Saturday, September 27, 2014

Our First Family Music Recital

I have been blessed to begin taking violin lessons along with my five-year-old daughter Mary.

My mother played violin: she was a fiddler, actually. I grew up dancing around her while she practiced for her gigs in a bluegrass band. You can imagine the sorrow of a musician slowly losing her ability to play as multiple sclerosis takes away, inch by inch, her nerves' ability to transmit messages from brain to fingers.

Mom's violin sat in its box for nearly 15 years until our daughter began taking violin lessons six short weeks ago. Because Mary is learning violin by the Suzuki method, the parent (that's me!) must be in the room during lessons, learning carefully exactly what the child is learning. Then I direct practices daily, something I couldn't do if I hadn't learned along with her. This parental involvement is part of why Suzuki is such a successful method.

So, here I was, learning alongside Mary and I'd find myself grabbing her 1/8 violin to show her how something was played. I was loving it! There is a thrill I never knew about making actual music come out of an instrument--squeaky though it still might be.

Hearing me tell of that joy, my stepfather gave me my mothers' violin and had it refurbished. Then my husband gave me the gift of lessons! Many days since, my husband has occupied the one- and three-year-olds so I could focus during practice.

This has been a wonderful two weeks so far.

Frankly, it is a refreshing change to be learning a new skill--an adult skill--that is independent of mothering and the children. I have had to learn innumerable skills as a mother: things like how to change diapers, how to get stubborn stains out of clothing, how to plan meals and cook them decently, how to organize a day, how to teach math, and how to discipline. But it has been so many years since I carved out time to learn something new just for me as an adult who isn't solely a mother.

One doesn't want to be overly self-focused as a mother, as motherhood requires much abandonment to the vocation. But one doesn't want to be a martyr to the point of losing one's equilibrium and sanity either. Being forced to leave the 20-month-old on Saturday mornings (he weeps and weeps), and to carve out a daily half hour to practice has been very good for me.

Saturday night was our first recital. We already knew John and Mary would be performing, but once I began lessons, our violin teacher immediately said I could join in as well.

A mere eight days before the recital, at my first real lesson, our teacher was inspired with a grand plan that we would form a family trio! Mary would play "Twinkle Variations" melody on violin, John would accompany on piano, and I would play Twinkle harmony on violin (with our teacher also accompanying on piano--so, really it's a quartet). This was a lot for me to learn in one week, but I thought I could do it.

Then about four days before the recital, a thought occurred to me and I sent a text message to our violin teacher:

'I just thought of what I hope is a silly question: we *do* get to use our sheet music in the recital, right?'

'No. Must be memorized. U can do it.'

Now the panic set in. In fact, somehow, I wasn't aware that any of our pieces had to be memorized! So the next morning, I tested the children: John knew his two piano pieces by heart, but not his accompaniment (although later I learned it is convention that 'of course, accompanists get to use their sheet music'). Mary knew one of her piano pieces, and was able to polish up the second one in time, and she could play her violin piece in her sleep.

And then there was me.

I didn't know my violin piece at all. I don't even know how one memorizes a music piece. I decided I'd just play it as often as I could for a few days and maybe it would 'click.'

But it wasn't clicking.

Sometimes I would feel hot tears starting to rise and I'd have to check myself in order to try to set a good example for the children. If I don't want them throwing a tantrum when they mess up during music (and we've had plenty of those), I need to be able to exercise self-discipline. Feeling those feelings of frustration and humiliation gave me a lot more empathy for the little ones.

Two days before the recital, our piano teacher was practicing with our trio. After many false starts in which I'd completely flub up, he suggested kindly that I sit out and he just see what John and Mary could do together. Yup, they were fine. Then in his ever quiet way, he asked, "So, will you be seeing K---- [his wife, our violin teacher] before the recital?"


"Oh, good, well, she can make a final decision on whether this will work."


Then one day until recital time, I was practicing by myself when John wandered in and offered to accompany me. He did so. Then he stopped and politely asked, "What were all those strange sounds?"

"I don't know, I didn't hear anything."

"My music and your music just weren't going together."

"Oh, you mean the notes! I got two notes wrong."

"Actually, it was three."

Ah, yes, the indignities of it all.

Then the very night before the recital, I really sat down and analyzed the piece. I memorized one line at a time, playing only one line until I got it. I'd say the notes out loud to myself. And what seemed like 'finally!' I could see the pattern of the notes. The notes which had seemed chaotic on the page, no rhyme or reason at all, actually have a definite pattern that to anyone naturally musical would scream out from the page as completely obvious.

Going into this, I really could not have conceived just how much technical work goes into learning the violin. And being only two weeks into my own lessons, seven whole lessons if you count Mary's, we can all have a good laugh about my still vast and yawning naivete.

At one's first lesson, one is assigned to memorize the approximately 20 names of parts of the violin and bow because one can't learn to play the instrument until one can converse about the instrument. One is also assigned to memorize 64 finger positions to play the notes before one can even play a song.

Did you rosin your bow and tighten it three times?

Your shoulder rest is on upside down again.

Stand with your foot pointing that way!

Drop your wrist!

Use the chin rest as a pillow!

Pull your hair back or it will get ripped out.

Use the pads of your fingers on the strings!

Lift your elbow on that bow arm!

You're slouching again, now stand up straight, flatten your back, hold in your stomach!

Longer bow, please! (Or shorter . . . )

Don't play over the fingerboard. Keep that bow straight!

Remember to breathe.

And here is the recital itself! Presenting a six-minute video:

  • Mary playing on piano "Village Dance" and "Pirate Dance" by Randy Jones.
  • John playing on piano "Sunrise" composed by himself and "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven.
  • Mary, John, and Mama playing "Twinkle Variations" by Dr. Suzuki.

Special note: Unbeknownst to us, our piano teacher sat down and helped point to John's music so he wouldn't lose his place. Well, his hand completely blocked my sheet of music, which I was still using as a security blanket. With the panic rising in me, I flubbed up in a number of places. Oh well: that is exactly why we are supposed to have the piece memorized!


  1. Oh Katherine, I just loved it! The children play so well, you must be so proud! John's composition was lovely. And you did great too, I'm very proud of you mama!

  2. WOW! I'm blown away by how talented everyone is! You did a GREAT job! And Mary is like a prodigy-I'm serious. Great job! -Emiliann W.