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I heard that it becomes very difficult to learn to play violin after a certain age (14 IIRC). Is that correct? And what is the reason?

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Is there even a "right" age? –  Rebecca Chernoff Apr 29 '11 at 17:50
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I'm mainly wondering about the subjectivity of the question. –  Rebecca Chernoff Apr 29 '11 at 17:56
    
@Rebecca, I see. Maybe I should rephrase it to be less subjective, like asking if there is a study or something supporting the claim? –  user107 Apr 29 '11 at 18:52

10 Answers 10

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Like with learning a foreign language, the brain gets worse at learning new things once a person has matured. The Suzuki method starts kids on musical instruments at around 4, but many start after that. I'd say that it's definitely possible to start in the late teens or after, but it'll be harder. You'll have better luck if you already know a different instrument.

Here's an interesting article: Why it's hard to learn new things.

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I'm not sure whether learning violin is ultimately easier or harder as a young kid, but I guarantee you, teaching older people is much easier.

The high school students I'm teaching now are also much easier to teach than I remember myself being at age six. As a result, their progress for the most part is faster than mine.

Also, I've heard that the problem with learning violin at latter ages isn't so much cognitive as it is physiological. The relevant bones and muscles need to develop in a certain way as a child in order for certain tasks on the violin to be more practical.

I know of one person in his 60s who started in his 40s and can now play Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, albeit somewhat watered down. Of course, I think this person is more an exception than a rule.

You may not become virtuosic starting at an older age -- but most kids quit half way through anyway, yet we still teach them. In the process of teaching violin we're also teaching music -- and I don't think there's a starting age for music itself.

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There is a physiological advantage to starting earlier. I'm amazed at how my kids (after a few years of Suzuki) can use all five left-hand fingers pretty much equally, but my pinky finger is still slow, clumsy and weak after many years practicing guitar as an adult. –  Nathan May 13 '11 at 18:22

I think kids can definitely learn some things faster than adults and music might very well be one of those things, but we should take into account some other reasons why kids learn some things easier (aside from natural predisposition):

  • Lots of free time: No job, mortgage, kids, spouse, etc. to worry about.
  • Encouragement: Kids are expected to not be "experts" at things and it is easier to find support for a young beginner (from people in general or a prospective teacher as well) than for an older one.

The right age to start violin (or almost any other instrument for that matter) is as soon as he or she can hold one that is size appropriate. Or blow into onw in the case of instruments that require this and for which you need certain parts of your body more developed like the lungs.

If that time has passed then it is definitely not "too" late to learn to play the instrument and enjoy it as long as realistic expectations and goals are established regarding the possibilities of a professional career.

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You say: "The right age to start violin (or almost any other instrument for that matter) is as soon as he or she can hold one that is size appropriate." I would add: and he or she enjoy the music of this instrument and wants to learn. –  ogerard Apr 29 '11 at 11:00
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@ogerard - definitely. I would say that eagerness/enthusiasm are possibly more important than anything else. Started mine on sax and guitar at 5 or 6ish and they still love music 4 years later. –  Dr Mayhem May 3 '11 at 16:33

I've been a professional violin teacher for over 20 years and I specialize in teaching young kids, though my students have ranged in age from 2.5 years to 78 years, and from beginner to conservatory-bound.

If a child (usually age 3 or older) can focus on a single task and take instruction for 10 minutes or more, you can think about finding a teacher and starting an instrument. If not, get that child to SING! And have fun with music. Play music at home, sing, dance, and enjoy-- any style you like. Or enroll in one of the thousands of classes for having fun with music. Listening and singing develops the ear. Furthermore, if the child loves music, learning an instrument will be much easier and lots more fun when the time comes.

By the time people are in their teens, our brains are not as much like a sponge, and our bodies have a slightly harder time learning the fine motor skills that make the difference between a fantastic and a decent violinist. I know a few excellent professional classical violinists who started at age 14 or 15, but none who started any older. Folk music has a much more accessible culture and fewer limitations.

If you are over 2 years old and really want to play violin for fun, DO IT. It has more benefits and joys than I can to list here. The beginning is a little rough and goes a lot easier if you have a teacher who explains things well and is patient. You can get to a good level of proficiency in a couple of years if you practice a little. Then you can play at the Irish pub jam, learn to improvise, or whatever you like, and the skills are yours for life.

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The answer to this is that you can learn the violin at any age. The difficulty is a person problem not an instrument problem.

People confuse how long someone has been playing and the age that they started. So for example someone who starts the violin at age 50 will take the same time to get to a certain standard with equal amount of practise as someone starting at age 5. But the way that these two will be viewed is different. For example a child starting at 5 and taking 10 years to get to a certain stage could be viewed as good for their age. An adult starting at 50 and after 10 years getting to the same stage will be probably be considered as average for an amateur adult.

Another aspect that confuses people is that many children who start any musical instrument find it extremely difficult regardless of what age they start, and many give up playing because they find it difficult, but it is those children who find playing the violin difficult not the fact that the violin itself is difficult to play.

In order to be clear about this question of age, we must be very careful not to confuse the time taken to learn something with the age at a particular level.

From my own experience of starting an instrument (not violin) as an adult at age 42, and learning it faster than students who started as children I experienced some really peculiar ideas from music educators which included the idea that as I was an adult I should be able to do things above where I had got to simply because I was an adult, they failed to realise that everyone of every age has to learn all aspects of playing as a beginner. (I will admit that it was a second instrument.)

What I would say in answer to this question is that any age is suitable for someone to start the violin. It is important to remember that the vast majority of violin beginners do not go onto study violin with a view to having a career in violin playing. Adult violin starters usually already have a career and are not interested in starting again.

I have found from my own experience that the biggest difficulty facing an adult starter is being taken seriously by music education providers, but at least I have managed to prove that age doesn't make any difference to standard or speed of learning, what is more important is a connection and flair for playing a particular instrument.

I will also add that an adult who didn't learn to read music as a child at school from my experience of adult late starters will have long term music reading problems in much the same way as an adult who left school with out being able to read and write. Difficulties with reading music should not be confused with lack of playing ability.

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Studies have shown, at least in a public school setting, that starting students at age 9 or 10 is the earliest that causes a significant increase in ability by the time they graduate. I'd say therefore that age 9 is a good time to start!

But really, any age is a fine time to start. As with anything, older is harder, but never impossible.

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I'm a thirteen year old, and I've been playing for three and a half years. I love my violin, and I'm very good at learning songs by myself. However I have trouble with sight reading, and my plucking finger gets blisters very easily. I play boldly as well.

I also love to sing, but I just can't see myself doing that as a profession. I would love to play professionally as an adult, but I'm not sure if I started too late as well. As you guys pointed out, Suzuki has kids start at four.

In our middle school orchestra I'm second chair, and my friend Elisabeth started at the same time as me. When we played in sixth grade we were the only students allowed to play with the seventh, and eighth graders in performances.

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I am decent recital level player, short of being a true virtuoso artist though, and there is little doubt that my break in continuity of studies during mid-teenage has been extremely difficult to compensate for later in life. It is possible to get back on track with intense practice OF THE RIGHT KIND, assuming you have a fully developed ear for relative pitch and you were correctly grounded in the fundamentals of the instrument to begin with. To start violin playing in middle age is a tall order, and the exceptions who might have a meaningful degree of success are likely to be musicians from some other instrument or discipline already, with the time and dedication to take it on. Still though, a very tall order. Not to discourage anybody - I would be the last person to do that - but a reality check for "seniors" is probably warranted: If, in your golden years, you get the impulse to learn a muscial instrument and you do not come from a true musical/musician background, I would strongly advise against the violin. Choose an instrument - piano, fr'instance - where at least you know that when you press a key or take some clear action a definite tone/note will sound. The complexities of learning to read and understand music, and start from scratch on violin to boot, as a senior, is silly. A final word on this general subject to over-eager parents wishing to push their kids into instruments. Yes, very noble, and I completely endorse getting them somehow into an appreciation of the musical arts. Absolutely. But if your child does not appear to love music, plain old music [any kind, doesn't matter], that is a pretty reliable sign that they will not suddenly "discover" a hidden talent for playing an instrument, let alone violin which is the toughest one to learn. It is the same as any other natural affinity. You can tell if a kid is naturally gravitating toward sports, or dance, or scientific stuff - just as examples - by observing his or her behavior. Do they naturally seek out those things? It's the same with music, maybe even moreso. Don't force a kid to learn an instrument unless the child has expressed and displayed through natural behavior that he or she has real "itch" for it they want to scratch. Then, if so, consult a teacher, see if the child can do simple things like sing back a pitch and so forth. If it appears all the lights are green, give it serious try. My own opinions, having taught all ages and levels, seen obvious patterns of what does and doesn't pan out. Hope this was helpful.

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You don't need absolute ["perfect"] pitch to excel at violin or any other instrument. What you must have is unblemished relative pitch - means you must be able to sing any interval up or down without hesitation from any root. That's all. Perfect pitch for string players can actually be an annoyance more than a help. First of all, even if you have the knack of perfect pitches, you are going to use relative pitch in your playing and reading 99% of time anyhow. Also, perfect pitch can be a PITA because of the slight but annoying perceived difference to the ear between a tempered note and a true violin note within a particular key. Believe me, perfect pitch is the least of your worries.

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I would say 5 or 6, but also with an asterick: if the child has some "natural ability" and good ear, it could be successful. Otherwise, I would suggest doing a year or 2 of piano first, so the ear gets used to the pitch of the sounds. This is going to be a good foundation also for learning notes, rhythm and some theory too. Then violin would be easier, at least that was my experience. I had a good ear, but not absolute pitch.

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