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The Sweet Squeak of Community

When I was five, I told my parents I wanted to play the violin. As a professional violinist, my dad was delighted, and he seemed to indulge my wish when he came home one day with an adorable little violin. The occasion called for a photo.

Photo credit: Dorothea von Haeften

There was only one problem: As small as it was, the violin wasn’t small enough. I would need to grow a bit more before I could start lessons. The violin and my interest in it fell by the wayside as life moved on. That photo marked both the beginning and the end of my violin career.  

I later took piano lessons, but even though I loved playing music, I often hated practice. Fits and starts, tears and tantrums, love and hate all dominate my memory of piano. 

Is this just how it goes with kids and music? Is there not a better way?

Searching for a Better Way

Fast forward 40 years. Now it’s my son Quincy’s turn to be five, and those are the questions I’m asking myself. I believe music-making is one of the best things humans can do. Theoretically, I want my kids to experience the joy of making music. But do I want to subject them to the emotional turmoil I went through? If there’s a better way, what is it and where do I find it?

I ask his school’s music teacher for advice. “Check out the String Lab School at the University of New Mexico. They teach Suzuki violin and cello,” she says. The String Lab’s website informs me that their year-long beginner class was already well underway but I email anyway: “I just learned about the String Lab and would be interested to enroll my son for violin. He’s five years old. Are we too late for him to join the beginner class?” Exactly 23 minutes later the director, Laurie Lopez, emails me back: “No, definitely not! Why don't you join us tomorrow morning to observe and, if you like what you see, you can get signed up after class.”

At 9 a.m. the next morning, we walk into class. Fifteen kids, ages four to seven, are gathered around a piece of paper, coloring. Then the teacher sings: 

Clean up, clean up, 

Everybody, everywhere.

Clean up, clean up, 

Everybody do your share.

Moments later, the crayons are put away and the kids are sitting in rows facing the teacher. She plucks two notes on her violin: low then high. They all stand up. She plucks two more notes: high then low. They all sit down. For the next hour, Crystal Boyack has these kids in the palm of her hand and they are loving it. There is singing, drumming, dancing, improvising, and story time. Quincy wants in.

At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic. A charismatic teacher is wonderful, but we can’t take Crystal home with us. What happens when it’s time to practice? An engaging weekly class will not get a five-year-old through the daily tedium.

Heading home from violin class. Beginner students start out with a dummy violin. They must practice their bow hold 1000 times before earning a real instrument.

Trials, Tribulations, and a Community of Support

When we return a week later, the parents are instructed to drop off their kids at class and report to room 201b. We will be attending a class of our own. The topic? How to be a Practice Parent. We have reading assignments and discussions. Our teacher, Daven, is not a musician, yet she succeeded at getting her daughter through the trials and tribulations of learning a string instrument. In other words, she is eminently qualified.

Daven has a big heart and the wisdom of experience. “How is it going with practice, you guys? What’s working? What problems are you running into?”

When it’s my turn, I tell the class about how Quincy collapses into a despairing heap on the floor at the first hint of a mistake. “What time of day are you practicing?” Daven asks. That turns out to be a rich topic for the class. Another week, I talk about a practice session when Quincy announced he was quitting violin. “That’s totally fine,” I blurted out. “You can tell Crystal at the beginning of class tomorrow morning and we’ll take your violin back to Robertson & Sons.” I regretted my words as they spilled out of my mouth. Would he call my bluff? Yet, shortly after storming off, a new announcement was forthcoming: “Papa, I changed my mind. I don’t want to tell Crystal that I’m quitting, plus I like my violin. Maybe I just need to eat a snack before practice.” Another week, I admit that I started to dread our practice sessions and had completely stopped for two weeks.

As we go around the room sharing our stories, I hear familiar themes from my childhood piano practice. Resistance. Refusals. Tantrums. Minds that wander, bodies that fidget. We share knowing looks and it’s clear that none of us are alone in these challenges. For all the spot-on tips and tricks we pick up in class, the really big deal is that we are doing this with the emotional support, structure, and joy of a community – none of which my parents had when I started music.

Did I mention that in the Suzuki method, the parents are required to learn the violin too? One day while I’m practicing my part of the upcoming final concert, Quincy watches me struggle to learn a string crossing, and I realize the brilliance of this arrangement. Not only is he witnessing me stick with a problem, but he corrects my bow hold too! “Papa, your thumb is not ‘round round round!’”

As students, teachers, parents, and friends gathered for the String Lab’s final concert, a good third of the audience held instruments and were excitedly tuning up and squeezing in a few last minutes of practice. Such a squeaky cacophony used to sound awful to me. Now, it is the sweet sound of joy that only comes from a vibrant community.


Alexej is a member of Cohousing ABQ, a 25-home community being built on 4 acres adjacent to the Rio Grande in Albuquerque with space for kids to roam free and form deep relationships with nature. We already have many kids, aunties and grandparents who’ve created a culture of trust, fun and care. With final construction plans taking shape and availability running out, this is a great time to snag your future home in Albuquerque’s first multigenerational cohousing community.

read. set. violin.

If you're curious about violin for your child, check out Ms. Crystal's camp, Ready Set Violin. This play-based introduction to violin is a perfect way to gauge your child's interest before taking a class at the String Lab School.

Parents performing.

Kids performing.

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