Figuring out if you're on the right track

March 15, 2020, 12:03 AM · There are a lot of posts on this forum (and others) from students at various stages of their development, trying to figure out if they're on a reasonable pre-professional trajectory, what that trajectory looks like, and where that trajectory leads to. (For instance, endpoints as a soloist, full-time tenured player in a world-class orchestra, full-time tenured player in a regional orchestra, freeway philharmonic gigging and teaching, or public-school music educator.) There's probably a parallel set of trajectories for adult beginners looking to accomplish various things (dream-of-being-a-pro path, path to community orchestra, path to chamber music, etc.)

I think it'd be useful to see a range of opinions on good goal-points by certain ages for each trajectory, what practice time and work looks like at each major inflection point, what sort of teachers to look for at a given stage, etc.

Might be interesting to see how opinions differ by country/system, too, i.e. US vs Canada vs UK vs other places.

Replies (71)

March 15, 2020, 5:05 AM · Not feeling qualified to list specific works to have learned by any specific age, I won't attempt that.

But as music teacher with 44 years experience, I will offer the following insight:
since most successful musicians at any stage (international soloist, tenured top-notch symphony, amateur, etc.) involves playing music with other people I think that at every stage musicians should play in ensembles of some sort. The skills of following a conductor, blending tone with a section and an ensemble, playing in tune with others, following a section leader, are very important and are often overlooked especially in the earlier stages of a student's development. And I don't mean simply playing with a sympathetic pianist who will follow tempo fluctuations in order to make the student sound good.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 6:54 AM · If I am interpreting your question correctly, Lydia, what you're after is something like this for "salaried orchestral player":
Age 10 (5th grade): Student is practicing an hour a day. Mazas Op. 36. Trott double-stops. Haydn G Major. (here it is assumed that any study or rep would be performance-worthy)
Age 12 (7th grade): Mozart 3 with Franko Cadenza. Bach D Minor and E Major Partitas except for the Chaconne. Dont Op. 37 and Kreutzer. 90 minutes.
Age 13 (8th grade): The Bruch Level. Rode. Two hours, first serious competitions.
Age 15 (10th grade): Lalo SE, Wieniawski 2. Some Paganini. All Bach S&P. SS IRC. Three hours plus some travel.
Age 17 (12th grade): Tchaik, Sibelius, most of Paganini. Three hours plus a lot of travel.

Now -- you can argue the details (the ages, the practice hours, the specific pieces and studies ). Really I just pulled those out of thin air -- I can't play any of that stuff. But ... there are really only two arguments here. One is that the details are wrong. The other is that the entire premise of the question is wrong, which I believe many have tried to argue in these discussion pages in the past.

The reason I have "The Bruch Level" in bold is because I think it's possible to distill all of this down to: "At what age should someone be playing a reasonable Bruch if they intend to play in the LA Phil someday, vs. if they intend to teach Suzuki lessons someday?"

Edited: March 15, 2020, 8:02 AM · Why am I so bemused by threads like this one?
"full-time tenured player in a world-class orchestra"
Read James Gallway's autobiog. When he became principal flute in the Berlin Phil, he was not only not tenured, he was officially part-time, so that he didn't have full-time employee's rights.
Before figuring out if they are on the right track, perhaps people need to figure out if they have any connection with reality?

Buying a kid a pedal-kart and having him want to be a racing driver for a week is one thing, but buying him a violin and having him want to know if he's on the right track to become an international soloist is in a different league of fantasy, even for talented people.

My non-cynical advice is get into a school/conservatoire and then think about your career in your final year with advice from your professor.

March 15, 2020, 8:21 AM · The problem with any such rubric is that progress isn’t linear.

At 15, I was good but no knowledgeable professional or teacher (including the 2020 me) would have pegged me as a future titled player in a full time orchestra. But when by a miracle I found myself at Oberlin with the right teacher under the best circumstances, my learning curve shot up astoundingly steeply over four years and by 21 I was caught up and solidly on track.

March 15, 2020, 8:38 AM · That's true, so perhaps this might be better simplified to a professional vs nonprofessional track -- i.e. are you on a trajectory that, given typical progression, leads to being competitive come college audition time, or not.

I think there's a lot of confusion out there as to what constitutes being "good enough", which we see plenty of in this forum, and which I see talking to kids well-placed in "chairs" in their public school orchestra but without contact with a broader musical reality.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 10:11 AM · But my point is, I was not on a track to be competitive for college auditions. I got very very lucky in that Oberlin had just lost their longtime senior violin professor, the department was a bit chaotic with a last-minute part-time interim appointment, and violin applications that year were at a historic low. Any other year, I don't think I would have gotten in. But the last-minute interim turned out to be Stephen Clapp on his way up, by sophomore year I belonged there, and by senior year I was competitive enough to get into Indiana for grad school without needing a miracle.

I mean, I wasn't playing Accolay in 11th grade, I was certainly better than that. But as the beneficiary of some extraordinary circumstances, I wouldn't have fit into any sort of "preprofessional" rubric as a high school student.

March 15, 2020, 10:19 AM · I agree that tracks are by no means linear. For example, my son always showed great promise, but due to life circumstances (his older sister being very sick, then on hospice, then passing away over a period of 8 years) he was unable to study with a high level teacher or enter a program until he was 12. His progress since then has been tremendous.

In any case, below is what I see for kids on a professional track at my son's pre-college program...note that this is a very high-level program, so the standards are really high.

Age 10/11 - At least one Mozart concerto, Kabalevsky, De Beriot, Bach Partita 3. Play in orchestra and start some chamber music if available.

Age 11-13 (middle school) - Complete at least 4 standard concertos (Bruch, Mendelssohn, Saint Saens, Wieniawski, Lalo, Vieuxtemps etc.); Bach Partita 2 and Sonata 1; assortment of smaller pieces like Zigeunerweisen, Intro and Rondo Capriccioso, Scherzo Tarantelle, etc.; start easiest Paganini at the end. Continue orchestra and start playing in chamber music regularly. Try to achieve at least a handful of prizes in junior level competitions.

Age 14 - Finish most standard concertos; one modern concerto (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Barber); continue with Bach; more Paganini; more small pieces and sonata rep. Start intensive chamber music; lesser orchestra emphasis in high school years. Solo with orchestra at least once by this point.

Age 15 and 16 - Do at least one major concerto each year (Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, etc.); continue with Bach, Paganini, and small pieces. Try to achieve a handful of prizes in high school level competitions. Continue with chamber music.

Age 17 (senior year) - By the end of high school, have completed at least 3 major concertos, most if not all the standard concertos, all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, most if not all the Paganini Caprices. Should be a well-developed chamber musician. Should have soloed with orchestra at least a few times. Should have a list of competition prizes, solo performances, recitals, etc.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 10:32 AM · I just want to mention that even today, there are young violinists getting into music school and eventually making some sort of professional life in music who would not be competitive in her son's program or at least are not covering that much repertoire before high school graduation. That is high-level stuff.

I mean, yeah, they need to be playing at least one concerto at the Tchaik/Sibelius level along with at least one Bach solo sonata and a difficult showpiece if they want to have a shot at a tier one conservatory, but every time Susan posts her list I get heart palpitations. I know several young violinists, former students of myself or colleagues, who successfully auditioned at solidly good music schools and have gone on to professional careers without nearly that much under their belts by high school graduation.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 11:02 AM · I'm pretty sure I hadn't covered absolutely everything on that list by the end of my time at conservatory when I started my professional career.
March 15, 2020, 10:53 AM · Phew!!
March 15, 2020, 10:57 AM · @Mary Ellen, it gives me palpitations as well. Hence the caveat that this is a high-level program. There are only a few pre-college programs at this level, so these are the kids not only getting into top conservatories but also getting scholarships. It's not necessarily the ONLY path to being a professional, though. I don't think you need to be at that level to necessarily succeed later on. It just may take you a little bit more of catch-up time.

I will say, though, some of them do burn out. Others sometimes become very technically proficient but can't breach the next step to becoming true artists.

Finally, his program is a little bit different in that it really emphasizes chamber music, and from a solo perspective kids are for the most part encouraged to move through more repertoire than their peers. They also often wait until later to do larger competitions (likely due to the fact they aren't spending a year on every concerto) -- you will see tons of alums doing (and winning) big international competitions, but they aren't doing them in high school for the most part. About as big as they go in high school is Cooper, Klein, or Stulberg.

Edited: March 15, 2020, 11:00 AM · Interesting and difficult question. So many pathways and goals that it might be impossible to derive anything close to a common path. Of course there are the various methodologies (Suzuki, RCM...) that set forth some form of a path to various interpreted degree. By that I mean some will claim I played this concerto by this time, got into a community orchestra by this time etc. with no reference to the level of play. Anyone can claim to play Twinkle, can they play it virtuously? Even a basic scale, sure I can play a 3 octave Bb scale, but how well? This makes it very difficult to interpret any responses you might get.
March 15, 2020, 10:58 AM · Irene, same.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 11:47 AM · It seems to me perfectly possible that a student could emerge from high school having totally nailed Susan's list, and yet, after four years at conservatoire, somehow, it doesn't translate into either a soloist career or successful orchestral auditions. It's still a subjective process, which is subject to factors like the proclivities of the judges and dumb luck (please don't tell me there's no luck involved). Also, during orchestral auditions they ask you to play one or two concertos, right? So it's not clear to me why anyone would need to learn all 120 of them, or even just the 30 or so "major" ones.
March 15, 2020, 12:55 PM · Susan's list strikes me as reasonably consonant with what I see locally, though there are a lot of teachers who do the one-concerto-a-year-polished-to-death local competition circuit.

Call it Bruch level by middle school, Paganini No. 1 by age 15, Tchaikovsky/Brahms/Sibelius by senior year of high school. Three major works and various minor works each year.

I don't think it's an unreasonable pace of repertoire. When I was a single adult in my twenties, on about 60 to 90 minutes of practice a day I could handle exercises, two etudes a week, chamber music and orchestra music, and still learn three or four major works a year (no harder than the first-tier Romantic concertos, though) to a performance level (but not competition level).

March 15, 2020, 12:58 PM · @Paul you are 100% right. Some of them don't do great. Many do. It doesn't always translate. Especially in the middle/early high school years, technique is often prized over interpretation and musicality. But if you end up being a boring player with amazing technique, you won't ever get anywhere.

As for learning lots of concertos (and it isn't 30 -- it is pretty much the DeLay list), there are two reasons that dictate which ones to learn:

1) Concertos that are pedagogically important

2) Concertos that you will be asked to play with orchestra (or auditions/comps), so you have at least a foundation and can bring them up to polish within a short period of time.

March 15, 2020, 1:14 PM · I suspect that part of the argument for learning things young is that they stick with you better. Repertoire I learned as a little kid is with me forever; I can play you a good chunk of the Suzuki repertoire from memory, still.

My repertoire from my teens was securely learned and was still fairly securely memorized a decade later (i.e., I could manage to play the first movement of the Tchaikovsky from memory without having touched it for more than ten years); now, nearly thirty years later it's still there but shakier (and my less secure fundamental technique creates a delta between head and hands).

Repertoire learned and memorized in my late 20s is mostly gone from my head unless it's such a deeply familiar tune that I can fill in the gaps -- i.e., I know what the tune for the Meditation from Thais sounds like, so even if my hands don't do the right thing I know what the notes should be and I can just do what should be done. However, most of this repertoire I can bring back into my fingers without much effort.

And repertoire that I have learned since I started playing again at essentially age 40 is just not sticking around for a long time. This is not just that I'm not practicing enough; even the hundred hours of practice that I poured into each concerto performance has resulted in no permanent imprint of the works on my brain.

So there's a strong argument that you should get the notes for as many major repertoire works under your belt as young as possible. Then you can come back and polish and iterate later in life, as you see fit. It's also how you discover what your "permanent" works will be -- the things that you'll go drag around with you to every orchestra audition, say.

The ability to play really well in general is no guarantee that you can play an orchestra audition perfectly under circumstances of extreme pressure. It's rhythm and rushing that eliminates a lot of candidates, not their technical or artistic abilities.

March 15, 2020, 1:17 PM · The counterpoint is that if you learn something before you're ready for it and learn it badly, it is very very hard to relearn it well. I've seen some people suggest learning excerpts like don juan as early as possible - from my personal experience playing works I learned in high school as an adult, I think that's terrible advice since it's very hard to get early unmusical impressions out of your head.
March 15, 2020, 3:33 PM · Yes, that's absolutely true. I can instant regress into old habits if I pull out repertoire from certain points in time in my life. At the same time, a teenager who is capable of readily handling four big concertos a year probably isn't going to play them substantially less musically than a conservatory student. Indeed, Susan's cadre of brillliant young wizards could probably manage those concertos better than quite a few professionals that I've seen who have managed to get a performance MM with marginal technique; even if those mature pros may theoretically have better musical ideas, they lack the expressive tools to bring those ideas out.

The sort of kid that Susan (and I) are talking about has the technical command for the works that they are doing; they are not being pushed prematurely into things they aren't capable of managing. (Susan's son has quite a nice YouTube video of him performing Wieniawski 2 with orchestra.)

Edited: March 15, 2020, 3:45 PM · I think it's fine if you're being guided by a good teacher who knows what they're doing, but if you're one of those people, you're not getting your advice and repertoire from this site. For the people who are looking here in hopes of getting an extra tip or trick to push them over the curve, suggesting they plow through as much as possible is irresponsible.
March 15, 2020, 4:18 PM · "The best laid plans,..." As I'm over 70 (not alone on this forum) I can look back on both my professional and musical life and realize that the most formative factor was "serendipity."

When in High School I was going to be a professional cook and I actually made that happen in the days before the words "Celebrety" and "Chef" ever appeared next to each other in a sentence. That lasted just beyond my military service (as a cook), tried sales, went to college to become a bookkeeper got a degree in Accounting and landed a job in a warehouse counting inventory. Went back to college nights to get more education about how to run companies, realized that it is a science not an art form and took a lot of industrial engineering courses. Became quite the expert on what is now called "Supply Chain Management" got recruited by Bell Labs, got more education while writing and teaching SCM.

During this time I found, had restored and started my Violin career. My goal was to learn how to play the melody and descant lines of hymns for church (I also had a brief fling with the potential of becoming a vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church). Got invited to join the community orchestra, played there for decades and enjoyed it while learning more-and-more about music - just for fun.

Retired and discovered that my ability to teach allows me to help young musicians who want to learn how to play the violin but don't have the necessary family resources.

There was never a coherent plan. I'm sure that some people have that but I have learned to find the source of energy and launch from there. None of my students will become professional musicians but they do enjoy playing the violin and making music.

I've read a number of the biographies of the "great" performers and the common element doesn't seem to be ticking off all the right boxes - it is about finding the passion and feeding the fire of that passion.

March 15, 2020, 4:46 PM · Irene, I agree, though it's probably not erroneous to suggest that if they're working on Accolay and their peers are doing three or four major concertos a year, they should probably think hard about their path forward.
March 16, 2020, 8:47 AM · Daughter’s teachers determine rep, but I had felt from
looking around that Bruch by 12 was a benchmark. Said on another post, she is 11 and just starting it.
Saving Susan’s post, wish we lived some place with the same opportunities.
We have looked at a residential arts high school- were told bare minimum for freshman (13?) audition was Bruch.
March 16, 2020, 9:40 AM · @Matthew, you can always join the club that flies in weekly. I have no idea how they afford it, though.
Edited: March 16, 2020, 10:13 AM · I have thought about this over the last couple of days, from a UK perspective. There are multiple teaching systems at play in the UK, predominantly ABRSM and Suzuki (in my opinion anyway). I am a mish-mash of both. But I will use a friend of mine as an example.

Started aged 7, in the area we grew up in, this is a standard starting age. Year 4/ Around first grade.
Aged 8 - Grade 1 (ARBSM).
Aged 10 - Grade 2
Aged 13 - Grade 5
Aged 13 - auditioned successfully into the area's county training string orchestra and main orchestra.
Aged 14 - Grade 6
Aged 15 - Grade 8 (huge amount of progress within a two or so year period).
Aged 15 - auditioned successfully into county youth orchestra.
Aged 18 - successfully auditioned and accepted into RAM, Royal Welsh and BCon. Attended RAM.

To audition into the conservatoires in the UK, generally you need to at least have Grade 8 ABRSM/Trinity.
Royal Academy of Music requires the first movement (with cadenza) of a concerto by Haydn or Mozart and a contrasting piece.
Royal Welsh advise you to select pieces which allow you to demonstrate the full extent of your ability, but to only choose Grade 8 pieces if they demonstrate your full range of technical ability. To me this suggests having a Mozart or a Haydn concerto down, much like the RAM.
Birmingham Conservatoire require a first movement of a Mozart Concerto with Cadenza or any two movements of Solo Bach and A contrasting piece of your choice.

Auditons also have sight-reading etc, academics need to be completed, at least 2 or 3 A Levels, to include Music.

Practice time wise, I was raised with this: (Grade reference is to ABRSM grades, not grades at school).
Grade 1 and 2 - 20 minutes a day
Grade 3 and 4 - 30 minutes a day (surprisingly, not much progress was made during these stages).
Grade 5 - 1 hour a day
Grade 6 and 7 - 1-2 hours a day
Grade 8 - 2 hours a day, at least!
DipABRSM - 3 hours a day

What I didn't learn until my later years as a teenager was how to practice. While completing the lower and middle ABRSM grades, I use to play through each set piece a few times, practice scales and I was done. Certainly not practice. It wasn't until a change of teacher for the later two grades (7 and 8), that my teacher showed me how to practice, selecting the parts that were difficult and focussing on them. Being selective about practice, being aware that I did not need to practice everything on my list every single day. This is when the polishing a piece became particularly relevant.

I do teach these days, beginners only, up to grade 5 ABRSM (will take it further once I complete further ABRSM diplomas). All I ask is that I have a commitment of practice from my students. For my little ones, 30 minutes a day seems to be effective, but it doesn't have to be at the same time. The parents know what works for their kiddos.

When I have a student working on grade 5, I do expect a good hour or so a day, but by this age, practice doesn't (generally) need to be supervised by parents, and practice is completed. What is most important is that the child enjoys music, and if they want to make a career of it, I do as much as I can with them, before referring them to a more experienced teacher who has experience of working with children to get them into UK conservatoires.

From my perspective, the technical demands (per age) for children in the UK and the US really seem to differ. I know very few players that started the Bruch as a teenager, usually something tackled at university level. Mozart and Haydn, seems to be as far as people get before entering college, but that is how the system seems to be designed.

Edit: fixing the grade / year four comparison US to UK. Thank you Mary Ellen!

March 16, 2020, 10:09 AM · Age 7 is typically second or first grade in the U.S., depending on when the child's birthday falls. Most children start kindergarten at 5, some at 6, and first grade follows.
March 16, 2020, 10:29 AM · Somewhere online, Simon Fischer has a very interesting rant on UK training vs. US training and how the UK training is significantly deficient in its expected technical standard pre-conservatory compared to the US. I can't seem to find it at the moment.

March 16, 2020, 10:49 AM · That would be an interesting read Lydia, I would almost agree about the deficiency in some UK training. There are musical boarding schools like Purcell and Chethams, which thoroughly prepare students.

From what I have seen of US prepared students, they are absolutely fantastic, represent well at local and international competitions etc.

I wonder how it compares for training in other instruments, such as woodwind or brass?

Will have a look online for Simon Fischer's rant.

Edited: March 16, 2020, 11:17 AM · I think this is what Lydia is referring to:

Edited: March 16, 2020, 11:39 AM · Thank you for sharing Susan.

Much of that is very true! My first ever violin lessons were in a shared group, I was one of 5 beginners. I could already read music, so quickly progressed compared to the others. But once on my own, I had one 10 minute lesson, once a week, provided by the peripatetic violin teachers that visited my school(s).

My brothers also started on similar lessons, 10 minutes once a week in their respective instruments. Only one made it to music college on the bassoon (he really wanted to, is very talented, works really hard).

It was only after changing to 1 hour lessons once a week, and hours of thorough practice did I really improve.

Sadly, this is still the case, I have "inherited" more than one student from the peripatetic teachers, badly set up, with a very weird bow hold, left hand firmly against the violin neck instead of a straight wrist. I have to go back to basics, much to the dismay of the paying parent.

However, I am sure some peri teachers are absolutely fantastic! I know of one or two in my growing up area that were seen as the teachers everyone else passed their students on to, once they got proficient.

March 16, 2020, 1:34 PM · Susan, yes, that's the one I was referring to. Thanks for tracking it down.

March 17, 2020, 9:26 AM · Sadly, Susan, commmuting to Chicago, even previous to a pandemic,, is not an option.:(
I grew up about 2 1/2 hours away in Indiana. Ft. Wayne was the big city.
Chicago was the big, big city.:)
Edited: March 17, 2020, 9:41 AM · "Age 7 is typically second or first grade in the U.S., depending on when the child's birthday falls. Most children start kindergarten at 5, some at 6, and first grade follows."

These things are a mystery to most British people (they crop up regularly in movies and stuff).

I, born in April, was 11 when I began secondary school (junior high?).
My brother, born in September, was 12, and upset about it.
It took me most of a lifetime to work out that the staggering is so that everyone is the same age at the end of each academic year when they might all be sitting exams.

So I need to remember that you add 6 to the grade number to get someone's age at the end of that grade.

March 17, 2020, 10:07 AM · Where are all those teen-aged aspiring orchestral violinists when you want to hear from them?!? It'd be interesting to know what they think are reasonable trajectories.
March 17, 2020, 11:25 AM · Jocelyn, they don't have time for frivolities like posting replies on No sleepovers, either.
Edited: March 17, 2020, 11:35 AM · In the U.S., the staggering is incidental to having a birthday cutoff at the start of kindergarten with the idea that children need to be a certain age before starting school. There has been quite a fad in recent years to "redshirt" (hold back a year) students, especially boys, whose birthday falls near the cutoff, so that they are the oldest in the year instead of the youngest. In some cases this is helpful though not, in my opinion, for as many children as have actually been held back.

Every state determines its own cutoff date and flexibility with regard to that date. The cutoff in Texas is age 5 on or before Sept 1 to start kindergarten, and age 6 on or before Sept 1 to start 1st grade. After that, a child may be enrolled in 2nd grade if they have completed 1st grade whether or not they met the cutoff before. My daughter was born two hours before midnight on Sept 1 and we enrolled her "on time," so that she actually started kindergarten at age four in August of the year of her 5th birthday. Had she been born just a few hours later than she was, we probably would have sent her to private school for kinder/first to get around the age cutoff issue since unlike some other states, Texas has no flexibility on the cutoff date regardless of the child's demonstrated maturity or academic readiness.

Elementary school is K-5 (kindergarten being optional though nearly everyone does it); middle school is grades 6 - 8; high school is grades 9 - 12. Back in my day the breakdown was typically K-6, 7-9, 10-12, and "middle school" was called "junior high."

Edited: March 17, 2020, 1:53 PM · My best friend is a week older than me, and we were on either side of that divide, and they held me back (psychologically unready after some kind of testing). Two years later they skipped me ahead so that I was back with my friends. I'd be curious to know if that is a current practice.

Edit: I probably didn't really speak a ton of English at the time, since we spoke Polish at home, so that was probably a factor. Although I can't remember ever having any confusion about language or any issues when I did get into pre-school.

March 17, 2020, 11:43 AM · Skipping has always been case-by-case with the decision either left to the school or the district. I haven't heard of anyone else being skipped forward to rejoin their age group. My guess is you had very proactive parents.
March 17, 2020, 12:20 PM · Paul, do you think they're busy polishing Sibelius or Accolay?
March 17, 2020, 3:23 PM · Ahh, Simon Fischer, that everyone loves, but for me is so pedantic, so boring a personality. And not a great teacher.
March 17, 2020, 3:54 PM · @M Zilpah, you mention Abrsm grade 8, but I'm not convinced it's a useful metric. Anybody who successfully auditions for one of the major coleeges is playing beyond grade 8 standard but grade 8 distinction is not in itself sufficient to gain entry.

Re audition requirements. I agree that the overall standard is lower in the UK, but most successful applicants will be at post-Bruch level.

(again @M Zilpah, it sounds like we had very similar early experiences of the violin. Absolutely agree with what you say about the range of quality of music service teachers)

March 17, 2020, 4:09 PM · @Jack,
I agree, grade 8 distinction is not sufficient to gain entry, but from experience, other teachers use this as a pre requisite before teaching Haydn or Mozart. In this case, I feel like it’s a bench mark for those on the college track. But yes, the most successful probably should be at a post Bruch level, (rarely seen at age 18 in the UK).

I do think the standard is lower in the UK, but purely because the system we have seems to set us up for this.

March 17, 2020, 4:24 PM · I would argue that the UK system is too focused on exams and not enough on technique or repertoire. The concerto progression I read about on this site plus a healthy diet of studies and scales sounds so much better than the graded exam repertoire lists.
March 17, 2020, 5:19 PM · Agreed Jack. When I reached my final teacher, there was so much technique I had to develop, it was a proper back to basics experience for a few months.

For those of you in the USA, are there graded exams like ABRSM? Is ABRSM used?

March 17, 2020, 6:11 PM · ASTACAP is ASTA (the US strings teacher's association) attempt to do graded exams, but they are available in only a handful of places in the US, I think, starting at their point of origin in the Washington DC area.

Here in the DC area, there's also ABRSM and Trinity exams for those who want to take them. But as far as I know, it's mostly non-US folks transiting through for a few years on diplomatic postings and whatnot, whose kids are continuing to follow the educational systems of their home countries.

March 17, 2020, 11:22 PM · I remember being aware that ASTACAP existed in the Houston area in the late 1990s, but no one I knew took the exams. I knew one violinist at my high school who was taking Canadian exams, but I think he was Canadian and just continuing.

I took ABRSM Grade 8 piano, Grades 5 and 8 theory, and DipABRSM piano performance exams in Houston; this was a continuation of the ABRSM piano exams I took growing up in Dubai.

Edited: March 18, 2020, 4:59 AM · Re ABRSM grades:
The exams demand three contrasting pieces with complementary technical and musical demands, a large spectrum of scales & arpeggios with bowings chosen on-the-fly, tricky sight-reading, and tests of aural perception. The examiner provides written comments on each piece and section.
The examiner, often a pianist, has followed courses to understand the particularities of each instrument, and the severity of the assessment grows as we procede through the grades.

The only problems for aspiring professionals are the the post-aristocratic British leaning towards amateurism, and also pushy tone-deaf parents who only look at the grading rather than the examiner's comments.

Edited: March 18, 2020, 5:57 AM · My US piano teacher had never heard of the ABRSM before I asked to continue taking ABRSM exams. I think her perspective on it is similar to the American violinist's perspective. She greatly appreciated the sight-reading and aural testing, saying that it was common for American piano students to reach conservatories without being adequately taught those musicianship skills. But the list of pieces for DipABRSM piano performance, in her opinion, consisted mostly of the kind of pieces that someone aiming for conservatory should be mastering before reaching high school age.
March 18, 2020, 7:03 AM · There are teachers in the UK, my previous included, who feel that the ABRSM exams are too constricted in terms of what repertoire they offer, until ones gets to the diplomas. But even then, its not as big as you'd want it to be
Edited: March 18, 2020, 7:41 AM · ABRSM: -

The New Zealand offering seems a bit fuller:

March 18, 2020, 7:44 AM · In the ABRSM exam, you need to play 3 not-very-long pieces of music plus some scales, sight-reading and aural test. Assume you take one grade a year, there are plenty of time left to work on other repertoire. Then, what else do a UK teacher assign outside ABRSM material? And why this is not involving those big or small concertos the American students are playing? Because there is no interest? Not enough fundamentals/techniques built up to support learning those repertoire?
Edited: March 18, 2020, 9:30 AM · Fischer's article in the link above gives a clue to the British School of Violin Playing (!): the school timetables just don't allow for the necessary hours of practice. In France, the school days are even longer:
I met one gifted girl of 11yo who got home at 4.30pm: tea, then practice from 5 to 8pm, dinner, then homework... She would have to have cut back on practice as she progressed through middle school.
In Britain or France, only the specialist schools can balance the day in favour of musical excellence (in UK, reduced school syllabus, in France, same school programmes, but with fewer hours in class!)
March 18, 2020, 8:29 AM · A lot of teachers here go up to Grade 8 level, but can't play/teach to any level above that (this is in my experience)
March 18, 2020, 8:38 AM · Jake, that is my case. But apparently I play and teach well enough that subsequent teachers don't have to "start all over again" !

BTW Michael, Fischer's "pedantry" is a quality: he seems to have pinched all my tips & tricks, plus a whole lot more. I can't even find anything to disagree with!

March 18, 2020, 8:58 AM · Jake, you are right there. Some will go above to DipABRSM, my last teacher did. Additionally, my viola teacher is happy to teach up to DipABRSM for me.

I know of two teachers in my current area that willingly go above Grade 8, one is Canadian, Suzuki trained, and completed music college in North America.

It seems a mix of the musicianship skill ABRSM requires, combined with the skill and training generally offered in the USA and Canada, produces well rounded and skilled children.

With all this, ever so slightly tempted to actually move to North America (hubby and I have been tempted for years), so any future kiddos we have can benefit from this training...

March 18, 2020, 11:36 AM · Afaicr, my piano teachers both had multiple diplomas from both colleges (RAM and RCM), probably not fellowships, but certainly A and L, what were known in the old days as teachers' and performers' diplomas. They could easily have taught to Associate diploma level.
March 18, 2020, 11:50 AM · American schooldays aren't meaningfully shorter than British schooldays. By the time my son is in elementary school, he'll start school at 8:30 am and get home at 6 pm (this does include time for mandatory sports and optional extracurriculars like chorus, art, etc.) High schoolers start earlier and end later, and teenagers aiming for high academic standards will also have several hours of homework after that, on top of several hours of (sometimes mandatory) sports practice. High schoolers get in two to four hours of violin practice a day largely by sacrificing sleep, as far as I can tell.

Upper middle class Americans just generally have a different attitude about childhood, which is viewed essentially as a competitive rat-race in which learning and skill training is emphasize. UMC American kids don't get much free play time or family time.

March 18, 2020, 12:12 PM · German schooldays tend to start very early and end very early, as far as I can recall from a 1975 exchange visit.
March 18, 2020, 12:28 PM · I think that even slightly motivated kids can figure out how to make the system work in their favor. It's one thing if you are an over-scheduled child of striver parents and you are already heading towards burnout in high school, but I have a hunch that some really advanced playing kids have all kinds of things worked out to shorten their school day so they can practice more.

Independent study / elective classes. My senior year of highschool I had 5 AP classes for the first five periods of the day, and I left school for the day at lunch - I used that time to go to the gym, but I didn't need any credits beyond that. And it's not like this was any kind of performing arts high school or anything - And those exist too, and I'm sure they would be extra accommodating.

It's the kind of thing that most parents of kids that are playing at a high level are already aware of, since most of those parents are pretty, if not over-involved. For a poorer kid or one who is trying to figure it out for herself, I bet it can be done, but most kids don't know where to start in self-advocating, unfortunately.

March 18, 2020, 1:02 PM · Gordon, I think that there is a bit of alphabet soup with these diplomas. UK conservatoires have only being awarding degrees since the mid-late 90s. Prior to that, it was things like ARCM, LRAM, GRSM. The current Lrsm as a standalone diploma is not equivalent to the (very) old fashioned LRAM earned after 3 or 4 years at the academy.

@Adrian, I respectfully disagree. The scale requirements are minimal, and the bowing is either separate or slurred. Rhythm patterns are limited.Here are the grade 8 scale requirements.

The sight reading was easy, but that may have been stiffened up recently. The aural perception tests were tough!

March 18, 2020, 2:12 PM · It makes me wonder how are the children in places like South Korea cope if they are on track of advanced music instrument training. I can see British school curriculum can take up a lot of time, but it is way worse in Asia. I wonder if those kids just skip school or they just have no friends no childhood apart from school and violin.
March 18, 2020, 7:18 PM · Wow. I didn't even know there was some sort of track I was supposed to be on to enjoy learning how to play a violin. That's news to me! As it is, I'm quite happy with how things are going. I work weekly with a private teacher, take a class in old time fiddle, I take a chamber music class to learn how to play with others, and I'm just having a great time.

Of course, the coronavirus has shut down the fiddle class and the chamber music class, plus my private lessons are now on FaceTime, but that's how things roll these days,.

As for curriculum, I'll play whatever any of them throw at me; classical, blues, folk, Celtic, Irish, Scandinavian, pop tunes, anything. I'm having a great time, and isn't that the point of all of this? All of my teachers are anywhere between 30 or 40 years younger than me, and they're great.

Am I on the right track? Absolutely. I hope you are too.

March 18, 2020, 7:26 PM · Michael, there's a name for the track that we're on: Third rail.
March 18, 2020, 11:18 PM · Most adults are not trying to follow a pre-professional trajectory. Although every violin forum gets its share of twenty-somethings that have just discovered the violin and have the ambition to go pro.
March 19, 2020, 7:09 AM · I hate to use the word "talent," but there is a certain fraction of children for whom instrumental proficiency just seems to fall into their hands. I'll also reiterate my definition of an "upper middle class" upbringing: You can pursue whatever career you want to, knowing you'll probably never starve.
Edited: March 19, 2020, 10:18 AM · I lost the only copy of this music and cannot remember the title. Can someone help me to get the title of this music?

I can only remember the beginning part, and I have posted in youtube. There may be some errors.


March 19, 2020, 2:49 PM · @ren mengda
That's Sarasate's Habanera:
March 19, 2020, 2:57 PM · What is the "right track" for adult learners, given that everyone wants to "play well"? Are there multiple "right tracks?" I would suggest there are "wrong tracks"--spending time and money not improving your playing.
Edited: March 20, 2020, 6:37 AM · Based on my observations, I would guess that soft skills, e.g. tenacity, mental toughness, patience, self-confidence, etc., matter just as much, if not more, than hard skills when it comes to career success. And desire.

Also, there are musical intangibles: virtuosity, élan, expression, which may help or hinder prospects of a solo or orchestral career. There are many very advanced students who will not quite make the solo circuit, but who will also not quite have what it takes to achieve the accuracy and polish needed for a good orchestral position (not to even mention the personality for it.) So it's not really as homogeneous as a progression of rep would suggest. Not every advanced student is in direct competition with each other. Most often, potential section players are not in direct competition with potential concert masters. And, especially for future orchestral musicians, slow and steady wins the race.

Editing to add, for a solo career, it's likely fast and steady...

Editing again to add that the list doesn't in and of itself show the true level of performance. Even if a student is capable of playing an advanced piece reasonably well, the question remains, does it sound mostly 'studenty' or soloistic? Adding to what Mary Ellen and Irene have said, of all the professional orchestral musicians I know personally, not one of them has gone through Susan's list (including 4 in the Toronto Symphony.) Quality matters more. And that's a direct function of the demands of the teacher. I would suggest such a list is a bit too fast for most orchestral track musicians, and too slow for solo track, possibly leaving many in the cracks.

March 20, 2020, 5:47 AM · @Jeewon Kim
Thank you very much!
March 20, 2020, 6:36 AM · You're welcome!

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