Who Gets to Decide Who Plays the Violin?

I recently read a rather heart-rending post on one of the Facebook violin sites about a little girl born with severe muscular problems who wanted to play the violin, but her doctors advised her parents against it saying that to give in to her request would be setting her up for failure.

I am happy to say that this young lady, after years of begging for the opportunity, was finally allowed to start studying the violin and now, many years later, a CD of her playing is about to be released! Not only that, she says that playing the violin greatly improved her impaired muscle coordination and math skills.


I would say she has had a resounding success. But this brings us to examine what success and failure mean.

One person’s idea of success can often be another’s idea of failure. For sure, the doctors were thinking about pursuing the study of the violin up to a high level, attending conservatory, etc. How do I know this? Because this has happened to me in my own studio, only it didn’t have the above happy ending.

I once had a student with spina bifida. She is severely disabled, has no feeling from her chest down, can’t move anything except her arms and head or sit up straight without a special chair. Her aunt called me saying that she thought it would be a good idea for this child to have music lessons and to be able to play with other children so she could have at least one activity where she was “normal.” And I agreed. But what instrument??? By process of elimination we finally decided that the violin was the only possibility, even though I would have been very happy to have found another instrument for her – taking on such a student carried a scary amount of responsibility for me. Why?

One guiding principle in my teaching is we must teach our students the habit of success. What is my definition of success? Trying something, no matter how small the task, and succeeding at it. This brings you to attempt another small step and succeed at this, too, thus promoting faith in yourself and the knowledge you can solve difficult problems if you tackle them the right way and in small enough doses. My job as the teacher is to make sure that my student, perhaps with a little hard work and persistence, is capable of whatever I give her to learn so that success is always achieved, even if only in tiny increments. However, I had never taught a child with such severe disabilities and had to hope that my intuition and experience would see me through.

Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be not my intuition and experience: it was almost all of the child’s numerous and varied therapists, most of whom I am sure knew nothing about the study of a musical instrument but thought they did. One psychiatrist actually told the mother not even to let the child try to play the violin because she would never be able to practice the necessary three hours a day when she would go to conservatory! Who said anything about practicing three hours a day or pursuing a professional degree????? The psychiatrist’s idea of success was playing Paganini caprices. This child, however, would have been happy with Bach minuets, and indeed being able to play them would have been a real success for her.

But her mother started to get discouraged. She then informed me that the child had learning difficulties at school and they had to concentrate on those. She also said that the therapists were worried that the positioning of the violin would cause back problems. They were undoubtedly thinking the same thing as the psychiatrist. Only one of many therapists did give the okay after he bothered to ask the mother how much practice the child had to do. Then the mother told me that the child dropped things unintentionally and had concentration problems. I told her that in the year that I had taught her little girl, I had never once seen her drop her bow or her violin or have a problem with concentration  – not even once. In short, I, or the violin, was not setting her up for failure, HER THERAPISTS AND DOCTORS WERE! They counted her out before she even started. Nobody bothered to find out if the child liked school, which is where she was having concentration problems or if she liked to write or do her homework, which may well be why she dropped her pen. They also didn’t consider the fact that practicing the violin could improve her motor skills and concentration. Naturally, the mother listened to the child’s medical squad and gave up the violin. Now THAT’S failure.

I doubt this little girl would have ever achieved great heights in music, but that isn’t the point. The idea was to give her an activity in which she could participate without a grade, comparison or being made to feel different from the others and which she could do at her own pace. Her mother listened instead to the authoritative voices of her child’s medical team which made pronouncements and assumptions without considering that maybe the child would like to play the violin at whatever level she was capable of. And not one of them called me to ask my opinion or even ask for information.

People will often offer advice on what we should or should not do, which we can choose to follow or ignore. However, the authority of doctors and therapists gives their advice a special weight. Therefore, I would invite them to be especially careful not to make quick judgements on what someone can and cannot do, not to presume that their own often lofty ideas of success and failure are universal constants, and, above all, to never ever underestimate the indomitable human spirit.

The opportunity to play a musical instrument should not be denied to anybody who wants to try. As with my Facebook “friend,” you just never know………….

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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1 November 2016

3 thoughts on “Who Gets to Decide Who Plays the Violin?

  1. Luis

    Thanks for share Your Wisdom, profesional as human. Your text provide us a valuable tools to learn, to teaching, and to live.

  2. gipsika

    A wonderful post! Not everyone gets involved in music in order to become the next Paganini. People who don’t understand that don’t have the first clue about the vast healing power of music.


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