Yehudi Menuhin and the Curse of Expertise

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

November 2, 2023

I’m Erika
 I’m a violinist and teacher based in the Seattle area. I love learning everything about the violin, how to be a more effective teacher and holistic player, and new ways to approach repertoire and artistry.
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(Originally published October 31, 2020)

When Yehudi Menuhin was a child, the great twentieth-century violinist admired Mishel Piastro’s staccato bow stroke and asked after a concert how he executed it. Piastro, the future New York Philharmonic concertmaster, picked up his violin and quickly played a couple measures of flawless staccato. “I do this,” he said, “and this.” Menuhin was baffled. He later wrote in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey, that Piastro “did not explain for the simple reason that he could not. He could not unpick the mechanics of muscle or motion that produced his staccato—or my own, for that matter.”1 Menuhin may not have known it, but he had diagnosed Piastro with an ominous-sounding condition—the curse of expertise.

Alexander Technique teachers Judith Kleinman and Peter Buckoke explain that “many great players ‘know’ how to play brilliantly but cannot easily put into words how they do it.”2 Cognitive psychologists describe this phenomenon as the “curse of expertise.” Researchers at Yale University found that individuals with formal expertise in a topic (i.e. advanced or collegiate studies) often overestimate their ability to explain related concepts to learners. This illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) occurs because experts don’t realize they are forgetting small bits of knowledge.3 

This especially affects experts’ memories of their own experiences as beginners. Stanford University professor Pamela J. Hinds conducted a study where expert, intermediate, and novice LEGO users built toys and then guessed how long it would take a beginner to complete the task. Hinds observed that experts consistently underestimated how long it took novices to construct toys. When prompted, the experts struggled to remember their own early experiments with LEGOs, suggesting they based their predictions on their current skill level and recent experiences.4 It’s no wonder Piastro couldn’t explain how he played staccato—the knowledge was buried deep in his muscle memory. 

So, are music teachers susceptible to the curse of expertise? 

In a 2019 study, Dr. Vanessa Mio of the University of Windsor interviewed collegiate and conservatory violin teachers across North America to investigate why first-year postsecondary students often require remedial instruction. Participants unanimously agreed that ineffective communication and poor-quality instruction early on affected students’ musical development. (Two other common themes? Lack of parental support and unwillingness to practice.) In other words, teachers must be careful: their choice of language and instruction style might mislead a student and cause them to misinterpret instructions, miss important concepts, and even increase tension and physical discomfort.5

Wondering how much damage the curse of expertise can cause over time? 

Let’s look at Yehudi Menuhin—one of the first violinists to speak openly about his experiences with injury. At the height of his career, the former child prodigy struggled with musculoskeletal tension and lost the intuitive ease with which he played the violin. It sparked a years-long crisis of confidence, and music critic Terry Teachout argues that Menuhin never played with the same effortless virtuosity and consistency again.6 In hindsight, Menuhin attributed his problems to the combined effects of his first marriage breaking down, his lack of preparation for an exhausting wartime concert tour, and—you may have guessed it—underlying technique problems.7

Looking back at his early years of violin lessons, it’s easy to see how Menuhin’s first teachers might have suffered from the curse of expertise. Samuel Anker, who Menuhin remembers as a sinister figure specializing in the mass production of young virtuosi, liked to establish a specific goal during lessons and “whip his pupils towards it by unexplained command” in the manner of a drill sergeant, leaving his students to make sense of such limited instructions like “Vibrate! Vibrate!” on their own.8 Five-year-old Yehudi taught himself to play, struggling to make sense of the instrument and bow for six months until one day, everything inexplicably felt easy. It’s not surprising that Menuhin left Anker after one year to study with San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Louis Persinger.

A more positive figure in Menuhin’s life, Persinger taught by demonstration—not unlike Mishel Piastro picking up his violin and showing off his incredible staccato technique. Modeling, as cognitive psychologists refer to it in motor learning, can be an effective form of teaching. Leslie Sisterhen McCallister, author of The Balanced Musician, explains that students quickly understand visual and aural concepts when given high-quality models.9 For child prodigies like Menuhin who are skilled at mimesis (being able to imitate exactly what someone demonstrates), modeling is a recipe for success. Under Persinger’s tutelage, Menuhin advanced so rapidly he made his solo debut with the San Francisco Symphony as a seven-year-old.10

However, not every concept translates well through modeling (as Menuhin later realized in his encounter with Piastro). The young soloist absorbed his lessons without comprehending the how and whys of technique, admitting that Persinger “demonstrated and I imitated, winning achievement by ear without detour through the conscious mind.”11 Menuhin also resisted learning the building blocks of technique like scales, arpeggios, and etude studies outside of the repertoire, preferring to spend his time with Persinger nurturing his musicality. It’s telling that, at eleven, Menuhin played Beethoven’s sophisticated violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic but fell apart navigating a four-octave arpeggio in a trial lesson with Persinger’s former teacher, the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.12

Menuhin’s unconscious mastery of the instrument rocketed him to international fame and success, but also proved his undoing as his playing deteriorated. Many years later, he would look back and acknowledge his “absolutely atrocious” bow hold and arm position in old photographs, noting that his excessive use of index-finger pressure threw off the balance of the bow and likely caused both musculoskeletal tension and a noticeable wobble in sound. (Teachout notices similarities between Menuhin’s and Ysaÿe’s bow holds and their respective struggles with career-threatening injuries and suggests Persinger passed on this bow hold from his teacher to student.)13 But at the moment, Menuhin only knew he lacked a solid understanding of the mechanics of violin-playing and needed to remedy this in order to regain confidence as a performer.14

Did Menuhin ever overcome the curse of expertise? 

Well, he spent years searching for a solution, hypothesizing that his problems were movement-based. Menuhin read classic violin and medical texts, consulted with well-respected pedagogues and colleagues, and even trained once alongside Olympic runner John Borican.15 Looking back at his long quest to play with greater ease, Menuhin writes: 

“But first I had to discover that acquiring a skill consists as much in unlearning as in learning. Those of us who develop bad violin-playing habits must, before we overcome them, experience a point of zero tension which might correspond to the purgatorial middle ground where sinners shed their old identity.”16

Menuhin found his point of zero tension in yoga, becoming an enthusiastic student of noted yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar in India. (To learn more about Menuhin and Iyengar’s work together, check out Dr. Hannah Murray’s dissertation on the benefits of Iyengar Yoga for violinists.) Yoga, Menuhin believed, taught him the mechanics of violin-playing.17 

As for today’s violin-teaching? Menuhin calls it a “hit-or-miss activity…”18


But, to be honest, kind of fair. 

So, how can we make violin-teaching less of a hit-or-miss activity? By checking and overcoming our own curses of expertise. 

One of the most impactful ways we can do this in lessons is by cultivating empathy for our students’ experiences. 

Lynn Helding, author of The Musician’s Mind, reminds teachers to embrace a beginner’s mindset. Because of traditional teacher-student dynamics, Helding cautions that students may think they aren’t talented when it is in fact their teacher struggling to impart knowledge.19 We need to remember that all students, no matter their age or ability, use different learning styles, and tailor our methods to individual students.

We should feel hopeful it is possible to break the curse of expertise, but in order to improve the quality of instruction and communication that contribute to ineffective and harmful violin-playing, I believe we must rethink our role as instructors. 

Menuhin came to understand that the core of all technique, all artistry, is movement. 

Today, twenty-first century classical musicians learn to practice and prepare for performances like athletes, but we don’t make the same parallels between music teaching and coaching in movement-based disciplines like athletics and dance. There is much we can learn about how to teach and evaluate movement from kinesiological studies, somatic disciplines, and educational psychology and easily adapt in the violin studio. Imagine how much more we could help our students play effortlessly and avoid injury! 

 How is the curse of expertise affecting your playing and teaching? What can you do right now to help your students confidently learn healthy technique?

This is the second post in a new series on my dissertation research. Start from the beginning here

If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends and colleagues!


  1. Yehudi Menuhin, Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1997), 260. ↩︎
  2. Judith Kleinman, and Peter Buckoke, The Alexander Technique for Musicians (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 193. ↩︎
  3. Matthew Fisher and Frank C. Keil, “The Curse of Expertise: When More Knowledge Leads to Miscalibrated Explanatory Insight” Cognitive Science 40, no. 5 (September 2015): 14-15. https://cogdevlab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Fisher2015.pdf. ↩︎
  4. Pamela J. Hinds, “The Curse of Expertise: The Effects of Expertise and Debiasing Methods on Predictions of Novice Performance,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 5, no. 2 (1999): 217, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/376d/8193541fe89acb09cb13a8d7ae035a001dec.pdf. ↩︎
  5. Vanessa Andrea Mio, “The Need for Remedial Pedagogy in Undergraduate Violin Instruction: A Case Study of Postsecondary Instructors’ Perceptions” National Association for Music Education 37, no. 3: 39 (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177%2F8755123319826243. ↩︎
  6. Terry Teachout, “The Riddle of Yehudi Menuhin,” Commentary 111, no. 6 (June 2001): 54. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/terry-teachout/the-riddle-of-yehudi-menuhin/. ↩︎
  7. Menuhin, 167. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 25. ↩︎
  9. Leslie Sisterhen McAllister, The Balanced Musician (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), 79. ↩︎
  10. Teachout, 53. ↩︎
  11. Menuhin, 32. ↩︎
  12. Ibid., 32-33 and 67. ↩︎
  13. Teachout, 55. ↩︎
  14. Menuhin, 260-261. ↩︎
  15. Ibid., 167. ↩︎
  16. Ibid., 263. ↩︎
  17. Ibid., 260. ↩︎
  18. Ibid., 25. ↩︎
  19. Lynn Helding, The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020), 98, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/byu/detail.action?docID=6012342. ↩︎
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