want to be a future full-time professional orchestral musician, you will almost certainly need to play well enough by the end of high school that you are admitted to a top school (even if, for instance, you take a full scholarship to a good but not top school instead).

If you plan to teach full-time, or will mix teaching with gigging, the more latitude there is in how well you play by the time you finish high school. That's especially true if you can afford to follow your BM with an MM and/or DMA, giving yourself more time to dedicate to improving your playing. The less dependent you are on performing for income, the less you need to be a really adept player.

There are many people who make a viable living with teaching and playing weddings and whatnot -- i.e. who are not adept enough players for freeway philharmonics. A nontrivial number of these people are nowhere near the playing level of doing a Paganini Caprice, can't really play solo Bach well, and whose most difficult works ever studied are still significantly below Bruch level.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 12:13 PM · What Lydia says is true about college in general. If you can just barely gain admission to a B-level engineering program, do you really think you're going to be competitive, when you earn your degree, with graduates from Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Tech? Now, one could argue that an engineering degree is generally a little more versatile, as there is more depth and range of career choices available, but that's not the issue here. The issue is whether a student with so-so performance in high school subjects like math, physics, and chemistry can expect to leapfrog his or her peers at the undergraduate level. From what I have seen, students coming in the gate with the best skill sets are the ones leaving with the best prospects. Diamonds in the rough are few. The rich tend to get richer. If anything, university undergraduate programs are polarizing -- not equalizing -- in terms of skill and knowledge distributions.

"These people are nowhere near the playing level of doing a Paganini Caprice, can't really play solo Bach well, and whose most difficult works ever studied are still significantly below Bruch level."

Hey! I resemble that remark!

April 21, 2019, 12:26 PM · "From what I have seen, students coming in the gate with the best skill set are the ones leaving with the best prospects."

While this and the related argument about music achievement are true to an extent (and of course the argument about very limited performance careers is serious), we should give considerable leeway for kids - as they have not yet fully developed or engaged their capacity (as most of us haven't); especially for individuals who are not yet fully formed, to grow and thrive in a higher educational environment where (once all the partying is done) they might rise to a challenge they had not previously felt.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 1:19 PM · People are so different from one another. It depends on where you are now and how much WILL you have and how hard you plan to work to reach what goal. Set goals and get all the help you can achieving them.

I participated in a masterclass in June 1973 under the direction of Claire Hodgkins, who, at the time, was assistant to Jascha Heifetz at his USC masterclass. (She is the tall lady in the 1962 Heifetz Masterclass video - the one who mistakenly starts her 3-octave G major scale on the D string and has to play her 3 octaves from there.) She brought along at least a half dozen of the students who were in the Heifetz USC class at that time. The first one to play was a small 18 year old "girl" who had started violin when she was 13 years old. I remember noticing that her hands were about half the width of mine. She started out running a bunch of 3-octave scales followed by scales in 3rds and octaves and fingered octaves - and then played a flawless Bruch concerto accompanied by the pianist who was there for all of us -- that was how far she had gotten in only 5 years after starting violin.

There were a number of high school girls in my previous community who passed through the excellent Suzuki school there, went on to more conventional teachers in the "big city," played in our local community orchestra through high school and then on to violin performance degrees at college. One of these girls actually left the local Suzuki school when she was only about 8 years old - but she was an exception who has made an amazing career, Anne Akiko Meyers. When she played with our community orchestra (3 times) it was as the soloist.

My own playing has never been that accomplished, but I have been amazed at the 3 "leaps" of progress I have made in short time periods when I had the WILL to do it. I have also been struck by how much opportunity I wasted much of the time failing to use that WILL to achieve such "leaps."

April 21, 2019, 1:28 PM · J Ray, I think that's possible, but the people who are successful in music as a profession are incredibly motivated and, if they remain happy in the profession, remain incredibly motivated throughout their life. If someone isn't already convinced, by the end of high school, that playing the violin is the one thing that absolutely dominates what they want to do with their life, they should find another profession.

Late starters who are utterly devoted to the craft and are willing to work twice as hard as their earlier-starting peers can sometimes catch up, especially if they have all the way through a DMA to hone their playing. (Note: They also need to be able to afford it.)

Those who have been poorly taught up through the end of high school may have a shot, but they are actually in a worse position than the late starters, because they have actually learned to play the violin badly, and they will end up spending a chunk of their undergraduate years dealing with the frustrating exercise of completely relearning their fundamental technique. (By contrast, late starters don't have those poor habits to unlearn.) So they kind of start at their current playing, minus the rebuild time. Again, determination and extended years in school (with the resulting financial consequences) can make up for this, but drive is necessary.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 1:34 PM · Paul, I think the thing about college is that it's more specialized, and careers can be even more specialized. I wasn't a great STEM generalist in high school, and I was a really mediocre computer engineering student, but I turned out to be great at various IT skills used in the business world.

Admittedly, once I started my career, I also discovered that money and recognition motivated me in a way that grades never could.

April 21, 2019, 1:56 PM · @Lydia Leong @Andrew Victor @Mary Ellen Goree @Ryan Smith

I totally agree with you that those who have been taught poorly are worse off than late starters. My first two teachers did not teach me proper technique so once I completed level 9 RCM in August 2018 it was just impossible to keep going. This led me to make the best decision of my life! I switched to a teacher who studied at the M. Glinka Nizhny Novgorod State Conservatory. My technique I has improved so much but it was tough to relearn everything.

Even though I started young I never liked it enough to practice. I would practice less than 30 minutes a day. I focused all my time and energy on other activities. I only started putting in the time and effort in September 2018.

If I had continued with my previous teacher I definitely would have completed Bruch concerto and some more Bach S&P, but it would’ve been mediocre. With my new teacher, I played some easier pieces like Ries Perpetuum Mobile and Shostakovich Elegy to build technique. She also threw in Paganini Caprice 16 as a challenge. I just competed those pieces last Saturday so now we’re starting new repertoire.

April 21, 2019, 1:59 PM · I probably wouldn’t choose to pursue music professionally unless I can get into a top school and know that I’m capable of landing a spot in a major professional orchestra. I’m much stronger academically so it wouldn’t make sense to give up all that for a shaky career in music.
Edited: April 21, 2019, 2:37 PM · Enchanted Violin: if you can be happy doing anything other than playing the violin, you should probably do that other thing. The road to a professional music career is difficult, stressful, even brutalizing, and I can't imagine going through all that without the drive of feeling that THIS is what I wanted to do, no matter what. I feel very fortunate to have ended up with a good, solid, but not great career in music, but what it took to get to where I am now is something I could never encourage another person to go through. You have to want it beyond all reason.

My father was a physicist who had hoped that I would be the child to follow him into physics (I had been an academic superstar in high school). While I was a good violinist with good teachers, I had never put in the work I should have been putting in all along. How I got into Oberlin playing as I did at 16 remains the miracle of my life. And I actually did complete a BA in math along with the BM in violin performance at Oberlin, as a consolation prize for my father. But I liked math, I didn't love it. I loved playing the violin. And that made all the difference.

April 21, 2019, 2:58 PM · I would probably argue that by most measures, Mary Ellen qualifies as having a "great" career, just not a "star" career. She's a section principal in a major-city US full-time orchestra (i.e., tenure, salary, and benefits), though the season doesn't go the full year (I assume that this is to some degree made up for by summer festival pay and such). Those positions can open up only once every couple of decades, and hundreds of candidates can apply. You have to be staggeringly good to get that job.

To the OP, I would encourage you to continue to play at least casually through college if you can -- and if you can spare the time and can find an excellent teacher, to continue taking lessons. There's plenty of opportunities to make music at an amateur level.

April 22, 2019, 9:49 AM · Lydia, I think one advantage of a basic accredited engineering degree is that there is a minimum level of critical thinking and general cleverness that you come out with, and the program is designed very intentionally to provide a foundation education for a broad spectrum of careers. Also -- sorry, this is hard to articulate -- but there are periods in the history of technology where there are more opportunities for those who are keen to carve out alternative career pathways, who might not have been academic stars but have a few clever ideas and at least some tolerance for risk -- what we commonly call the "entrepreneurial spirit" even though I believe this term does not really capture entirely what I am trying to convey. The dot-com boom of the 1990s is the leading example of such a period.
April 22, 2019, 9:56 AM · Paul, I agree, though I will note that there are always pathways to great things for people who have some degree of street-smarts plus good charisma. At the very least, they can always be salespeople. :-)
Edited: April 23, 2019, 7:03 AM · Coming back to the discussion, it's quite possible for someone with less than truly stellar technical ability to extract MORE enjoyment out of life as an amateur musician (i.e., a day-jobber). I know a terrific person who teaches a certain instrument every day (full studio) and for whom playing two or three gigs per week on the same instrument started to wear on him a little. His solution was to learn a related instrument to put more variety into his gig calendar. I do not have this problem. For me, every gig is something I look forward to, like a vacation or a night out. Meanwhile as a state employee I enjoy great job security and marvelous fringe benefits in addition to a decent salary. Occasionally I do get a gig that was contracted by someone else and the other players are not fun to work with, but I'm pretty adaptable and I find a way to enjoy those gigs too.

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