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Violin as a Family

// A few thoughts about studying violin as a family, Ann Marie, mom to Nolan (just turned 5) and Evelyn (soon to be 3).

I studied clarinet for three years as a child and I always felt some regret that I stopped playing. Whenever friends of mine would gather together to play guitar and sing, I longed to join in but I resigned myself to the fact that there wasn't time or space in my head to take on another artistic pursuit. After all, I already had my hands full establishing and developing an artistic career with plays and books. I am a writer, I thought; I can’t possibly learn a new instrument at my age!

But sometimes life has other plans. When our son Nolan was three years old, he started doing music with Miss Laura at our Montessori preschool. All of the teachers commented on his love of music, particularly his love of rhythms. We decided to sign him up for violin lessons with Songbird Studio. In my initial consultation, Laura suggested it was helpful—though by no means required—for parents to take lessons along with their children. Suddenly, my mind lit up with this unexpected gift. It wasn’t too late for me after all! I could work slowly and deliberately alongside my son without feeling discouraged about the long road ahead. I only needed to be certain that Nolan didn't pass me in my lessons so I could guide him.

I left my consultation with Laura that day with a spring in my step. I popped my Suzuki CD in the car and marveled at the fact that I, too, would soon be learning these songs. I began having fantasies about playing music with both of my children (Evelyn will be three next month.) Better yet, playing in a family band! Suddenly my husband was an expert guitar player who wore dark sunglasses and we lived in a house with a seemingly endless porch. There, we strummed and fiddled in the warmth of each another’s company.

The only element missing from this dream was the discipline of practice. But practice is such a minor detail, I thought, a mere technicality...

As it turned out, practice was anything but minor. As it turned out, practice would soon be something I did every evening with my son, whether he liked it or not. Considering the fact that we practiced for only ten to fifteen minutes a night, it was amazing to see how much psychic space “The Practice” took up in Nolan’s mind. Our evenings became an incessant tabulation of BP and AP (before practice and after).

And then there was the issue of my own practice. Violin was…How shall I put this? HARD! Sadly, I was not a secret violin prodigy hiding inside the body of a mother-of-two. In fact, when I first started to play, I was making horrible sounds, sounds that pained the ears of my listeners. I distinctly remember casually dancing up to my daughter with my violin on my shoulder and playing her favorite preschool songs. Instead of singing along—the musical family on the endless porch—my daughter winced. As a two-year-old, she didn’t know many words. But somehow the experience of my playing inspired enough vocabulary in her to say this: “Mommy, your violin is annoying.”

Because no one wanted to hear me practice, my violin could only come out during my work hours in my at-home office. In between writing deadlines, I pounded out some painful and screechy “Oh Come Little Children”s and hoped that the kids next door were not trying to nap. When I did practice, I wasn’t very good but when I didn’t practice, I was downright atrocious. At one point, the main driver for my commitment to practice was simply to achieve some relief from the awful sounds coming from beneath my strings.

I realized that this thing called practice was not an incidental side note to my fantasy of a musical family. This thing called practice was the glue holding it all together. Just as this reality dawned on me, my attitude towards practice started to change in profound ways. I recognized that practice actually had the potential to be akin to a meditation for us. This was the moment to check in. This was the time to show up, day after day after day. If I simply trusted in this one simple practice for one very short period every day, the accretion of our sustained efforts would pay off in some mysterious way down the road.

Through her patience, thoughtful teaching and endless “bag of practice tricks”, Laura has supported us through this journey. Eventually I stopped caring so much about what the practice pay-off might look like for either my children or me. Maybe it would simply be the memory that we had a ritual every night that shaped our evenings. Maybe it would be the understanding that all of the world’s most beautiful offerings—music, art, gardening, friendship, reading—require some time and effort from us. Surely it would be our reminder that we must bring something of ourselves to the endeavors we humbly hope to master, bit-by-bit, day-by-day.

Today, if you ask Nolan, he would simply say: “Practice is the thing I have to do almost every day in between the thing I really want to do: play.” We’re perfectly okay with that response. He clearly loves playing violin for people and he delights in the affirmation he gets for his efforts. His deeper intrinsic motivations—whatever they may be—can kick in later.

For me, today, practice is becoming a place where I can breathe, let go of professional concerns and feel at peace with the small but palpable improvements in my sound. I have started to leave the house after the kids go to bed, making a brief but powerful pilgrimage to my husband’s office a mile away. There, in the dark and quiet emptiness of a neutral space, I am starting to explore my relationship to this practice with a bit more depth. The humility I feel is refreshing. I can revel in the wonder of attuning to a pitch I didn’t even know existed last year. I can play a note that pleases me—something I certainly couldn’t do a few months ago. I can string some measures together that hold some promise of actual music.

And maybe my family really will play together on that mythic porch somewhere in the future. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll actually sound pretty good. These are fantasies that still provide me with a great deal of happiness and motivation. But it turns out that what is happening right here and right now is the most interesting thing of all. Isn’t that always the way? Every day I make time for practice, there is the possibility of understanding just a little bit more. And there is no end in sight. No moment when I will have exhausted the possibility of music. My role couldn’t more simple: all I have to do is show up.

Thanks to Laura and Asha for all your continued support.

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