Friday, July 31, 2009

Little and not-so-little Piggies

In the middle of a record-breaking heat wave of the Pacific Northwest the three of us, my wife, our youngest one and I, set out to drive towards the Canadian border early in the morning. Our older daughter was giving a presentation of her research in Bellingham at Western Washington University, as a final requirement for her M.Ed. degree. We are fortunate to live so close: in light traffic the trip takes only an hour and a half. This also means that during her four years there we have been able to see each other on a regular basis, not so common with most families these days. Anna has been on a fast track: the presentation took place six days after her 22nd birthday. It will be another three weeks until the actual graduation which both Sarah and I will have to miss. We have decided to try Icelandair's new route to Seattle and fly to Finland for a quick visit (my daughter's second one this summer), to see my 98-year-old dad one more time. On the way back we'll take a mini-vacation in Reykjavík as Iceland is a place we both are fascinated by.

Every parent tries his or her best raising children, or at least they believe so. One's cultural background has a lot to do with it. Anna has praised us for our hands-off care. Perhaps it has something to do with the way children grow up in my home country. It is the total opposite of some Asian country where parents think that a child needs guidance 24/7. In South Korea schoolchildren spend enormously long days in school followed by after-school classes. Yet both countries score about the same, as they are on top of the global achievement list. If I were Korean, I probably would think theirs was the only way, but I cannot pretend to be what I'm not. My wife Marjorie and I always wanted our children to find their own destinies. We had both been expected to endlessly play the violin in our youth, as if there were nothing else of importance in life. Some parents decide to raise their young as they themselves had been, others learned from their parents' mistakes. So our two girls were provided with a lot of love and a safe home environment. They knew if something was wrong: the word punishment never was in our vocabulary. No taking away privileges, no groundings or other limitations. The girls knew early on how much we trusted them and what was expected in return. They probably were some of the youngest ones around with their own credit cards, instead of allowances. Interestingly, money never became an issue, as from early on they never misused their financial freedom. Of course every child makes mistakes, just as grown-ups do, but those are important lessons in life. In the end, we have a young adult and a not-quite-yet 17-year-old who both get praise from everyone that they are in contact with, old and young alike. We are proud of their 4.0 GPAs, Student-of-the-Year and other awards, but most importantly of the love and warmth they both radiate.

As teachers, we have seen all kinds of children-parent interactions. There have been many cases where a mother or a father has decided to live her/his dreams through the child. Of course it is important that a parent is a supporting force behind a young musician, especially when the child is young and doesn't quite understand the meaning of diligent practice. But the will to work and excel in music has to come from the child, and an overbearing parent does much more harm than good. A time comes when the growing offspring will need to try how well his own wings will carry him, be it in music or any other area. Of course many parents follow along simply because the child still needs help getting here. I took public transit to my piano lessons before starting elementary school, but of course the time and place were different. And I rather see the student arrive here safely, instead of wanting to show off his two-week-old driving permit. Besides, most parents have been really wonderful and incredible, although I often have to remind my spouse that it is the children we teach, not the parents. An occasional bad apple shows up in the crop but then the relationship soon sours and off they go, to become someone else's headache.

At college level the parents are usually no longer a part of the equation. At most they might be present when the student performs, plays a recital or other solo. But young adults, insecure as they might seem during their freshman year, no longer need the same support system. A teacher easily becomes a parent figure, especially when lessons are on one-to-one basis. The 18-year-old may be shy at first but will soon realize there is nothing to be scared of. If the chemistry is right, both parties benefit from it. At least I have always felt that I learn in the teaching process at least as much as the student does. Show an interest in a young person as an individual, not just as a musician, and she/he rewards you with hard work and rapid progress. Someone looking at the clock tick will of course not be so fortunate. A snob or a slacker will soon get a reputation as such.

There was a time when someone with money could buy his offspring a good education and even a career. In today's financial climate the danger of this is lurking around the corner. A school will accept a student based on his parents' ability to pay full tuition, rather than merit. So far, at least in music, the leading institutions have kept their standards. A young "star" from the Wild West may not cut the mustard, no matter how much pressure is put on the institution. Instead, an unlikely youngster will get in, as he/she deserves it. To rewrite an old rhyme:

This little piggy went to Curtis
This little piggy stayed home

This little piggy got to Juilliard

This little piggy didn't make it

This little piggy cried "Daddy you promised"

All the way home

photo of Anna Talvi with her Culmination Portfolio