Violin guilt

Me helping Red Chief hold his violin for the first time in 2011.

I play the violin. Sometimes I take it a little too seriously, and that is why, when I had children, that I decided my children should play something else. I'm too intense and high-pressure, and I knew that my kids didn't need that. It would be better for them to study something I know less about. I had seen my violin teachers' children, how they hated violin. I remember my own mother trying to teach me piano, and me never listening to her because she was my mom (oh, how I wish now that I had listened!).

In any case, Red Chief was insistent that he wanted to play the violin. I tried to talk him into piano, or cello, or something else, but it didn't work. Around the same time, Tiger Lily became interested too. She started using all her toys as violins; she was obsessed.

My parents raised four violinists (I started at age 5, and my sisters started at age 4). They still have their collection of little violins, so when we were visiting for Thanksgiving two years ago, we tried one on for size. Red Chief was happy and we took it home with us to practice.

Let me take an aside here to say that I actually taught violin through high school and college—this is something I know how to do. But I was so intimidated to do it with my own children. So many times when I was teaching, I realized that I had the easy job: it's the parents who do all the hard work. One of the things I appreciate most about my own mother is that she somehow found the strength to practice with my sisters and me for years and years so that we could become competent violinists.

We slogged along with violin for a couple of years. The slogging was all on my part: my kids were usually pretty excited. But I hated that I had to stop what I was doing and practice with them, and we rarely managed to both be in the right mood at the same time.

We practiced on and off through kindergarten. When first grade came along, Red Chief had such a hard time adjusting to the full day of school that I didn't feel he (or I) had any mental energy or self-control left to practice violin, so it fell by the wayside and we hardly ever practiced.

I renewed my efforts this past summer, and we did much better, hitting several times a week. When the beginning of this school year approached, I knew that if we were going to do violin, we would have to have a consistent time for it.

And I knew we needed to figure this out, because I couldn't get Red Chief to quit. I asked him again and again if he was sure he wanted to play the violin. He always said yes. He proudly told his friends that he played. But every time he did, I felt guilty: we had made very little progress and he only knew a few simple songs, and I realized that it was largely due to my own lack of enthusiasm. (For anyone reading who knows Suzuki violin, he knew a few pre-Twinkle songs and was still working on the Twinkles.) And not only did I feel guilty because of our lack of progress and consistency, but also because I was not giving him the gift of music that my mother has so patiently given to me.

Practicing after school hadn't worked the previous year: he was too tired. So this year, we're practicing before school. It takes less than ten minutes—I just have to make sure I get up on time and am on top of things.

And guess what? He's finally making progress. The biggest hurdle we had to jump was attention span, and he's finally able to look at his violin through a whole song; not stop in the middle; and play more than one song per practice session without getting too jumpy. Red Chief talked to his teacher at school last week about playing for his class, and since then he's been practicing much longer, and sometimes twice a day.

It's been a long two years of violin for me, and it's crazy to think how many more years of practicing there are left ahead of us. But you know what? I think we've confronted some of the hardest things already. And I've learned some lessons: how important it is for me to be on top of things; to make my expectations clear; to abandon my perfectionism and applaud the small victories; and to set my children up for success. It's scary how much my attitude and actions affect my family—I can see that I've still got a lot to work on.

Will Red Chief and Tiger Lily play their violins forever? I hope so, because playing the violin still brings me so much joy. (But here's a guess for you: perhaps Red Chief will be playing the bassoon in ten years. Because he loves the sound of it, and every time he hears one on the radio, he points it out.)


  1. So cute with his little violin! I just got some books so I could start teaching my kids piano. They won't get a choice- they have to learn! I expect them to be able to play hymns and primary songs with a reasonable amount of competence and then they can quit. Ha ha!
    I'd love it if they played other instruments too, but we'll see how it goes with just the piano.

    Bassoon would be awesome for him. But you definitely have to wait until they are big enough to reach all those keys. My hands aren't big and strong enough for bassoon. Have him listen to Pictures at an Exhibition. I think there's a movement in there where the bassoon plays this little part that sounds exactly like someone saying, "Oh oh!" I think it's really funny.

    1. We will have to listen to that! Red Chief calls the bassoon the "bumblebee" because that's how it sounds to him. Too bad he won't be playing it any time soon.

  2. Congrats on teaching your children.. I know this must be difficult .. I am very proud of you..
    He looks adorable with his little violin.

  3. Wishing you musical joy in the years to come. So far my efforts to teach music at home have failed, but I'm holding on to hope in the future.