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Karen Rile

On Being A Natural (not)

April 10, 2014 16:56

perpetual motion

Dear Readers, 
I'm back from a mid-week journey to New York where I watched my youngest daughter perform in a terrific production of playwright Mac Wellman's postmodern version of Antigone. I've got a column in the works on letting go, but it's not quite ready, so I'm offering instead this essay, which appeared first, in slightly shorter form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 2, 2012.

Me, I want to be a natural. I want to show up at the first class and discover I have a knack for whatever it is we’re going to study-- pottery, Japanese calligraphy, racquetball, oil painting, flute. I want to be the one the teacher praises and the other students look up to. I don’t mind work -- as long as it comes easy, with guaranteed results. But, as it turns out, I’m usually the class dunce, or at least that’s what it feels like as I struggle to keep up after the going gets tough. Eventually I quit, loathe to spend precious effort on what could be a mediocre outcome.

Sound familiar?

But my four daughters turned out differently. They don’t think about talent, because it’s beside the point. Like the proverbial tortoise, they make slow-and-steady strides in disciplines that are difficult for them, eventually surpassing more gifted hares. They weren’t born this way. Their approach to learning came about as a lucky accident.

When they were little, it seemed like a good idea to expose them to a smorgasbord of opportunities, so I encouraged them to dabble in this and that. Gymnastics, t-ball, dance, science museum classes-- the usual lineup of Saturday kiddie activities. When the oldest was in kindergarten, she had a whim to play the violin, so I signed her up for lessons at the neighborhood Suzuki school. I thought it was cute: the little wooden instrument with its old-fashioned varnish smell, and all the children standing in a line, squawking away at “Lightly Row”, just enough off-pitch to sound comical to my ears. Some musicians I knew warned me that “no great violinist has ever come from the Suzuki tradition.” Fine by me-- I wasn’t looking to raise a violinist, just a well-rounded kid.

Gradually, inexorably, and for more than a decade, those violin lessons took over our lives. The younger one wanted to copy everything her big sister was doing, and soon we had a two-year-old strutting around with a tiny violin case, like a miniature Mafioso. I was pregnant at the time, so the baby learned her Twinkle Variations in the womb. As soon as that baby could talk, she, too, demanded a violin. And so it escalated, until we were juggling four weekly private lessons, four group classes, and hours of parent-assisted practicing every day of the week. The house was littered with various sized violins. I learned to play piano with my hands behind my back, so I could keep an eye on their posture, and accompany them as they practiced. Those Suzuki melodies drove me crazy. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with “Gossec Gavotte” stuck in my brain on endless loop. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why we were doing all this, only that it seemed crucial in some way I could not define.

Let me be clear: my family was not naturally suited for immersion in the Suzuki method. We’re not joiners. My oldest, an inquisitive and highly verbal child, asked so many questions during lessons that her teacher suggested we have her tested for ADHD (we declined.) The little ones had meltdowns in group class, or refused to open their instrument cases at their lessons. They did not exactly embrace the idea of daily practice. You might wonder, what three-year-old does? But, from the impeccable behavior of the other children in group class, I would have had to say: plenty. Of course, the coterie of families who participate in these programs is self-selecting: they tend to have bright, docile children with nimble fingers who enjoy practicing repetitive tasks. We, by contrast, struggled.

But we stuck it out. They practiced every day, and, lo and behold, progressed. Two of our four turned out to be musically gifted and before long were shuttled out of Suzuki to hard-core classical violin teachers. The baby, now age six, was so in love with music that she was practicing for hours every morning before school. Her new teacher put her on a steady diet of dry 19th century études to reform her technique. This difficult work she embraced with joy, because the habit of daily practice and steady incremental progress had been ingrained in her from infancy. I doubt that she or I would have had the heart to steady that rigorous course without the foundation that had been laid out for both of us by our accidental immersion in the Suzuki world. She’s now a violin performance major at Juilliard.

Flash forward twenty years from that first Suzuki lesson, and three of my four kids have put away their violins in favor of other pursuits. But those early lessons stuck. All four have had the courage to embrace long-term, large scale projects outside the realm of their formal academic training. Each of them credits their Suzuki days for engraining in them the habit of patient practice that has seen them through the long, slow development of mastery.

Sure, talent matters. Talent is the difference between good art and great art, between proficiency and virtuosity. But talent matters a lot less than we tend to believe, and talent alone is rarely enough to get by. In our culture, we have Romantic notion of the artist as a formidable, congenital genius. Obsessive focus on talent alone creates a hobbling anxiety of failure. How many of us are discouraged from trying because we were told we are “tone deaf” or “can’t draw a straight line”?

So forget about talent. If I had a nickel for every parent who told me that their own kid was a “natural” at music, dance, or whatever, but never got anywhere because he didn’t like to practice, I could take everybody out for lunch. Teach your kids to practice. Practice something difficult and complex, where the rewards come slowly over time. It doesn’t have to be music, although music is perfect because it engages body and mind on so many levels. And it doesn’t matter if they’re naturals; the lesson’s more profound when they are not.

7 replies

A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 22: Appealing Financial Aid

April 3, 2014 18:48


March may be the longest month, but April is the cruelest. After the excitement of learning that he’s been accepted to his first choice conservatory, your student receives his financial aid award letter, and poof! The dream is extinguished.

On one hand, there is what you believe you can afford; on the other hand, there is what the financial aid office expects your family to pay. If the gulf seems unnavigable, you can ask the financial aid office to reconsider your student’s award. But before you sit down to draft your appeal, stop a moment to reflect on your situation.

If your household has a very high EFC, and if this is your oldest and first child attending college, and if you do not have outstanding medical or other extraordinary expenses, then perhaps you are merely in the same boat as hundreds of thousands of other Americans caught in the higher education price trap. It’s a rotten place to be, but it is unlikely that your request will be granted. That’s why, back in September, your student picked a financial safety school. It’s time to re-evaluate how important it is for your child to attend this expensive program, and, if so, to think creatively for ways to finance it. See: How Do You Pay For It?, The Cost of Attendance, and How Do You Pay For It (Reprise).

On the other hand, if you believe that the reality of your family’s financial circumstances might have been unclear or that important factors could have been overlooked during the initial application, or if you situation has changed, then you should not hesitate to request a second look. The goal of the financial aid office is to make it possible for your student to attend; they won’t punish your child or rescind his aid just because you asked. Your job now is to produce a convincing narrative, backed up with documentation, that explains why your family needs more help. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Only appeal to your student’s first-choice program. This isn’t a bidding war. If you make an appeal, it should be understood in good faith that your child will commit, if and when the appeal is granted.

  • It’s okay for parents to communicate directly with the Financial Aid office. In the case of a financially dependent undergraduate, the parent needs to be the point person. It’s your financial information and tax documents that determine the award. Your student doesn’t have access to parental financial records. This is probably the only circumstance in which parents should be talking to school administration (other than pleasantries after concerts.)

  • Find out if there is a formal process for appeals. If not, prepare your own letter and documentation.

  • Get your numbers in order. It can be time-consuming, but you need to go through your records and produce statements for existing loans for your older children’s education, for medical debt, and for other extraordinary expenses that did not appear on your FAFSA or original financial aid applications. Be prepared to produce paper documentation for everything in your narrative.

  • Make a reasonable ask. This could be the most difficult part of your appeal, particularly if you feel that the entire cost is impossible to meet. But if the existing scholarship offer is, for example, $10,000, it is unlikely that a request for $40,000 will be granted. The point of an appeal is to make attendance possible, not to make it easy.

  • Be prepared to document other offers.  If your student has received scholarships from schools that are equally selective or more selective, it could help your request for an appeal. Not every school is interested in hearing about the offers of its competitors. But if your student has received an offer of substantial support highly regarded school it cannot hurt your case to let them know.

  • Ask the faculty to advocate. If your student has a good relationship with the studio teacher, she should ask her to advocate on her behalf.

  • Ignore everybody else. Some students (and some parents) brag about enormous scholarship offers, or repeat stories that may or may not be apocryphal. Regardless of the intent behind these stories, the effect is to make everyone else feel less valued. Focus on what your family needs to make it possible for your student to thrive in college.

In case you’re feeling discouraged at this point, here’s story for you: a couple of years ago, when my youngest daughter applied to theater programs she was thrilled to be accepted to a rare auditioned double-major at the school she believed was perfect for her. She was also accepted to other schools ranked by outside agencies as more selective, both academically and artistically. Her first-choice school offered no financial aid (even though our family had three students in college and a low EFC), and only a small merit scholarship, less than a third of the size of her other scholarship offers. The tuition for this school was higher than any that our four children had encountered. We knew that would not be possible for her to attend, and spent an anguished April helping her evaluating other options.

But meanwhile I prepared a comprehensive appeal, outlining our family’s education-related debt, which I hand-delivered to the financial aid office (probably not necessary, but it was important enough to my daughter that I made the 200-mile trip.) I met with a financial aid director—so that she would have a face to put with the letter, and would understand the depth of our sincerity. My daughter asked the faculty to advocate for her. And we produced scholarship offers from the other schools. At the end of April, my daughter’s appeal was granted and her merit scholarship tripled. It’s still below our family’s “need” as determined by FAFSA, but suddenly what was impossible became possible. Was it worth the hours of preparation and advocating? Two years later she’s thriving at that school—I think so.

3 replies

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Karen Rile is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Biography

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