One Family's Search for Harmony
by Chris Mahar
Bow hairs find strings, fingers find their first note, and we all look to Pearl, our first violinist and my 9-year-old daughter. She gathers up our eyes, checks that we're all ready, inhales slightly, raises and then dips her scroll to signal our start. We begin our song.
Family harmony is at the core of homeschooling and it's one of the first things I talk about with new homeschoolers. It takes a high degree of peace and compatibility to spend so much time together and to live and learn in such close proximity. I tell new homeschoolers that they should be best friends with your kids, because they're going to see a lot of each other. Our family has found our sense of harmony by playing together as a string quartet.It all began when our daughter, Pearl, (mom and daughter are both named Pearl) started violin lessons when she was 5. We bought her a 1/4-size violin, and found a Suzuki teacher. I had an old full size violin, passed down from an uncle, though I'd never learned to play. Suzuki method requires the parent to learn along with the child, so I started fiddling around. I'd never had music lessons, but I attended all of Pearl's and practiced along with her. In the beginning I managed to stay ahead of her. That's long since changed.
A few months later our music school invited the family to a demo of instruments taught at the school. The Suzuki Cello teacher had a tiny cello, 1/8th size, and Alyssa decided it was for her. She had attended many of her big sister's lessons, and wanted to participate. She was not quite 4 years old at the time.We were all beginners, and couldn't play together for some time. After a few months of lessons we learned our first harmony, a simple duet of “Twinkle Twinkle,” which is a staple of Suzuki. As the 3 of us played together, the 2 violins harmonizing and the little cello belting out “Twinkle” an octave below, the notion occurred to us that Mom should join in. We realized all we needed was a violist and we'd have all the parts for a string quartet. But she was not impressed when we suggested she take up the viola.
Mom didn't think she could learn to play the viola, so Pearl, Alyssa and I began to plot our strategy to change her mind. We started by learning duets and trios, then played them for mom, grandparents, friends, the cats, and whoever would sit still long enough for us to get tuned up. We would quietly prepare then parade into the bedroom in the evening and play a concert for mom, complete with ensembles and solos, minuets and lullabies. Slowly she softened up to the idea of joining us. We remained determined.The viola is like a violin, but larger and lower in tone. It is played just like a violin, and has a wonderful deep, rich sound. But Pearl Sr. was convinced she just couldn't do it. She'd never had music lessons, and the idea of learning an instrument as an adult was intimidating. So we worked on persuading her.
She was finally converted to the idea after we attended a symphony where a wonderful young violin soloist, Corey Cerovsek, played Wieniawski (pronounced Vin-yov-ski) in front of a full orchestra. During the intermission our violin teacher, who was a second violinist in the orchestra came down into the audience, held our daughter's hand and talked with us. After intermission the young soloist performed Carmen Fantasy and dazzled us with his virtuosity. As far as I'm concerned, the man was enchanted, because on the drive home Pearl said, "Maybe I could try the viola. Go ahead and buy one and I'll give it a shot." Little did she know that I had already ordered an instrument for her, delivered to my parent's house as a Christmas surprise. That had worked out nicely.After the first few months we could play together, but we were all playing the same notes. We needed a quartet song with harmonies. Choosing music isn't easy for such a group. It has to have 4 separate harmonizing parts, and be simple enough for all our skill levels. We settled on the string version of the old hymn, 'Nearer My God To Thee' from the recent hit movie Titanic, and it turned out to be a good song for us. With help from our violin and cello teachers, we came up with an arrangement that simplified the bowing and fingering. For a long time we played only at home when (we hoped) no one was listening. After a time we would play our song for visitors, family, friends, the neighbors and anyone who would listen. We only knew that one song, but each time we played it we became more confident, and we never passed up an audience. The first time we played as a quartet at grandma's house, she cried. It wasn't because the music was bad, although she's been a tenor with Sweet Adelines her whole life and is intimately familiar with four-part harmony, so musically she could have found many flaws. But the reality of having her son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters playing together in her living room for the first time brought tears. When you make someone cry with your music, you've touched his or her heart, and we were happy to touch hers.
Our first performance before non-family was at a coffeehouse where we performed our one little hymn. Pearl and I were more nervous than the girls, who have grown so used to performing in front of people that it doesn't distress them in the slightest. The girls did fine, but my bow shook. Somehow we made it through the song and got a nice round of applause and an invitation to play at our local library.If you watch closely while any non-conducted ensemble performs, you'll see tiny signals; lots of eye contact, subtle movement of instruments, bows and bodies to transmit cues, dynamics and timing to the other players. Certain sections must be performed exactly together with our most precise bowing. Our notes must harmonize, so we're constantly and intensely listening to each other. The value of the knowledge we gain when we learn each other's personal quirks, cues and communication styles during rehearsal and performance helps us blend, both on and off stage.
Playing together as a quartet has forced our family to harmonize in ways that have nothing to do with music. There's so much more to playing in a group than just playing the notes, but never having been in a musical group, Pearl and I were surprised by the unexpected benefits. For as long as we want our performance or rehearsal to be successful, we have to step out of our role as parents and become fellow musicians with our children. We must relate to each other on an equal footing, since no part of our music is more important than any other. We're motivated to be polite and consistently respectful, especially when criticizing each other's play. There's no mom or dad in a string quartet, nor is there a conductor -- only four musicians. We must make decisions by vote or consensus. Any hard feelings or resentment inevitably comes out in the music. We have to relate to each other musically, but how we behave when we are not playing is what truly determines our success.Making music together has expanded our relationships with each other, and given us a sense of intimacy and shared sensitivity. As we play together, we are unified in purpose and vividly aware of each other and of each person's job in the group. If Alyssa stumbles in her cello part, or I fall down on my supporting notes to Pearl's melody, it's instantly apparent by the hole in the music. We depend on each other and must be in tune with each other, both musically and otherwise.
Learning a musical instrument as an adult is usually considered an intimidating task. In truth, both girls have better technique, better bowing, and more musical sensitivity than Pearl or I. They learn new songs faster and memorize them easier. Pearl and I struggle to keep up with them but in a world where grown-ups are better at nearly everything, our children surpass us in this. I think it's good for them to truly be better than us at something.We know many homeschooling families who are learning to play strings, and in nearly every family a parent is learning along with their children. One of these families play together as a quartet, with mom and three kids all playing violin. We participate in orchestra with several homeschool families; play together at our support group recitals, talent shows and music school performances. We've held recitals, musical evenings and co-op practice sessions at each other's homes, all the while building friendships and bonds that extend well beyond music. Music has honestly brought us together and changed our lives.
Pearl and Alyssa are now 9 and 7 years old. The four of us play in a beginning orchestra, we're improving our music-reading skills and learning the discipline of playing with a large group. We have all the same problems as any family with kids in music lessons: Getting them to practice, staying motivated and getting out the door on time for lessons. Pearl and I must also create our own practice time and coordinate rehearsal time for the quartet into our busy homeschool schedule. This will only become more difficult as our kids reach their teen years. One thing we've learned is that if we leave our instruments out, we practice much more than if we store them in their cases all the time. So as soon as we get home from lessons or performances, we unpack our instruments and set them on modified guitar stands for the cellos, or home-built racks on the walls to hold the violins and viola.Our third child, Jared, is 18 months old. He already wants to join us in making music, but so far his efforts are mostly in the percussion section. We hope he decides to play piano to compliment our quartet, as there's a lot of great piano quintet music. Possibly by the time he's old enough to play piano we'll be good enough to play with him. For now, having a toddler cruising between the music stands makes rehearsals slightly more challenging, but it's worth it to watch his face light up when we play our songs that he's so familiar with.
After playing together as a quartet for 2 years, with several more songs in our repertoire, we still play 'Nearer My God To Thee', and we have yet to learn anything from the classic string quartet literature. That will come. For now we're content to learn simple songs, develop our skills and build memories. Music breaks during our homeschool day, duets and trios in the front yard, evening rehearsals when I get home from work, and the glow of applause and congratulations after a performance are all pleasant moments we and the kids will look back on long after they've left the nest.Chris Mahar is second violin in the nearly world famous Mahar Family String Quartet. When not performing, he does fourth-finger exercises in meetings, practices vibrato while driving, and works on bowing patterns while humming idly to himself. He learns with his wife and three children in Peoria, AZ and can be reached at email@example.com