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Karen Allendoerfer

Parents, Teachers, VSOs and Practicing: Fear and Loathing in Suburbia

May 18, 2008 at 12:53 PM

This blog is inspired by the thread, Teaching Tips, and some conversations I've had over the weekend with other parents of kids in the public school string program where my 3rd-grade daughter is currently learning violin. (The title is meant tongue-in-cheek ;-)

There was a nice orientation at the beginning of the school year aimed at getting parents involved, and at that time the string teachers passed out little pink note cards called "What a Parent Can Do" with bullet points describing what a 30-minute practice session should be like. I saved this card and have found it useful, but it doesn't seem to me like the overall plan for parent involvement is really working on a broad scale.

Instead, what I'm finding in conversations is that many parents, especially non-musician parents but even others like me who ostensibly play an instrument themselves, are still pretty clueless when it comes to helping their kids practice. They assume, because they're not musicians, that they have nothing to say and can't help.

And, honestly, there is a small kernel of truth to this idea, one that I don't think the "rah-rah" get-involved language of the orientation really addresses. It's not really ignorance, it's fear. I was called upon one winter evening to help a neighbor's kid's viola. The mother called me, knowing I played the instrument, frantic, because "something happened to it and it's totally messed up!" When I got there, all that I found was a very out-of-tune viola, with one of the strings loose and slack. It looked like one or more of the pegs had slipped. I tuned it back up, felt good that I was able to help and that it was such an easy fix. Not even a broken string. But that girl and her mother, seeing that loose, slack string, were scared. They feared that this expensive, complicated instrument they had rented from the nice people who came to the school at the beginning of the year was BROKEN. And they were going to get in trouble, have to pay hundreds or dollars for it, or both.

As the child of non-musicians, one who started learning the violin in a public school string program much like this one, I was once in that same boat, and I can sympathize. I was scared of my rental violin too for a while when I was a kid: it belonged to some strange adults, and people were always telling me to "be careful" with it, something that as a clumsy, uncoordinated, non-athletic child who often dropped things, I wasn't very good at, in any context. And in fact, the bridge on my first rental 1/2-size violin broke in half midway through the year and had to be replaced. (I don't remember how that happened. Probably repressed it.)

I took my daughter to Johnson String Instrument yesterday to try out a 3/4 size violin, which they confirmed she needs. When I mentioned my price range, $500 or less for an outfit, they suggested renting. We discussed the relative merits of renting vs. buying for a few minutes. When my daughter got into the room with all the violins and had one in her hand, all her shyness and introversion came back. She wouldn't play it. I asked the friendly, helpful salesman if he would mind stepping out of the room. He smiled, said "not at all," and left. She then tried a few squeaks that sounded a little like Frere Jacques and wailed "Nooo! I don't want to play here! I want to play at home! I want to buy a violin, and I want tapes!" (meaning the tapes on the fingerboard for the fingers).

So I played the 3/4 violin for a few minutes and confirmed that it sounded much better than "Lucy," the 1/2-size VSO she has now. I've played Lucy too, more than I care to, and I know she has to work too hard to get a robust sound out of Lucy. But that doesn't matter to her. She doesn't want to give up Lucy (and Rocky, the bow). Or if she does, only for "someone" new that is really HERS FOREVER. And under no circumstances does she want to rent anything from the nice people who come to the school at the beginning of the year.

So, I thank the nice, friendly salesman when he comes back. I tell him we're just looking and that we have to talk it over with my husband. I also mention that although I agree with him about the sensible-ness of renting, my daughter wants to own. I know also in the back of my mind that there is no way in he** that my husband (a non-musician software engineer whose thoughts on the matter closely resemble most of the other non-musician parents I've talked to) will agree to paying $685, which is how much it would cost to buy the outfit that we tried out. I go home and look at the Shar catalog. This page makes me feel much better.

So, what about practicing, and the role of parents? I'm still just making it up as I go along here, but I think I'm coming to some general rules of what works and what doesn't, at least for my daughter and maybe for other non-virtuoso, non-prodigy, "normally" talented kids. The parents' role is to address and smooth over the *emotional* context of violin learning first and foremost. Sure, it's nice if you can tune the viola in the middle of the night, or evaluate a nice-sounding non-VSO, but that's not essential. What is essential is addressing the kid's fears and insecurities in a caring way that doesn't make them feel bad or stupid or scared. No musical training or talent is required for that.

The other piece that seems missing here is written records. I started keeping a practice log and lesson log as an adult, only recently when I started playing again after an 8-year break. I find it very useful, essential really, to have something written down to remember what I am working on and to keep myself on track between lessons and even from one practice session to the next one, the following day. The classroom teachers in other subjects like reading and math seem to get this too. They give out written assignments, have kids keep nightly reading logs, and so forth. But from the music teachers, there's nothing. I have to figure out for myself or rely on my daughter to tell me what she's working on--not just pieces, but also "issues" (high 2's, crunchy bow strokes, rhythm, music reading, pretty much "the usual" for beginners, but anyone who didn't play violin wouldn't necessarily know any of this).

My own violin education was pretty much the same. I did have one teacher in high school who encouraged me to write down what he called "TTR's" ("things to remember") after lessons. That was a good idea in theory, and his advice actually inspired my current practice log, but at the time he had me doing it in a music manuscript book which didn't have any space for writing words, and made it almost impossible to read or organize. And it was haphazard, there wasn't any continuity or checking. For example, we never followed up on last week's TTR's in the following week's lesson. I think I ended up stopping doing them because I didn't get the point, it just seemed like more busywork.

I have worked with conductors, too, who don't tell you what you're going to be rehearsing from week to week. Orchestras who don't mark parts beforehand have been discussed recently on this forum.

It seems to me that this problem of lack of written records and teaching aids goes all the way back to elementary school, to the very beginnings of string teaching. Maybe because music is, well, *auditory* in its very nature, it doesn't occur to people who are steeped in it all day that many learners don't retain and internalize important lessons very well with only that one kind of input. It even feeds back into the "fear" issue that I wrote about above. From my own experience I know that I can start to feel deeply uncomfortable when I'm expected to remember and learn off the top of my head without being able to write anything down for later review and reflection. The fact is, without the writing, the review and reflection rarely take place.

So this too is something that parents can do for their children, even in the absence of teacher enforcement: write it down! Review and reflect. Hopefully, with time and maturity, the student will be able to take this role on for him or herself.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 18, 2008 at 6:55 PM
Uncle Hunter would be proud.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 18, 2008 at 7:42 PM
Ah yes, the familiar Panic Of The Slipped String!!!
From Ray Randall
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 12:55 AM
I give, what's a VSO?
From Pamela Schulz
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 2:15 AM
Too bad you're not in the market for a bit more expensive 3/4 violin! I've had one for sale on consignment at our local violin shop, but it's about $1,500. It's definitely not a VSO - sounds great for a 3/4 (it's an older German one). Trouble is, nobody wants to spend that type of money for an instrument a child will outgrow. I'm trying to sell it because it sat around for years after my father played it until I got around to playing it, and then it sat around for more years until my daughter played it, and I really don't want it to sit around until my daughter might have kids who might want to play the violin.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 3:17 AM
VSO is a "violin-shaped object." I think the term was popularized by Shar Music and refers to cheap instruments, usually bought on the internet, that cost more to make them playable (new strings, pegs, some adjustments to soundpost, nut, and/or fingerboard) than they were worth in the first place.
From Conrad Jacoby
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 4:26 AM
Another key to VSOs is that they sound, well, awful. I bought a VSO for $25 (plus $20 shipping) to use as a disposable instrument when traveling and because I was willing to replace the pegs and strings and tinker with the setup as a learning experience. The net result is that my ostensible VSO sounds at least as good as most entry-level student violins, which is much more than I expected. It's still a VSO, though, because the fingerboard is made of very soft wood, and it won't be worth replacing it when it gets too uneven from use. I guess I can make the instrument into a nice lamp, at that point.
From Mark Gleason
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 4:30 PM
Yes, giving a child a good 3/4 violin can really give the player a boost in confidence. What a difference in sound between the average 1/2 and a good 3/4! I spent $1200 for the 3/4, and I haven't been able to sell it, but I'd definitely spend the money again. (Besides, the bow for the new full size cost a lot more than the entire kit of the 3/4.)
From Jacqueline Crute
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 4:59 PM
$685 is very reasonable for a 3/4 outfit. If your daughter likes the sound and the feel of the violin, it will be worth it in the long run. She will be willing to practice more and enjoy it. Years ago when my older daughter was ready for a 1/4 size violin, her teacher said it was time to move up to something better than a cheap Suzuki model. That is a decision that we have never regretted and repeated the same process with her younger sister.

How long do you want to listen to a cheap violin? Neither of my daughters are prodigies, just reasonably accomplished teenage players. And Johnson Strings should be willing to let you trade in the 3/4 for a full when it is time. That is what we did with Potters and once you got over the sticker shock of the first purchase the upgrades were a little easier.

Not trying to jump into your business, just wanted to give you another parent's perspective. I am also a non-musician and will readily admit that the sticker shock for both the violin and the bow for the 2nd full size violin for my older daughter was HUGE. But again, when I listen to her play I have never regretted spending the money. Hope this helps.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 10:13 PM
I don't think she's really to the point yet that she can appreciate the better sound of a higher quality instrument. She's tall for her age and is moving up to a 3/4 size relatively early in terms of acquired skills. I don't think I needed a 3/4 size until I was around 10, and she's only 8.

I don't doubt that some kids her age (and even younger) can distinguish these sounds, but she's much more focused on things like what the instrument looks like and whether the case is too heavy. Her 1/2 size is bright and shiny and kind of reddish, and she likes that. One big reason she objects so strenuously to the rental instruments is that they come with nice, heavy, high-quality, durable cases. Perfectly reasonable. But her 1/2 size has a thin, light cheapo case that is easier for her to carry than the cases that she sees the renters carrying. We walk to school ~1 mile every morning and that's important to her.

My main objection to its sound is that it is thin and muted, doesn't carry, isn't robust. But it doesn't offend me to hear her practice on it.

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