We start the month with a topic that is far from new and far from the first time someone has typed out words on it for all of your to read. The reason writers like myself sometimes do this, is that once this topic rears its head in current circumstances, there are moments when it seems appropriate to revisit the important principles and strengthen resolve around them.
As of this moment, I feel the need to revisit the realm of aspiring music students and the plight of controversial parenting of this activity.
Let it be stated for anyone who may be visiting for the first time, that I am in no way a parent nor do I interact with children in any kind of heavily influential manner on a daily basis -just to give everyone full disclosure. That now being put out there, I am still perfectly confident in sharing my thoughts on one scenario I recently witnessed and discussing the fall out from others of similar result.
Last weekend, a trip and concert I had planned months earlier in summer, finally had arrived. Chris Thile, a musician I admire tremendously and whose work and artistic virtues align much with my own, was due to give a performance at, of all places, the new performance hall on my undergraduate college campus. The Massry Center for the Arts, at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. The concert itself was magnificent beyond adequate retelling and the setting of a completely open, and solo set by Thile made the experience of sitting a mere 20 feet or so away, all the more exciting. There were not crazy effects or props to distract. It was just him, his Lloyd Lore mandolin, a mic, the open room and some water. The music was impeccable but the added layer of Thile’s personal (and often rather humorous) anecdotes are what took the performance from just a live performance to a undeniably one-time experience.
I digress. (well, sort of.)
Almost outdoing the volume of my own excitement, was the excitement of one young boy who ended up having the ticket for the seat immediately to my left. The two of us were both sitting in the front row. I was a bit surprised to see him and another like-aged boy sitting together at this show, which was predominantly going to be highlighting Thile’s newest record -a collection of Bach Sonata’s and Partitas played on mandolin. Not exactly the type of musical motifs one might think a young kid would have the interest and or bandwidth to sit through with genuine focus.
(For those that don’t know, mandolin is strung to the same interval tuning as a violin, so the written transition is virtually non-existent. The difference comes in instrumental execution.)
This one boy though…(let’s call him Adam for the sake of anonymity,) he reminded me that there are still a good number of pre-adolescent kids out there who are just as invested in learning and honing their instrument skill, as I remember having been when I was 12-13; the crossroad point between stepping it up in high school or shying back in favor of other activities.
Adam was mentioning things he was working on with the mandolin and I decided to kill some time prior to the start of the set, by striking up a conversation with him, as just hearing how he was there because he plays the mandolin managed to grab my attention. The mandolin is not a choice typically offered, or academically invested in, by your average school music program.
I asked Adam about his interest in the mandolin and he told me he had (only) been playing for about the past two and a half years. I say only in parentheses because in that short time, this boy had clearly developed a high level of enthusiasm for one of, if not the best professionals on his instrument of choice. After the initial introduction and sharing with Adam that I was a long time fan, a violinist and aspiring mandolin player myself…the gloves came off. Adam lit up and started asking questions like he had just found that one person in the main room of a big party, that he knows will understand the stuff about which he wants to talk. Granted, his friend, a young double bass player no less, was there with him but, perhaps he was just as surprised to find out there was another someone who was into the instrument as much as the musician we had both come to hear, rather than just being a non-music oriented fan.
Regardless of the inner reasoning, Adam is suddenly asking me what I thought about early work, recent work, what I thought about Thile’s Lloyd Lore, as opposed to other mandolin models…just so informed on Chris Thile’s musical development that I had to tell myself not to let my jaw drop.
Here is where the parenting aspect drops into the scene. Adam was clearly on hyped up about being so close to the stage and getting to hear and see his idol. The anticipation waiting for things to start was enough to make him happy. We even saw Thile’s fiancee, sitting over a couple of rows, dead center.
Adam’s father, who was sitting in the row just behind us, took note as well and nudged his son to go say hello and introduce himself.
Personally, I don’t know if I myself, would feel comfortable trying to talk to Thile’s fiancee rather than Thile himself, since the only thing there would be to say is that she is engaged him and that would make for an instantaneously awkward and brief exchange. The father in question wasn’t just suggesting a “Hello” introduction and an obligatory statement of the obvious, “I’m a huge fan of your soon-to-be husband!” No, this parent had suggested the following:
“Hey, Adam, go over there and tell her you’re going to be the one to take Chris’s throne one day. After all, it’s only fair to warn her.”
This very specific set of “instructions” immediately hit my ears and left an echo of “very bad taste” ringing in them. Furthermore, this was not something the father only jokingly mentioned, nor is it something he mentioned only one time. Adam did not end up taking his father’s insistent suggestion, and that is to his credit and good instinct but the problem of the matter is more so that this particular suggestion and attached mentality were put out there at all.
It’s one thing if Adam’s father had suggested his son say something to the effect of,
“I hope I get the chance to play here one day too.”
“I hope to be as good as Mr. Thile one day.”
“I really like the mandolin and I practice a lot so I can be as good as Mr. Thile.”
None of those or similarly worded statements being what was said, all that would have happened if Adam said what was told to him, was that Adam would have come across as an arrogant little kid, who, no matter how talented he might be, is probably not someone Thile’s fiancee or possibly even Thile himself, would have taken to engaging longer than necessary.
Don’t get me wrong. When I was 13 and waist deep in getting good at the violin, I would dream about meeting my idols and, in private, tell my parents how one day I wanted to do just what they did -whether that be sitting in first chair of a prestigious orchestra, playing Carnegie Hall or winning awards, and that I wanted to eventually be better than them because then you know, without a doubt, that you are one of the best. The optimal word in this scenario however, is private. I never pictured myself saying the part about being better than my musician idols, should I ever get the chance to shake their hand and tell them my name. Such a gesture would be outright conceited; especially considering, when you’re 13, you’re not better than them yet, so you’re just assuming you will be and you know what they say about assumptions…
As many of the parents of my friends demonstrated over the course of my years in grade school, you want your child to be the best they can be, and if that best also happens to be the best overall, then hey, added bonus! Parents want success and great heights for their kids and that’s just a parent’s prerogative; whether the subject at hand is music, sports, tech work, or just life skills in general. Nothing is going to make that desire go away and that’s fine. It’s the imposition of parents’ sometimes rose-colored and over emphatic thinking that get their children into trouble and or instills distorted values upon them.
Much the same way you don’t refer to someone by their first name if you have never met them or they never introduced themselves with their first name, you don’t transform your child’s innocent, endearing and passionate admiration into something inappropriately casual and familiar when you essentially have nothing to back it up. (e.g. an established relationship or demonstrated talent.) While Adam is only 13 and not applying for serious work or a major label record deal anytime soon, the values of basic manners, in addition to the kind of approach one would apply in a networking setting, are of total relevance and wise to ingrain early in a child for their music study if it is anything past the level of occasional hobby -even more so if the student has expressed they want to be a performer later in life.
Appealing to the school of thought that you know you will be “so far along” by the time you are “X years old,” is asking for a snowballing superiority complex rooted in a misplaced emphasis on the significance of things like “length of the pieces in your repertoire,” “number of the section chair you sit in,” “the speed at which you can play a certain number of notes,” etc. etc. These are all temporal qualifiers that, while notable in their own way, are not what should comprise the core foundation of what an aspiring player sees as framing talent, value or inner potential for themselves or others. Encouragement of this philosophy serves only to deter a well rounded outlook toward various musical study methods and or the people who utilize them because kids will just be zoned in on the bottom line of elitist, “Who can I get ahead of and how fast can I do it?”
Much like sweets and bad fats in our diets, a sparing amount of emphatic confidence, maybe even bordering conceit, is not completely bad all the time. I like to think of it as a momentarily rocket boost in motivation; like getting super pumped up before running a race. You don’t stay that way the whole time but the boost can act as just the push a student sometimes needs to get out of expected study ruts.
The problem is knowing when to reign in either your own, or your parents’ views of your musical skill as you progress and levels inevitably form. Even if you know, for a fact, you are the best and most committed in your group or class, where does the line fall for not being ashamed of talent versus maintaining humility and a willingness to acknowledge someone is always better than you? Where does this fit where professional musicians and yes, eventually networking for young students, is concerned?
If you are a parent of a young music student, a music teacher who has dealt with either kind or other parental philosophies regarding talent etiquette, sound off in the comments and share your experiences or thoughts!