I’d been through a high-stress job, un-anesthetized childbirth, and a couple of car crashes. And let me tell you, going to Music Prep with my kids was worse. Every Saturday I brought headphones and a stack of paperwork to the parents’ lounge, where I pretended to concentrate. But, really, I was listening through the door for my children, worried that they would make mistakes and be shamed in front of the group. And I was listening to the other children, worried that they would play too well, thus proving that my own kids weren’t up to snuff. I worried that we didn’t belong here, that they might have inherited some deficiency from me. After all, I was the one the fourth grade music teacher had asked to “mouth the words, please” while everyone else belted “Erie Canal.”
Mostly, though, I listened to the other violin moms as they whispered among themselves, gossiping about teachers and coaches, and criticizing the children whose parents were out of earshot. “Did you hear, they made Emily principal second in the Beethoven?” said one. “I can hardly believe it– no stage presence, and she plays flat.”
What was principal second, I wondered. Did my kids play flat? Would I even be able to tell, given my musical deficiency? Time passed, and I began to catch on. I figured out which orchestras and ensembles were the “good” ones and which quartet coaches were sought-after. I learned that the violin moms put spin on everything they said. For example, everyone denied how hard their own kids worked. Oh, my Abigail practices only half an hour a day (when the poor little girl had bags under her eyes from late night scale-fests and early morning Mendelssohn marathons.) The object was to psyche out other parents by claiming that your own child came by her accomplishments without effort.
My kids did practice (not as much as Abigail), and they began to drift up the youth orchestras ranks. The younger one was very small for her age. At nine, she was still playing a quarter-size violin, and looking for all the world like an extremely precocious six-year-old. Her sister, at eleven, was going through what might be described as an awkward sartorial stage: she cut her own bangs, crooked, and wore Pokémon t-shirts. Her socks were mismatched, deliberately, because to her that looked cool. Not your typical attire at the Music Prep, where preteen girls dressed competitively, in dainty outfits. As we walked down the hallways, I could feel the violin moms shrinking away from my Pokémon daughter, as if she had some exotic fashion disease that might infect their own children. I knew in my heart that my daughter’s choice to dress differently was a brave one, and I tried to stand as tall as she did.
Meanwhile, there was a fascination with her tiny sister. “How old is she?” the violin moms would ask as we watched the orchestra rehearse through the glass doors (by then I had abandoned all pretense of doing paperwork.) There was my daughter at the front of the section, two heads shorter than her stand-partner, pigtails bobbing, playing her pint-sized heart out. I was tempted to say that she was six, just to see the panic rising in their eyes, but I told the truth. Same age as your kid. “How much does she practice?” “Oh, I have no idea. I never time it.” (Also true.) The next question was always “Who’s her private teacher?”
The thing was, my two middle daughters had such different personalities that I’d found them very different teachers. My smaller daughter had agile fingers, a talent for concentration, and just the right amount of OCD. She kept notebooks; she made practice charts. She was also an excellent sight-reader. She had a demanding, impatient, and sought-after teacher, one of the best in the city. Mr. Wohlfahrt, as we called him, loved her to bits; it was mutual. She could do everything he asked of her. My Pokémon daughter, a synesthete, had trouble reading sheet music because she saw colors on the page. So she played mostly by ear and memory, which made it hard for her to adjust during chamber music coachings. She was a deeply intuitive player, physically and musically, but she had a hard time turning around a technical problem at the drop of a dime. Her teacher was a laid-back retired second-violinist who had a similar physical approach to the instrument. He loved and understood my daughter.
At first, both girls were playing similar repertoire at a similar level, but as time passed, the nine-year-old began to overtake the eleven-year-old. The skill gap began to widen, and I watched my younger daughter receive preferential seating in orchestras and ensembles. Of course, the girls noticed. They were best friends, and not naturally competitive with each other. My younger daughter was a social hit at the music school. She was invited to sleepovers and birthday parties, while her older sister was pointedly ignored. My girls did everything together; this exclusion was painful. I sensed disaster brewing, and, clueless for what to do, I did exactly the wrong thing. I made my Pokémon kid switch teachers.
At her first lesson, Mr. Wohlfahrt seemed impressed by my Pokémon kid’s potential, if not her slapdash bow technique. It was my hope that he would fix her technique, so she could catch up with her younger sister, and everything would be fine. He gave her a stack of exercises and etudes, and warned her that, at eleven, she was already behind. She would need to practice, a lot. On the way home, in the car, she wept and told me that she would take lessons from him if I insisted, but that Mr. Wohlfahrt would never be her teacher.
Things went downhill fast. Every week I visited Mr. Wohlfahrt’s house twice: on Tuesday with my younger daughter, for whom he was all sunshine and enthusiasm. And Thursday with her sister, for whom he morphed into Mr. Hyde. My Pokémon kid could physically mimic anything Mr. Wohlfahrt demonstrated for her in the lessons, but the kinesthetic memory evaporated by the time we walked out his door. Week after week she returned to his studio with the same bad habits in place, and nothing, apparently, learned. He saw her as stubborn and recalcitrant; she saw him as cruel. I dreaded her lessons as much as I looked forward to her sister’s. After summer break, my Pokémon kid and I returned to Mr. Wohlfahrt’s studio for their first lesson of the school year. She played the opening measures of her Mozart concerto and he stopped her. Had she learned nothing in all the months she’d studied with him? She was playing the arpeggios in the same egregious way she had played at her very first lesson. Mr. Wohlfahrt glared at both of us. “I’m going upstairs to eat a sandwich,” he announced finally. “And when I get back, you can play it for me again.”
That day happened to be my birthday. The Pokémon kid sagged at Mr. Wohlfahrt’s words. “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday, Mommy,” she sniffled, tears streaming down her cheeks. What had I done? How could I get all three of us out of the awful corner I’d painted us into? Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Wohlfahrt returned from eating his sandwich, the frown lines disappeared from his forehead. “Now,” he said. “Are you ready to play the Mozart?” The Pokémon kid nodded. Then she picked up her violin and played the passage perfectly. Twice. Mr. Wohlfahrt smiled. “That was one hundred percent better,” he said. “Why didn’t you play it this way the first time?”
On the car ride home, I turned to my daughter. “What do you think,” I said cautiously, “about switching to viola?”
A week later, she had a viola, a new teacher, and a set of homemade alto clef flash cards. (Yeah, I work fast when my kids are at stake.) The Music Prep staff, always desperate for preteen violists, were pleased when I told them that the Pokémon kid was switching, and moved her orchestra seat from the back of the violin section to the front of the violas. I worried that it would be too much pressure for her all of sudden, but she hung on for the ride, and even learned to sight-read, more or less (the alto clef being more logical, with middle C on the middle line.)
Becoming a violist, even a first-stand violist, did nothing to elevate her status in the eyes of the violin moms, who considered the viola to be an instrument-of-last-resort for failed violinists. But, you know what, who cares? The viola is the inner voice that knits together the sound of every string ensemble. It swims beneath the surface, making its essential, supporting magic. My Pokémon kid, the synesthete, loved its mellow burst of color. The viola was perfect for her. She was like a bird who’d spent too much time in the wrong nest– and now she’d landed. As a violist, she would be handed opportunities that would not have come to her as violinist. She’d go on to play string quartets with her younger sister throughout their years of middle school and high school, long after she’d put away her Pokémon shirts and her sister had grown into a full-size violin. Their quartet would get around: Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, radio and TV. Yes: they would do all right.
–Karen Rile, December 2012