April 2014

A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 23: Letting Go

April 24, 2014 16:29

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


You were there for her all along: organizing piles of paperwork, writing checks for the accompanist, and typing in your credit card number on the final screen of each application. You were her travel agent and partner in adventure. You rearranged your work schedule so that you could go along on trips to fetch her water bottle and granola bars. You guarded her stuff during the auditions, making nervous small talk with the other parents. You were her loyal and supportive coat rack. You took her to Pinkberry the time she thought she'd bombed. You helped her endure the endless wait in March, insulating her from the irritating questions of well-meaning relatives. You shared her joy and her frustration at the results of her efforts. You helped her figure out how to pay for it. (Or maybe it's you who'll pay for it.)

A college audition cycle is like a pregnancy—nine months of sustained parental energy, all focused on achieving a single, momentous transition.

Congratulations: you are now the proud parent of a college student. Have a cigar.

Now its time to get out of the way.

Years ago, it was possible for kids to manage their own college applications and decisions without much parental input. The current process is problematic in that it creates a fussy, high-maintenance situation at the very time when adolescents should naturally be growing independent. Chances are, you and your child have been more connected on every level throughout this stressful season than in past years. That's lovely, but how is Junior supposed to move forward with his psychological individuation when Mom and Dad are hovering so close?

Here's how. (Buckle your seatbelt.) Parent after parent expresses bewilderment and hurt when their kid, the same kid who so sweetly depended on them throughout the tumultuous audition cycle, turns unexpectedly cold or even surly during the months before college begins.

"Fauntleroy used to be so easygoing. Now we're fighting, day and night."

"I don't know what's gotten into Punchinella. She's so hypercritical, I can't say a word without her jumping down my throat."

"Suddenly Ovaltina hates me—she's even unfriended me on Facebook!"

It's developmentally appropriate for your newly-minted young adult to withdraw from the intense parent-child bonding of the past few months. But that doesn't make it easy. Parenthood is a long, slow process of loss—but your awareness doesn't make the loss less painful.

Now that the college decision is settled, you may feel as if you've lost a driving force in your own life. As September looms on the horizon, your child has a shiny new future to look forward to. For you, it's just the twigs and feathers of your empty nest. Well-meaning childless friends (or friends with younger children) will congratulate you for all the extra me-time you'll have on hand You can catch up on your golf! (More likely you can catch up with your job and housework.) Your own parents, because they didn't give much thought or energy to your college choices, may be frankly puzzled. Your best bet for camaraderie is other parents. But you'll get through it, even without others to talk to.

Think back on other transitions in your life. When my babies were tiny, I dreaded the day that they'd be weaned. But when the day arrived it went unnoticed because it was time; we were ready. It was the same for the first day of pre-school, for the transition from their beloved Suzuki repertoire to rigor of Ševcík and Schradieck. How I thought I would miss braiding my four little girls' hair every morning at the breakfast table—and, yes, remembering those moments does fill me with tender nostalgia—but when the time comes, the separation will feel right.

In your next phase as a music-parent, you'll not be needed to carpool to rehearsals, carry around gear like a pack-horse, or write checks to the teacher (except a big one, twice a year). You won't be attending every performance (or any, if you live too far away.) You won't get a full report after every lesson and masterclass. That's not necessary anymore. And it will be okay.

Last week I was standing on a busy train platform when my pocket started buzzing. I pulled out my phone and saw my daughter’s face flashing on the screen. Most other calls I’d let go to voicemail, to return at a quieter time, but this one I picked up.

“Hi, Mama! I need advice!”

My heart quickened—she still needs me! I glanced around for a phone booth, to quick-change into my old SuperMom costume. But, alas, in this digital age there are no more phone booths, even at train stations. And my SuperMom duds have been in mothballs for a few years anyway. So, I paced the platform, listening. Her problem was this: orange, sputtering water coming out of the tap in her 5th floor apartment. What should she do?

I can’t help her with her musical decisions anymore. But I can tell her what little I know about plumbing. "They're probably just doing some work on the pipes in your building, or flushing a hydrant on the street. Just let the water run clear and it should be fine in a few days."

We chatted for a minute (joy!) and then my train arrived.

"Everything should be fine," I repeated.

And, you know what? It was.

* * *

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

3 replies

Talking About Talking Practice

April 17, 2014 23:01


A few months ago I attended a reading by a friend of mine who was on tour promoting his latest novel. I brought my personal copy of his book to the event for him to sign. Good thing, because it turns out that I needed to follow along the printed text to make out what he was saying. He rushed and stumbled over his own sentences as if they were unfamiliar to him. His enunciation was a disservice to his stylishly crafted prose, and I was dismayed to think that some in the audience might dismiss his writing because of its poor delivery.

Later, over coffee, he admitted that he does not like to do live readings. No surprise there: many of us writers are uncomfortable reading our work aloud. A writer's relationship is with the written and printed word; our relationship with our readers is quiet and indirect. The last thing on our minds when we are writing is that someday we'll be marched onto a stage and forced to perform it in front of an audience.

And yet we must. Interacting with the public is part of the business of being a writer, or any kind of artist. My friend confessed he's dreaded public readings ever since graduate school, when his mentor told him that he was the best writer he'd ever taught—and the worst reader. "I try to go slowly, but I'm so anxious; I hurry for fear of running out of time."

The idea suddenly came to me that maybe he should take a few sessions with an acting coach. I probably wouldn't have thought of it on my own, but my youngest daughter is a theater student, and I recently learned that her acting teacher sometimes coaches writers to help them develop vocal, physical, and emotional techniques for reading their work aloud in public.

My friend didn't think much of this suggestion. In fact, I'm afraid he was insulted. "I've worked very hard at becoming a better reader—and now you're telling me to take acting lessons!"

I asked to describe his practice method.

"Practice? I don't practice," he said. "Why should I?"

"You never read your work aloud except during the actual readings?"

"Never. These are my words. I wrote them. I don't need to practice."

Well, I need to practice. I know that I cannot rely on "trying very hard" during the moments of performance when my adrenalin is high and my head is filled with distraction.

Every time I do a reading of my own work I prepare by rehearsing the passage with a timer running. I note in pencil which words to emphasize and when to take a breath. If I don't practice, then in the pressure of the moment, I'm liable to twist and contort the very passages that I've fussed over for days to get right on paper. If I don't practice, I'll read too quickly; I'll swallow the ends of my sentences. I'll not give the pauses needed for the reader to savor my words. After I practice, I record myself and play it back—always a mortifying experience. My voice is too high. Those awful regional vowels. Then I go back and practice some more. It is a miserable, time-consuming effort. Maybe I'll never get good, but I do get better—enough.

A few weeks before her senior recital, the dean of my violinist-daughter's conservatory asked her to take part in a pilot program in which students would speak from the stage to audience members. My daughter was happy to participate, as she was already planning to speak during her recital. In preparation, she met with faculty to discuss her ideas for her speech, wrote it, memorized it, and then submitted a video run-through, recorded on her laptop computer.

The first ten drafts of the recording mortified her: "I keep saying 'um'. My voice is so high-pitched." Finally, she uploaded a draft, got some feedback from the faculty advisor, and then practiced her talk some more. On the night of the performance, she walked out on stage with confidence—and promptly spotted, in the second row of the audience, a long-time friend who'd flown in for the concert from Nashville without telling her. Without missing a beat, my daughter acknowledged her friend's surprise appearance, and continued with her speech. She was able to be gracious, and to make an extemporaneous adjustment without being thrown off because she was prepared.

This summer, after graduation and before she goes off to her chamber music festival, she's planning several sessions with her sister's acting coach to work on her speaking skills. I credit her college's administration for recognizing how crucial it is for musicians to be skilled at verbal communication, both on- and offstage. Maybe in the future they will consider integrating speech training into the curriculum for instrumentalists. And even if they don't, it's up to the individual artist to take active responsibility for her self-presentation. Even when that means getting out her comfort zone and exploring the techniques of a complementary discipline.

3 replies

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

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


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.

* * *

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

3 replies

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