Why Are Concerti So Prioritized in Violin Teaching?

Edited: September 26, 2021, 8:25 PM · As both a violinist and a pianist, I have always wondered about this disparity between violin repertoire vs. piano repertoire.

Obviously there are many piano concerti, but most students learn a lot more solo pieces in standard graded/conservatory curricula. Whereas for violin, it's almost a standard practice that a student should have at least a concerto on their to-do list.

If most violinists, even professional orchestra players, don't even get a chance to perform the solo part of concerti, why do we still emphasize them so much more than solo pieces?

Replies (50)

September 26, 2021, 9:24 PM · Because concertos are an efficient vehicle for teaching technique. and they are also audition requirements for youth orchestras, schools, and professional orchestras.
Edited: September 26, 2021, 10:05 PM · Piano students do more sonata repertoire than concertos, at least through the intermediate levels. The reason this does not work for violinists is because the violin sonata repertoire is mostly with piano and the piano parts tend to be just as hard as the violin parts.

The Franck A Major Sonata, for example, is a beautiful piece of music, and likely just as potentially useful in many ways as a concerto for the purpose of learning technique and so forth, but to perform it even for an audition (let alone a recital) you need a very skilled pianist because that part is brutally hard. If you're doing a concerto movement, the pianist can just play a reduction and it can be a simplified reduction (to a point) and the judges will not care nearly as much as if liberties were taken with a sonata piano part.

September 26, 2021, 10:37 PM · So, aside from the audition perspective... Are there any real benefits to prioritize concerti over Bach, Ysaye, Paganini, Wieniawski, and Ernst at an advance level?
September 26, 2021, 10:47 PM · A serious advanced student should be learning Bach, Paganini, and sonatas, alongside concertos.
September 26, 2021, 11:48 PM · Do you people not know that concertos are learned ALONGSIDE sonatas and showpieces? This is common knowledge.
Edited: September 27, 2021, 12:16 AM · "but to perform it even for an audition (let alone a recital) you need a very skilled pianist because that part is brutally hard. If you're doing a concerto movement, the pianist can just play a reduction and it can be a simplified reduction (to a point) and the judges will not care nearly as much as if liberties were taken with a sonata piano part."

If I am doing an audition, I would want a highly-skilled pianist regardless of the repertoire. Same goes for a recital.

It's better to be safe than sorry.

September 27, 2021, 1:34 AM · Dear Mike,
you people…?
September 27, 2021, 2:31 AM · I thought I was going to get rickrolled for a second...
September 27, 2021, 2:56 AM · Piano students learn more solo piano repertoire because:
a) unaccompanied music for piano is normal, while it's rare for all other instruments
b) it's normal to have exactly one piano in a rehearsal room. Or indeed a concert hall.
Edited: September 27, 2021, 4:42 AM · I think it's actually a very good question. There is a huge emphasis on concertos over duo sonatas (piano), chamber music and music for violin alone. The points about them being good for technical development are very true and you can learn a lot from them, but in the real world most conservatoire graduates do not earn the majority of their money from playing concertos. I've been playing professionally for 8 years and have had three paid concerto engagements (two of them were Bach Double), but many more sonata and chamber music recital work. (Most of my performing work is chamber orchestra sized projects).
September 27, 2021, 6:24 AM · Like others have pointed out, the answer is quite simple, I think, namely, solo piano is something very normal. In a sense the piano was invented largely to be played solo. So there are many more solo pieces for piano. Not to mention sonatas, also think of all the "klavierstücke" by Schumann, Brahms, Liszt. An equivalent category of such pieces does not exist for the violin.
September 27, 2021, 6:56 AM · Apart from piano as a solo instrument, playing sonatas is a very different skill for violinists. It's less about the notes on the page (especially in the case of Mozart or Beethoven) and more about the partnership with the pianist. You can only practice sonatas on their own so much -- you really need to be working with the pianist. Most student violinists don't have that ready of access to a sonata partner on a regular basis. And student pianists must be at a high level to partner on a sonata. As such, the number of sonatas played by young violinists is usually small.

In my experience, most student violinists are always playing a concerto, with a side of Bach, Paganini, and some showpieces or other small pieces. Nobody plays JUST concertos.

September 27, 2021, 7:39 AM · James's point is well made, but I think the argument for studying concertos is that if you can play the warhorse romantic concerto rep, then you can play the chamber rep.

I certainly agree with Mike that it's best to have a professional pianist for all of one's recitals and engagements, but for a student, the rehearsals and performances with the pro can be expensive, and in some localities such pianists can be scarce, and you're really looking for someone who already has your piece in repertoire otherwise you're asking a pianist to learn something potentially quite difficult just for you and maybe they're not willing to do that. And from what I've experienced (which is admittedly limited to the not-super-advanced sphere), sonatas take more rehearsals.

The OP specifically asked about violin vs. piano, and in my view the answer is that there is plenty of serviceable piano repertoire that is difficult enough to challenge even the most advanced students and that serves perfectly well as recital material on its own.

Mary Ellen said that serious advanced violin students should learn sonatas alongside concertos ... but do they?

September 27, 2021, 10:33 AM · At least up through the Classical era, concerti are a good solution for the relative lack of unaccompanied repertoire. Although they are written to be played with orchestra, there are defined "solo" and "tutti" passages, and the soloist is expected to lead, which makes them more suitable than sonatas for learning without accompaniment.

Once a student reaches the point where concerti start to deviate from that traditional structure and become as closely interactive as sonatas, the student is likely playing in ensembles on a regular basis, and is probably also learning sonatas.

September 27, 2021, 10:47 AM · There is something very aspirational and inspirational about working on a concerto. Even more so if your teacher has selected it for you to work on.

Many of them require lots of technique and give the student a really big goal to work toward with lots of recorded examples to listen to and lots to "dream on" about future performances (that may never come) - but that doesn't matter at the time.

For most students it helps the teacher avoid having to select another work for the student to study for quite a long time.

Advantages for everyone.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 11:01 AM · "Mary Ellen said that serious advanced violin students should learn sonatas alongside concertos ... but do they?"

Yes, yes they do.

Or at least most people I know do. Also, by the time you're playing advanced concertos like Tchaikovsky, you can learn sonatas on your own...

September 27, 2021, 3:26 PM · I think I should rephrase my question a bit since people are talking about nobody plays JUST concerto and Sonata/Paganini should be learned alongside concerto.

My actual question is why ALWAYS concerto, irrelevant to any other pieces one might be learning.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 3:33 PM · Even that claim is not always true. Mary Ellen’s first post answers that question.
September 27, 2021, 3:38 PM · Concertos have an important place in the development of historic improvements in violin technique. They were being written as pieces to show off the technique of the virtuoso-composers, like Viotti, Kreutzer, Rode, Paganini, Beriot, Vieuxtemps, Sarasate and Wieniawski. Their writing extended techniques on violin, but they often tried to balance this flash with some substance. Their accompaniments weren't usually especially detailed, so it's not like they were writing with a chamber music philosophy of equal partnership - They just didn't write sonatas, because they were trying to shine, and concertos were big pieces that they could play and show off with.

So by playing sequences of concerti, you can trace the development of violinistic writing, which turns out to be an excellent way of tracking a plausible timeline of a student's technical development. Then you had some of these same teachers writing more difficult etudes and caprices that could support the development of these techniques in a much more targeted way. They wrote some chamber music, but the bulk of the chamber music repertoire in classical music has come from composers who were primarily keyboard players, which is great for presenting a musical idea, but doesn't have some of the same advantages in developing particular violinistic techniques. It's better to learn how to play violin from violinists than from pianists.

It's certainly great to get into chamber music, which tends to be more evenly weighted between the instruments, and which can have very high demands on a musical level, and for which one is generally at an advantage to have a highly developed technique to start with, so that one can really consider the musical choices. Of course, with concertos outside of the virtuoso-composer realm, that work needs to be done as well.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 5:46 PM · Mike, the OP is right: Concerti are strongly prioritized in violin teaching and I would suspect primarily for "historical" reasons: It has been this way for a long time. Everyone is used to it.

Take Bach: You could just as well study one of his sonatas with continuo or obbligato harpsichord. In his case the technique is basically the same in all of these. But everybody studies the three concertos and very few the sonatas (solo Bach is a different story of course).

Of course with romantic repertoire the story is different; the Mendelssohn concerto is much more difficult play than any of his chamber music parts. If you want to be a soloist you obviously need to learn everything that concertos demand. And nowadays you actually need to have all these skills to get essentially any job as a professional orchestra musician. Even though many of those techniques are not required for almost the entire orchestral and chamber repertoire.

It is as if all jobs for lab technicians were staffed with Ph.D.s. But everybody has to play along if they want to have a chance at making a good living.

In my opinion it does at least not make sense for amateurs to learn 19th or 20th century concertos. They are better served by being trained in a more targeted way for orchestral and chamber music. Nothing wrong with a concerto here and there but the focus should be elsewhere.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 7:22 PM · I NEVER SAID CONCERTOS WEREN'T PRIORITIZED IN TEACHING. I just said that they aren't learned exclusively (not alongside sonatas, etc), or that a student always has one going, as per the OP's claim (the a student always has one going part).

Edited: September 27, 2021, 11:13 PM · "Even though many of those techniques are not required for almost the entire orchestral and chamber repertoire."

Having the technique that is necessary for Mendelssohn guarantees an easier time for orchestral repertoire. Sure, you won't have to do barriolage for most orchestral repertoire, but being able to play with the lush romanticism and the ability to pull of big runs with perfect intonation required of the romantic repertoire enables you to play more orchestral music, and easier. Also, certain orchestral pieces, like Don Juan, still require a lot of technique.

Just because you will never directly use a skill doesn't mean that you shouldn't have it. Take AP Literature. Most people will not become authors or literary critics, but this class teaches you how to interpret literature, which is a skill that can be applied to most nearly everything, from conversation (understanding the effects of allusions or parallelism for example), to reading Shakespeare.

In short, these skills provide a basis upon which further repertoire is built. It's no coincidence that all those bad-sounding adult players in poor-quality community orchestras have never learned the Mendelssohn!

Edited: September 27, 2021, 7:25 PM · That's not specifically because they didn't learn the Mendelssohn, though.

Anyone who has the technical base to even start seriously working on the Mendelssohn is in the top 0.1% of violinists -- or if you exclude the ones who have quit, probably still top 1% of actively playing violinists.

September 27, 2021, 7:35 PM · "Anyone who has the technical base to even start seriously working on the Mendelssohn is in the top 0.1% of violinists -- or if you exclude the ones who have quit, probably still top 1% of actively playing violinists."

Where is this statistic from? Genuinely curious.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 7:37 PM · "That's not specifically because they didn't learn the Mendelssohn, though."

Sure, the adult orchestra thing was a bad example, but I still agree with my first two paragraphs.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 8:05 PM · I remember seeing statistics for ABRSM exams: fewer than 1% of those who took ABRSM exams ever attempted a Grade 8 exam. For that matter, only about 10% ever attempted Grade 5 or higher. The Mendelssohn E minor is definitely beyond Grade 8. (The current Grade 8 violin exam list includes the third movement of the Mendelssohn D minor.)

According to an ABRSM survey taken in 2014, approximately two-thirds of music learners in the UK never take an exam, the vast majority of those being either children in lower income categories or adult beginners.

That's pretty consistent with what I know about high school orchestras in my area (in Northern California). A few affluent suburban schools have plenty of skilled string players, but in most high schools, if there is an orchestra at all, the concertmaster is rarely beyond Suzuki Book 5 level.

Edited: September 27, 2021, 8:27 PM · If only taking AP Literature can help one understand papers on algebraic geometry or functional analysis (which are scientific)... :)

Sorry, no offense. Just found it quite funny as someone who had previously taken AP Lit in high school and am working actively in the scientific research community. I wonder how many scientific papers you have actually read & fully understood.

September 27, 2021, 11:28 PM · I have changed it to Shakespeare. Are you happy Mavis? I did it just for you ;).

What field do you work in?

September 28, 2021, 12:39 AM · I don't know, Mavis. I bet most researchers writing papers could use some help in clarifying their writing, and the kind of training that a good literature course should help them do so - A scientific paper should at least be generally comprehensible, even if it's loaded with a lot of specific jargon. Bad writing meant to convey factual information shouldn't be seen as the reader's fault.
Edited: September 28, 2021, 7:25 AM · Mike it's pretty cool, haha. My research area is computational geometry.

Christian, it really depends on the field. I do believe some fields (not saying explicitly) have a relatively low demand on the prereq knowledge. If you don't even meet the prereq to understand a paper, no matter how well-written the paper is, you just won't understand. No matter how many literature courses you've taken. Look, most research papers are not optimized in a way for general public to understand, and there usually is a page limit when you submit to a conference or journal - you really shouldn't be expecting every statistical papers to explain the very basic definitions like covariance and KL divergence to you or every algebraic topology papers to explicitly define the term homotopy, and that's when most people will stop reading no matter how well-written the paper is.

Bad writing to professionals vs. bad writing to amateur are two different stories. Likewise, generally comprehensible to professionals vs. generally comprehensible to amateur are two different stories. If you write a paper in a way as if you're educating a kindergarten kid, course the general public's going to be happy because everyone can understand. However, it usually lacks rigor and can be extremely inefficient for professionals as it contains too much nuisance information that deviates the focus of the paper.

Edited: September 28, 2021, 8:27 AM · Perhaps because violin audition committees are less imaginative than others.
Also, violin is hard enough in the early years that firm, universal measurements of progress are welcome. Especially among a group that will soon be competing for chairs. I remember bumping into a 10 year old violinist once who proudly informed me that he was working on Seitz # X. “It goes to 5th position.”
September 28, 2021, 11:23 AM · "A few affluent suburban schools have plenty of skilled string players, but in most high schools, if there is an orchestra at all, the concertmaster is rarely beyond Suzuki Book 5 level."

I very strongly disagree with this point. Out of all the High School Concertmasters I've met almost all of them are far past Suzuki 5, if not the entire Suzuki method itself. And not only the Concertmasters are that proficient either. For Example: The Concertmaster of my High School Orchestra is extremely talented and a member of the NYO as well. Our 2nd Chair 1st Violinist is almost as proficient as our Concertmaster and had worked through quite a bit of Major Violin Repertoire(Mendelssohn E Minor Concerto, Bruch Violin Concerto No.1, Tzigane, etc by the start of her Sophomore year, and many of our other violinists are working on pieces like the Wieniawski Legende, Viotti 22, some of the Rode Etudes, Paganini Caprices, and other pieces and works of similar difficulties.
Even some of the middle schools with orchestras have members that are past Suzuki 5 by a large margin.
These are public schools as well.

Many other public high schools in our state also have extremely talented members within their orchestras, and several of the high schools, like my own, have Concertmasters who are part or have been part of the NYO.

Edited: September 28, 2021, 2:01 PM · I agree with Classical Violinist.

When I was in my junior year of high school (not a music-focused one, and no senior year as I graduated early), three people in our first violin section were playing at the level of Lalo, Saint-Saens 3, and Wieniawski 2, three were learning Tchaikovsky & Sibelius, and one was learning Nel Cor Più Non Mi Sento and Paganini Caprice 3.

We ended up getting only the 5th place in all-state so I'm assuming other schools probably have about the same number of (if not more) proficient players.

September 28, 2021, 3:41 PM · Like to know where the schools of the last couple comments are....
Does not reflect vast swaths off America. Where a String Program is as likely as a field trip on SpaceX.
Edited: September 28, 2021, 4:30 PM · Those schools definitely do not reflect the vast majority of schools. There's a lot of selection bias here: if you're in an excellent school orchestra program you tend to meet only people from other excellent school orchestra programs. "Only 5th place in all-state" definitely isn't typical -- there are almost 27,000 high schools in the United States. I don't know what state you're in, but even Delaware, the state with the fewest high schools in the US, has 83 of them. The 5th best high school orchestra in Delaware is still top 6% of high schools. The 5th best high school orchestra in a state like Texas (3,240 high schools) is top 0.2%.

Now that I know a bunch of high school orchestra directors, the disparities in opportunities for decent training are really obvious. It's very common for one high school to fill multiple orchestras with students with years of private lessons, and another one less than ten miles away to have only one or two students who have ever had private lessons at all and none who started learning their instrument before middle school.

Edited: September 28, 2021, 4:45 PM · My observations align with those of Matthew and Andrew. In our university orchestra I doubt there are more than three or four violinists who have studied past Bruch. The CM is a fine violinist.

I agree with Mike that learning concertos should make it easier to play the orchestral and chamber rep. Not just easier but better too. The concerto rep offers a reliably steep learning curve, and that's what students need.

Albrecht wrote, "It is as if all jobs for lab technicians were staffed with Ph.D.s."

Actually in many fields (including mine: chemistry) we're a lot closer to that than most of us are willing to admit. Some would say we're already there. The underpinning reasons stem partly from the way the entire academic enterprise is structured, and partly from the collapse of organized, long-term research in the private sector. I could discuss at great length about this issue, which has been worsening steadily throughout my career.

September 28, 2021, 4:26 PM · High school orchestras vary widely -- extremely widely. We live in Chicago, in the city, and the vast majority of high schools don't even have an orchestra. The ones that do are mostly selective enrollment schools (ie gifted high schools) or schools with special arts programs. At the selective enrollment schools, you will typically have a large number of students who far exceed the Book V level. For example, at my son's school, the entire top orchestra exceeds that level, ranging from Book V at the lowest to a couple of the top players in the state and beyond. All the special arts programs are audition only, and range from one that mostly has players in the Book 2-5 range, to one that has several of the top players in the state. But there are 148 high schools in Chicago, and by my count there are only about 15-20 with orchestras.

Now, skip out to the wealthy suburbs and you have exactly what Classical Violinist described -- orchestras filled with really good players.

Go further south downstate to the more rural areas and you will likely not find an orchestra at all. The top players in the regional orchestras there are rarely beyond Bruch level. Most players are definitely in the Book 1-5 level.

September 28, 2021, 4:40 PM · I always say I live in the Montana part of NY. My daughter went to a well known Chamber camp this summer, mostly kids from NYC and Boston. She told them she had a pond in the back yard- they said, "You must be rich!" She got good laugh out of that!

September 28, 2021, 4:53 PM · It never ceases to amaze me how little some people understand that learning the violin to a high level (even the Bruch level) is generally limited to upper-middle-class and above. There is no point trying to make a living teaching violin in a rural area because there will not be a critical mass of families who can afford your fees. So much of the country lacks the means to train even an eager and affluent student.
September 28, 2021, 4:57 PM · Fascinating to see if this changes b/c of increased bandwidth and better software. We've seen a lot of different modes of communication during the pandemic-- quite possibly there are kids in Idaho now able to get teachers from LA or London to help them out.
September 28, 2021, 5:01 PM · Matthew, the schools I speak of are in Texas. I hope that helps.
As for All State, my school only does the individual auditions for the All State Orchestra, and despite the proficiency of some of our Violinists, only 2 made it into the All State Orchestras. Many of the high schools in Texas have extremely talented musicians and our All State orchestra is always spectacular, just listen to some of the recordings of the TMEA All State Orchestra performing the Rite of Spring. It’s breathtaking :)

September 28, 2021, 5:13 PM · Paul, I wish our university orchestra is like what you described so that we'll have more opportunities to become the concertmaster. Unfortunately that's not the case - we have a Wieniawski competition prize winner/ex-Menuhin competitor as the concertmaster and a national competition prize winner as the section leader. I've learned around 20 Paganini caprices and almost all major violin concerti and I'm the 3rd seat.
Edited: September 28, 2021, 5:23 PM · Again, there are more than 3,000 high schools in Texas. The vast majority of them have never gotten a single person to All-State in their history.

I went to a Texas high school that consistently got musicians into All-State. Every single year, over 95% of the TMEA All-State Orchestra is from affluent suburban high schools. The "many" high schools represented in it make up only a small sliver of the state's population of high school students.

And perhaps to highlight the dependence on wealth: the high school that I went to lost some of its most affluent neighborhoods to newly opened high schools between 2000 and 2010. It now only gets one musician to All-State every 4-5 years, while the new high schools in the district that took over those wealthy neighborhoods are now the ones that put musicians in the TMEA All-State Orchestra every year.

Edited: September 28, 2021, 7:37 PM · Paul, I'm not surprised. Without getting too much on my socialist soapbox, I live in Denver, which is pretty racially segregated (now, actually, moreso than it used to be), but a real bit of segregation that overlaps a lot with that is that people of different economic classes just don't interact much, so living in a bubble like that, it can be very surprising that other people live vastly different lives with vastly different opportunities.

My experience is that the kids that can really play here are almost exclusively from really well-off families, but some middle class kids are able to sneak in as well. I was probably the best player in my highschool (so NOT good), and I wasn't even aware of my highschool having an orchestra.

September 28, 2021, 8:19 PM · Again, Classical and Mavis, I think you might be in a bit of a bubble. Not saying you should feel bad about it, just be aware of your blessings.
September 29, 2021, 12:03 AM · Getting back to the original theme of this thread: The piano is a unique instrument in terms of repertoire*. Pianists have at their disposal an inexhaustible repertoire of solo music at all levels of difficulty; I would venture to guess that half of all concerts involving a piano are solo recitals. The violin solo repertoire on the other hand is very small and for the most part very difficult.

This fact has to influence the composition of the teaching repertoire. It is not surprising that pianists spend a smaller fraction of their time on concertos than violinists. It might be more interesting to include in the comparison more "violin-like" instruments like flute or oboe.

* Maybe I should say keyboard instruments rather than just piano.

September 29, 2021, 12:03 AM · Completely agree with Andrew and Matthew.

The majority of public high schools in the US either have a weak orchestra or no strings at all. Wealthy suburban and specialty urban high schools with strong orchestras are the exception, not the rule.

The high school all three of my kids attended is 69% low income, and in twenty years or so has placed ONE string player in Texas All-State, and that one musician was my son.

Edited: September 29, 2021, 12:38 AM · My first instrument was piano and my second oboe.
I regret that now, as communal music is the best kind.
My first teacher was my nextdoor neighbour who humoured (while mocking, rightly) my desire to compose by insisting I had to learn the piano.
No piano concertos (except for mucking around on my own with Grieg and Tchaik and Rach). Like someone said, sonatas abound.

Mozart concerto oboe grade 8.

Violin concertos abound because of how many were written by certain baroque composers, I guess. And then there's more commercialism in violins than in woodwind. For some reason every violinist wants to be Paganini, whereas very few flautists want to be, err, can anyone name a flautist other than Gallway, who is over-rated, but minted, which is all that matters for some?

Edited: September 29, 2021, 9:21 AM · Gordon wrote, "My first instrument was piano and my second oboe.
I regret that now, as communal music is the best kind."

I don't think you should have any regrets about the piano. Yes it's true that the piano has an inexhaustible solo repertoire, but it's also one of the most easily collaborative instruments imaginable, across many genres. Okay, you don't often see pianos in old-time string bands, but there's jazz, rock, pop, classical, new age, etc. I've played them all on the piano with a huge range of different musicians of every stripe. On the violin my collaborators (victims!) are drawn from a much smaller pool, although I have played some jazz gigs on the violin (a Brazilian-themed trio with a guitarist and percussionist).

The challenge of the piano in collaborative music is that you need an instrument. But these days a digital keyboard setup with an amplifier is a lot cheaper than decent violins. All my present keyboard gear, and I have decent gear, doesn't add up to what I spent on my violin.

I would love to have a great oboist to jam with. There's plenty in the chamber rep.

Edited: September 29, 2021, 11:10 AM · True: Piano is a very versatile ensemble instrument in addition to being a great solo instrument. The problem with this ensemble music is that the piano parts are almost always considerably harder than the other parts--at least in the classical repertoire.

The reason I brought up the repertoire was to try and get the discussion back to the original topic. That has failed. I still don't have a really convincing answer to the title question.

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