When violin just doesn't give you joy

February 22, 2023, 5:06 PM · My 13-year-old daughter is really struggling this year. As we've all probably seen in the news, she is not alone -- teen girls are generally having an exceptionally difficult time right now.

Unfortunately, she is in a place where violin is just not a happy thing anymore. She's never been as motivated as her brother, but really excelled last year and made a ton of progress and became much more interested in playing.

Then she had a set-back, not being moved up in orchestra this year, and has truly never recovered from it. She was principal second of the orchestra last year and has been concertmaster all of this year, so I am not sure what happened. Unfortunately, all of her friends did get moved up, so orchestra has completely lost the social aspect. She shows up, plays, barely says a word, and leaves. The level is not right, and she complains about the music being too easy and the other players not practicing enough or playing well.

Due to a variety of mostly scheduling factors, we weren't able to get her in a chamber group during the school year, so she doesn't have that either.

She finds practicing extremely frustrating. She cannot do what she wants, and she is still remediating a lot of technique. She often complains about being uncomfortable, even though she is not practicing that much.

We are trying to find some better options for her next year, such as her brother's pre-college program or a different orchestra program. But most of them involve putting in a lot of practice time now in order to pass the auditions, and that's hard since she is not currently enjoying violin very much. I don't want to push her to do it if she is truly not happy, but I also feel like she might get a lot of that joy back if she were in a better orchestra or a good chamber group.

We tried introducing viola to her, and she is actually really, really good at it, but does not seem that interested.

I'm just not sure what to do with her. My goal is to help her find joy in playing again, but I cannot figure out how to make it happen.

Replies (51)

February 22, 2023, 5:18 PM · Can either her violin or viola teachers facilitate a chamber group? Can her brother help with the technique so she isn’t struggling so much? Would a different instructor help?
Edited: February 22, 2023, 7:09 PM · There's a lot of individual psychology, and you know your daughter better, but I'll throw out some ideas.

If she has some kind of interest in performing in general, how would she feel about having a solo performance with a pianist? That would be easier than putting together a quartet. I remember years ago, the daughter of a member of the community orchestra I was playing in had a fundraiser concert. She was an excellent player, it was held at a synagogue, which I was under the impression she regularly attended, so if I have that right, her performance was embedded in a meaningful community for her (and it's kind of home-field advantage), and it was for a good cause that allowed her to do something for others (and don't get me wrong, performing is clearly for the audience, but I could see how a teenager might not see it that way) and take a little of the spotlight off of her if that seems like pressure. So that's one thought. Me having a performance to look forward to does wonders for my practicing.

Another thought is that if she has any interest in teaching (or has that kind of disposition), she could find a music program to volunteer at and help teach. This would make her think about her own practice a little more concretely and might renew her interest.

Another thought is to see what kind of folk/bluegrass/pop playing there is in the area. Maybe she could find something that is structured more by her interest and less by a big top-down system like whatever the orchestra structure she is in looks like.

I kind of liked aspects of orchestra, but at some point, I felt like it was holding me back from building a technique, so I was happy to quit and start actually making progress on violin.

My own motivation has always stemmed from me understanding that there is a coherent path in front of me, and it sounds like she has taken a blow that has her questioning how to achieve her goals. Maybe she doesn't really have goals, which might be par for the course at that age.

But also 13 years old...

February 22, 2023, 7:59 PM · Yup, my son was ~13 when he quit. I tried to keep him interested, first by taking lessons myself from the same teacher just after his lesson. Attempts to make it a parent-child bonding thing. Failed - he just wasn't interested, he never really had been and was anxious to fit into his peer group, not to follow a different route or even to excel at something. I guess in his eyes I was an over-achiever. Quitting was the right thing for him to do at that time, I have no regrets and I am pretty sure that he does not either. What I did achieve, however, was to give him training in reading music, an ear for classical, and a foothold for all the other instruments he tried - piano, guitar. Thus, violin was very enriching for him.

Maybe your daughter is the same? Sometimes going a different route is not just the best thing to do but the only one.

February 23, 2023, 1:42 AM · If I were you, I would speak with the people managing the orchestra. Inquire why she was not moved up. Explain that she complains about the low level, and that her friends are not there. Indicate that she is not enjoying the violin. Request she be moved up now. An alternative would be for her to leave the orchestra immediately.

If the issues are larger, that may not fix anything.

You could also speak with her about her role. It may not be at her level, but in life people regularly lead less skilled peers. That is what she is being called to do. You can also pose it this way, most professional musicians do not play at their level. They are in orchestras and are not soloists. The orchestral parts are trivial to them. It is what they are called to do.

February 23, 2023, 2:34 AM · Does she have any other interests in her life? Does anything else spark joy for her?
Edited: February 23, 2023, 7:55 AM · There's clearly a complex mixture of violin and ambition and competition.
Is it clear exactly which is causing the joylessness?
(her lack of interest in the viola seems to me to be consistent with her ambition)
February 23, 2023, 5:33 AM · I'm truly hoping she has or can find other joys.
I don't know your daughter, but perhaps her interests haved morphed to other things at the moment.

When I was that age, my interests were all over the place.
We has parents, now Grand parents can show the possibilities, but it's up to the child to chose.

February 23, 2023, 6:22 AM · Oh, I am sorry to hear this happen to your daughter. Sometimes school orchestra teachers/conductors will hold back a student they want to lead a lower level orchestra. They want the leadership of the student and aren’t thinking of the students interest level in the music and its difficulty. For some students it’s okay and they thrive, for others it kills their interest. Note, she was principal second last year, which means the conductor recognizes her leadership skills. Please do talk to the teacher about why, (and ask them to her) but please also talk to your daughter about the opportunity being concertmaster gives her. Maybe talk to her violin teacher too about suggestions and look for a good sumner music camp too. To help the social frustration of being separated from her friends, maybe suggest she asks them to play with her for fun and find her some duet music. Take her to concerts. While the music might be easy, she has the ability right now to perfect it, to make it look it’s best. If it helps her self-esteem, remind her she’s leading the orchestra, something a lot of other kids are looking up to her for, and not buried in the back of the section of the next orchestra up. She’s the one who students are looking at to follow when they can’t tell what the conductor wants, get lost in the music or on bowing, lead on dynamics, and articulation, along with more subtle things like emphasis and expression. She gets to influence the orchestra in ways and has the liberty of using more body movement. She has a few months left, and when she’s done, likely next year, she may be placed in a leadership position again. Professional orchestras look at positions very differently. Good luck!
February 23, 2023, 6:52 AM · Thank you everyone for the replies. I don't think the teacher is the issue at all -- she is hard on her, but not excessively. My daughter is harder on herself than her teacher is on her. We haven't had luck trying to put together any ad hoc chamber groups, but to be honest these few months are crazy since her brother is flying all over the country for auditions. She does play with a pianist somewhat regularly, but has much less interest in solo playing. She really likes the social aspect of groups.

I would be perfectly happy to let her explore other interests and change focus, but she doesn't really have anything else she is interested in. She used to like science/nature stuff, but that is no longer cool. She likes to draw and still does some of that, but doesn't want to take classes or push it further. She plays volleyball with friends at school but doesn't want to join a team. The only things she really shows interest in are friends and watching movies.

We don't have the option of moving her up in orchestra. She's in the third from top level of a big city youth symphony (with seven orchestras) and not much flexibility. From what we know, she was not moved up because her audition didn't show her abilities enough (it wasn't her best due to anxiety) and since she was one of the youngest in the orchestra last year, it was also to the orchestra's benefit to keep her there. They did this to another really good young player we know as well. It's actually something they seem to do somewhat frequently, as her brother experienced something similar and ended up leaving the program. She understands this from an intellectual sense -- she even wrote an essay about it to try to process the whole thing -- but the practicalities of it are a struggle. Unfortunately, next year she will probably be moved up into the second from top ensemble, but her friends will likely all be moved up to the top orchestra, so she will still not be with them.

We are trying to get her into a good summer program, but at her age (she will be 13 through the summer) almost everything is an orchestra-only program, and she doesn't want to do that. She is applying to Kinhaven and couple other places (including Interlochen, even though it is mostly orchestra). She was going to apply to Center Stage Strings but her teacher said her recordings were not good enough. She may still do a late submission once she has more time, since her current piece is only 5-6 weeks in. If anybody has any suggestions for other summer programs that take a 13-year-old who is currently playing at Bruch 3rd movement and Bach Sonata 1 level, please let me know.

I think a lot of this is just normal teen girl stuff, with a side of pandemic and perfectionism. We may just need to let her work through it and see where she ends up.

Edited: February 23, 2023, 7:41 AM · Susan:

Yes, you hit on something. If I may add to this discussion, I certainly want you to understand that I am NOT trying to sell my books (the 2 major ones on academic underachievement are out of print anyway).

The work of me and my colleagues decades ago was specializing on academic "underachievers" who are not suffering from autism, learning disabilities, severe emotional disturbance, and other medical, psychological, situational, or other clearly identified problems.

Our work focused on stages of human development. And one of the most ignored and misunderstood is pre-adolescent latency and early adolescence (roughly ages 8-14 or so). At this age, "the future" is not some distant concept, but starts to feel as if it's just around the corner. And to many children, it is not something they look forward to.

In normal development, many children in this age range experience a clear achievement pattern which is usually identified as lack of motivation, lack of focus on growing and becoming more independent, and loss of interest in achievement goals. They come up with excuses all over the place, especially lack of interest.

There are many great suggestions on this discussion thread, and I'm not telling you to ignore any of them. But keep an eye on the issue of future goals, and that achieving something in this world is not a function of having to be 100% interested in everything about one's job every day. If it were, nobody would be working.

If you can find an inexpensive used copy of our book or find it in a library somewhere, take a look - "Could Do Better: Why Children Underachieve And What To Do About It," by Harvey P. Mandel, Ph.D. and me (Sander I. Marcus, Ph.D.). We wrote it for parents, and while it has nothing specifically to do with music, there's a lot that rings familiar about your daughter's problem to me, especially considering her age.

I do hope that helps.
Best always,
Sandy Marcus

February 23, 2023, 7:49 AM · I keep trying to write something useful and sensible, but we are experiencing similar age. All I can say is one day it's misery, next a shrug, next elation, next misery and so on. Lots of chemistry surging through their veins.
Personally, orchestra is always the bottom of the list importance.
My daughter loves chamber, being in a group, but counting and being seen matters.
I think often conductors have little or no insight into individual impact of decisions. It would be good for your daughter to ask for a conversation, tell the conductor her feelings, get seen.
Greenwood Junior is great but I think past the deadline.
Maybe talk to the teacher about moderating the "remediation" for a bit? Some fun rep, something she has wanted to play?
February 23, 2023, 8:46 AM · "one day it's misery, next a shrug, next elation, next misery and so on."
Welcome to my world!
February 23, 2023, 10:07 AM · Our daughter went to Kinhaven last year and is going again this year. She would like to pursue the cello professionally, and she is definitely improving as a player with her current teacher. We're supportive but not pushing the idea, which probably we should be, if she is to succeed in that pursuit. (Are we sabotaging her dreams by not tiger-parenting? I really wonder about that sometimes.) By summertime she'll be 17, so most people would say she should have auditioned to some "better" (i.e., more competitive) summer programs at this point. But, honestly, she had such a blast at Kinhaven last year (in spite of spending a week in the COVID dorm) that we're happy to see her return there.

Note that our daughter has never been to Greenwood, but I suspect that Greenwood and Kinhaven are essentially identical programs.

February 23, 2023, 10:21 AM · Susan, et al.,

As a total outsider being Child-Free I observe the competitive nature of how youth orchestras function. (My wife and I are the Music Librarians for the Lakeland Youth Symphony Orchestras in Morris County NJ).

What I see all too often is that the love of music gets turned into the desire to WIN and everything becomes competitive. Add in the effects of the hormone surge of puberty and the social dynamics of being a teenager in a highly competitive program and some simply give up.

My thoughts point towards finding a different outlet that isn't as competitive (perhaps not at all competitive).

Put together a repertoire of light classical and popular tunes that she can take to Senior Centers and Primary Schools. She will be THE STAR PERFORMER! She can stretch her talent where there is no competition, no vying for the next higher chair. Just the joy of playing.

There have to be parts of life that simply are not competitive. To be in competition all the time, everywhere,... That's like living in a war zone.

February 23, 2023, 11:00 AM · 100% agree, George. That is why we are looking at a different orchestra program for her for next year that is more friendly and seems to care more for the individual. (By the way, I grew up in Sussex County, though back then there weren't any violin teachers, let alone youth orchestras!)

Paul, Kinhaven is still top on my list. She's hesitant (as I mentioned previously) because it is cabins and she doesn't really know anybody who has been there, though like 10 kids from her scholarship program went last year. My husband is also hesitant because it is far, and I am hesitant because I have no idea how to get her there! But those things can be overcome....I submitted her apps to Kinhaven and Luzerne today. Do you think her level is appropriate for the program?

Also, Paul, this parenting thing is crazy hard. I know we failed to some degree with my son, both due to circumstance and me just constantly doubting my feelings that he was tremendously talented (because doesn't every parent think that about their kid?). It's really hard to know when to push and when not to push.

Matt, you are spot on about her not feeling seen or valued. Some of this comes from living in her brother's shadow, of course. Unfortunately, I can guarantee she would NEVER approach her conductor. She's quite timid in that regard. She's at the age where she prefers to just blend into the background.

Sandy, I wouldn't call her an underachiever by any stretch of the imagination, but more just adrift right now....

February 23, 2023, 12:04 PM · When I was a kid, orchestra was arguably my primary social outlet, but I made many friends amongst the kids who weren't violinists -- they were violists or cellists, or even kids I'd gotten to know who were wind or brass players.

(As the concertmaster it's good social etiquette to get to know non-string players as well, anyway, and as the concertmaster you're generally not anonymous to kids who aren't in your section.)

I think it's hard not to be with the kids that she already knows, but this might also be a good opportunity to branch out and get to know more of the other kids, especially since it sounds like this lower orchestra places her with other kids closer to her own age. (Bonus: A broader circle of non-violinists friends means more potential chamber-music partners.)

February 23, 2023, 1:28 PM · Susan: Of course, I'm not saying your daughter is an "underachiever"; she's certainly far from that. But perhaps some of the issues dealing with her achievement motivation are indeed typical for her age range, and may be an intervening factor in her reactions here. If so, just keep it in mind. It certainly doesn't explain everything, but it may have some relevance. And the support you're getting here is great.
February 23, 2023, 1:45 PM · Hi Susan, I don’t have words of wisdom but just solidarity. I have a 12 yo daughter and have witnessed daughters of friends who have gone through challenging times during middle school and high school. Just want to say that you and your daughter collaboratively will find a way forward and trust your and her instincts. On the summer camp side, I actually think Interlochen is not a bad place. Musically it may not be as challenging but she would be at the top of their group which may boost her confidence. On a social level, Interlochen is a dream for kids who love the arts that I think other music camps can’t even come close to mimic. She will be with hundreds of kids who love arts of all discipline - from music to dance to visual arts to creative writing. Art is basically everywhere and that can be very inspiring to kids who have lost themselves in their daily struggle with the technical aspects of their own instruments. She will stay in a cabin with kids who are passionate about their interests but they are likely not violinists so there is no competition. My daughter loved it when she attended a 2 week program. I just looked at the website and noticed that they created a lot of new programs for strings (chamber, contemporary music etc). Regardless of what she may take away musically, I know she will thoroughly enjoy her experience.
February 23, 2023, 4:10 PM · I would go straight to the one who makes the decisions and ask them what the reason was, quite simple.
February 23, 2023, 7:21 PM · I'm with Ron, first I would ask what aspects were considered in holding her back and how she should practice to move up as soon as possible.

Another aspect is the brother and the place the violin has in her life. Is it her hobby or a chore? Does she feel frustrated when comparing herself to her brother? Is there a competition between them?
What (and how) would she practice if she were completely free to choose? No parents, no brotherly competition, no orchestra or violin playing friends involved? Could she focus on that for a while (also practice other things, practice pieces, technique etc., but pick up aspects, pieces, techniques SHE wants to learn for a while? Choose her own challenge?)
Could she REDUCE practice time for a while to make room for completely free time or other hobbies? Just take her thoughts of violin practice and getting better for a while? Meet with a violin playing friend and just goof around, have fun, play pieces both know and like?

You say she "doesn't want to take classes to PUSH her FURTHER": Maybe THAT is the problem? Every hobby is perceived as ultimately a chore, an achievement to reach, something to excel in?

I would give her the boredom, the complete free time to FIND new or old interests and explore them, without a goal, without the need to excel.
She liked nature/ science: why not take her phone outside and take some nice photos? Boredom/ "mindless activities" can also fuel creativity and maybe also new interest in focused practice.

I would ask - if she is not training to become a professional musician - what she needs to make the violin interesting, exciting again instead of a chore, an accomplishment she has to fulfill.

But in her place I would also talk to the teacher and tell him how I felt about being held back and what I needed to do to move back up. Maybe with the goal of creating a practice plan with the help of the teacher that does not overwhelm or bore her.

I as a hobby player find that there are times when I want to reach goals too hard and get all tense and ultimately, achieve nothing. Maybe being held back put her somewhat in that place. Then slowing down and focusing on slow practice, but also on the reasons why she plays the violin in the first place, may help.

February 23, 2023, 8:10 PM · I'm not good I'm afraid at knowing how this relates to the context of a well-raised 13 year old, but there are two main ways to stay in touch with the values that motivate one: celebration and mourning. What were the three best things that happened yesterday (or today)? What was good about them? If you missed out on some good thing, what was good about it, what would have been great about having it? Not that one should spend all one's time dreaming about the good old days or ruminating on missed opportunities, but keeping track of the whys behind the good and the bad, over time, builds wisdom about what one wants and a degree of flexibility about the precise form in which one is willing to have it.
February 23, 2023, 9:47 PM · Susan, is there any reason she can’t (won’t?) make friends in the orchestra where she is currently? It sounds like she is in a similarly aged group, and if the social aspects are what appeal to her the most, then it’s easiest to make friends among kids one’s own age.

However, there is something to be said for orchestras that won’t use arbitrary criteria (like age instead of ability) to hold kids back.
My daughter (who just turned 13) is in a ”lesser” orchestra because of that. She was considering auditioning for the better one for next season, but they raised the age for their lowest full orchestra, and given that she is in one now, she is unwilling to move down. Maybe that should be the next move for your daughter, to go elsewhere, and start afresh.

February 23, 2023, 10:50 PM · The question I ask myself when choosing to engage or continue to engage in an activity - playing music and sports, writing, learning a new language, dating - is the following: Is this a priority? If it’s a truly a priority, then I’ll take actions in alignment with that priority. If it’s not, I won’t. And if I say something is a priority but I don’t take action, then I have to ask myself if it’s truly a priority. The answer will probably be no.

February 23, 2023, 11:06 PM · For camps you have a good idea. I have my kids doing a one week jazz camp near relatives at a good midwestern music program. Violin is one of the instruments they offered.

I think doing something that's an off shoot could be good--a program on composing, a choir, a popular instrument (guitar, etc.). I think something you are working towards that you like is a possibility also. Maybe she and the brother could work up a duet over the summer.

I think this is also still a great age to try totally different things--the volleyball team, musical theater, etc. Of course, it all depends on the kid and what they enjoy. I hope her love for violin comes back, but she may have to let it go to find something that's a better match for her.

February 24, 2023, 8:12 AM · I am guilty of being the type of person who dives headfirst into my interests, but perhaps my daughter is more a dabbler and is perfectly happy just playing volleyball at recess instead of joining the team.

In any case, I also think my daughter is not sure what to do because she has always done music. Being in a musical family, she was at her brother's lessons from basically birth, and once she started at age 4, has practiced every day without complaint. That is so normal to her that it is difficult to conceive of NOT doing it for her, whether she likes it or not.

February 24, 2023, 8:21 AM · Both of my kids have wanted to stop playing at some point. For both but for different reasons, changing teachers brought renewal, inspiration, and enthusiasm.

Two years of isolation had a significant effect on my daughter. It came at exactly the time when she would have been at summer programs being exposed to new people and ideas. And in the middle of this, her brother who has been her sonata and chamber music partner for years left for college. But 10 years is a lot of time to spend with one teacher, and I think it was simply time—and she’s now more committed than ever.

Neither of my kids would have been satisfied in music without both a good orchestra and a good chamber music program as their primary focus. Even in North Carolina where we are, there are four serious programs in a 45 minute radius. It’s common for siblings to be in the same program for years, but it’s not uncommon for kids to move between them. Possibly your daughter feels like she is following too closely in her brother’s footsteps and would like to make her own path.

Has she expressed interest in other instruments? It’s not too late to add something new. (How nice it must be to not pay what a new car costs for a professional instrument like an oboe.) My son picked up viola from scratch at 13 because he loves classical music and you can’t play piano so often with an orchestra at that age while hanging out with your friends, although as violist he did end up getting piano and celeste parts along the way :-). He wasn’t going to conservatory for viola, but was all-state two years and principal there his senior year.

Worst case, less time with music becoming a hobby opens up opportunities for multiple other worthwhile, time-consuming activities like science olympiad, debate team, a sport, etc. etc. Especially if she is just starting high school, it is a good time for significant changes.

One of the most fascinating talks I remember in my kids’ master classes was by YMusic’s flutist. She was a serious pianist but after arriving at Interlochen felt that everyone else was so much better than her so she switched to flute at a mature age. She was good enough later to perform with NY Phil for a while, but decided that creative, ”regardless of style or idiom” small-ensemble music was her thing. From that discussion I realized that the common or prescribed path isn’t necessarily the right musical path for each person.

Edited: February 24, 2023, 5:02 PM · Susan, I think you have done a wonderful job. The seed has been planted, grown and flowered. I think if you can keep music alive in your own life, in your home (audibly) your daughter may pick it up again.

I had violin lessons from age 4 to 11 and then quit after telling my parents I wanted no more lessons. There had been absolutely no social life connected to my music all those years. I knew no other kid who played a portable instrument - only my younger sister who played piano. I think I recall taking my violin out of its case to play it only twice in the next 18 months and then I started again with a passion (for "social reasons") and I have never stopped. That was 75 years ago.

My 3 children all had music lessons that "took" to different degrees although only one of them has continued music with a passion in a variety of ways for 53 of his 58 years including keyboard, singing, plucked instruments, song-writing, composing and performing. He started violin when he was 40. He put the finishing touches on his recording studio late last year (Black Range Recording): maybe that will be his retirement business.

My 3 grandchildren all were deeply into music in different ways from age 5 or 6 and through their teen years but only my grandson has continued it as part of his professional life. All three are now employed in the "public arts" that were the bases of their college degrees.

People can be more like trees than they are like lesser plants. The ground needs to be prepared for them to grow but at some point their true nature can dominate and the weeds shrivel in their shade.

Edited: February 24, 2023, 11:52 AM · I quit violin at 13 (dramatically snapping a neck in half (I guess I was pretty tightly wound)), as I always hated it, and particularly hated that I didn't have much of a choice and that it didn't fit into my plans to hang with friends and play video games. I came back at 15 and knowing that it was now entirely my choice and responsibility and that my parents really had no say made all the difference for me. Of course, it would have been nice to have those two years to get better, but my prior training was sub-optimal to say the least. But I had a lot of contention with music to begin with, so my case may not be particularly applicable.

It's an age of individuation; why do I do any of the things I do? Why do my parents want what they want for me and what do I want? If I want something and my parents want that for me, is it really something I want? What is important to my friends and if I'm not with them, am I getting left behind? I think I want a bowlcut.

All those teenage thoughts.

February 24, 2023, 3:02 PM · Golly, imagine being 13 years old, playing at Bruch 3rd movement level, and somehow being told you're not good enough for...anything shy of going to Juilliard or Curtis. And being left behind by your friends. That does sound demoralizing.

I hate to be one of those "back in my day!" old fogies, but I do find the early professionalization/specialization of sports and music in certain metropolitan regions of our country (and who knows – maybe everywhere?) to be detrimental to youth development. This up-or-out mentality is the kind of thing I imagine happened during Soviet-era state-sponsored ballet and athletic training programs. But what about the above-average kid, the one who will major in chemistry and play in pit orchestra during college, meet their spouse at a chamber music workshop, anchor their local community orchestra cello section when they are in their 50s? They need a training program too – one that doesn't kick them in the metaphorical nuts at regular intervals. And it sounds like your orchestra program theoretically offers that – but with an inevitable side of "here's where you rank." You have to have a pretty robust ego not to mind that your friends are leaving you behind, or that your teacher says you're not good enough for a particular summer program, while your brother is flying off taking auditions and winning contests. And then add puberty to the mix – oof. Poor kiddo.

The thing is, I'm sure your daughter is objectively quite good, and if she were to continue on her present trajectory, she should in theory have the technical skills to afford her a lifetime of pleasure with her instrument.

I think you're asking all the right questions, and I really really hope that she gets to go to Kinhaven this summer and rediscover the joy of playing music with friends. I think swapping out orchestra for chamber music for a year would be a good experiment. Maybe she can form a quartet with a few of those friends that she was going to miss?

If memory serves, at 13 I was reasonably good at a lot of things and not the best at any of them. I was longing to be seen holistically by the people I looked up to, and not just narrowly evaluated through the lens of (soccer, violin, figure skating, math, appearance, etc.) The best teachers were the ones who intuited this and worked with it. (I have a treasured photo of my high school violin teacher standing next to me at a skating competition.) When considering whether her teacher is still meeting her needs, I'd look at this angle too. (I know – it's a lot to ask – but some teachers are naturally good at it and others aren't.)

February 24, 2023, 4:17 PM · This is a great discussion! I would consider a few things:
1. A few psychologist or coaching sessions to help your daughter understand herself and what does she want to do
2. Over the summer, consider a few master classes with another teacher or professor to see if she can find encouragement and motivation. I would re-evaluate option after the sessions with the master class teachers. I think various replies imply this perspective :).
3. Perhaps even consider doing the lessons with the people who make decision in the orchestra. They can explain to your daughter the why and the how of the orchestra decision.

To me, the more concerning point is the difficulty of making new friends in the orchestra. In smaller city, there are only 1 or 2 kids that play Bruch at 13 years old and they are way better than most kids in the orchestra. It is normal and shouldn't lead to the demotivation factor. I think it helps in showing the kids to be humble and not feeling that I am better than everyone and I deserve everything including moving up.

Orchestra try-out failure or competition failure can be positively reinforced that it provides opportunity for your daughter to improve her skillset and try again next year. If she can consider this perspective, it will help her significantly now and when she's older. The world is not a fair place, there's always racism, different perspective, etc. that leads to unfairness. Let's take the high-road to keep moving forward.

Good luck! Teenager year is difficulty and there's no wrong or right answer :).

February 25, 2023, 6:10 AM · It's not always possible, actually. With our daughter we had her do many activities where she could meet other girls, she went to a fine school, she typically had a few shallow friends in each activity, but in the end she grew up to be a young adult basically without *any* friends. Yet she is not especially unhappy, she has a demanding job, she interacts with colleagues, she has some hobbies and interests on her own. Every person is different and forcing personalities is basically impossible.
Edited: February 25, 2023, 10:46 AM ·

Were I a parent in that situation, I would definitely talk to whomever to determine if there was something improper occurring with son or daughter not advancing. (Either with the decision making, or perhaps a problem with my child?)

Absent anything like this, I would remind my son or daughter that they're fortunate to be in a school system that has an orchestra and help them work through what has occurred. I would gently suggest that music isn't about where one sits in an orchestra or about social status. It's about having the opportunity to learn how to make music.

Edited: March 6, 2023, 8:48 PM · OP, I feel for your daughter. The truth is for most musicians, it’s hard to enjoy playing in a group when the level is a mismatch, rankings are visible (tiered group or seat assignments), and there are annual performance reviews that decide if you’re in or out (auditions). Having friends helps defuse the tension, but it’s hard to make friends when you’re sitting in an orchestra silently during rehearsals. If leadership isn’t structuring rehearsals to encourage socializing, it can be extra fraught.

Import those features into a community orchestra, and adult amateurs will leave if they’re unhappy. Pros do serve as concertmasters of community orchestras below their level, but it’s a job or resume-enhancer.

Perhaps it’s healthier for your daughter to take a break from the orchestra. There are valuable life lessons in learning to rise above one's feelings and act like a professional. But let’s be real. That means approaching the orchestra like it’s a job. Might not be as helpful if your immediate goal is to help her enjoy music again.

You could also help her make more music friends. An idea is to organize several chamber music reading parties and invite her friends. If she stays in the orchestra, invite kids she’d like to know better (like the section leaders). Encourage them to mix and match. Her brother and his friends could attend and read with them, too.

February 26, 2023, 2:50 PM · Susan, the one thing you don't seem to have mentioned is your daughter's main social connections at school and elsewhere. At 13 children are terribly self-conscious and more eager to fit in with their peer group than their parents. Plus she probably measures her playing against her brother.

Your comment "parenting is crazy hard" resonates from when our daughter was that age. You are still the biggest influence in her life, but she no longer wants to be told what to do. You have to listen to her to find an answer, hopefully one where she continues to have music as one strand in her life even if not the whole story.

I think it was when my daughter was that age I heard an interview with Nicola Benedetti when she said that if a child doesn't like the way their playing sounds at age 13 they won't continue. I hope your daughter likes her sound! If it is any consolation, my daughter - having decided music wouldn't be a professional aspiration - is now getting massive pleasure from her violin-playing. She is studying something else entirely, but gets both an escape from that and a measure of self-confidence by playing at a good level in the university orchestra and in a pretty ambitious string quartet. Now she is rather more self-aware she is very grateful to her parents for having given the gift of music-making.

Edited: February 26, 2023, 5:53 PM · My favorite quotation about music is by Tchaikovsky:

"Music is not illusion, but revelation rather. Its triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else, and that the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life.”

And I believe that, overall, the entire discussion above is about the challenges at every point in life to open our hearts and minds and talents to accepting those hidden beauties as being part of who we are and sharing that blessing with others. And how can we help our children to eventually reach this kind of understanding?

Edited: February 27, 2023, 11:40 AM · I agree it's hard to play in a group where the levels are mismatched, but I'll give a couple of counterexamples.

I'm the concertmaster of our local community orchestra. There are no auditions, and some of the players are entirely self-taught -- folks for whom a passage in anything other than first position would require additional practice just for that. And then there are some reasonable players, too. And I'm not all that great either, but definitely one of the two or three best violinists. (A college-aged woman joined this year who is more skilled.) But the people are very nice and it's a fun group. And -- do I always play my part perfectly? No, I don't. So the idea that this group would be "beneath me" would be appallingly conceited on my part. I realize I have the advantage of the "wisdom of age" compared to a thirteen-year-old, but even a girl at that age can understand that there is always something to learn, even if it's not a new skill on your instrument.

I play in a jazz quintet and one of the players is just starting to learn jazz improvisation on his instrument. When I was learning jazz, the best thing was always if I could sit in with players who were more advanced, to see and hear what they're doing, and try to conform more to that style. I can't understand why I wouldn't want to pay that forward.

@Susan yes I think her the level is right for Kinhaven. One interesting thing about Kinhaven is that you don't get to have a cell phone while you're there. The camper can get some time on an actual phone to talk to a parent as needed.

February 27, 2023, 12:22 PM · Just to clarify -- this is not school orchestra. Her elementary school has no orchestra program, sadly. This is a major urban youth symphony program with seven orchestras.

It's not so much that she thinks the orchestra is beneath her; frankly, she is so negative about her own playing that she really underestimates her ability. If you asked her, she'd probably give you some cognitive dissonance about how all the other players in her section are better than she is. It is more that she is lonely and gets frustrated that the conductor isn't fixing all the things that she hears are wrong, or that lack of preparation is not being addressed. My kids have played in situations where they expect the levels to be very wide (like school orchestra for my son) and understand how that works. But this is a training program designed in theory to be of educational value to her. It's not meeting her needs right now, though some of that is for social reasons.

Katie's description and Frieda's also really put it into perspective to me how asinine all of this is. She is undeniably a great player for her age. She doesn't realize it because she is constantly being put in situations that are full of judgment, comparison, and ranking. This is just not how it should be.

February 27, 2023, 1:14 PM · I can sympathize, as I have gone through several fallow seasons, including one summer when I did more electric guitar than violin, and another time in college when I had realistic doubts about my technical skill level. We cannot discover our optimum life career path without also encountering things we should Not do. In oil exploration 9 out of 10 test holes are "dry". Childhood is the time for exploration, when the consequences for wrong choices are less. Children, or their parents, do not always choose the instrument that is most in line with their talent and temperament, and very few will become lifetime professional musicians. Practicing is a solitary activity. Unlike the piano, our violin music is not complete until we are in an ensemble, which is most often an orchestra. If the orchestra is no longer any fun, then let it go and look elsewhere.
February 27, 2023, 2:39 PM · Susan, "She is undeniably a great player for her age. She doesn't realize it because she is constantly being put in situations that are full of judgment, comparison, and ranking".

I suspect that may be part of it, at her age she has a temperament that simply needs her to get pleasure from her music without a sense of being judged. But as Joel says it may be solved by learning a different instrument, or playing different styles.

Tough for you as well as her.

Edited: March 1, 2023, 6:34 PM · Kids can be fragile sometimes. A colleague of my family member was competitive at swimming. Nonetheless, he hated swimming so much that he quitted and mentally shut down the part of his brain on how to swim. He had to relearn swimming in his adulthood. Meanwhile, kids can also be resilient at other times. Susan, you said this happened not so long ago. Give her some time and watch how things develop. She may be able to pull through by herself. If she enjoyed the social part of orchestra, you may encourage her to make new friends. Honestly I am not sure if such advice would work on my teen daughter but it may be worth trying.

Anyway, best wishes to your family.

March 1, 2023, 2:27 PM · One of the underlying psychological factors in adolescence and pre-adolescence is an underlying concern about the future. What will one's likes, dislikes, talents, weaknesses, commitments, responsibilities, work habits, relationships, expectations (by them and by others for them) ultimately have into the future. Does a weakness or failure or dislike today commit them to a life of problems forever? Will successes make them carry the burdens of ever-increasing expectations into the future?

These and similar concerns at this age often play a role in what often appear to be merely spontaneous and impulsive likes, dislikes, or inconsistent motivations. And, yes, it is a very, very normal issue in human development. We all have dealt with it, in one way or another.

Sometimes it is helpful to bring up the topic of future expectations. You will probably find out quickly how much they may or may not want to think about it at this point.

March 1, 2023, 9:20 PM · The experience of being a section leader is inherently valuable, both for the individual and for future college application essay-writing and whatnot.

Ideally, children in such positions should be coached on the necessary skills and the sense of responsibility -- taught how to listen to their section, and how to lead effectively. That can provide an extra level of challenge and engagement that can make up in large part for 'this music is not difficult enough for my technical skills' student-tiered-orchestra syndrome.

(I absolutely value all the time I spent as a concertmaster and principal 2nd in my childhood. I learned a ton of skills that have had plenty of applicability to my adult playing, both in orchestra and in chamber music. And I learned generally valuable leadership skills, in addition to the musical leadership skills.)

March 2, 2023, 6:23 AM · Lydia, what she knows rationally often bears little resemblance to what she feels emotionally....
March 2, 2023, 7:25 AM · She sounds human!
Edited: March 3, 2023, 12:44 PM · It may be just the right thing for her to quit at this time. Sounds like a huge pressure is on her to continue, which could seriously backfire. If it's important to her, she'll come back to it later. Time to stop worrying and trying to control the outcomes.
March 3, 2023, 11:18 PM · I think any activity that you commit to for a school year, like orchestra (especially when in a leadership position) has to be endured for the full year.

However, next year, I suggest that you speak to the orchestra administration (either of this set of youth orchestras or wherever you go next) to emphasize that your daughter's priority is being with her friends. That'll be a refreshing message for them. I suspect they figure that most kids (and their parents!) would be grateful for the opportunity to sit concertmaster or to otherwise occupy a leadership role.

Is your daughter's stand partner generally pretty friendly? If so, it might be useful to give them more of an opportunity to get to know each other socially. (It's really too bad that the Fine Arts building, if that's where she's rehearsing, no longer has its first-floor cafe. Used to be a great place to get ice cream with friends after rehearsal.)

March 4, 2023, 7:40 AM · Just a couple general thoughts, more for the general discussion. Kids at this age are all over the map emotionally. Making decisions based on a particular moment seems like a bad idea.
I can't tell you how many people I have mentioned our daughter's playing the violin to and heard the response, "Oh I wish my parents hadn't let me quit (instrument) when I was (insert early teen age). I so wish I still had that as part of my life, or I so wish I hadn't let my temporary teen psychosis from diverting my music."
Two thoughts, more for Susan. Chamber, chamber, chamber. And camps where they can be separate from their family, and try on new roles. Especially when the older brother is a bit of a phenom. That must be very hard. I was the youngest of 4 successful brothers I had to follow at the same small town HS (where my dad was a teacher), didn't leave much space to find my own accomplishment in any particular field or academics.
March 4, 2023, 7:40 AM · Just a couple general thoughts, more for the general discussion. Kids at this age are all over the map emotionally. Making decisions based on a particular moment seems like a bad idea.
I can't tell you how many people I have mentioned our daughter's playing the violin to and heard the response, "Oh I wish my parents hadn't let me quit (instrument) when I was (insert early teen age). I so wish I still had that as part of my life, or I so wish I hadn't let my temporary teen psychosis from diverting my music."
Two thoughts, more for Susan. Chamber, chamber, chamber. And camps where they can be separate from their family, and try on new roles. Especially when the older brother is a bit of a phenom. That must be very hard. I was the youngest of 4 successful brothers I had to follow at the same small town HS (where my dad was a teacher), didn't leave much space to find my own accomplishment in any particular field or academics.
March 4, 2023, 9:06 AM · I completely agree with meeting your obligations and not reacting too much in the moment to let things settle out. As my children will inform you with a huge eye roll, they know they must meet their obligations. My son was told no to applying to Stulberg this year because it conflicts with two concerts, both of which he is concertmaster for. This is something that is super important for our family. (Obviously if there is a medical issue that is something different entirely.)

Lydia, no more ice cream, but sometimes the kids go for bubble tea at the place on the corner. I'm not sure why my daughter hasn't made friends in her ensemble this year, though they only have a 10-minute break each week, so not too many opportunities. She was mostly with the same group of kids for years, so it may be more a matter of just feeling out of place. She doesn't have any issues making friends otherwise, and has plenty of school friends.

As for chamber, we are up to two kids in our attempt to build an ad hoc group. If we can just find a cellist! Anybody know a 12-15yo cellist in the Chicago area who plays well and wants to do some informal playing? Next year we will be choosing her program based on access to chamber music, no matter what.

I am more and more thinking that sending her to the same summer program as her brother is not a good idea this summer. Hopefully Kinhaven will accept her and we can figure out how to get her there!

Edited: March 6, 2023, 6:53 PM · At 13, the social aspect really does take over. I know this isn't where you were headed, but if you're looking at summer programmes to rekindle the love, have you looked into O'Connor summer schools? While they seem orchestra based, the repertoire and skills (accompaniment, improvisation etc) might trigger her interest again. Perhaps someone here who's been to them might be able to advise...?

There are also heaps of folk-based summer camps that I've fantacised about over the years from down here in oz, including some less usual ones like hardanger fiddle (Scandinavian music) or even viol (early music , not folk), which usually have options for borrowing instruments. Folk camps probably won't be technically driven, but they will almost definitely bring joy.

March 6, 2023, 9:51 PM · Anish, thanks for the suggestion, but not her cup of tea. She did quite a lot of fiddle when she was younger but no longer finds it all too interesting.

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