“Practice only on the days you eat.” – Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Image by Laura Albers

A few years back when my son Aviv was four, he said to me, “Mommy, Dr. Suzuki says you only need to practice on the days you eat. And today I didn’t eat.” Cute, but inaccurate. Aviv, who’s now seven, doesn’t often try to talk his way out of practice. It’s typically me who’s exhausted and feeling uninspired to spend our few free minutes together practicing violin.

Time management, organization, and activity prioritization fall to me, mostly because I’m the family-life-puzzle expert. If the violin practicing piece of our puzzle isn’t maneuvered into place during our morning rush before school, we must find its place in the late afternoon when we’d rather be at the playground and I need to prepare dinner before heading to work. It’s extremely difficult to work in a constructive, compassionate manner when Aviv and I are both tired and unfocused. I often finish practice sessions feeling deflated, worried that my negativity will cause permanent damage to our relationship.

From the time Aviv was a baby and my husband and I first discussed having him play an instrument, I wasn’t sure if starting Aviv on violin was something that I wanted or a time commitment I could handle. For a long time the uncertainty centered around my own ego and the feeling that if my son was going to play violin, he’d better be really good at it, or why bother? I’ve come to grips with the fact that it isn’t my goal to raise a professional musician, simply a well-rounded human being who will hopefully love music. My violin ego is slowly dissolving, but the time commitment struggle is real!

Until recently, my family of four was supposed to be moving from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, living for a year in the Mediterranean sunshine. I was looking forward to not working, picking my kids up from school every day, and being home for dinner every night. I was looking forward to free time for exploring other interests, more time with my family, and unhurried, productive violin practices with Aviv. It’s a funny thing that violin was at the forefront of me wanting to move halfway around the world.

Our plans unraveled and as we finalized our decision to stay here, I wept in despair about the year I’d lost. This was supposed to be my year to escape the San Francisco fog, wander boulevards lined with juice bars and coffee kiosks and swim in the Mediterranean. In the middle of my outburst I sobbed, “But what am I going to do about violin?” Perplexed, my husband looked at me and began laughing. Until that moment I hadn’t voiced the idea that moving to Tel Aviv would somehow fix our violin “problems.” In my mind, leaving San Francisco for a year had offered the possibility of running away from my unpleasant behaviors and unhappiness surrounding our violin schedule. Now it’s necessary for me to find solutions right here in San Francisco.

Growing up, practicing instruments was the first thing my siblings and I did every morning. I remember Dad coming into my bedroom on winter mornings during my high school years, turning on the space heater and waking me by singing an annoying bugle call. I’d roll out of bed, turn on the dimmest light possible and sleepily take out my violin. After an hour I’d switch to piano, then I’d quickly eat and get dressed. Practicing was finished before school so I’d have the after school hours for sports and school musicals. I’m sure Mom could confirm I did my share of complaining, but I don’t recall disliking the schedule—it was just what I did. Our lives and schedules were meticulously organized by Mom, who raised four of us while maintaining an in-home Suzuki violin studio of 30 students. I don’t know how she managed, but I do know she didn’t sleep very much. Sleep is absolutely where I draw my own personal line. There are very few things I will sacrifice sleep for, and practicing violin with Aviv in the early morning is not one of them. I’ve wrestled with this over the years, because it was firmly imprinted in my mind that a child who’s tired after school cannot have a successful violin practice or lesson. I agree with this to some extent, but fortunately Aviv is relatively low on the disaster-after-school meter. Through trial and error, I’ve also discovered that when I’m tired in the morning and feeling rushed, I will almost never be pleasant and nurturing toward him during practice. Then I will spend the rest of my day admonishing myself for spending the few minutes we had together behaving negatively instead of simply loving him and keeping him company while he (very slowly) eats his breakfast.                                                                  

I’ve threatened to make Aviv quit violin more times than I care to remember. I never follow through because the reasons my husband and I chose to start him on violin in the first place are too important. They are, in no particular order:

  1. We’re both musicians who grew up making music with family and friends. The friendships we’ve formed through music and the experiences we’ve had because of it are unparalleled.

  2. Music is our common language, and we want our kids to “speak it” also.

  3. Over the course of many years we learned a nuanced skill, which built in us self-confidence, pride and a sense of accomplishment.

  4. Music provided us the discipline of doing something well and with purpose every day.

Practice Time

Practice Time

Image by Laura Albers

Nurturing this discipline is what comes to mind each time I debate hitting the snooze button again or staying at the playground longer and skipping practice. Aviv loves playing the violin, and I don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm with violin practice being something we “have” to do in place of something he wants to do. The flip side is, discipline and consistency can only be learned if they’re practiced. We don’t go through life simply having fun. We work hard and make choices that guide us toward certain goals.                           

Recently Aviv heard me discussing who would attend a Handel opera dress rehearsal as my mother-in-law’s date. He volunteered himself and I immediately told him no. He argued a bit, so I explained that I’d never seen the production and he wouldn’t understand what was happening because it would be sung in Italian. Undeterred, he insisted that he’d like to see it, so I arranged for him to come to only the first act and be home for a somewhat reasonable bedtime. On the way to the opera we told him the convoluted storyline, and I tried to explain the meaning of recitative. Webster offers the following definition: “a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech and that is used for dialogue and narrative in operas and oratorios.” My definition was more simplistic, and in the middle Aviv interrupted me to ask if I remembered a certain song from a school performance earlier in the year. He explained to me that the kids had been talk-singing in that song, so it was sort of like a recitative. I realized in that moment that I am raising an engaged, thoughtful little boy who already speaks our language of music and truly loves it!

While I still haven’t succeeded in adding more hours to the day, I’m slowly finding solutions to practice time that work for our family. This summer Aviv sat (with good posture, of course) on a stool while we practiced at 6 p.m. His face was covered with dirt from bike camp and he was thrilled to be allowed to simply play through his pieces. His little brother sang along (which was less disruptive than his usual recorder accompaniment) as we zoomed Magnatile spacecrafts around the living room. Every time Aviv played a note out of tune or scratched with his bow, the space crafts crashed and we all giggled. I suspect there were more mistakes than necessary, but to me this was a successful practice because Aviv was listening attentively to the sounds coming from his violin. As he completed the final piece, I bowed to him and said, “Thank you for practicing with me,” as is our custom. He said, “But Mommy, is that all?”