Jared Mosher is following a dream. He is 32 years old, long past the age when most people in his chosen profession have reached whatever level they are going to reach, but he is undaunted. His goal is to become a professional violinist, traveling from country to country to play as a featured soloist with symphony orchestras around the world. And so it is that he is attempting something that few, if any people, have accomplished — to climb to the highest echelons of classical music a decade later than is the typical path.
Mosher’s ultimate success — or, perhaps, failure — will offer important insights into the role that age plays in the development of exceptional ability. But more to the point, it will help answer a question that many of us ask ourselves at one point or another in our lives: Am I too old to pursue my dreams?
The usual path to a solo violinist career was described in Peak: begin violin lessons early in life, usually before grade school, gradually increase the intensity of and hours devoted to practice, reach a skill level that allows you to get placed with top-tier instructors in middle or high school, attend one of the best music academies, and then, after graduation, start climbing the violinist ladder. Some young violinists race ahead and begin a solo career even before they reach college age, but it is rare. And even rarer are violinists who make it into the top echelon without following this path.
The reasons aren’t clear. Perhaps the decreasing plasticity of the brain with age makes it increasingly more difficult for violinists to develop the necessary skill set as they move into their twenties. Perhaps it is more a matter of time — once a person gets beyond college age, it becomes increasingly difficult to devote the necessary four or so hours a day to practice. Or perhaps it is motivation, since a person who does not have the motivation at eighteen to pursue a solo violin might be unlikely to have that motivation at twenty-eight.
But whatever the reasons, Mosher is testing just how absolute the barrier to becoming a world-class violinist later in life really is.
Mosher’s background seems to me almost perfect for this quest. Unlike the aspiring golfer Dan McLaughlin described in Peak, who had almost no golf skills at age thirty when he set out to reach a professional level through deliberate practice, Mosher was no beginner when he started his quest. Instead he had the same sort of early background that typifies professional violinists — an early start, years of devoted practice, and exceptional skill by the time he reached high school. Indeed, when he was seventeen Mosher was accepted into Julliard’s summer school with a significant scholarship. In short, he was good, and he was seemingly on his way to a successful career in music.
But Mosher’s father discouraged him from continuing on that path, arguing that he needed to study something in college that would offer a more reliable earning potential. So Mosher left music behind and tried both software development and photojournalism. He quickly got bored with each, he says.
Then at twenty-five, while he was traveling with his wife, he got the opportunity to play with a local orchestra. The orchestra needed a violinist for a performance, and a friend suggested to Mosher that he should fill in. At that time he had not played his violin for several years, but Mosher practiced nonstop for a couple of days and “did okay.” More importantly, he loved it, and he realized that he really enjoyed playing the violin with an orchestra and that this is what he wanted to do with his life.
Back home in Canada, he managed to get a position with a training orchestra in Hamilton, Ontario, where he was paid for a summer. It was a semi-professional orchestra, Mosher says, but even so he felt in over his head. The years away from music had taken their toll, but he practiced hard and was able to get by. Encouraged, he entered an undergraduate program in violin performance, doing it part time as he worked as a banker. His goal became to become good enough to make a living as a violinist.
During this time he was reading everything he could find that might inform his practicing. He ran across a description of the seminal study that Anders Ericsson did of the violin students at a music academy in Berlin, so when he spotted Peak in a bookstore he bought it. He read it in one sitting, he says, and it led him to think, “This is not impossible.” With the right sort of practice, he really could reach a professional level playing the violin.
It has now been seven years since Mosher started back on the violin. He is finishing up his undergraduate degree, and is now able to study full-time thanks to a grant from the Canadian government. He feels that he is just a year or two away from reaching his goal of being a good enough violinist to get a full time job playing with orchestras. What he really needs right now, he says, is a good coach who can provide the sort of feedback and practice tips that will allow him to climb the final few rungs on the ladder. So he is looking into masters programs where he could work under a top violin instructor. He and his wife are willing to relocate for the right program, but those programs are very expensive, so he is also looking for ways to fund this last step in his education.
Mosher talks briefly of what could have been. He has friends who were about his level and who went to Julliard. If he had chosen that path, he says, his life would have been very different. The culture at Julliard or another top music academy pushes its students to excel. Not only do they receive excellent instruction, but they spend their days around other dedicated students who encourage them, inspire them, and understand the demands of their life. Had he attended such an academy, Mosher says, he believes that he would have been able to win a professional orchestra job by the time he was twenty-two or twenty-three.
Instead, he is thirty-two and still a couple of years away from his goal — if indeed he can reach it. There is no guarantee that he can make it up those last few rungs. Perhaps he has improved as much as he can as an over-thirty student. Perhaps he will not be able to find — or to afford — the teacher he needs. Stay tuned to find out, as I plan to follow up on Mosher’s quest in the next year or so.
But however it ends, I believe that Mosher is already a winner. He has fought against the odds to reach a level of violin performance that very few people ever do. He has shown that people in their twenties and early thirties still have the potential to improve their musical skills dramatically. And he provides inspiration to anyone who is considering following a dream. So good luck and God speed, Jared Mosher. We will be rooting for you.