Suzuki Violin & the Jewish Mother

Suzuki Photo Ray w- violinHere’s a piece about my son’s progress on the violin using the Suzuki method. As I become more technology-friendly, I’ll be adding bits of audio and video to the series. Anyone interested in music lessons, violin pieces, or parenting in general, might enjoy this work-in-progress. And of course, if any part of these articles is meaningful to you, drop me an email or forward something to a friend. I would be so grateful — ABZ

Back in early May, I decided to start Ray on the violin.  He was five and a few months.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  It was something Lynn and I had argued about for a long time.  I wanted him to have formal musical training; she didn’t.

“Let him live,” she said. “Let him be a kid. You’re going to have to force him to practice. He’ll hate that.”

I had actually hoped to start him earlier, when he was three-and-a-half, but Lynn put her foot down. We’d had arguments, so I let it go. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I felt right about it anyway.

If you want your child to grow up knowing how to play an instrument, you have to force them to practice. You can’t rely on the child to do it himself. No self-respecting child, prodigies included, are going to practice enough on their own to achieve any real success. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve spoken to in the last three months who have said, “I’d really like my child to learn an instrument, but Johnny just hasn’t shown any interest.”

It’s true that some children show a curiosity and a love for music early on, but if your child doesn’t show this interest, it does not mean that he can’t rock an instrument. I say this with such authority, but I really only learned it a few months ago, from Ray’s Suzuki Violin teacher, Zoe.

I had a lot of trouble getting myself to put Ray on the violin (or any instrument). I didn’t want to force him to do something he didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to pollute his childhood with the endless torment of being nagged to practice. I figured if he showed interest in an instrument then he would do it on his own. And if he didn’t, well, that was fine, too.

Except not really. Deep down, in the darkest cave of maternal desires, I really did want to force him to learn an instrument. But every time I picked up the phone to call a music teacher, the image of the Tiger Mom came to mind. You know the one.  She’s sitting in the front row at every recital, moving her hand in time to the music and indicating that the child is playing too slowly or too quickly or should speed up or slow down.

I didn’t want to be that mother.

The expectation in the parenting community these days (at least the one I find myself in) is that you shouldn’t over schedule your children, you shouldn’t teach them to read too early, and you shouldn’t get up in their grill about daily regimens. They should play in the dirt and frolic in the grass and not worry about playing an A scale or a Twinkle Variation for a room full of overeducated parents.

I’m obviously being tongue-in-cheek when I say I don’t want to be a Tiger Mother, as truly staunch disciplinarians don’t allow their children to socialize after school or to attend sleepovers or theatre clubs. Tiger Mothers don’t bother with anything beyond academics or musical study, and my son loves theatre and karate, which we encourage. He also watches some television, and occasionally we let him play video games.

Still, I’d by lying if I said I was totally comfortable with my level of investment in my son’s violin playing.  I feel like I’m the only mother sitting on the edge of her seat during a recital, and I don’t like the way I sound in my own head when I coach him before a performance.

“Are you nervous?” I ask him.  “Don’t be nervous.  Have fun.  You are wonderful.”

Surely he picks up on the fact that I am the one who is nervous.  Eventually he’ll realize that I’m not exactly a small influence in his life and that yes, there is a controlling element to my parenting style.

Is this terrible?  In our house, I’m the decider. I regulate screen time, bed time, sugar intake. Come to think of it, I regulate all intakes. True, sometimes I forget to choose my battles.  But then I have Lynn to remind me that too much toothpaste squeezed out of the tube is not a battle worth having.

One of my biggest fears as a mother (and as a person) is that I will be seen as controlling. It’s painful to even put this to words. The word controlling conjures up terrible images. I immediately think of those Jewish ladies Billy Crystal used to parody in those bits from the seventies.  You know, the ones from Boca Raton with the long cigarette ash and the painted-on eyebrows.

You are not controlling, Lynn says.  You are involved.  You are loving.

Thank you, I say.  Did you put the polka-dot pajamas on Lucy tonight?  I want her to wear the polka dots to bed.  Not the stripes.

I really didn’t want to be a stereotypical Jewish mother, so I held back on the violin.  I knew once we began there would be no end to it.  That we wouldn’t practice the ten recommended minutes per day, but thirty minutes per day.  Sometimes longer, if I felt he could do it.  My feeling about learning an instrument is that you should commit to it. You can’t kind of learn an instrument.  You either do it or you don’t.

My son is bright.  He’s not a genius but he’s not an idiot. He has a good mind and he is capable of doing good work if you challenge him.  If you force him to practice.

Still, I expect a lot from him already, even without the violin.  I was afraid that adding the instrument to his repertoire would put him (and me) over the edge.

So I let it go.  I struggled with the decision, but I did let it go.  I figured since he wasn’t very musical anyway and he rarely joined in at circle time for This Land is Your Land that it was not his inclination and I should just calm down. Even the music teacher at his pre-school told me that once, after a drumming class, he went up to her and said, “You know, Cassie, I’m really not a fan of music.”

When he did sing, he was horribly off key, which made me sad.  I have an innate ear for music. Zoe says there is no such thing.

Oh well, I told myself, maybe Ray will find a passion for accounting.  Or science. Or maybe the twins will love music.

Then, one afternoon, I had a conversation with my friend Roberto.  Roberto is a professional drummer and guitarist.  His wife is also a drummer and a composer, and their son, Emmanuel, was in Ray’s pre-school class.

Emmanuel started violin lessons when he was four.

When I told Roberto, who is Cuban and usually quite jovial, about my fear of putting Ray on an instrument, he immediately became very sober and serious.  Roberto speaks with an accent.  He is very warm and open and friendly.  When you go to his house the first thing he wants to do is feed you.

Roberto sometimes makes me doubt my homosexuality.

“No, no, no,” Roberto said, softly, shaking his head and putting his hands on my shoulders.  I stared into his eyes and tried not to throw myself at him.

“You cannot deny him music,” he said.  “Music is blood. Music is food. It is life.”

“But I don’t want to be a typical Jewish mother,” I practically sobbed, letting it all out right there in the schoolyard, while the boys hung upside down on the jungle gym. “I don’t want to be the one he talks about in therapy.  At least before he is ten, anyway.”

“A Jewish mother,” Roberto said, shaking his head, sadly.  “Let me tell you something about the Jewish mother.”

“I know,” I wept.  “Controlling.  Overbearing.  The one who dishes out all the guilt and cleans up none of the mess.”

(I pause here to ask if any of you recall the old joke about the Italian mother and the Jewish mother.  The Italian mother puts food down in front of her son and says, “If you don’t eat this, I’ll kill you. The Jewish mother puts food down in front of her son and says, “If you don’t eat this, I’ll kill myself.”)

“A Jewish mother is the one who cares the most,” Roberto said. “Look at all the Jewish mothers of accomplished musicians.  They were the ones, trust me, who supported their children, who struggled with them, yes, but also reassured them and applauded them.  Through every arpeggio, every concerto.”

He moved closer to me.  I fanned myself a little and tugged at my blouse.

“Who did Jasha Heifetz say he was indebted to when he finished the Wieniawski scherzo-tarantelle? His Jewish mother, of course. And Joshua Silverstein?  Itzhak Perlman?  All those guys.  They looked out into the audience with tears in their eyes and who did they thank? Who did they acknowledge?  They acknowledged their Jewish mother.”

Roberto regarded me with a solemn reverence.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the Jewish mother,” he said, with finality. He took a cell phone out of his pocket and began scrolling through his address book for Emmanuel’s teacher.  “The Jewish mother is the one who loves the most,” he said.

I drove home and stepped into the kitchen, where Lynn was spooning up applesauce for the twins.

“I’m putting him on violin,” I said.  My face was flushed, and my heart was pounding. I steeled myself for the fight.

“Okay,” Lynn said.  “Okay.”


  1. Love this so much. By making Ray practice, you are doing it right. I was the whiny kid sitting at the piano, angrily rushing through my scales so I could play with my dolls after. But now, I am obsessed with music and instead of causing anger, music soothes it. Now I WANT to practice and perfect my voice. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Ray will get to that point eventually-but it will take some time(and lots of scales!). And no matter what happens, he will always thank you for pushing him.

  2. OMG he’s adorable!! 🙂 And I loved the bits I read… I admit I skimmed some. The controlling bit hits too close to home!! I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t be controlling. I like being controlling. Its my thing. 🙂

  3. I know this post is old, but I wasn’t a subscriber then, so didn’t see it until now. I just wanted to say, don’t feel bad for insisting on music lessons. I was five when my mom decided that I should take classical guitar lessons (yes. CLASSICAL guitar) and it taught me a lot about music/reading music/persistence/practice/devotion/& self-motivation. All things that have served me well in life. Just don’t ask your kid to do something weird, like my mom did when I was ten, when she made me play and sing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar to everybody who came over, because she loved that song. No ten-year-old should have to warble the words “He’s a man, he’s just a man, and I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways — he’s just one more!” that was really the only part of the musical experience that was scarring. Oh, that, and the talent show in tenth grade when the microphone didn’t work and nobody could hear my lovely rendition of “Mr. Bojangles”, but I could hear all the catcalls and “Is that a boy or a girl?” comments from the audience. Music is good, it’s people who are awful.

  4. This is hilarious! I’m going to sign onto your website now. How did I not do this before? Keep me updated on what’s doing with you.

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