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?