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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Smiling Your Way Through Violin Practice (or How Not to Quit)

Someone asked me how to practice with her child and feel like smiling at the same time. Let me describe how I would do this if I were a parent.

If the child were very young, I would sit with her on my lap and hold her. I would give generous hugs. I would turn my voice into a soft blanket and let my love warm our connection. Here is how the conversation might go:

“Mommy loves you very much,” I would say with a smile. “Do you know how much? Let me tell you.”

I would smile and look in their eyes with as much love as I could muster.

“What do I do when you are hungry?”

You feed me.

“That’s right. I make sure that your tummy is full of food.”

I would touch or pat the stomach area.

“What do I do when you are thirsty?”

You give me something to drink.

“That’s right. I give you something to drink.”

I would touch my fingers to the child’s lips and maybe give them a little kiss.

“Why do you think I send you to school?”

You want me to learn things.

“That’s right. I want to fill up your mind with things that are important to learn and know. I am feeding your mind.”

I would touch the child’s forehead.

“Do you know why we practice the violin together and go to music classes and lessons? 

Here I would touch the area above the child’s heart and smile deeply at the child.

“We learn the violin together because we are feeding our hearts and spirits. We are filling up our hearts with beautiful music.”

Now the real lesson begins.

“If you are hungry, would I stop feeding you? Of course not! I am a good mom and I would make sure that you were not hungry.”

Hugs and smiles again.

“If you are thirsty, would I stop giving you a drink? Of course not! I would always give you a drink because I love you very much.”

I would offer more hugs, smiles, and hair stroking.

“If you wanted to stay home from school every day, would I let you? No, of course not! I want your mind to be full and not empty.”

And the big question comes next.

“If you did not want to practice the violin or go to violin classes and lessons, would I let you stay home?”

I would wait for the child to answer this question, because the child knows that the parent loves him or her.

No, you would not let me stop practicing or going to violin class.

“That’s right. I want to fill your heart with beautiful music. I want you to share in the wonderful gift that music will bring to your heart and spirit.”

“I want this gift for you because I love you very much. Are you ready to practice together now?” And I would smile as big as I could.

Imagine how wonderful our practices together would be if we focused on the beautiful gift we gave each other rather than on the work!

I am puzzled to hear that students want to quit playing or studying a musical instrument. I wonder how that situation came to be. If the parent were to accede to the child’s complaints and desires to stop instruction, I can only wonder how the parent would think that listening to a young child is the answer. After all, is that not why there are parents in the world? Who would think that a 4 or 7 or even a 13 year old would have enough life experience to understand what the benefits of music education are? I might listen to the argument that a child made and discuss it, but as an adult, I think it is my responsibility to make decisions based on my adult education and experience and not that of a child.

Yes, I know, sometimes it is hard to persevere when the child is frequently grousing about practice or going to lessons (or doing homework or taking out the garbage or going to school or not seeing enough of their friends or boyfriends). That is why there are parents in the world, because we have had the time and life experience to weather these storms of complaint and melodrama. These moments of frustration and dissension may be golden opportunities to offer the lesson of perseverance and discipline, which will eventually lead to the ultimate prize of high self-esteem that comes from achievement, fulfillment, and diligence.

One parent told me that she handled the situation by labeling the family in a way that discouraged the child from wanting to quit. “You are a Smith [fictitious name]. The Smith family does not raise quitters. We don’t even understand what it means to quit.” And then she walked away. She said that the child never brought up the subject again.

My personal story shares some elements with the Smith family. I began learning the piano when I was three years old; my mother, a primary school teacher and singer/pianist, was my first instructor. My mother and I had some difficulties working together, although her motivation was good. She did the best that she knew how, and we did not have parent education/Suzuki training courses in those days. Our practices together evaporated, and I was left to play by myself.

My father also played piano; he is a most excellent jazz pianist! My sister and I were treated to my father’s wonderful jazz music every single day that we lived at home. We fell asleep to his practicing, and we learned a lot about jazz musicians of the time and various styles. It was a real treat to put in our special requests for songs on our way to bed and then to fall asleep waiting to hear our father entertain us with our favorites.

Inevitably I wanted to be just like dad. When I was 5, I asked to take piano lessons again. This time my mom had a serious talk with me. If I really wanted to take lessons, I would have to think long and hard about what that meant. If I were to take lessons, I would have to continue taking them until I graduated high school or no longer lived at home. If I were to take lessons, I could not quit. Period. That was the end of the discussion. My mother left me with that and told me to think about it and make sure that I could live up to my decision when I made it.

I did think about it. I know I was only five years old, but I was a fairly smart cookie even then. I vividly recall lying down under the baby grand piano and looking out the front window of our house as I thought about it. Did I really want to play the piano and take lessons for that length of time [yes, I was smart enough to figure out on my fingers how many years it would be until I graduated high school]? Could I live with that decision for such a long time? (13 years is a very long time for a 5 year old to consider). I made the positive decision, and my mom got me started with lessons with a lovely teacher. I studied with her for seven or eight years before moving to another town and starting with another teacher.

Did I continue playing piano until I graduated high school or left home? Yes, I played all the way through college, and I continue to play and perform as a pianist and accompanist to this day, even though my primary profession is as a violinist. I have played piano for the San Antonio and Austin Symphonies. I have accompanied university musicals. I have accompanied many, many students of various instruments, as well as professional musicians in recitals. In fact, just the other day, I was accompanying two of my husband’s trombone students at a regional school performance event, and I ran into two band director friends whose pianist had not shown up (there was some very bad weather that caused traffic snarls and closed roads). I stepped in at the last minute as an emergency accompanist for these students. I love playing piano professionally and for my own personal enjoyment.

When I was 7 years old, I ran away from home. I packed a suitcase, unloaded my money from my piggy bank, and marched off about 2 miles away from home to camp out in the little wilderness area behind our local grocery store. I planned to live on Muenster cheese and chocolate Life Savers. The funny part is that I left my parents a note telling them that I was running away but not to worry because I would be back on Wednesday for my piano lesson.

I guess my mother’s lesson about commitment really took hold. I am still practicing piano and violin.

Happy practicing!


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Your running away story is priceless! :-)

  2. One of my former students also ran away when she was 7. Her father shared her running away note with me. Written in pink crayon it said: "I'm running away with my violin to make music for the world."

  3. This is wonderful, thank you. I can't wait to use this analogy with my parents---there are a few who really need to hear it :)

    1. Thanks CG! I always encourage my new parents to set up the "no quitting" scenario at the onset of lessons. If it is presented in this way, then the discussion (whining and complaining) can be ignored because this was the initial "bargain." My mom was a smart cookie too! She understood the value of challenging me with a decision that would be difficult to live with. And, naturally, I took the bait. Ha, ha, mom, good one! Wish she could see me now!

  4. Sorry, I stumbled across this while Googling. I was one of those children who was forced to continue playing piano despite really not enjoying it. It ruined how I felt towards the piano in general, where I stopped enjoying playing it recreationally. If I had been allowed to quit when I was nine or ten, when I originally wanted to, I doubt I would have the same level of animosity towards it. Six years of resentment is a lot to get over. I'm in my mid-twenties now and am barely over it.

    1. That is a very sad story for you. I'm saddened that your experience was so unpleasant that you could not salvage anything beneficial from it after all these years. I believe my message was about making the experience of perseverance and discipline the lessons that could be enjoyed because they were lessons that could be made pleasant as a shared experience with parents and other family members, classmates, and friends. How very sad that your experience was completely empty of these helpful things.

    2. And I had another thought to share, Anonymous. Many adults who had troublesome childhood experiences find it helpful to work through these issues by taking lessons again. They open up all sorts of emotions and thoughts and deal with historical issues. It is very touching to be a part of such experiences during lessons with these parents, to share with them how hard emotionally it must have been for them as children. Perhaps you will find this same sort of peace yourself by working through your aversion.

  5. What a beautiful description of how a practicing relationship between a parent and a child ought to be! A wonderful approach. And I love the note telling your parents you would be home Wednesday for your piano lesson.