“I’m really surprised,” one of my adult students told me. “Several of my neighbors in the apartment building where I live have told me that they like hearing me play.” I told her that many of my neighbors over the years have told me that they like listening to me play. Some have even said that they like hearing my students play. We decided that for many people, hearing a neighbor play is the only way to hear live music. Concert tickets are expensive, and it’s especially hard to pay for tickets for a family. In many places, canned music is used for atmosphere. Even worse, it’s sometimes used for people to dance to -- how awful! There’s just nothing like live music.
The next time you are practicing at home, especially if you live in an apartment building or a place where neighbors or passersby can hear you, just think: You may be bringing the joy of live music into someone’s life.
The father-daughter bond can be very strong, but so can the music-daughter bond. Here are a few true stories about people I’ve known and how they reacted when the two bonds conflicted.
The Record Collection
She had loved classical music since childhood, when she started taking piano lessons. By the time she reached high school, she played quite well, and she had a collection of records which she bought whenever she saved enough of her allowance money. (For younger readers: Vinyl records came before cassette tapes, which came before CDs, which came before mp3s.)
Her father was an alcoholic, and her home life could be downright miserable. One night her father came home roaring drunk and angry. He went for her record collection, pulled out the Beethoven records, which he knew were her favorites, hurled them against the wall, and smashed them all.
Years later she told me, “Even when he was totally drunk, he knew what I loved the most, and he had to destroy it.”
The Sheet Music Collection
She loved to sing. She never wanted to be a professional singer or even a voice major in college, but she took some voice lessons and sang for fun with groups whenever she had the chance. She stored her sheet music collection in her parents’ home until she had a home of her own. When she went back to get her sheet music, she couldn’t find it. Then her father told her that he had sold all her sheet music at a yard sale, and she was furious. Her father said, “I paid for your education, including your sheet music, so it’s all mine, and I can do whatever I want with it.” She was angry and hurt, and she tried to tell her father why, but he just kept saying “I paid for it. It was mine.”
Years later she told me, “After that, I continued to do what a good daughter is supposed to do. I call my parents on their birthdays, buy them presents for Mothers Day and Fathers Day, and visit them for Christmas. But it has never been the same, never the same at all.”
As a child, she loved her violin and practiced hard. Her hard work was rewarded. She became the concertmistress of her high school orchestra and eventually the concertmistress of her small city’s symphony orchestra.
Her father was an alcoholic, mean, and universally hated. One night, in a drunken rage, he smashed her violin to bits. She was heartbroken. She never played again.
Years later, after she had died, her husband, who was a very dedicated amateur musician, told me that he had always wanted to play music with her, and she always refused. He was terribly disappointed. He never blamed her, though. He always blamed her father.
When I’m feeling bad about a student and I’m in a melodramatic mood, I identify with the heroine of Henry James’s novella/ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw” (now available for free download on the Gutenberg Project). The story is about a young woman who has accepted a position as a governess for two small children, brother and sister, in a large, old English house on beautiful, large grounds. Since the children were orphans and their legal guardian wished to stay uninvolved, the governess took full responsibility for the children. At first the children seemed very well behaved, and life was good. Then the children started disappearing for a few hours at a time, and the governess shadowed them to see where they went. She was shocked to find that the children are being lured away by the ghosts of two former servants from the house, who had died recently under mysterious circumstances. The governess was convinced that the apparitions were agents of the Devil, who were determined to bring the children to the Devil for his nefarious purposes. The governess found herself in mortal combat with the Devil for the children’s souls. The little boy became very ill, and the governess sat up with him all night, trying to keep him alive and out of the Devil’s hands. By sunrise, sadly, the boy was dead and the Devil had taken his soul.
What can this possibly have in common with teaching kids to play the violin? Sometimes I get a student who is very talented, learns quickly to play well, and has a powerful musical intuition. However, these students consider themselves failures at the violin, and they have similar problems with their studies at school. They set unreasonably high goals for themselves and become depressed about their failures to meet them. They often play a line or two of a piece, make one small mistake, and give up. “I just can’t play this piece at all,” they say. From there, it is a relatively small step for them to decide, “I can’t play the violin at all.” One girl told her parents not to tell her that she was playing well because she “knew” she wasn’t. She did allow me to praise her. Another girl had a sort of mini-breakdown. She was worried that she wouldn’t make straight As and get into a good college. She was ten years old. I know the parents of all these kids, and they all go out of their way to avoid making their kids feel pressured. I do everything I can think of to make these kids realize that they are playing well and that they should not give up. I use the carrot, the stick, email consultations with their parents, and my own form of psychotherapy. I feel like I’m in my own personal fight against the Devil of self doubt and low self esteem. One of my students is poised on the edge right now. I feel like I’m sitting up all night with her to keep her from the Devil. Who will win, the Devil or me?