Should concertos be learnt only when one is entirely secure technique-wise

June 5, 2020, 11:05 AM · Hey all,

I was wondering, do teachers normally give a concerto to a student only when he/she is completely ready for it technique-wise (i.e. can get it up to performance standard in matter of weeks), or when the student's technique may not be entirely up to par? Presumably, the intention in the latter case would be to use the technical difficulties in the concerto to improve technique.

Which way is better?

Looking forward to your replies!

Replies (22)

June 5, 2020, 11:36 AM · The general way from what I understand is that people are assigned things that are just above their level so they can attain it in a reasonable amount of time. I think this is the best way. People I know go back and learn easier things because they want to learn it
Edited: June 5, 2020, 11:42 AM · My observation is that most teachers assign concertos that the student not completely ready for. In other words there are significant challenges to overcome and a lot to learn. And that's really one of the basic mainstays of violin teaching for at least 100 years -- the gradual march through the concerto repertoire. Picking out the next one for a student is NOT EASY, you have to know the student's strengths and weaknesses very well and you have to have a good command of the repertoire. That's why students who come here hoping that some amateurs like me can tell them what they should play next get responses that range from blank stares to upbraids to well-meaning but utterly ridiculous suggestions.

I've also observed students assigned concertos that they have no hope of playing decently, and I don't know why that happens, but it happened to me as a teenager. My teacher assigned me Accolay because I couldn't play the arpeggiated sections in the Vivaldi A Minor, and when I failed to deliver on the Accolay he assigned Mozart! I am not kidding!

June 5, 2020, 11:43 AM · Wow Paul. Some people just don't know
June 5, 2020, 12:32 PM · Teachers vary in their philosophies. When I was learning the violin as a child, my teacher in my teen years ensured that with the exception of repertoire-specific problems, I had a reasonable grasp of all the techniques within a given work prior to starting it.

My teachers previous to that had primarily taught technique through repertoire. This was especially true in my Suzuki years, even though I did plenty of etudes, Schradieck and Sevcik alongside the Suzuki repertoire. But after that, for instance, Viotti, DeBeriot, etc. is pretty effective as a conveyer belt for technique.

As a child, my teachers generally picked repertoire they felt was well suited for winning competitions with. That means that it has to be polished to near-perfection, which means that the technique needs to be solidly mastered.

Some teachers prefer to push students to higher technical levels in hopes that the repertoire will motivate practicing, I guess.

Edited: June 5, 2020, 12:35 PM · What Paul said.

Choosing appropriate repertoire for a student is a learned skill and requires a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire once the student has advanced past about Suzuki book 3.

This is actually one of my biggest objections to unqualified teachers hanging out a shingle based on having been a talented young violin student themselves. They don't know what they don't know, and they don't know the repertoire. This is why I get new students barely able to play in third position whose previous teacher thought it was a good idea to give them the 2nd movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Or why a student comes to me having "played" Mozart 3 the year before but when I ask to hear it, it is literally unrecognizable. (true stories, both of those)

Edited: June 5, 2020, 12:44 PM · Mary Ellen you will like my story. When I started to take lessons again, my teacher (who had already been teaching my daughter for a year) asked me to play something, so I played the first page of Mozart 3. After all, that's where I left off. He said, "You have good skill but there are many things we need to work on." I thought, sure, no problem. But then he said, "Do you have any Suzuki books?" At that point I knew where I stood. In my next lesson he was teaching me about "ring tones," which my childhood teacher had never done. That's how bad it was. My Mozart must have been "unrecognizable" indeed. In the epic moment of truth, I was assigned Vivaldi.

The correct term, by the way, is not "played." The correct term is "done." You say "I did Mozart," or "I have done Mozart," not "I played Mozart." Get it right! As a verb, "do" has the advantage of being even more vague than "play." LOL

June 5, 2020, 1:02 PM · I see teachers fall into three categories -- I don't know which is necessarily best, though. And, of course, the teacher may work differently with different students.

Teacher 1: Gives the student pieces that are at or just a bit above their level. Movements are usually learned within a couple of months and they move on.

Teacher 2: Gives the student pieces that are somewhat above their level, but they work on them for a good year. By the time they are done, they are at the level of the piece.

Teacher 3: Gives the student pieces that are somewhat or far above their level. Usually only a low level of polish is achieved -- sometimes the pieces are out-of-tune or unrecognizable.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all three types.

A teacher in category one tends to move a student through a lot of repertoire and the pieces get reasonably well-polished (nicely performable or compete-able). This is a good path for a serious student who is a fast learner, but not necessarily the path for someone who wants to win lots of competition, though of course they can work on a piece longer for that purpose if necessary. These students have a breadth of technique and repertoire and can learn quickly.

A teacher in category two tends to move a student very slowly through the repertoire. By the time the piece is learned, it is really well learned. These students often do well in competitions. At the same time, their training lacks breadth, and they often have technical gaps. It also may be harder for them to do well in situations when they need to learn rep quickly (ie chamber music or orchestra). Students tend to be patient learners who often learn how to practice well.

A teacher in category three can be a good teacher teaching non-serious students, or a not-so-good teacher doing the students a disservice. This approach is fine if you are playing for fun. It's not fine for anyone even remotely serious, or a kid who could later become serious.

Edited: June 5, 2020, 2:11 PM · @Susan, I thought your summary was excellent, though I would change one thing in your conclusion. If the teacher allows or encourages a student to stop when the piece is still unrecognizable or otherwise substainally below par, I'd say that is always a disservice.

The idea that subpar instruction is acceptable for students who play for fun shouldn't be encouraged. I realize that may not be what you meant but nonetheless I wanted to point that out.

Edited: June 5, 2020, 4:19 PM · The second case, Concertos are also used to improve technique. With only two 45min lessons a week and all the many other subjects they have, it's literally impossible to only play Concertos when they're completely ready technique wise and make good general progress.
I give Concertos/pieces that are al title above their level, but not a lot, because too much is obviously a bad idea.
Edited: June 5, 2020, 2:52 PM · My teacher has pretty consistently given me concertos that feel just a bit out of reach, and I think this the least controversial in the student repertoire. Stuff like Rode, Viotti, Beriot, moving into some in-between stuff like Vieuxtemps, I think makes sense to assign as a bit of a stretch - This repertoire starts to introduce the fundamentals of romantic violin playing, and it's generally not really worth playing for its own sake when you have the skills to play better pieces of music. Wieniawski 2 was a biiiig stretch for me, and so while I didn't fully get it as polished as I could have liked, it was a new kind of playing that I got a lot out of.

I think tailoring to the student's psychology is important. At some point, my teacher said, "I would like you to develop your lyrical playing a bit", so she assigned me the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, and at times she has interspersed bigger pieces with salon pieces or smaller virtuosic ones to develop different sides of my playing.

All this has been together with steadily moving through etudes, which I also don't fully polish (I still go back through older ones on my own once in a while), but I personally have always liked the idea of being ahead of the repertoire I'm playing in terms of the difficulty of the etudes I'm playing, and I've found that certain sets of etudes have taken the pedagogical burden off the repertoire I'm working on, with Rode in particular heavily informing the Mendelssohn concerto for me. I think when getting into the real repertoire, it makes sense to not rush in too fast.

Then there's Bach, and then there's only so many hours in the day. I was really hesitant to besmirch solo Bach, so I kinda hemmed and hawed and focused on other stuff, but I've started on it in earnest.

June 5, 2020, 3:25 PM · No Mozart concerto has been done by me. Lucky escape for Mozart!
June 5, 2020, 4:14 PM · Susan, I like your categories but would note that many teachers, especially of more advanced students, will blend your first and second categories. For instance, there might be a concerto movement that the student sits on for a year, while they simultaneously move more rapidly through a bunch of short works / sonatas.
June 5, 2020, 9:51 PM · Yes, @Lydia, very true. I've also seen the same teacher be #1 with one student, and #2 with another student, which is probably really good, individualized teaching.

I also agree that etudes are a really good way to challenge and push technique in a more compact and focused way. (Though my son still has nightmares about Paganini 11.)

June 6, 2020, 1:01 PM · Part of the decision would be what "track" the young student is on. After getting through the intermediate technical grades, the student, teacher, and parents need to do some long-range contigency planning. Are they one of the the 1% that can do the Music-Performance degrees and be a real professional?, or one of the 10% that should major in something else and be a high level amateur/semi-pro. For the former, the 6 major concertos and the 3 Mozart concertos can be postponed until they are 100% technically and musically ready. There are plenty of second-tier concertos to work on. Otherwise, they will lock in mediocre performance habits, and primitive technical decisions. And it takes a lot longer to learn a piece when you don't have the technical tools. But for the majority, music should be an enjoyable life-long avocation, so why not tackle something like the Beethoven concerto for the sheer pleasure of doing it.
June 6, 2020, 2:33 PM · It's a matter of practice too. I've learned (after being burned a few too many times) to completely avoid the dumpster fire of a new student coming in playing stuff *way* over their head, and then discover that they only expect to practice 15 minutes a day as well because their schedules are overloaded with activities.
June 7, 2020, 6:25 AM · I doubt practicing the Beethoven concerto without flawless the technique would result in much fun at all/
Edited: June 7, 2020, 1:43 PM · Susan's description of the three teacher categories is spot-on. I agree with Lydia that there is probably a blend in most teachers. I do feel that I should comment further on her Teacher 3, who "gives the student pieces that are somewhat or far above their level; usually only a low level of polish is achieved."

This approach ensures that the student is consistently working on challenging material and the learning curve might actually be fairly steep. That's the ONLY upside. (There is a temporary upside that works only with young children who might get more excited to practice knowing they've been assigned "real pieces." This euphoria wears off when they get to their first competition and hear other kids playing the same stuff, only properly.)

However there are two very serious downsides:

(1) The student NEVER learns what it means to actually polish something. You never really get to great intonation (for example) because all of your bandwidth is going into just barely getting the notes under your fingers. Same with every other aspect of violin playing. This is how I developed what my present teacher called "good skill". And yet, every year, at "Solo and Ensemble Festival," I got downgraded for intonation. Without fail.

(2) Often the child will also have some periodic opportunity to perform, for example in a studio recital, or a scholastic event, etc. Then the problem is that the student will play their current working piece because they've maybe been working on it for months already, but it's far from performance-ready and maybe not even memorized, and the performance is two weeks off!! Folks, this is how you completely destroy a young student's confidence. So, if you're one of those teachers who trends toward Teacher No. 3., please PLEASE, when your student needs a piece to perform, do NOT suggest their current piece. Find something they "finished" two years ago that they might now have some hope of actually playing to a reasonable standard.

In my opinion, Teacher No. 3 is only for students whose parents have already decided, because of whatever nonsense they found on the internet somewhere, that their child was going to learn technique from the repertoire rather than from scales and studies.

June 7, 2020, 4:01 PM · Damn all these people learning repertoire in a month and here I am sitting through a 6 month slog through a concerto.

I'll probably choose something easier next time.

June 7, 2020, 5:10 PM · Try the second movement of the Sibelius James. Sounds easy on the record ...
June 8, 2020, 12:36 AM · I find that it's motivating to me to have a range of repertoire that I'm working on, that are at differing levels of technical difficulty and musical content -- and also how much I'm "into" what I'm playing. On days when my brain is feeling sluggish or my body is feeling tired, I can work on something that suits what I'm actually able to practice productively.

I just don't have the patience to really work through something that's super difficult after a day of juggling non-violin things. That doesn't mean that it's not occasionally beneficial to do it. I took another crack at Paganini No. 1 a while back and discovered, frustratingly, that parts that were fairly easy twenty years ago were now damned near impossible, and gave up in sheer annoyance, but the bit of time I spent on it was really good for reminding me how to properly position my hand for thirds.

June 25, 2020, 3:31 PM · Lydia, I like your philosophy. Better to practice _something_ than to not practice at all.

As an adult student with no time pressures (in terms of progressing), sometimes I will ignore some of my assigned pieces in order to concentrate on something basic like intonation, shifting. or bowing. My teacher is fine with that.

June 28, 2020, 2:34 PM · In my youth I could have related to all of the above and accurate comments. If my teachers had waited until "I was ready," I might not ever have played anything interesting at all. On the other hand almost none of my pieces got to a polished level which was personally frustrating for me as I never felt like I truly had anything to play for people.

But the Beethoven, I took on on my own, probably before I was ready, but years later now, I can say I'm glad I did!

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