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Karen Rile

The Violin Addiction

August 29, 2013 at 10:01 PM


“What is this demented music that is the soundtrack of your lives?” asked my neighbor one summer afternoon.

I opened my mouth to reply. Why, it’s David Cerone playing “The Happy Farmer”, of course.

Then I stopped myself. My neighbor had a point. Things had clearly gotten out of hand. From an objective standpoint, playing Suzuki violin CDs during most of our waking hours was pretty demented behavior. We used to listen to Mahler, to Muddy Waters, to Mozart, and the Talking Heads. Somehow, without my quite realizing it, in the space of two short years, Suzuki violin had taken over our household.

Secretly, I’ll confess I found the structure comforting. I’d been a miserable, undisciplined music student as a child, and I wanted to do a better job this time around. I sat in on my daughters' lessons with notebook and pen, ever the diligent secretary. I oversaw practices before and after school. When they weren’t practicing, I found my mind wandering back to the details of practicing. I invented little games and OCD-affirming practice charts to keep things going. I wrote catchy lyrics for all the Book 1 tunes. While they practiced, I often played the melody along with them on the piano with my right hand while supporting a nursing infant in my left.

Maybe somehow, weirdly, violin had become more important to me than it was to them. At seven, my oldest daughter Lauren had many interests stronger than music. She liked to perform, but she didn’t enjoy practicing—she’d rather be in her treehouse reading a book—and she didn’t enjoy feeling like the dunce of her group class where most of the kids, who’d started younger, were half a head shorter.

Madeline, my mercurial four-year-old seemed to take to the violin naturally, but her behavior was unpredictable. She was as likely to collapse in a tears or fall asleep in the middle of a lesson as she was to play her Twinkles perfectly. Clearly, she was a musical child, but was violin necessary? And at this age? Recently she’d asked me, “Why do we play violin? Why don’t we play saxophone?” (She’d seen “Put Down the Duckie” video on Sesame Street) I was stumped by that one until Lauren came up with a perfectly satisfying answer: “They don’t make quarter-size saxophones.”

Now the two-year-old was clamoring for a violin; she wanted to be just like her older sisters. The violin teacher, Alberta, had agreed to take Caeli on as a student in September. At her suggestion we’d constructed a mock instrument from a ruler, a macaroni box, and some pink contact paper. For a bow, her sisters had improvised a wooden chopstick. Not surprisingly, Caeli wasn’t fooled by this contraption (in fact, she’d been enraged.) I’d promised her a real instrument, come autumn.

At the beginning of July we received a fat handwritten envelope with a Wisconsin postmark. It was a letter from Alberta, who spent several weeks of the summer at a lakeside cabin without electricity or phone service.

Bombshell: Alberta was resigning from the Suzuki school. In retrospect, I realized that the signs had been there for a while. She’d told us outright that she was unhappy at the school. The pay was low, there were no benefits, and the commute from her town, thirty miles away, was horrendous. It made perfect sense that she was striking out on her own. She wrote that she hoped our kids would be able to continue studying with her at her home studio. Included in the envelope was a hand-drawn schedule for private and group lessons, where she had thoughtfully assigned us a triple lesson slot on Tuesday afternoons.

I quickly did the arithmetic: travel to Alberta’s house meant a ninety-minute drive in each direction through a clogged exurban landscape. I couldn’t fathom committing to drive three small children plus my newborn to her place twice a week. When she’d mailed that letter, she must have known it would be impossible for us to continue with her as our teacher.

So here was an unexpected opportunity for a graceful exit. We could stop the craziness now, right now. I’d be free. Imagine: a world without violins. No more practice struggles. No more Saturday mornings tied up in group lessons. No more feeling like a failure, week after week, in front of Alberta. No more Mommy-mortification in group class.

It was all so simple, and yet I couldn’t wrap my head around it. If we dropped violin there would be a ragged hole in our lives. Praciticing was what we did together; it was how we organized our time. We’d invested so much: two years of daily effort, not to mention the expense of the lessons. We now owned two small instruments, which together had cost eight hundred dollars. We couldn’t just stop now, could we?

Should we stop? My husband, a decent amateur pianist, was just starting to have fun accompanying the girls at recitals.

“Let’s keep going,” he agreed. I saw that he could have gone either way, really, but I used his mild enthusiasm as permission to propel ourselves forward. It was agreed then, and the girls all seemed relieved at the decision: we would go ahead and find another teacher. And this time maybe not even a Suzuki teacher.

Tens of thousands of hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, I look back at this moment, wondering what persons they might have become—and what person I might have become—I had taken the escape hatch when it was offered to me. But I stayed the course, finding plenty of company among other similarly obsessed parents.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 30, 2013 at 8:33 AM
I love this blog! And I love your retro photographs, too! Do you ever miss old-school photography, or do you still actually use a dark room every once in a while?
From Karen Rile
Posted on August 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM
I haven't used my darkroom in years--it's stuffed with boxes like a large closet. I miss it terribly, though. There is nothing like a silver gelatin print.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 30, 2013 at 6:25 PM
I bet you would have continued, somehow. At the very least, Caeli would have kept tugging at you until you found lessons for her!

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