Where All the Children are Above Average

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The final rehearsal at Shivering Strings–a music camp for fiddle, banjo, guitar, and keyboard players.

I lean across the table and ask the lady with the arched eyebrows my question for the third time. I want to know how she does it, or rather, how she makes her daughter do it.

“Tell me your schedule,” I press. “I want to know how you spend every hour of every day.”

If this mom is taken aback by my interrogation she doesn’t show it. I think she senses my fascination and that I’m truly curious how anyone manages to get a 10-year-old to practise violin for two hours a day–on top of competitive dance, voice lessons, and musical theatre.

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Belén working up calluses with those pesky bar chords!

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Susanna plays by ear so this camp was a stretch for her. (Other events we’ve attended like this have discouraged any note-reading.)

She explains how they practise an hour in the morning (she plays along with her daughter during every practise) and another hour in the evening. On weekends they play for three hours, or more, per day. When she sees my mouth hanging open she gives me more details.

“I’ve set up a schedule with my computer and we follow it strictly; there’s no other way to fit in the dance and singing classes if we’re not organized.”

I must be wide-eyed, still, because she tries again with a smile.

“… Have you ever read the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?”

I’ve not read the book–reading about the book was enough for me–but I appreciate her willingness to offer artifacts from her culture to help me understand where she’s coming from.

“When do you sleep?” I ask now, steering my attention to the girl. I might’ve asked about play (as in toys, trees and neighbourhood kids) but I’d heard enough to know it wasn’t in the week-day schedule.

“I go to bed around 9:30 or 10,” she answers, which leads to my next question about homeschooling. Perhaps I’ve found their secret; they must slave away every evening only to sleep in and watch cartoons before a late-morning practise!

I quickly learn they don’t watch TV and that she attends a French Immersion school (where all content area is taught in French–one more thing for her to learn.) As we continue visiting I’m beginning to realize there might not be any secret to discover. If she wants to be a serious violinist when she grows up, as she claims, she needs to spend her childhood practising. If this beautiful mother, who wants so much more for her child than she ever had, intends to push her daughter through the easy inlet of average and on to the spawning grounds of excellence, she needs to insist on structure and discipline. Just as salmon leap onward against the current, neither mother, nor daughter, can afford any backward glances at the lowlands.

I feel like an ethnographer interviewing someone from a foreign tribe and I’m trying to memorize everything she says so I can report it all to Stan. Later on, when I repeat the conversation I’ll hesitate for a moment, not sure I want to offer him free fuel for his argument against mediocrity. Because while I have my feet firmly planted on middle-ground, Stan is skeptical of my enthusiasm for being unexceptional. Of course, this also plays into our expectations for our own children and how we parent. While I wax poetic about being well-rounded, happy, healthy, and socially apt, Stan points out examples of people who capitalize on their capabilities through sweat and tears, to inspire us to reach higher.

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Stan has never taken guitar lessons, so this was his first chance to learn along with his daughter in a slightly more formal setting than our living room.

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Susanna and I were in the same class. Although she is much better at playing by ear, I can read music, so together we made a good team.

My favourite part of the American radio show, Prairie Home Companion, is the line Garrison Keillor uses to describe Lake Wobegone, “where all the woman are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Come on, admit it… didn’t we all want to be strong, good-looking, and above average–before we we realized we probably couldn’t pull it off? And then, wasn’t it easy to hope that perhaps those fleshy little lumps, carrying bits and pieces of ourselves and even our last names, could do better than we did?

After meeting beautiful-tiger-mamma, I’ve changed a bit this week. I’ve mandated longer practises (the actual play time is now equal to the portion of the practise spent going to the bathroom, tuning, rosining the bow, adjusting the music stand, etc). I’ve been pickier. I’ve yelled more. And honestly, it’s been a drag. Through it all, I’ve also thought about Lucy. (If you’re new here, she’s my one-year old niece who’s been battling cancer for 5 months). And after all those tears, prayers, fevers and waves of hopelessness, she’s still here! As she fought her way through her last round of chemo with smiles and new sets of eyelashes, I had this wild yell building up inside that I couldn’t wait to shout: “SHE’S GONNA LIVE! Thank you Jesus!” Do I care if she becomes an accomplished musician? Does it matter if she’ll ever shoot a three-pointer? (Well, maybe to her dad.:)) Does she have to “make something of herself” to make her recovery worthwhile? No. Her life is precious because she’s got it.

And the crazy thing is, our children have the same gift she’s been given. It’s hard to remember when I’m pushing, negotiating, demanding and cajoling, but it’s true. They’re here! They’re alive and well! Their lives are worthwhile whether they can play perfectly on tune, or not.

…But, I’m still going to wake them for an early-morning practise tomorrow. They can thank tiger-mamma for that one.

Near the median, and sincerely yours,

Tricia

PS. I  never got to explaining the pictures very well, did I? They were taken last weekend at a 2-day music camp in Saskatoon which included a dance, concert, and hours of old-time, Cajun, Quebecois and Metis music.

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4 thoughts on “Where All the Children are Above Average

  1. So many things to comment on! Love this line: Just as salmon leap onward against the current, neither mother, nor daughter, can afford any backward glances at the lowlands.
    You’re so poetic.
    Also this:
    Because while I have my feet firmly planted on middle-ground, Stan is skeptical of my enthusiasm for being unexceptional.
    I think you’re both right. We should aim to be exceptional, except when mediocre is just fine.
    And this:
    Didn’t we all want to be strong, good-looking, and above average–before we we realized we probably couldn’t pull it off?
    I don’t know where I stand on all of this too, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been exceptional…I remember giving up piano at the grade 9 level for a social life in grade 12…I’m not sure that social life was worth it, but I’m not sure a grade 10 piano would have been either. I think being passionate and inspired and curious are great starts at greatness and sometimes we have to push through hard work and boring practice sessions to get there. At least that’s what I hope for my kids – that their scales and frustrating days of playing “hands together” and getting a new piece are worth it when they wander over to the piano for fun to play something, just because it’s fun to make music. I’m blabbing here! Sorry! I just am enjoying this conversation way too much. 🙂

  2. Corinna, I miss our talks like this over our kitchen tables, or nursing babies on the couch. Thanks for all your thoughts and continuing the conversation. I think you’re right about the social life vs. grade 10 piano–it’s hard to measure value for different choices. (Although your argument for being average loses clout right there… grade-9-piano-player!!) You guys should come with us to one of these gigs once your piano players get a little more comfortable with doing “hands together.” It’s such a fun atmosphere to learn and make music in—and it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, there’s a place for everyone.

  3. What a great post Tricia! My girls are also taking music lessons and practice everyday of their own will. I laughed when I read your comment about the Tiger Mom book (reading about the book was enough for me to be against it!). Let’s enjoy being together, let’s laugh and be grateful to be alive! Because this is the only thing that really matters.

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