How Long Should it Take To Learn the Violin Well?: Rethinking “normal” student progression. OR Why your 12-year-old should be playing Bruch already
Kids are smart. Or, at least, they aren’t THAT dumb. I mean, yes, they do stupid things now and again, but we give them far too little credit for what they are truly capable of. Most kids’ “stupidity” is merely ignorance steeped in hormones simmering in a still developing brain. You can fix ignorance, but stupid is forever.
The ignorant yet developing brain is just waiting to be cultivated. There is never a time in someone’s life where they possess greater neural and muscular plasticity than early childhood. Kids are capable of rather remarkable feats of both dexterity and understanding, and what they learn in their formative years will echo down to the very end of their lives. I don’t believe most of us grasp what the average child is fully capable of.
I’d like to stress that I’m referring to the average child. Talent and genetic variance in intelligence is real. Some people get more than others, and there is little that you can do about that. Some will even seem to soar above the rest of us. If you have the right attitude, you will view such Übermenschen as a source of inspiration. If you have the wrong attitude, you will engage in jealousy and hatred, wishing to pull them down from as much as, in secret, you would like to place your own self in their place. Your attitude is up to you. However, when it comes to understanding the immense and mostly untapped potential of children, I am referring to the average child.
So, what is the average child capable of in violin? It is my strong opinion that a student with a solid teacher, dedicated parents, who practices and participates in lessons consistently will master everything physical to do with violin technique in 8-12 years. I emphasize the word “physical” as true mastery of the violin goes far beyond mere body mechanics, though that is its foundation. There are aspects of violin technique that are affected more by states of mind than anything explicitly physical, or perhaps more accurately to say that there are subtleties of technique that cannot be executed or explained as motor patterns mastered through rote practice. The violinist much “catch the feeling,” as it were, or find the right mindset that allows all the physical mastery they’ve accumulated to fully blossom, unencumbered by tension and mental blocks. It’s rather nebulous and hard to explain, especially to non-violinists, but perhaps the best way I can describe it is this: As there are various mental states that everyone agrees will affect one’s performance (the most obvious being sadness, depression, something disturbed you, etc.) there exist more obscure states of mind, yet unnamed, that can affect a musicians performance dramatically, beyond what any technical advice of a physical nature can succeed in doing.
But back to childhood development:
When it comes to learning the physical technique of the violin, I call for a revision of our expected standards of progress. I’ve seen too many kids play for 6-8 years and still be stuck in the middle of the Suzuki books. I remember, as a child of 10, seeing kids in my group class who would be 17 and only in Suzuki book 6, and they all started before age 10. We have vastly underestimated what our kids are capable of and therefore they don’t rise to what should be view as average potential.
I stated earlier that the ultimate goal for the average student was a comprehensive grasp of physical technique, and the accompanying ability to play any piece in the repertoire, after 8-12 years. But let’s start a bit smaller. Let’s start with something a bit closer to home for most students. When should you be out of the Suzuki books?
While I am not a “Suzuki” teacher, in the sense that I adhere to the codified Suzuki Method, though I am trained and certified, I do like to use the Suzuki books. Despite the fact that Suzuki knew next to nothing about real violin technique, he did have incredible intuition for childhood development. The Suzuki books are, for the most part, very well thought out in terms of their progression and, if the teacher knows what he’s doing, provide a lot of opportunities to introduce some of the more subtle aspects of violin technique (did you know that Variation B in Book 1 can be used to teach Collé bowing?). They are a bit dense at times, but are good materials overall. And your students should be finished with them in 4-6 years.
By the way, when I say “finished” with the Suzuki books I mean book 8. Books 9 and 10 are Mozart concertos 5 and 4, respectively, and the gap of difficulty between book 8 and books 9 and 10 is so wide that even the Suzuki Association officially puts a few outside pieces, like Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro between book 8 and book 9. Even that isn’t enough. Mozart concertos are some of the most deceptively difficult pieces in existence. You should have the experience of a few other major concertos under your belt, and perhaps some solo Bach as well, before diving into a Mozart concerto.
So, the books end at number 8. If your child is consistently taking lessons, being practiced with diligently, and the teacher actually cares about the progress of their students, he should be finished with Suzuki in 4-6 years, and 6 is on the slow side. So, ideally, if someone starts at age 6, they should be wrapping up book 8 by age 10. They then have a couple of years for some supplementary work, and by 12 they should be starting something like the Bruch violin concerto, entering the wide, wild world of serious violin repertoire, leaving them the next 6 years of high school to learn the finer points of violin playing. This should be viewed as the average expectation of anyone starting violin lessons.
Believe it or not, this is not as difficult as you think.
Now, before I go on, I do think I need to address exactly how I know this to be the case. I suppose that, when it comes to field testing and actual proof, I don’t know in any concrete sense. I’ve not been teaching for 12 years, so I can’t say from experience that the average time it takes to go from Twinkle to Tchaikovsky is 8-12 years. However, I can extrapolate from my own teaching. Also, I’m a big proponent of overshooting, then scaling back. It’s a much better strategy than trying to get right up onto the target. Very often you realize that you are not overshooting by too much. However, if you try to get it right up to the target every time, you will spend most of your time undershooting. So, if my 8-12 number is bit off, then at least I’ve held an average standard that will push my students.
Now, when it comes to extrapolating from my own experience, I’ve seen the results of students who have made enormous jumps after coming from a teacher with a less demanding approach. I’ve seen Book 1 to Book 4 in two years, I’ve had a student go from stuck in book 5 to Accolay in 6 months, and another who was only in book 3 after 8 years begin to fly through book 4 with honors. Your kids and your students are capable of far more than you could imagine, and no, I’m not just letting them play through repertoire slap-dash and calling it a day. Every one of my students knows my standards are very high.
So, if this is the average or, at least should be, then why isn’t it common? Well, aside from declining standards of competence permeating society and numerous electronic distractions, the problem is threefold: Teachers are either ignorant or don’t care, parents aren’t consistent, and students don’t work hard enough.
As I’m the teacher, let’s start with that. The unfortunate truth is that most teachers don’t really want to be teaching. But, as nearly everyone has to learn something at some point, they can always find work. It’s even better if you are teaching a musical instrument, as most of the people starting with you have no clue exactly what to expect. They assume you know what you are talking about and do what you say. But being a pedagogue is so much more than following a method or giving your underlings a list of exercises to thoughtlessly plod through every week. Being a real teacher involves a thorough and intimate understanding of the subject matter, a passion to impart that understanding to others, and the ability to break it down in a digestible format. While proper violin teaching should be methodical, the breakdown of the development of technique must also be tailored to each individual student. How I explain bow technique to a 6-year-old is vastly different than how I approach my 75-year-old arthritic student. And yes, I do have a 75-year-old beginner with arthritis in her hands. Believe it or not her bow hand is developing quite nicely. I did have to find an approach unique to her, however.
Considering all that goes into proper pedagogy, the quality violin teacher, the kind that can take an average child through the Suzuki books in 4-6 years, has to have a passion and love for the art of teaching. However, if most teachers don’t have the passion, desire, or knowledge necessary for this kind of development. They teach because it is all they can really do, and don’t have the dedication needed to really move their students forward. Without that dedication, they won’t feel like spending time outside of the lessons pondering exactly how to help a particular student with whatever current problems he might have. They will just go through the routine, an hour every week, and what happens, happens. This includes those that know enough about violin to teach it, but frankly don’t care. You might be surprised at how many of these exist. On the other side, you have a lot of teachers that just don’t know that much about violin playing, as they never played that well themselves. Of the two, I don’t know which is worse. I’d avoid them both.
So, we know we need a dedicated and knowledgeable teacher. In order of descending responsibility, parents are next on the list. As most children start young (between 5-7 is the prime starting age) all of the agency of practicing falls on the parents. Getting to the lesson on time falls on the parents. Scheduling the lessons falls on the parents. Committing to regular lessons, including during the summer, falls on the parents. I’m most adamant about consistency with my beginning students. The time spent each day is much less important than that you spend time practicing EVERY DAY. Taking lessons every week, with very few breaks peppered throughout the year, is going to do better for the student than a couple lessons every month or having constant interruptions because of sports or other activities. I recognize that everyone has other interests, and that kids should be in other activities. However, if you are going to commit to violin lessons, and want your kids to do well, it falls on you to make sure your involvement is consistent. Why have your kids a bunch of different things when they could do a few things, or even one thing, really, really well. The slogan of Murphy Music Academy is “There is No Pleasure in Mediocrity.” If your kids are going to be stretched so thin across a variety of activities that they can’t truly excel in any of them then MMA is not the place for them. It doesn’t have to be music, or even violin, but pick something and drive them toward excellence. And if it is music and the violin, and you are consistent with your lessons and practice, Murphy Music Academy will put them on that path toward excellence.
Lastly, we come to the student themselves. Now, I don’t hold the student accountable for their development until they are around 12 or so. While some can take responsibility at a younger age, that seems to be the average age a teacher can expect their students to take over practicing on their own. Even then, a lot of responsibility does still fall on the parent to make sure the student doesn’t slough off, but each year after 12 more and more of the child’s success is dependent on their own work. However, if they’ve been brought up by both the teacher and the parents to be well disciplined and a love of the instrument has been cultivated, the trick now will not be to get them to put in the time, but to do so systematically and effectively. Remember, by this point, the student, if they started at 6, should be done with the Suzuki books. The most basic aspects of violin playing are in their hands by the time responsibility is handed to them.
So, if all of these things are in order, then I firmly believe that the average violin student, starting at age 6, should be playing the Bruch concerto by 12 or 13. If they don’t succeed at this, then either the teacher wasn’t dedicated or knowledgeable, or the parents were not consistent in lessons or practicing.
Even if you disagree with me, you should at least admit that we should hold our students, in any field, to a much higher standard than we currently do.