Self-Esteem & Gender Equality in the Violin Studio

July 6, 2016, 8:05 PM · In the wake of several high profile news stories in the last few months, I've been thinking a lot about how I treat my violin students and how I can work to avoid imprinting traditional gendered beliefs on my students, build genuine self-esteem that's not based on appearance, and teach them to respect each other's bodies and choices.

Something I've learned in the last three years of teaching is this: kids are really freaking cute. I've also learned that kids can do pretty much anything you ask them to if you present it in the right way and make them practice it. And it absolutely drives me insane when the first thing someone comments on is the appearance of one of my students, especially right after they've just performed. No, my student isn't going to play well because they're "so adorable" and "have such a sweet smile." They're going to play well because they've practiced 45 minutes a day for the last six months and because they work hard at the violin. It has nothing to do with the adorable Elsa dress they're wearing.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the ways I try to build self-confidence based on musical skill and to not focus on appearance as related to gender in my studio:

1. Always link success to effort.

I make sure I mention how hard the student is working and point out the accomplishment of concrete technical and musical goals to them, especially after a performance. I avoid saying things like "Oh, you're so talented," and try to say things like "I know you worked so hard, and because of that, your fourth fingers were so beautiful!" or "It made me happy to hear how big your sound was when you went all the way to the frog."

2. Avoid gendered pronouns when discussing dress codes.

My dress code for recitals reads something like this: "Students should wear a nice shirt and dress pants, or a skirt or dress that is knee length or longer. Dress shoes should be worn. No t-shirts, jeans, athletic wear, ripped clothing, or tennis shoes. Avoid bows, sequins, ruffles, or other accessories around the neckline that may interfere with the playing of the instrument. Hair should be styled away from the face." If a female student wants to wear a suit, that's great, as long as she can play in it. If a male student chose to wore a skirt or dress, that would be okay too, as long as it was knee-length and he could play in it.

3. Comment on clothing or hairstyle as a reflection of personality.

"That X-Wing t-shirt is awesome. Does it come in adult sizes?" "I love how colorful your skirt is - it's so fun!" "Oh, wow, your hair is purple now! What a fun change for summer!" I try to avoid saying things like "That's so pretty," especially to the girls.

4. Incorporate the music of female composers into the repertoire. You can find more repertoire by female composers at That is all.

5. When teaching the work of female composers, make sure you say "she" when talking about the composer's intentions. Just hearing composers referred to as both "she" and "he" will help students grow up in a world where these works are equal.

6. Teach the principles of consent at an early age.

One of the things I do in early violin lessons is draw a "Magic X" on a student's hand to help them place the left hand on the instrument. I ask "Is it okay if I draw on you?" and have a plan for an "Invisible Magic X" in place if the student says no. I also try to monitor how they behave with each other, especially as my students have formed friendships. In one recent incident, a student said "I'm going to go tell the next student they can come in and I'm going to tickle them!" I immediately said, "No, you need to pack up your violin first. Then you can go ask them politely if you can tickle them and if they say no, then you can't." The student packed up their violin, went in the hall, and said "Can I tickle you?" The next student said, "No!" Student #1 said, "Okay," and that was the end of that.

7. Acknowledge that playing the violin is hard.

As my students progress, we've had many moments in lessons lately where a student will stop and look at me and say, "But this is hard!" I look at them with a straight face and say, "Yes. Violin is hard. And when we practice, we become really good at doing hard things!" I don't lie to them about violin becoming "easy" at some magical point in the future (if it does become easy, I haven't gotten to that place in my own playing yet...). Instead, I acknowledge that what we're trying to do is really hard, I affirm that I believe that the student has what it takes to be able to do it, and then I give them steps to follow to be able to do it.


July 8, 2016 at 02:32 PM · Great article! It is great to see someone speaking out about dress codes. It has always driven me nuts to see such gender specific dress codes enforced by most organizations and they always seem to be way more restrictive for males. I can't even imagine what orchestras do with those who are non-binary. I hope the attidudes described in the article make it to the professional world someday.

July 8, 2016 at 05:32 PM · Let's see what happens when a bearded Y chromosomal violin or piano soloist appears on stage with a major orchestra wearing a sequined gown.

July 8, 2016 at 08:09 PM · The sequined gown might be more comfortable than a tux!

July 8, 2016 at 08:17 PM · It sounds like you are intentional about making your music studio a safe place that encourages real growth. Keep up the great work!

July 9, 2016 at 05:54 PM · Truth: I have no idea how anyone plays in a tuxedo!

July 11, 2016 at 12:57 PM · The gown may be more comfortable than the tux, but where, then, do you hide the giant foam shoulder rest that you forbid your students using?

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