This week in overload…

So, this week’s calendar includes:

  • Monday night rehearsal for the daughter with her community orchestra (across town, of course)
  • Tuesday night band festival prep clinic for the son
  • Tuesday afternoon viola lesson for the daughter
  • Wednesday evening orchestra festival prep clinic for the daughter
  • Thursday afternoon ACT class for the daughter
  • Friday evening orchestra festival
  • Saturday band festival
  • Sunday community orchestra concert

And this is, of course, on top of our regular jobs, MIL care, homework and the rest of the circus of activity that seems to follow us around.  Is it wrong that I’m sort of rooting for the snowstorm that’s headed our way to knock a few of these items off the schedule?



Fear and loathing at solo and ensemble: the viola diaries


This is a long one, folks.  Might want to grab a snack…

My daughter plays the viola.  I may have mentioned this in the past.  She’s a junior in high school and has played since fifth grade – much of that with a private teacher in addition to school.  She’s a good musician – not Carnegie Hall-bound but she makes sounds that are lovely to hear and enjoys what she does and that’s enough for both of us.

Being a part of the school orchestra has been an integral part of her education.  In many ways, I think it makes high school survivable for her and many of these kids.  Her orchestra director handles both the middle school and her high school so she’s been playing for him and with many of the same kids since 6th grade.  It’s a lot easier walking into high school when you have a place you belong and a group that knows and accepts you, not to mention upperclassmen who have your back.  I hear it every year at the spring banquet when the seniors give their farewell speeches, they all (well, mostly the girls -they’re more highly evolved, as we all know, and able to express a feeling or two) express how wonderful it was knowing they had a safe, welcoming place to go every day.  So all that acceptance AND a musical education? Hard to beat.

this crazy-looking thing is an alto clef.

this crazy-looking thing is an alto clef.

However, along with all of this educational and peer-acceptance goodness comes a price.  For some, it’s giving up an elective every term. For others, it’s juggling practice and sports commitments.  For my daughter, that price is called “Solo & Ensemble”.  This is a yearly event where students are forced have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of a piece of music for the four horsemen of the apocalypse a certified judge, who rates and critics their performance.  Students are graded on a 5 point scale, with 1 being the best, 5 the worst and a 3 considered average.  Students can play solo or in a group of 2-5 (hence, “ensemble).  Students that get a 1 rating can move on to the state competition, with the best demonstrating their chops at a big event at Western Michigan University.  It’s a pretty big deal, so I hear.

For many students, it’s an opportunity to hone their skills and rack up some nice entries for future college applications.  For my daughter, it’s sheer torture.  Her first year, it wasn’t too bad. She’d never been so didn’t really know what to expect.  She did her thing and came away with a 2 rating.  She was thrilled, wore her medal daily for a bit and time marched on.  The next year, she signed up again, but this time with more trepidation.  See, in the year since the first go-round, she’d discovered that many of her classmates scored 1’s.  She started to get nervous about the whole solo-for-a-judge-for-a-rating format.  Instead of throwing herself into practicing in order to be as prepared as possible – as her long-suffering parents were urging – she actually balked at practicing at all. The closer we got to The Day, the harder it was to get her to practice; And because she felt unprepared because she wasn’t practicing, her nerves grew worse by the day.  This is not a good scenario for anyone involved.  The Day arrived and things went much as expected: she worked herself into a pretty good froth by the time her turn came around. A few moments later, she came out in tears.  She’d lost her way part way through her piece, froze and had to start over.  The judge still gave her a 2 because the portions she played, she did well.  This was no consolation to my daughter – she didn’t want her medal but instead hustled me out the door as quickly as possible.  She not only felt she was given the 2 because the judge felt sorry for her (not likely – they are tough creatures) but she also knew her classmates would likely walk in with their 1 medals come Monday morning.

The next year came and went without S&E – she’d decided not to enter that year (big surprise).  This year, however, she’d moved up to the top level orchestra at school.  This was a move she really wanted but with entree to the Symphony came a dreaded required appearance at S&E.  We all agreed that this year would be different.  We’d begin prepping earlier this year; plenty of time to practice and master the piece, plenty of time to feel better about the whole thing.  Yep, we were really going to lick this thing this year, my husband and I agreed.  Unfortunately, the girl wasn’t so much on board.  She was already convinced that doom was imminent and there was nothing to be done about it.  As with the previous time, the more we urged her to practice, the harder she fought it.  She spent the time instead, I think, creating a big, scary phantom in her head that told her how poorly she was going to do and how nothing was going to make a difference in this outcome.

The big day came.  She was largely subdued for the morning, practicing quietly when prompted.  Right around the time I suggested she get herself dressed and ready to go (it was an hour drive to the location), the wheels came off the bus.  My daughter largely collapsed, sobbing, begging me not to make her go.  It’s parenting moment-of-truth time, folks.  Do I prop her up, bundle her into the car and push her through the experience, safe within the Nietzche-ian truth that getting through this experience and coming out the other side still alive will make her stronger or do I back down, understand that the trauma being brought on by this experience, as my daughter sobbed, physically sick with fear, was more damaging than building?  I tried the peptalk thing to no avail, all while texting her dad, who was out of town for work to fill him and and get his take.  I was really torn – I didn’t want to hurt her but I’m so aware of the fears I harbor because I was allowed to walk away from anything I found too challenging.  Luckily, my husband could see things a bit more clearly, and perhaps less emotionally, (not having the sobbing girl in his lap) and called a halt.  This was doing her more harm than good.  A very relieved girl soon fell asleep, exhausted from all the to-do.  I notified her accompanist and wrote to her orchestra teacher to explain the situation. (He was lovely about the whole thing)

It’s been a week now since this happened.  I spent a day or so questioning whether we made the right call and then let it go.  We’ve spoken to her teacher, who had many good suggestions to get her through the next time and will work with her private instructor as well.  She has a recital coming up in June. I’m hopeful – I have to be – that this one will go better.  The most important thing to us is that her fear of occasions such as this don’t take the joy out of making music.

I’d love to hear from others, though.  How have you helped your child through a fear like this?

Why do school conferences make me question my existence?

Last night was the thrice-yearly school conference night at our kids high school. Because we’re on a trimester plan, we get this fun three times a year. It’s not the process or set up that strikes dread in my heart every time conference time rolls around. It’s handled pretty well, actually – teachers in 4 main rooms, all arranged in alphabetical order with a handy map to get you there. As long as you come in armed with your kid’s teacher’s names, you’ll get to the people you need without too much fuss. You’ll also have an opportunity to sugar-up on bake sale goodies (fund the orchestra!), buy a sweatshirt (fund football!) or any number of money-raising options to support the various activities and clubs at the school. This is all fine, expected and no problem to handle or experience.

As anyone who has ever been to a cattle-call type conference knows, you will not see every teacher. We have two kids at this school so chances are even lower. Therefore, we have to determine the highest priority teachers we need to hit. You know what that means – the classes that either child is having any sort of issue with: trouble with material, missing homework, general shenanigans and monkeyshines, etc. Important stuff, to be sure, but not always the most fun. We sit with each teacher, review transcripts, discuss options and suggestions and move on to the next teacher. And so on, and so on. It all boils down to the same basic thing: I have two very smart kids who aren’t particularly driven. They have all the ability in the world but not a lot of interest in using what they have – at least not on the things that they don’t want to. Give my son a song and an instrument and he’ll sit all day and night trying to noodle it out. Give my daughter pen and paper and she creates wonderful things. Ask them to care about Chem 2 and you’ve got a battle on your hands.

I recognize this because this is where I was in high school. In middle school, I was a smart kid in a dumb school that got A’s just for showing up unarmed and not high. My parents pulled me out and put me in a private school where I was well and truly challenged and I had no idea how to cope. Over time I scraped together enough skills to make it through high school and into a decent college but never graduated. Here’s the thing: I didn’t see the point. I didn’t care enough to understand why it mattered and what limitations it would put on me in later life. Since that time I’ve been incredibly lucky and have landed in a career I never saw coming in a field I never had considered but getting there was a series of serendipitous happenings that would defy the belief of any Hollywood writer, including, but not limited to, the invention of the Internet. Over those years I’ve learned to care, to work hard and to enjoy the benefits that comes from this work but I am incredibly lucky to have bounced into my path.

I think I’m a pretty smart person but I see abilities in my kids I’ve never dreamed of. They’re quicker, sharper and more adept than me in many ways. But they are just as unimpressed with the possibilities that I was at their age. What frightens me is how well I understand how truly lucky I am to have landed where I am. If they follow my path, will the same serendipity follow them? Maybe, maybe not. But we likely shouldn’t bank on it. But back to conference night…

Step 1 of Post-Conference Club is don’t talk about Post-Conference Club. My husband and I ride home in near silence. One of us might start a sentence: “maybe we oughta take away internet access?…” or “It’s that South Park crap, right?” but inevitably our voices trail off. We’ve said these things before, we’ve tried many, we get the same results.

Step 2 of PCC is The Talk. That’s when one or both of us report to each child separately about what we’ve learned and where they need to step up. Said talk might include the following ingredients (in no particular order):

  • The bit of encouragement: “Your math teacher appreciates that you aren’t drawing so much anime on your worksheets anymore”.
  • The dangling of the rewards/consequences: “You do understand that if you want to go on the band/orchestra/French club trip, you have to hit your grades, right?”
  • The tearful recrimination: “But you swore this tri was going to be different!”
  • The ‘we’re just trying to help you understand the impact on your future!’: “blah blah blah blah blah” (as apparently heard by my children)

This is largely how it goes:


This sends me very quickly into step 3 of PCC: self-recrimination. I begin questioning myself and all I’ve done up till now as a mom. The mistakes I’ve apparently made to mold these bright and eager minds into the just-can’t-be-bothered teens of today. Do I work too many hours? (without a doubt). Too many preservatives in their diet? (duh) . Did that one time I largely wrote my son’s summer essay have a bigger impact than I thought? (well, maybe. But who the hell assigns a 10-year-old to read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, in damned near middle English, over the summer and expect an essay on the importance of goal setting by the first day of school? Eesh!) Whatever the cause – and it’s likely stuff I can’t even fathom, I circle down into the “I’m a bad mom” pool of despair, questioning why anyone decided I should be allowed to have shared responsibility for these two creatures. This step will last 2-3 days.

Slowly but surely, the memory of this trimester’s conference will fade into the mists of time. We’ll perhaps make an improvement or two or maybe not. But I’ll bet my cat there’ll be a new set of crap opportunities for growth to discuss next time around and the steps begin anew.

Maybe next tri, no matter what’s going on with grades, my husband and I will only sit with the teachers of classes the kids are rocking. And there are those classes and they aren’t just orchestra. A reminder that perhaps we’ve done *something* right along the way would be a good thing.

In the meantime, I’m open to other coping strategies. What works for you? Or, as I secretly suspect, are everyone else’s kids perfect?

It might get loud

We live in a quad-level home in suburban Detroit.  The kid’s rooms, much to their dismay, are both clustered right by ours on the top floor.  My son is directly across the hall.  Needless to say, I hear a lot of his friends saying “what?!?” when he’s whispering into Skype, trying not to be overheard.

Generally, there’s much to be overheard.  My kids are both musicians.  My son’s room is a crazy, overloaded space with a desk, two computers, a keyboard (he’s teaching himself), his bed, a full drum kit and all of the various sticks, pads and stray cowbells that seem to follow drummers around.  It’s not a big room and it would make me crazy to feel that crowded but he loves it.  If the clothes are mainly off the floor and there’s no odd smells of old food or overripe socks, we’re mostly okay with it all.

With the good comes the bad, though.  Musician children are great.  Sons that play drums, daughters that play viola: awesome.  Sons learning keyboards, also awesome.  Son learning keyboard by playing the opening piano sequence from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida over and over and over and over, well…

And over and over and over.

At the same time, I really admire it.  I don’t play an instrument.  Never had the patience or the drive – something I’ll always regret, I think.  So while the repetition of this particular bit of Coldplay can get old pretty quickly, the fact he’s willing to keep at it until he’s got it down means the world to me.  He’ll get it at some point and move on to the next one and the next one.  I can only sit back in wonder that this kid is mine ( and hope the next one isn’t Coldplay.)