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Making Comparisons: The Parent Trap

November 19, 2011 at 3:48 PM

Comparing is what we do.

Not long ago, my kids were very active with a local swim team. I spent many hours in aquatic center lobbies waiting for them to finish with practice. This is when we parents get to know each other. It seems harmless: “Which is yours?” But this leads to that moment when you find out your child is the same age as theirs, and they both play the violin, but her child is in the next book. We all make comparisons, but how accurate are they, and what do they mean? Did we pick the wrong teacher or is there some secret we missed?

We parents are proud of our children and we tend to get excited when they excel. Sometimes we jump to the conclusion that if our child is not as far along as another, we might be missing out on something. Here are some insights from my experience as a parent and a teacher when it comes to some common complaints.

Complaint #1: Two kids play the same audition piece for youth orchestra, only one is accepted.

Several years ago the director of a local youth orchestra, grade 7-12, invited me to assist him with auditioning violins. Students had to play a solo and scales, and then they were asked to sight-read. They were all nervous, but most of them played a very nice solo and managed through the scales. Very few of them, however, could sight-read, and many of these kids’ names ended up in the “maybe” column. A director is looking for students who not only can play well, but who can read so they can learn the music quickly. The more students grasp at the first rehearsal, the more time the director can spend on putting all the parts together.

At these same auditions, we also heard some solos that were too difficult for the student’s technical abilities, and even though the piece was at a high level, the technique was not. It would be unfair to accept a student into an orchestra and expect them play at a certain level of proficiency when it was clear they were not ready yet.
Directors can be quite different. When playing an audition, it is best to focus only on what you control: how well prepared you are. Everything else is a variable and out of your hands.

Complaint #2: The seating in the school orchestra is unfair.

Orchestra seating order can be a sticky subject. It can appear to be the ultimate comparison of skills in high school orchestra. I cannot count how many times parents and students have complained to me of how unfair the seating is at school, and I admit, I have been one of those parents, too. However, teachers tend to move students around, creating a variety of seating arrangements throughout the year, which can make it difficult to know how your child fits into the mix. The change in seating allows different kids to play with one another, and gives the teacher the ability to mix strong with weak players. I have learned that contacting the orchestra teacher directly is the most effective way to get answers. Your child’s progress may not be reflected in that particular week’s seating arrangement.

Complaint #3: Two classmates are taking private lessons from different teachers, they seem to be at the same level, but one is in a higher numbered book.

As a teacher, it is easy to tell a parent that I will work with the child at his or her pace. As a parent, it can be hard to watch other children the same age seem to surpass our own. For me, when I hear another teacher’s student play Vivaldi’s Concerto in A-Minor from Suzuki Book 4, I can tell right away if we approach teaching differently. If a parent calls me and tells me her son is in book 4, this does not necessarily mean I think he should be in book 4. Not every private teacher follows the same standards of progression. The biggest pitfall of the comparison trap is when we compare our kids by book number.

Setting a Standard: The Achievement Program

In general, the number of the book indicates the level of a student. However, is the student able to play the piece with ease, or does he struggle just to get through it? Knowing that our children are progressing is all fine and good, but we also need to know how they compare with their peers. The Carnegie Hall Royal Conservatory Achievement Program can be the answer. There is a standardized progression of materials for the overall musical development of the student. The descriptive level of a student is determined on the level of exam they are preparing for or have passed. “She is preparing for her Level 5 practical assessment” describes a student who is studying several solos, scales and etudes, is learning how to play back rhythms and melodies as well as identify intervals and chords, and is learning how to sight-read. The feeling of achievement when passing an exam can be a great catalyst toward preparation for the next level exam and a continuation of the student’s progress. By following these standards, you know your child is receiving a complete education in playing the violin.

From Ian Stewart
Posted on November 20, 2011 at 12:39 AM
Although slightly at a tangent this story is probably typical. My wife and I visited her family and they asked her to look at a video of a ballet exam, three girls the same age (about 6) who were children of their friends. Two passed and one failed. The parents were upset and no one could understand the apparent arbitary decision of the examiners - all the girls appeared to dance the same.
That of course, was to the untrained eye. My wife - who trained as a professional dancer and is now a dance consultant - instantly noticed that the one who failed should have failed, several aspects of her technique were wrong. However given the parental competition and the emotions involved she just made a non-descript remark like 'oh the judges will be looking for certain things, it is up to them really'.

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