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6 May 2020

Larry doesn’t want to practise the violin. I know I should back off, but today, I can’t

He slumps and glares. “I’m not doing it.”

By Alice O'Keeffe

“Come on, let’s just do it one more time.”

Ten-year-old Larry sprawls back on the bed, scowling at me. He is gripping his violin as if he’s about to hit me with it.

“No. I don’t want to.”

I reach out and stroke his hair. “Come on, Larry. Stand up.

Husband and I have set the bar low when it comes to home schooling. If all four of us get through this a) alive and b) sane, it’s job done as far as we are concerned. Lockdown is the school of life; any academic education that might occur is a bonus. Husband does a bit of maths and English with the boys in the mornings, while I’m working. The only thing I have managed to stick to consistently is helping them practise music.

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This has been a bit of a surprise to me. I’m no great musician, but I’ve always loved playing and singing. Turns out that, when the chips are down, learning an instrument is the one thing I consider essential. I can’t imagine a life without music – I really want my children to have that skill. It is the one that I’m not prepared to let this crisis steal from them. But it is also hard, and frustrating. 

Learning an instrument requires focus and resilience. You have to be completely present with what you are doing. You have to be prepared to make a mistake and go back and try again, and again, and again. And that’s not easy when you are bored and pissed-off after weeks and weeks stuck at home with only your parents and your kid brother for company.

Larry is really over it now. Any novelty there might have once been in not going to school wore off long ago. Moe is constantly getting on his nerves, and even chatting to his friends online – which he loved at first – is no longer fun. They’re tired of doing quizzes, and nobody has anything to say. Larry is usually a chatty kid. But recently I’ve watched a kind of dullness settle over him, like a heavy old coat.

I sit down next to him. “I know things are hard at the moment. I totally understand that. But you don’t want to start the day feeling defeated. You will feel better if you’ve worked through this. So let’s stand up, take a deep breath, and we’re going to play that line one more time.”

He slumps and glares. “I’m not doing it.”

The knotty question, in teaching your kids music, is when to push, and when to back off. In general, it’s best to leave it when they are not in the mood; the last thing you want is for music to become a chore, or a battle. But part of learning is being prepared to persevere through difficulties. And in the current circumstances that feels particularly important. I want Larry to know that he can rise to a challenge; that even in lockdown, he can grow.

“Yes, you are doing it. Stand up. Right now.” My voice has risen. This is almost certainly when I should walk away. But this morning I can’t. I can’t bear to see him slumping there, as though he has given up. I grab him by the shoulders, and look him right in the eyes. “You cannot just give in when you hit a problem,” I say. I have no idea whether I am still talking about the music. “You know what to do when you feel like you can’t? Stand up taller. Lift your head. Tell yourself that you can, and try again. Do it. Now. Try again.”

By now I am definitely sounding less like an inspiring musician and more like the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. Larry’s scowl has hardened into a death stare. We have passed the point at which any good can come of this conversation. I know I should leave it and walk away. But I can’t.

“Now!” I shout.

He doesn’t move. He’s not going to do it; he was never going to do it. “Right, get out. Go on, get out.” I snatch the violin out of his hands and shove him roughly off the bed. He stomps out of the room and slams the door. 

For a moment, I want to put the violin to my shoulder and play it myself; something passionate and mournful, to get it out of my system. But the truth is I can’t be bothered, either. 

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain