How do we define success for adult returners?

Edited: May 23, 2019, 6:45 PM · How do we define success for adult returners?

Erik Williams thread on adult beginners got me thinking about adult returners which, it seems to me, is a group of most dedicated posters in

How do we define success? At one level, it is straight forward. We come back to the instrument that our parents imposed on us and stay with it because it fills a void in our lives. In that sense, we are all successful.

However, is there something else that defines success for us?

My own story is in my bio. A brief recap: came back to instrument in 2016. Revisited/studied Mozart 3, Bruch G minor, Mendelssohn E minor, selected movements of solo Bach. I joined a community orchestra last year as the associate concertmaster. I am currently working on Mozart 5 and revisiting Kreutzer.

Replies (28)

May 22, 2019, 9:47 AM · We do not. Progress perhaps? The lack of injury and the amount of fun / pleasure. How many hearts do you touch with your imperfect playing
May 22, 2019, 9:53 AM · Can success be defined in any other way than by measuring progress against the violinist's own goals and expectations?

I do not think we can do this for each other.

May 22, 2019, 9:59 AM · I am an adult returner and the very notion of "defining success" fills me with dread. I don't have to achieve goals and objectices in every area of my life (there are already far too many where I do). I actually like the fact that as an adult, I'm playing for the shear joy of it, not because I want to meet someone else's definition of success.
May 22, 2019, 10:12 AM · People vary dramatically in what they want out of their hobbies.

There are folks out there who play tennis as a hobby, for instance, and who want to win tournaments. Others might be happy to use it to get an hour of exercise a week, using it as an excuse to meet up regularly with a buddy.

May 22, 2019, 10:12 AM · People vary dramatically in what they want out of their hobbies.

There are folks out there who play tennis as a hobby, for instance, and who want to win tournaments. Others might be happy to use it to get an hour of exercise a week, using it as an excuse to meet up regularly with a buddy.

Edited: May 22, 2019, 11:01 AM · I never think in terms of success or conversely failures. Why label it as such? Returning adult pick up the instrument because they feel so inclined to do so. If they stick with it, good, if they don't, good too as they at least gave it a try and determined they don't want to pursue it any further. You can't loose. I suppose one can set a goal and succeed or fail to reach that goal but then so what? I myself think more in terms of small reacheable objectives which I work toward. It's the journey that matters to me.
May 22, 2019, 11:47 AM · My earlier musical life was as an orchestral cellist, but after taking up the violin for other reasons (folk music) I got it into my head that I wanted to be able to play the violin comfortably in an orchestra. The solution was a few years of lessons from a good teacher and then I made the transition. Objective achieved.
May 22, 2019, 11:55 AM · "How do we define success for adult returners?"

Each among us in our own terms.

Edited: May 22, 2019, 12:07 PM · Playing without being forced to define success could be the reason we came back. I have no audience and I make no money from it. I would obviously *like* those things, but now it's clear they are not why I play. They're unrelated to why I play. Several bad teachers and the hyper-competitive Suzuki atmosphere made violin unenjoyable, it felt like a task, like every other thing we are forced to do. Between recovering from that effect and having enough money to fix my violin, buy new strings, rehair bow, and pay for lessons, it took me 15 years to get back. Now I never have to force myself to practice, and it's never boring. That alone makes it rare in my life!
May 22, 2019, 12:23 PM · Also, violin "success" favors those who learn a special kind of devotion and focus early on. I'm sure 4-year-old me could have lucked out with the *perfect* teacher, been sent to a Montessori school and an arts high school, discovered this devotion and made it to music college, but it would have been a very slim chance. The context was off and my personality was at odds with the Suzuki learning style. I was forced to do too much violin stuff, stressed out about it a lot, neglected practice, and ultimately burned out. I have severe enough ADHD that it impeded my progress in school, so I couldn't focus to practice efficiently, especially as at that age I wasn't medicated for it.

I don't understand why the violin world is so fixated on youth and prodigies, or why you "miss the boat" if you can't access proper focus and devotion from age 4 on. If you look at it it's obviously arbitrary. But it seems like that's how it is, and that's the system that tells us what success at violin means.

I don't put any kind of limit on what I might possibly play in the future, there is no way to say. I can't see why I wouldn't continue to improve apace if I keep practicing with focus and genuine interest. Maybe I could eventually get to the level of a music school graduate, say. So few music school graduates end up playing in professional orchestras anyway. If I could play at the level of a violin performance graduate, minus the credential and a couple decades later, how could someone really argue I was a second-class player? It's not as if audiences would enjoy my playing any less!

Edited: May 22, 2019, 12:36 PM · "Success" appears to be a bad word and the "enjoy the journey"-type responses should have been expected. I was thinking of something along the line of more objective measures.

Simon Fischer says, “but surely, whatever the eventual aim of any player, if they are going to put bow to string at all then they should learn the best possible way of doing it. And because some people are "only" going to play in an orchestra, should they therefore be condemned to a lifetime of frustration and difficulty in playing the instrument?”

Erik Williams, in his thread, used a *credible* performance of Vivaldi A minor concerto (as far as I can recall) as a hurdle for a "successful" adult beginner. How many of us, if at all, have a piece of rep. for which we want to achieve the level of *credible* performance--that is, more or less acceptable "pitch, sound and rhythm"?

May 22, 2019, 12:56 PM · When I returned to regular practicing in 2011 (after 20+ years away), my goal was to learn and perform a major concerto with an orchestra. I achieved that goal twice now -- in 2017 when I performed Mendelssohn with my community orchestra, and in March of this year when I performed Bruch. So in that sense, I have achieved "success" according to my own definition. Everyone, returning adults in particular, will (should?) have their own definition of success.
Edited: May 22, 2019, 1:17 PM · I saw the thread you referenced on Adult Beginners, and it's interesting.

The answer to this question is going to differ for every single one of us. After a 45 year hiatus from the violin, my return 6 months ago has proved to remind me that making music is a lifeline for me, one that I had almost forgotten. My goal is to eventually play the type of music I enjoy with others - and I am on track for that with the help of a very good teacher - but that is not my measure for success.

I am also very detail oriented and find it quite enjoyable to dive deeply into my activities. I will certainly never be a professional, that boat sailed 45 years ago if it was ever a possibility - and while I do have goal pieces, as I reach them other pieces will replace them. So, for me, success is to simply be able to play the music I love and to keep improving.

May 22, 2019, 2:10 PM · Leslie asks, "If I could play at the level of a violin performance graduate, minus the credential and a couple decades later, how could someone really argue I was a second-class player?"

If you were playing at a professional level, no one would care what your degree was in.

I also don't think that the prodigy "system" matters unless you're aiming for a particular career track, and even then, it's arguably not especially important. Most of today's soloists were not prodigies, and many prodigies tend to fade out fairly invisibly into the orchestral-player track anyway. For orchestra work, no one cares if you were a prodigy.

Now, on a practical level, most people want to be able to start earning a living in their profession by their mid-twenties, or certainly by the age of 30. So if someone wants to be a pro and they're not playing at a professional level by the time they're in their mid-twenties, they had better have some form of independent wealth or very indulgent parents or something along those lines -- or they need to be willing to take a non-music day job if that's what's necessary to keep themselves financially afloat.

There are plenty of excellent amateur violinists out there. Although you'll often find that those players were highly accomplished young'uns, who have gone into non-music careers.

May 22, 2019, 2:17 PM · "A music student is, I think, like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies..."
Alvie Singer, "Annie Hall," 1977.

What's success, for any age? Not having a dead shark.

May 22, 2019, 2:21 PM · Leslie wrote, "I don't understand why the violin world is so fixated on youth and prodigies, or why you 'miss the boat' if you can't access proper focus and devotion from age 4 on. If you look at it it's obviously arbitrary."

There have been plenty of threads on this subject already. I'll only say here that there have been a sufficient number of prodigies in the past who gradually drove technical expectations placed on violinists into the stratosphere. There is "standard repertoire" that is well beyond the reach of those who start later (say, mid-teens). People invariably point to exceptions ("successful late starters") but the grim truth is that they are very rare.

I necessarily measure success on the violin incrementally. Every piece I learn to play to my own satisfaction, every performance that I give that I play at a standard that I consider acceptable, and every degree of improvement -- these are all successes.

Edited: May 22, 2019, 2:28 PM · I have so much to say about this topic because I have wrestled with the issue of "what is success as an adult returner" ever since I returned...

A year ago I would have stated that I would not be successful until I was capable of competently playing a particular violin/piano piece (and my version of competent was on par with a professional player - within four years with 60mins of practice a day.) Laughable expectations - no wonder I'd been so frustrated and feeling like a failure until recently.

When I stopped playing in my youth, I had learned the Bruch concerto and had the first movement polished. I'm currently working on Ondricek's Barcarole and Handel A Major Sonata. I'm getting a lot out of these two pieces musically and I'm refining a lot of technique, intonation and other important aspects of playing (like collaborating with a pianist) that doing concerto work that's difficult does not provide. If only I had more time in a day!

I'm playing with more ease and confidence (two markers of success that I deemed "goals" when I started working with my current teacher this past fall), and I am a better and more mature player - and thoughtful practicer too - all of this, to me, is success. But of course, now that I am here, I want to keep moving forward.

No one wants to listen to a dead shark...

May 22, 2019, 2:53 PM · Although the obvious answer is always going to be that it "depends," I do think a few parameters can be put into motion:

Success, in the case of a hobby, means the person feels fulfilled doing it, and has achieved the level where they can continue feeling fulfilled in a sustainable way. Humans are social creatures at heart, so what I've noticed is that most adult students feel happiest when they're finally able to join a community orchestra. However, to feel like you're accepted as part of a group, you have to feel like you're pulling your weight. And from what I've noticed, The Vivaldi A minor (intermediate) level tends to be where a student can join a community orchestra and feel like they're adding to the sound rather than detracting from it.

However, there are exceptions to this. Some community orchestras focus on easier music, so a solid Suzuki 2 or 3 might suffice. Or, if you're looking to play very simple folk music with some friends, even Suzuki book 1 can be enough.

Practicing alone eventually gets boring/sad for anyone. There needs to be a group element eventually. So to me, that's the most statistically significant aspect of success: the ability to play with others.

Edited: May 22, 2019, 9:12 PM · I agree that measurable achievements such as contributing to music making by soloing with and playing in community orchestras are important motivation that moves us forward.

I think the point about conservatory-level playing is interesting in that it gives us some measurable guidance for progress. To get there, we need to achieve a pre-conservatory level playing which is well defined.

One way I evaluate my “success” is by focusing on pitch, sound, and rhythm. By listening to my recordings of practice sessions in the last two and half years. A few things are noteworthy. (1) the upper third of my three octaves scales are much better; my octaves and thirds are also noticeably better. (2) I have been able to regain a relax and continuous vibrato, especially the fourth finger vibrato. (3) playing in an orchestra improved my musicianship.

In terms of creditable performance, the results, two and half yeas after returning, are mixed. I think I can “credibly” play Mozart 3 and Mozart 5. I do NOT believe I am playing Bruch and Mendelssohn at a level I think is credible.

May 23, 2019, 4:06 AM · I have read Erik's post, but I think the Vivaldi A minor is just a convenient measure so that he can conduct some statistic. In reality, I think there is more like a scale of success, instead of a single point of which if you pass, you success, if you fail, you suck. I would say this scale is identical for children, so we will have someone more successful than others.

To look at the question the other way, is there a level if we cannot achieve, we generally consider to be failed in violin playing? I think there is a general consensus on it, but it tends to be quite low ball (combination of intonation problem all over, horrible rhythm, wrong note, bad posture, etc and never get any better).

Also, look at it in another way. Why we don't judge the success of an adult beginner in the same scale of a child? Well, is the Holy Gail of music playing has to be going to top notch music school, get a job in famous orchestra and solo performance? Assume an adult returner/late starter can go for that journey (say you win a lottery), then what means the most for you? The ability to play the most difficult music? Or that other people look at you as a musician with respect? Or actually make a living by playing music?

Edited: May 23, 2019, 5:29 AM · I returned to playing violin (stopped at college, returned at 59) with a very specific goal, to be able to play duets with my recently widowed cello playing father, to bring him some happiness. I achieved this right away, happily, and then I found I loved playing not just with him but with others, and also, complete suprirse to me, I loved practicing, totally unlike when i was young, as others have said too. Playing again brings us many happy hours of duets and also has led me to more chamber music and now I practice to improve so I can enjoy more chamber music opportunities. I did love chamber music growing up, with two fabulous summers at Apple Hill. I consider myself very lucky to have discovered this new source of deep pleasure in my current life. Clearly people return for different reasons and with different goals.
May 23, 2019, 5:30 AM · I enjoy playing, it helps relax me, helps me make friends, gives pleasure to others, I can feel my mastery of the instrument slowly growing: = success.

If you want a yardstick, then you can always take exams (for fun). I took the DipABRSM diploma, passed at the second attempt, have a plan to take the LRSM someday but only when the rest of my life gives me the spare time to focus on it - I always have too many other projects!

Edited: May 23, 2019, 1:35 PM · Maybe (and perhaps especially) as adult returners, we do not need to concern ourselves with something as quixotic as "defining success".

For adult hobbyists, success maye be defined as "getting an audition for a community orchestra", or performing the Mendelkovsky quartet with friends. Or it could mean having just one productive practice session a week.
The wonderful freeing thing about being a (privileged) adult is that you can find and define meaning for yourself, and it doesn't really matter if it, say clashes with the pedagogy, or goes outside of the concerto sequence, or even if it's not internally consistent with your beliefs/personality. Of course when tackling technical challenges the definitions of success are more rigid, but that doesn't mean that tackling technical challenges defines success in any way.

As long as you're not getting mental distress/anxiety (and perhaps we can include physical injury as well here), success as an adult is in the journey.


May 23, 2019, 1:59 PM · It depends on what your goals are, doesn't it?

If you absolutely have to have a level of playing ability to aspire to, I would consider any adult returner who surpasses their prior level to be successful, because at the point that you reach and surpass your prior level, you are no longer "relearning" old skills. (But I'm a late starter rather than an adult returner -- I was a beginner when I graduated from high school and never stopped playing.)

May 23, 2019, 3:02 PM · The very fact that you returned is a miracle in itself.
May 23, 2019, 6:30 PM · "The very fact that you returned is a miracle in itself."

A miracle indeed!

May 23, 2019, 8:56 PM · A gift.
May 23, 2019, 9:38 PM · A gift indeed!

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