Violin Students, Participants of 2010 Keshet Eilon Summer Mastercourse
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This is a response, originally written in 2013 and republished here, to an article published on theAtlantic.com. The Atlantic article was in turn a response to a study published in The Journal of Hand Surgery, which involved 90 violin and viola players and a number of finger independence tests. Only two of the 90 people in the study failed any of these tests. The authors of the study suggested that this would serve as a sort of "natural selection" among string players because those incapable of passing these tests would not be able to play more difficult pieces. The study further suggests that students should be tested for these abilities before beginning violin or viola lessons, since those who could not perform the tasks would be more likely to discontinue their lessons before reaching an advanced level. Several assumptions made in the study are flawed, as explained below.
Article & Original Study
Assumption 1: All violinists and violists must be able to bend their pinkie independently.
This is not so much wrong as it is misleading, for two reasons. One, this is a skill that develops over time. I imagine that if the study had been conducted on younger musicians, the results would have been quite different. The commonly recommended age for children to begin playing the violin is five, but a lot of Suzuki teachers will start them at age three, and I have heard of students beginning lessons as young as age two. In all of these cases, we are talking about children who cannot yet or are just learning to hold a pencil properly. We do not allow two-year-olds to touch knives because anyone with a lick of common sense knows that small children do not have the coordination to safely handle sharp objects. If we instinctively know that fine motor skills develop over time, why would we assume that some children would be born with the ability to perform complex tasks with the pinkie of what for many of them is their non-dominant hand?
If you look closely at the picture from the Keshet Eilon Summer Mastercourse (above), or perhaps at the larger original here, none of the students in the picture have bent pinkies. The Keshnet Eilon Summer Mastercourse is a prestigious summer camp in Israel for students around the world. There is an extensiveapplication and audition process that takes months to prepare and complete. We are not talking about novices here, and granted they are posing and not actively playing, but most violinists assume a position similar to what they would use while playing when they place the violin on the shoulder as a result of muscle memory. Would some or all of them have been denied violin lessons had their first instructors screened students as the study suggests they should have?
There are two reasons that a violinist needs to be able to bend the left pinkie. First, a straight pinkie has further to travel before it lands on the string. The angle, speed, and strength of the left pinkie are limiting factors of the violinist's maximum tempo. Second, it is more or less impossible to get a decent vibrato out of a straight pinkie.
Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to perform the tests described in the article on myself. This is what happens when I try to bend my pinkie by itself:
As you can see, my ring finger threatens to bend with my pinkie. Then, I tried bending my ring finger and pinkie together. That proved to be no trouble at all, as you can see below:
I can also bend my ring finger all by itself:
It is impossible for me to go back in time and prove that I could not do this at age six, when I began playing the violin. However, it is possible for me to show you what I can do with my right hand, which has not had the same training as my left. By the way, I am right-hand dominant. It is completely impossible for me to bend my right pinkie without also bending my ring finger, and the middle finger threatens to bend with them as well. In fact, I can't move my ring finger at all without at least some movement of my middle finger.
This is what my hand looks like when all of my fingers are in first position on the E-string:
This is what my hand looks like when I stretch my ring finger out from first position on the E-string and place it on the G-string.
Assumption 2: Students who cannot naturally bend their pinkies will not learn to compensate.
The article does not actually say this, but it implies it by suggesting students who cannot bend their pinkies should not take violin lessons or that music teachers should "go easy on kids who aren't predisposed to the violin." I take this very personally because, even though I have gained a considerable amount of strength in my pinkie after years of practice, I still consider myself to be one of those people who cannot bend the left pinkie, at least not in the way that many violin instructors would prefer.
Notice in the last two pictures above how my pinkie bends at the third (distal interphalangeal, or DIP) joint instead of the second (proximal interphalangeal, or PIP). This is something I developed intentionally as a teenager, as an alternative to keeping my pinkie straight. I have seen other violinists do the same thing or something similar. Some people have to move their elbows to a different position for every string. Others only move the elbow slightly to play on the G-string, if they move it at all. Each violinist's hands differ from the next. It therefore does not make sense to demand that we place our fingers in exactly the same way.
Does this mean that violin teachers should "go easy" on their students? Absolutely not! Allowing the student to compensate for genetics is one thing. Giving up on them is something else entirely. We should never fail to push children to their full potential, and while we must acknowledge that genetics and disabilities impose some limits, we cannot let those limits define those who have them. Furthermore, failing to teach proper posture and technique can result in injury or long-term damage and is generally a bad idea.
Assumption 3: Ninety Violinists And Violists From "Three of London's Leading Orchestras" Constitute a Representative Sample
All of the subjects in this study are violinists from orchestras in London. Orchestras in every nation in the world have the potential to attract musicians from every other country in the world. When you play an instrument for a living, you go where the jobs are. However, every orchestra is still going to consist primarily of musicians from its home country if not its home city. Forty-five percent of the people in London are white, but that doesn't mean you find as much diversity among the violinists and violists of London's orchestras. Look at the pictures on their websites (links below). Nearly everyone is white. Of those who are not, most are of Asian heritage. London's orchestras are not representative of London, let alone all violinists in the world. This is likely true of orchestras in many major cities, and it is possibly due to the pool of musicians who have the financial resources, training, experience, desire, and cultural influences that motivate them to audition for professional orchestras. Blind auditions prevent discrimination, but classical music remains a European tradition.
Furthermore, not all or even most violinists and violists play in professional classical orchestras. Some teach during the day and play in community orchestras at night and on weekends. Others play in exclusively baroque orchestras. Then there are those who play bluegrass, country, jazz, pop, rock, mariachi, gypsy, or any of the numerous other genres available to them. The children who want to learn to play the violin are going to be a much more diverse group than the sample used for this study. Choosing 90 musicians with similar characteristics from very similar ensembles in a single city who were likely taught very similar techniques therefore gives us no information that can be applied to all children everywhere in the world who would like to learn to play the violin or viola.
Assumption 4: All Prospective Violinists Want to be Professional Classical Musicians, and Those Who Can't Be But Take Lessons Anyway Will Fail
The idea that lessons are wasted and violinists who do not become professional musicians are failures is ridiculous. Music is so deeply embedded in every culture that there is no denial of its intrinsic value. The acts of playing and enjoying music are reason enough to take music lessons. Yes, music lessons cost money, and parents therefore want to be assure of more benefits than "it will be fun." However, we pay for all sorts of things just because they will be fun. There's nothing wrong with fun. This particular sort of fun also involves developing a skill, which in turn requires extensive training. However, the fun starts before students reach the advanced level at which the proposed finger testing would be any indication of their ability to play a given piece. Two of the musicians in the study were unable to pass the tests, yet somehow they still managed to pass the auditions for their ensembles. Maybe it has not limited them, or maybe they have learned to use an adaptive approach. Regardless, those two musicians would not tell you that they never should have been permitted to take violin lessons as children. In an alternate reality in which they did not take those lessons, their lives would be so different that they wouldn't recognize themselves. Preventing them from learning to play would have been unnecessary and not to their benefit. Maybe there are former violinists out there who would tell you that their lives would have been better if they had not taken lessons, but violin teachers should not be expected to determine whether the child will be motivated to overcome obstacles to learning before the learning process has begun.
Assumption 5: Pre-Screening Prospective Violin Students Must Be Considered Reasonable Because of the Pre-Screening that Happens in Band Classes
The article mentions something that frequently happens among wind and brass musicians. At the beginning of the school year, the teacher might recommend an instrument for a new student based on their lips or their teeth, and also their size and physical strength. There are a few things that need to be taken into consideration before we try to use that scenario to argue that pre-screening is routine for wind and brass players and should therefore also be routine for string players.
First of all, if we were talking about a professional band instead of a classroom, there would be a cap on how many could join and an audition process to screen applicants. That's not usually how it happens in a school band. Students may actually be required to participate, if not in band than in some sort of fine arts class, in order to graduate. So, the teacher has to accommodate a classroom full of students with different strengths and weaknesses, including some who simply do not want to be there, on a variety of instruments and be able to teach all of those instruments at the same time. This pre-screening described in the article already does happen in some orchestra classes. The tallest students in the class are asked to play bass because apparently you have to be tall to play bass, and students with small hands are told that they have to play violin because they cannot extend to play viola and cello. Screening the students to help them choose instruments they are predisposed to play well, or at least instruments that will be less difficult for them than some of the other options, makes the classroom more manageable. It actually isn't true that certain physical characteristics give you a better chance of success on one instrument than another, since motivation to practice and therefore a desire to play the instrument chosen for you is more important than appearances, especially if someone can work with you to overcome some of the physical challenges of playing the instrument. It could be that some of these things do not have to be a barrier to learning but would require that the student be taught to adapt and therefore involve more time than what the classroom teacher has to spare. Pre-screening just saves time in deciding who will play what instrument and ensuring balance for the ensemble. It's more about the class than it is about the individual students.
Second, there are differences in how instruments produce sounds that make wind and brass instruments less forgiving than string instruments when it comes to how the physical characteristics of the player relate to technique. Sound that is produced by a vibrating column of air will have a specific pitched based on the length of the pipe in which it is vibrating. A shorter flute cannot be tuned to play the same pitches as a longer flute. If you make the instrument smaller, the pitch increases. The player must be able to control that column of air, and if the lack the size or lung capacity or if their lips or teeth conflict with the design of the mouth piece, it may be difficult or even impossible for them to do that. String instruments are different. A smaller instrument can be used to match a larger instrument. Deeper pitches still come from larger instruments, but someone who is more petite can be accommodated. It is acceptable for adult violists, cellists, and bassists to use a smaller-than-average instrument. It will sacrifice some of the tone, but there are decisions about the strings, bow, rosin, and other things that can compensate for the slightly smaller size. Whereas a student might be told they cannot play trombone because their arms are not long enough, a student who wants to play cello but is unable to use a full size instrument can use a smaller 7/8 or 3/4 cello, instead.
Finally, orchestra classes are often taught by teachers whose experience playing string instruments is limited to what they did in college. They may not actually identify as violinists or violists (or cellists or bassists, but the article didn't address those instruments), and they may not have even had any intention of playing those instruments again after college until they were looking for a job and ended up with one that required them to teach an orchestra class. In most states, if they have a degree in music education and are certified to teach, they are qualified to teach an orchestra class. By the way, someone who meets those minimum teaching qualifications would not be considered qualified to work as a conductor, since conducting is a graduate degree not an undergraduate degree. That explanation of education is meant to provide context, not to challenge the current requirements. If requirements were more strict, the smaller pool of applicants would mean higher salary requirements and a greater chance of schools deciding to cut programs rather than staffing them, and that is not at all what I am advocating. However, it needs to be understood that someone who the state declares qualified to teach an orchestra class is not necessarily qualified to address technique issues with an individual student who is trying to overcome the physical challenges of playing their instrument, so such a teacher may prefer, unless a particular student is taking private lessons apart from the school program, that such physical limitations be avoided by limiting a student's instrument choices.
Assumption 6: Violin Teachers Lack Understanding for Students Who Face Physical Challenges In Learning to Play Their Instruments
There is a stereotype that violin teachers are stern and strict and demand a lot from their students with little to no encouragement. I have never actually met a violin teacher like that. I have met some whose approach I felt was inappropriate for the ages and the goals of the students they were teaching, and I have met some who lack patience, but I have yet to encounter one who was extreme enough that I felt they perpetuated this image that some people associate with violin teachers. All mainstream methods for teaching violin lessons address developing the right hand shape, posture, and technique over time. Teachers went through the process of training their hands as students, and they will in turn take their students through that process. Their approach may change to address a particular student's strengths and weaknesses, but their standards for having actually achieved a milestone will not change, and it wouldn't be fair to their students if they did. We don't ask math teachers to grade some students differently because not everyone is good at math. We should not ask violin teachers to evaluate their students differently, either. As long as the student is permitted to progress at his or her own pace in order to properly address weaknesses and the teacher is patient and motivates the student to continue, there is no reason to insist that the teacher's standards are too high.
Should Children Who Want to Play the Violin Go Through a Pre-Screening Process?
Yes, they should, but not in the way the article implies. In order to get the most benefit from lessons, students should have patience and a long attention span, be able to read and write, commit to practicing daily, and have respect for the instructor. A lot of teachers, as well as parents of young students, consider these things as part of the process of enrolling a child in violin lessons. However, many of these things are based on maturity of the individual student, and a child who is not ready for lessons at age five might do very well at age six, and her little brother might be ready at the age of four.
If a child is left-handed, that by no means prevents them from learning to play the violin, but the teacher should know because it might mean paying more attention to the bow than what would be typical of a right-handed child. On the other hand, the bow is difficult to control and each student has an individual set of strengths and weaknesses, so the hand a child uses to write may turn out to be negligible among other factors.
Children with certain disabilities will require an adaptive approach, ideally with a teacher who has training and experience working with those who have the disability in question. There are discrimination concerns that will prevent many teachers from refusing to teach children with needs for which their resources and experience are limited, so this is more of a concern for the parents in choosing which teacher will be suitable for their child. There are also reasons why a different instrument might be a better choice due to what might be involved in developing an adaptive approach.
Screening should not include anything that implies a student is incapable of playing the violin or that music education is wasted or unnecessary for someone who does not intend to be a professional violinist.