While learning to play violin I benefited from a good ear. For example, when I finally acquired sheet music for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I was able to make my way through them in their entirety on first reading because I knew them so well by ear. But my ability to rely on playing by ear that left me practically incapable of sight-reading. Like embarrassingly abysmal: If I don’t know how a piece is supposed to sound I could be mistaken for not knowing how to read music. I might have reinforced that when I started studying piano at age 10 and immediately attacked difficult pieces where the technical difficulty made sight-reading impossible anyway and by the time a passage was mastered it had also been memorized. So after two years of piano I could smash through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in c#, but I have never been able to sight-read a even a simple church hymn.
I didn’t realize that I had a skill of any note until I was 9 and I agreed to someone’s request to play a violin piece in Sunday School. I performed Fiocci’s Allegro and thought nothing of it until my parents heard that afterwards bunch of kids had asked their parents if they could learn violin.
When I was 11 I got to play at my church’s Handel’s Messiah sing-in, which was funny because the minimum age for attendance was 12. I was playing second-violin, which is very difficult to practice alone – or play by ear – because it’s an accompaniment and doesn’t have the melody. The orchestra, which was otherwise mostly professional musicians, only had two rehearsals, so in performance I only played along to the half dozen pieces I had practiced. I was amazed when the second string of the violinist to my right snapped in the middle of one of the movements and he was able to keep playing by shifting on the third string. At the end of the movement I assumed we would stop so he could change his string, but no: we kept right on going.
I can only find one recording of me performing before I went to high school: Here’s me playing a Mozart violin concerto (accompanied by a piano arrangement) at age 13: