Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tough Slugging Makes a Pretty Sound

As long as I can remember, Ellie has talked about wanting to play violin like her daddy.

There is almost always music playing in our house.  It's always been that way.  When the girls were wee, if it wasn't playing on our stereo, it was Mike playing Bach or Irish jigs and reels on his violin.  Ellie gravitated to it right away.  Hannah said from the beginning that she wanted to play piano, but for Ellie it was violin.  Period.

She began her journey as a violinist a few years ago.  Her first year was a bust.  Inexperienced teacher coupled with a daddy who was living across the country for half the year didn't lend itself to huge gains. Last year was a catch-up year that included going back to square one with correcting bad habits and learning proper bow-hold and technique.  Her teacher was quite good, and she made huge strides.

This year began with a new teacher at the British Columbia Conservatory of Music.  The studio is located a five minute walk from our house so it just made sense to switch.  After a few "trial and errors" in finding the right fit for a teacher, Ellie (and Mike) settled on Iris - a young energetic woman who has a lot to offer.

Ellie has always wanted to play the violin.  BUT, Ellie has not always wanted to practice the violin or go to her lessons.   There is a great big difference between the two.

Over the first two months of lessons this fall, Ellie's attitude at practice time with her ever-patient and supportive daddy were was less than stellar.  Tears.  Complaining.  Play a bit.  Tears.  Whining.   Play a few measures.   A few more tears. Grumbling and muttering.  Play a few more measures.   Throw in a few more tears for good measure.  Play a little bit more.  Lesson over.  That's pretty much how it went down.

One Saturday, after a practice session that went down pretty much like the one described above, Mike had had enough.  In a calm and controlled voice he informed Ellie that they had just had their last violin practice session.   Their last session IF her approach to practicing and lessons did not change.  She had a choice to make.  Change her approach and attitude, or quit violin.  No negotiation.  He gave her two days to make her decision.  Ellie was stunned.  She ran up to her room and proceeded to sob into her pillow for a good hour.

When I came in to chat with her you could see and hear the internal tension.  "I don't like practicing.  I don't really like going to lessons.  But I want to play violin!  I don't know what to do!  What should I do?"  After the tears slowed down we had many conversations over the course of the next two days about this dilemma.  We made charts and lists.  Pros and cons.  Ellie asked for the opinions of others.  It was clear that she liked playing violin at recitals.  That's seemed to be the only part she really liked.

Although she was conflicted, we left the decision with her and were determined to follow through.  That meant taking our chances and being OK with Ellie quitting if that's what she decided.   Mike and I both secretly hoped that she wouldn't go that route.  But we had to step back.

The decision had to be made by the end of dinner on Monday, as her lesson is right afterward.  She was either going to go with a new approach, or she was going to inform Iris that she was quitting.  In true Ellie form, she kept us hanging until the end.  She then decided in the van on the way to her lesson that she was going to give her violin another go.  (Insert parental sigh of relief here).

This new approach has been a marked improvement.  Lesson times illicit (almost) no tears.  "Sometimes it's just so hard, dad!"  She doesn't complain and most importantly, doesn't make those thirty minute sessions torturous for Mike.  They're actually kind of enjoying them now.

Just before Christmas, it was time for Ellie's Christmas recital.   Much practice ensued over the weeks prior.   Mom was recruited as the accompanist.   This was the part she liked, and she was nervous but excited to play...

We were so proud of her.
Most of all, we knew she was proud of herself.  
Hard work equaled success.

I know the ability to play a musical instrument isn't everything.
But being committed to something and seeing it through - especially when it's hard - is one of the best life lessons you can learn.

I'm still learning that one too.


  1. Great job Ellie :)


  2. I thought I'd been quite clear about Ellie not growing any more?! YOu guys are choking me up again- Ellie, you're marvellous!

  3. Good job Ellie!!! I know I always complain about practicing violin.

    love Thea

  4. Congrats to both Ellie and her parents - navigating these challenges is always a test of mettle, and it looks like all the Penners involved passed with flying colours!

  5. Playing violin is an art.It should be learn from child to old.Your idea of learning is very nice.I hope it will give you great strength in future.

  6. She's doing very well! I played both of those songs on violin as a kid (I used to sing along to that first song to words I made up: "Long, long ago when my grandparents were born. Long, long ago, long long ago...") :) Now my Madeline is playing the same songs. The years go by too fast!

  7. Hey Ellie - great to see and hear you play!
    Keep up the good work
    Papa Dennis