The Perfect Gift: Play for People!

December 9, 2021, 4:12 PM · It's easy to get caught up in perfectionism as a violinist, classical musician or music student, and sometimes that keeps us from sharing our musical gifts. But I have a holiday message for you: play for people anyway.

It's understandable, how it all happens. When it comes to the violin and many other instruments - they're simply hard to play well. First comes the challenge of simply making a nice sound. Then every new level of achievement seems to bring a new level of self-criticism and expectations - not to mention that the repertoire is full of fancy tricks and technical pitfalls.

It's easy to reach the ridiculous point where, when someone asks, "Will you play for me?" the instant reaction is: "No! I'm not ready! I have nothing to play!" - despite having played for years.

The holiday season is a perfect opportunity to change that mindset. After all, you don't have to give a note-perfect performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto when Grandma asks you to play for the family's holiday celebration. You don't have to play the latest and greatest challenge-piece that you have been practicing. Just play some holiday songs, or a Bach Minuet, or show tunes from musicals. Heck, if Hilary Hahn is not above playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I think most of us could pull out that one!

This week I had an up-close experience with this kind of performing. On Monday, I brought six of my youngest students to Regency Park Oak Knoll, an Alzheimer's home, to play for the residents. Our sense of happiness and joy following that performance reminded me of the importance of "getting over ourselves" and simply sharing our musical gifts, at whatever level we have them.

Our small performance came just a few weeks after my students had performed in a more formal recital, with each student playing his or her latest piece. In that setting, each student was reaching for their own new personal best, using the recital as motivation to polish and perform their latest pieces.

For Monday's concert, yes, we had been learning Christmas and Hanukah songs for the last few months, but we were playing as a group, in a much more casual setting, and sticking to music we knew well.

To be honest, this year seemed like perhaps an impossible year to bring a group of very young violinists to play holiday music for the residents of an Alzheimer's home.

Every December for many years, I'd been bringing a group of young violin students to the same care facility in Pasadena, to play their Suzuki tunes as well as some Christmas and Hanukah music. Of course, in 2020 that did not happen because of the lockdowns brought by the pandemic. Residents in nursing facilities were among the most vulnerable to COVID, and they were barely able to receive family visits, much less invite strangers inside. Beyond that, my violin students were not even having private lessons in person last year, much less group classes.

So in the optimistic summer days of 2021, when it looked like everyone would soon be vaccinated and that kids would get their shots in early fall, I scheduled this concert.

Then about a month ago I contacted the director - can we really do this, with kids ages 6-8? The answer was "yes," if we could ensure everyone's safety with COVID rapid-tests; vaccinations where possible; and masks for all. This took a great deal of cooperation from all the parents and kids, as well as extra work on the part of the administrators at the care home. But we did it!

Of course, it was a quirky situation. We were supposed to start at 6 p.m., but the kids were still awaiting the results of their rapid tests in another room. The administrator told me in an aside, "The residents really expect things to start at six, and they get a little antsy if they have to wait..." Indeed, they were all ready, gathered in the giant living room where we'd be playing.

So my wonderful pianist, Ben Salisbury, and I winged it - "Chestnuts?" he asked from the piano, and we dove in and played Christmas songs by ear for the next 10 minutes. When we launched into "Holly Jolly Christmas," it occurred to me, "Wait, how does this go again?" but I didn't have time to worry about that - I looked out and locked eyes with one smiling resident and saw about three others clapping along with the peppy music. Just play!

When they were ready, I fetched the kids and marched them in, to more improvising by Ben. We played various holiday songs and Suzuki pieces for about a half-hour, ending with "Twinkle" and a rousing "Jingle Bells."

Students at nursing home

Every time I turned around to look at the several-dozen residents gathered in the room, I saw people smiling and clapping along with the music. Several times I heard them singing - despite memory limitations, they remembered the words. When we played "Twinkle," Ben improvised some alternate harmony, giving the music a kind of grandeur reserved more for something like the Gates of Kiev than for Suzuki Twinkles!

As we marched away, several residents rushed up to me, "Please come back soon!"

"You made a lot of people happy today," I told my students, once we had left the room and had returned to their parents. "You can feel really good about that."

In a normal year, we might have tried to have treats for the kids afterwards, but with so many logistics we just couldn't swing it. But I think it was okay. This was all about giving, and even these very young students could understand that. It feels very good to have something to give, and to give it.

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December 9, 2021 at 11:04 PM · You truly have a caring heart, Laurie Niles!! This brought tears to my eyes and yes, you are correct in saying get over yourself and just play!! For the first time ever I’ll be doing a Christmas recital concert with the rest of my teacher’s students. There’ll be little kids and big kids and adults and I can’t wait. I just want to be with people again (albeit, safely). Merry Christmas!

December 10, 2021 at 12:26 AM · If anything it also teaches kids about serving others, and how their talent(s) can be used not only to enrich themselves but to enrich other people's lives as well. Kudos to all of you! Have a great Holiday Season!

December 10, 2021 at 01:03 AM · Laurie, I'm with Suzanne when I say this had me in tears! My sister works as a nurse and also as a nursing home administrator. She always tells me that the mind has an amazing capacity to remember and appreciate music, even when other faculties are failing. So I can tell you with a certain amount of assurity that what your students brought to these people was truly heard and appreciated. And what a great lesson... just play for people!!! (And the photo is absolutely precious!)

December 10, 2021 at 04:05 AM · Brilliant.

December 10, 2021 at 12:53 PM · Great idea. For some years, members of my community orchestra would come for one morning during the holiday season to Baltimore Washington Int'l Airport and play for a few hours for the travelers. We always liked doing it, and the folks walking by enjoyed it.

December 11, 2021 at 03:34 AM · I performed several times at senior's homes before the pandemic, and I was going to set up a whole senior gigging regime but that got abruptly got cut off with the pandemic. I'm hoping to play some more at senior's homes once things open up a bit more.

December 12, 2021 at 12:52 AM · Wonderful beautiful story!!!!

December 12, 2021 at 02:13 AM · Now in her 90's and unable to see well, my terrific mother in law used to play violin as a teenager, and similarly to myself, she picked up the violin again during retirement. She was so thrilled when I showed her the violin I had recently purchased.

I look forward to playing Christmas songs for her when we visit later this month.

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