June 15, 2010

The Testing Ground

My second son is going to be taking his grade 8 Royal Conservatory violin exam today. He doesn't seem to be very nervous about it, and believe me, when this kid is anxious about something EVERYBODY knows. He has been preparing for the exam all year long with the help of his violin teacher, David. David is a very calm, soft-spoken, encouraging guy with a good sense of humour and he is exactly the type of teacher to help prepare my son for his half hour in the 'hot seat'. My son is looking forward to getting the exam over with so he can finally learn some new music and take a break from all that technique: the double stops, the memorized list of scales, the studies.

I would be nervous for my son but for the fact that I have seen him perform so many times over the eight years he has been playing the violin; I am more anxious that we cross our t's and dot our lower case j's in the paperwork end of things, as the Conservatory has rather strict and uncompromising requirements. I remember a time when I would practically hold my breath through his entire performance, feeling every note, cringing at every little mistake, and then finally relaxing when it was over. Those days are basically over - he's quite a pro now, and though I have never been too much of a 'stage mother,' I did have to back off a few years ago and let him discover for himself why he was carrying on with such a difficult instrument. He has fallen in love with classical music and with the challenge of his relentlessly responsive instrument and that is why he carries on so independently now. He's already been hired to play at two weddings this summer, and is consistenly requested to play at varous functions. Unlike his mother, my son has always been very comfortable performing before a crowd - nothing really phases him, except if at a music festival he decides that the adjudicating was unfair.

I never took a piano exam, but I remember a time when I competed in a music festival. I wrote about it in a story called 'Handsome is as Handsome Does' a couple of years ago and thought I would include an excerpt here. It seems to illustrate my history with performing fairly well and provides a humourous contrast to the success of my son on the stage:

I took piano lessons until I was fifteen, and in my last year of piano I participated in the local music festival. My piece was very difficult and I couldn't get it right, no matter how hard I practiced. On the day of the festival, thirteen young pianists assembled on the front pew of the Nelson United Church. The lights were dim, except for on the stage, and at the desk of the adjudicators, making them look like pale distant ghosts owning only heads and pen-holding hands. I was extrememly nervous but glad to be in the middle of the pack, not at the front. Sitting next to me was a boy I had never seen before. He had long, blonde hair, and wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt, and jeans. I remember thinking to myself as he approached the bench when they called his name, "Oh THIS should be interesting." I fully expected to hear a less than stellar performance, maybe a laboured rendition of that Leila Fletcher classic 'My Little Birch Canoe', or at best, a choppy interpretation of Beethoven's 'Fur Elise'. I don't remember what he played, maybe Chopin, maybe Rachmaninoff, but it was quite a shock to see and hear this headbanger blast his way through his challenging piece with such skill and confidence. I was dumbfounded, and after the thunderous applause died down, I was next. As I rose to go up to the stage I could hear people whispering about the long haired pianist.

"Who is he?" "Where is he from?"

Then I heard someone say, "He's _____ from the Slocan Valley. His family is so talented." I was really nervous now, rattled actually. My pre-conceived notions had just been turned upside down. How could I possibly follow that rocker's performance? I climbed the steps to the stage and sat down on the bench. I started to play. I stopped after a few bars and started again. I stopped again, and started again. I screwed up so badly the adjudicators took pity on me and allowed me to get my music, even though we were supposed to have memorized our pieces. I got through my nasty piece somehow and with a limping heart and downcast eyes I returned to my seat. Mortified, and afraid to look at my mom and sister in the audience, let alone at the blonde piano star beside me, I kept my gaze downward.

Quietly, from beside me, Rocker Valley Boy spoke. "Hey, that was pretty good," he said.

"No it wasn't, and you know it, " I managed to whisper. He turned to look at me. I finally looked up at him, barely meeting his eyes.

"Yeah, it was," he said, smiling encouragingly. "Don't worry about it."

I was immediately cheered by his friendly and generous words. I could breathe again. He wasn't lying either, so I couldn't accuse him of mere flattery; later, the adjudicator even praised the bits between the screw ups. That doesn't mean I ever attempted a competitive music festival again, but I did begin to look at boys in a whole new way - so all was not lost.
The photo is of my son playing for family in my parents' living room at our reunion last summer.


  1. lovely post. I think that 'frightened to screw up actually making you screw up' is a fear that many of us have faced with only limited success.

    my effort is here....


  2. I enjoyed this. Loads of good thoughts to your son. My son has been learning the cello at school since September - he's only 6, was 5 when he started - it's an amazing opportunity and I hope he continues it and falls in love with music like your boy has. I played the clarinet and gave it up when I was about 15 - to my eternal regret.

  3. So exciting for your son. And you too. I think it is wonderful that you are so musical and dedicated. I think natural talent must play in a bit. We aren't exactly musical here. You've heard my kids sing. But I appreciate the passion that talent can inspire.

  4. awww, hope your son did great :)

    Your excerpt really made me visualize I was right there with you! I can imagine holding the very same pre-conceived notions about Rocker Valley Man (heheh). Nice of him to tell you those encouraging words [which were true].

  5. 'but it was quite a shock to see and hear this headbanger blast his way through his challenging piece with such skill and confidence.' This is an engaging story. Festivals can be so stressful and you captured the emotions very well. It's great to have a son with so much poise and enthusiasm for an art such as this.

  6. Hi everyone, thanks so much for commenting. My son felt really good about his exam, but won't know the results for a couple of months. The examiner did say that she enjoyed his playing very much and that he obviously loves music - that's a good sign I think!

  7. Pish-tosh, unless the person is little more than an invigilator and is recording the set, then what on earth can be gained over time. This is like a driving test, you have either passed or you haven't. Or am I missing something here.

  8. Vince: Of course, you are right, but the Conservatory is a National governing board and thus results take the customary time devoted to such burocracy. I'm certain my son passed, but it is his score we will wait for as if it is high it is worth using as credits towards his high school graduation. Such things are allowed in our school system.

  9. This took me back to my own 7th grade piano recitals. I think I did play Fur Elise at one of them. Well, didn't we all? I would get so nervous my hands would shake. Not the best condition to play piano! Yet I loved playing for myself. And I could do other kinds of performances in public (dancing) and never get the tiniest bit nervous. It's great that your son has become so comfortable performing. I bet he did very well.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!