By Whitney Phaneuf | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Learning a stringed instrument as a child is daunting, but likely even more so when your parent plays professionally. So how do the pros’ kids learn? In honor of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we spoke to five players whose work truly came home with them when their young children expressed an interest in playing a stringed instrument. In their own words, they reveal how they keep their kids motivated—without burning them out.
When violinist Anne Akiko Meyers isn’t soloing with the world’s top orchestras, she’s home with her nine-year-old, Natalie, and seven-
year-old, Andie, both budding string players.
“Natalie has been playing the violin since she was in my womb. It was the strangest thing; I would practice my scales while pregnant with her and, after she was born, she would give me the most knowing smile when I played them—like she intimately knew them. Watching me perform numerous times, Natalie would try to imitate my playing even at a year-and-a-half old. There’s a hilarious YouTube clip of her at that age, sawing away on the violin. She was hooked. Andie plays both cello and piano. She started with violin but kept asking to switch to the cello. It’s challenging to practice both every day, but she does it. Natalie and Andie both chose what they wanted to play.
“I learned early on that it is not healthy for me or my children to teach them—you must leave this to the professionals! When I practice with them, they ask about key signatures, notes, and note values, and I point out how to improve posture and bow hold, especially with Natalie, but I learned early on to always use caution. Staying positive is paramount and it is especially important to encourage the child’s curiosity. I have heard too many horror stories of teachers who are way too demanding and cause their students to turn off to music later in life. With so many after-school activities available for children, time management is critical. [They] try to keep at it daily, even for 5–10 minutes. It really does make all the difference.
“There has been so much research about how important music is for children and how deeply it impacts their lives and brains. One has to be watchful to start an instrument when the child is physically ready but, like learning a foreign language, the earlier the better. Children’s brains are like sponges and once they see the joy you receive from listening to music or watching concerts, they will most definitely want to emulate. I feel we are all connected to and by music and it comforts me to know the powerful message music brings. Music is love.”
Harlem Quartet founding member and violinist Ilmar Gavilán enjoys a house full of music between himself, his cellist wife, Seojin Yang, his 11-year-old pianist daughter, Leah, and his violist son, Ian.
“My parents were professional musicians, and they put in the time to practice with me and we later performed together as well. Looking back, that is something I will always treasure and it has kept me growing, even to this day. I intend to pass it on.
“My son Ian didn’t click with piano like his older sister Leah did. She is 11 and in her first year at Juilliard Pre-College, studying piano with Veda Kaplinsky. It was hard for him to avoid comparison. Then we tried viola and it stuck. Why viola if I’m a pro violinist and my wife Seojin Yang is a pro cellist? Viola is familiar to us as string players, specifically to me as a violinist, yet slightly different. Ian feels it is his own instrument in the family, and he told us he is proud of being the only violist at home! Personally, I much prefer the sound of the viola as a beginner then the torturous meow sound of a screechy violin.
“It is quite difficult to be a father and wear a teacher’s hat. I practice with him as much as possible, but he has his own teacher. In my experience, simplifying the task at hand is the best approach for him. For instance, working on a deep and resonant sound on a down-bow stroke. I’ll borrow Grigory Kalinovsky’s expression and say, ‘Let the right arm swing like a monkey.’ Essentially, it means using gravity to make a natural U-shape with the elbow and allowing the forearm to detach from the arm and continue the free-falling motion, even though, for the last bit, his forearm actually needs to go up and forward to keep the bow parallel to the bridge at the tip.
“In this, a simple and relatable expression took the place of countless professorial explanations to avoid the sawing of the string with a wooden arm/forearm joint causing the tip to slip toward the fingerboard. Having to explain things makes me more aware of my own playing. I feel more physically efficient and even more musically organized since I started practicing with Ian and Leah.”
Being from a family that produced two world-class string players, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff (sister of violinist Christian Tetzlaff) takes a surprisingly laid-back approach to helping her three kids—ages 14, 12, and nine—develop as musicians.
“Our whole life has been filled with an immense love for music, and this has spread automatically to the kids. I have told them about my fantastic times in youth orchestras and ensembles. So, as soon as possible, they joined in that, the eldest first as a cellist, then bassoonist, the other two with violin and trumpet. The eldest is a member of three different orchestras, my daughter is the concertmaster of a children’s orchestra and plays in a string quartet, and my youngest plays trumpet in the same orchestra. They chose their instruments themselves and they are good fits.
“I think, especially for stringed instruments, the wish really has to come from the child. Starting a stringed instrument is damn difficult! I try to help them with practice, but with the eldest, it was soon clear that this didn’t work at all. He only got angry with himself and me, probably because being a cellist myself, he felt my superiority. This became much better when he switched to bassoon because I can only admire what he’s doing and give him musical ideas. We sometimes play together publicly. With my daughter, it has been easier, but my husband, who is a violinist and a great teacher, does it more often. The youngest one has a huge temper, so I try to keep out of his practicing as much as possible. Still, we believe that learning to practice alone is much better for them.
“Finding motivation for practice is not always easy, but we have been through that ourselves as children. We try to make it a routine thing to practice nearly every day. On holidays, all instruments stay in the cupboard. And until they turned 12, we would never ask for long practices, meaning more than 45 minutes. From my own childhood, I learned the way my parents brought me up in awe of old music and discipline, but in a very calm and friendly way, had a very positive affect. It’s important to show the emotional content of music more than the stress that playing ‘perfectly’ implies in our music world. I never had to practice long hours, but I was expected to do a bit every day, apart from holidays. It was my own decision to double my amount of practice when I was 13 years old because I noticed I played worse than I wanted to. And this is just happening to my eldest son now—from his own decision.”
Concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine spends 11 months of the year on the road and her daughter Sylvia has been by her side since she was three weeks old. Now eight, Sylvia is attracting a following of her own as a violinist and composer, performing duets with her mom and regularly posting to her YouTube channel.
“Sylvia began violin lessons when she was two-and-a-half years old. I’d started violin at three-and-a-half, so I figured Sylvia would probably start around three. However, when she was two, my husband felt she needed a musical outlet. It turned out that a friend of mine, Isabelle Rozendaal, who specializes in teaching beginning violinists, had had previous experience with two-year-old students, so we got Sylvia started with her.
“When Sylvia first started lessons, I was worried about being her daily practicing parent. I was concerned it might be hard to restrain myself from giving her advice that she wasn’t ready to absorb. While I’ve done a tremendous amount of teaching, I’ve never worked with beginners. My daughter was much better off in the hands of those who are highly trained and experienced. I also think my relationship with Sylvia—and her relationship with music in general—is better off with this separation. Nowadays, she’s eager for all the advice I can give her, but when she was really little, it was helpful to say, ‘Your lesson is in three days,’ or ‘Your teacher said to do it like this.’
“Sylvia is very self-motivated at this point. When she was three or four years old, she didn’t always want to practice every day. I think those are the hardest years. We are not making a beautiful tone yet and playing the violin is very foreign to our natural physicality. As a result, you have to do everything you can to make practicing fun in the moment. Sylvia and I would often have her favorite characters practice with us. That was my big trick for increasing repetitions. Maybe R2-D2 would be her practicing partner that day and I would say, ‘Wait a second, C-3PO is just coming along, he hasn’t heard you play that yet.’
“I’ve worked really, really hard thus far to keep Sylvia away from the type of high- stress environments that I was in during my later single-digit years. I just feel like for her, music is such a joy and she’s experiencing it so purely. I don’t want that polluted by kids and their parents stressing about who’s playing each piece at what age, who’s better than whom, and who’s getting more opportunities.
“Sylvia aspires to do three hours of violin a day and we try to never do less than two, except on extremely busy days. After she did 100 days [straight], she didn’t want to stop her streak. She was absolutely adamant. It would be midnight and she would say. ‘Mom, we have to practice.’ So, I would put a mute on her little violin and we would do 10 minutes of scales before she collapsed into bed.
“In November, we had a big party to celebrate Sylvia’s 1,000th day of practice and made a video for her YouTube channel. She recently celebrated her 1,100th day of practice, so she’s still going. Seeing her commitment, I suspect that Sylvia will become a professional musician. However, you never know what will happen with your kid, and I’m going to love her no matter what.”
As a professor of violin and chair of the strings department at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Simin Ganatra has a lot to teach her daughters—14-year-old violinist Layla and nine-year-old harpist Mira—but she prefers playing the role of supportive mom.
“When I was growing up, my parents were always only encouraging. My Pakistani father never imagined this would be a lifelong career for me, and music was treated as a hobby I loved. My mother wanted me to give my best in everything I did, and—because lessons were expensive—I had to do my violin homework, but I was never forced to practice long hours. I believe this was a wonderful gift. There was no family expectation of what I should achieve in music. This allowed me to progress at my own pace and feel supported. Even though I am a musician, I try to be this way for my children.
“My older daughter, Layla, plays violin, and my younger daughter, Mira, plays harp. They both started at about age five. I wanted Layla to play cello, but she chose violin. When Mira saw a harp player for the first time, she started asking to play. My girls both made up their own minds. My girls, of course, have been listening to music since before they were born. My quartet [Pacifica Quartet] was rehearsing a lot of Bartòk in the final months of my pregnancy with Layla, and I remember how I used to feel her move in my stomach while we were rehearsing. When we would stop, she would settle.
“I generally don’t teach my kids. I grew up with parents that were proud no matter how technically perfect I was. I hope to be this presence for my kids. I want them to love music and get joy from it. I also want them to use it as a way to express themselves, regardless of how advanced or proficient they are. My 14-year-old is just now beginning to seriously ask me for advice. Maybe she just realized I might be of some use in her violin playing! My nine-year-old harp player already knows much more about playing the harp than I do. I believe in teaching through example. My kids see daily the passion and dedication my husband and I have for this, and I think this affects them. I always remind them that learning is a process, and even if they don’t get something today, or even this year, they are on the journey and will achieve what they are striving for if they stick with it!”