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April 2009

How long will it take me to get really good at the violin?

by C.M. Sunday

This question is probably one of the top four or five most "frequently asked" on Yahoo Answers and various violin forums. The answer is that it takes about five years to really get into the violin. But according to the following research, it takes 10,000 hours (or 1250 8-hour days) to master it.

A recent evening PBS program, Charley Rose, featured two best selling authors whose books address, among other things, the issue of high achievement in violin performance. Both books reference a study done on violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music.

As a companion piece to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else includes a similar analysis of the violinists at this eminent music school.

At the music school, there were three general categories of violinists: the first group is the exceptionally good, those at the top who are capable of international careers as soloists; second group is the very good, from which you'd expect the students to go on to positions in major orchestras; and the third group are students who are expected to teach in public schools.

After extensive and careful research, the differences between the three groups were NOT, as expected, predicated on superior intelligence, training, "talent", or any other factor. The differences occur because of the amount of practice. It was found that the top group typically practices (this is "alone" practice), 24 hours a week, and the bottom group, nine hours.

Students, it was discovered, admitted that practice was not fun, was hard work, and students who practiced the most, also slept the most, since this hard work took a lot out of them.

So, it's entirely possible that our usual assumptions about accomplishment in any area, are mistaken -- which can really be said to contribute to the understanding of how we as musicians, and teachers, work with the art. Perhaps it's really not "talent" - it's really much more, the work that goes into it.

Freelance violinist and private teacher, C.M. Sunday is the author of the Violin/Viola FAQ and numerous essays on string pedagogy at