Music and secondary school boys

My eldest plays the violin. He’s been playing it since year 3 and he’s not as brilliant as you’d expect for someone who’s been playing for nearly six years. He got pretty good in year 6. He was enthusiastic and played every day. He passed his Grade 1 with Merit. He did his Grade 2 last year (in year 8), but it was more of a struggle for him – a struggle to find the motivation to practise, that is. He’s now plodding very slowly towards Grade 3, which I’m guessing he won’t do until year 10.
He cannot find the energy, enthusiasm or motivation to practise, preferring to sit watching DVDs, playing on the Xbox, reading or anything other than playing violin. I think he only needs to do five minutes a day, just to keep on top of it, or two or three longer practises a week. But he won’t do it. I couldn’t even interest him in a YouTube tutorial by Jon from the Levellers (he loves the Levellers almost as much as me) to learn to play Beautiful Day. Yet he says he doesn’t want to give up.
Recently his violin teacher and I have become almost pen pals – as she emails to tell me he needs to practise more as he’s struggling with a piece, he needs to hand a letter back in or even to politely request payment. And I do my best. I really do. But you can’t make a boy play violin. You also can’t make him give you a letter. He gave me a letter on 28th November to sign, which should have been handed back in by 21st. I signed it immediately, he left it on the table and went off to school without it.
I’ve now taken to emailing the teacher to tell her I’ve given him a cheque or signed a letter, so she should just ask him for it. Because even when he does take the letters and cheques, he forgets to give them to her.
Despite all this, I was looking forward to seeing him play at the Christmas concert. He had fallen behind with his practise, but eventually got his act together and got the piece more or less right. He played in two groups – a group of year 7-9s and a bigger group of all the violin players in the school. He used to play in the junior orchestra, but he’s dropped out this year. When I asked him why, he said it’s because it’s ‘full of boffin girls’.
Over the last year or so my son has developed a negative attitude towards ‘boffins’ and ‘geeks’. It’s not an attitude I like and it’s not one that I think is the real him. He is amused by kids who mess around and disrupt the class (although it’s not something he would ever do himself, his worst failing is disorganisation and a slightly lazy attitude). He doesn’t want to associate with ‘boffins’ and ‘geeks’ because it’s not cool. I’ve told him that when they’re all grown up, it’ll be the boffins and geeks who are the cool ones. They’ll be the ones with the good jobs and the nice houses while the ‘cool kids’ who mess around will have crap jobs or no jobs. And that’s not so cool.
The violin group walked onto the stage at the Christmas concert.
‘Where are the boys?’ whispered my husband (although not whispered quite as quietly as I would have liked). ‘There are no boys!’
There was one boy other than my son in the smaller group, a year 8. In the full group there was also a couple of big boys – year 11s or sixth formers, but there was A LOT of girls.
‘I get it now!’ says my husband.
He can see where my son gets this attitude about the violin, practise and the orchestra from. Because there are no boys. He feels outnumbered and left out. We admire him for sticking with it in the face of that, but don’t want him to use being one of very few boys as an excuse to not join in. Being able to play music is a great skill to have (one which neither my husband nor I has), and one which shouldn’t be thrown away just because it’s not cool or you don’t fit in.
The school seems to be one that really values and embraces music and there seems to be a lot of kids who play, and play very well, but where are the boys? Boys play music at primary school, so why aren’t they still doing it at secondary school? Does the school do enough to support them not to to give up?
In my opinion, and I’m a past-it 41 year old woman, not a ‘cool’ teenager, the really cool ones are the ones who stand up and say: ‘Who cares that people don’t think it’s cool, who cares that it’s a bit geeky, I’m going to play music, I’m going to enjoy it and I’m going to be proud of it.’
This is one of the many reasons why we’re glad our younger son is going to grammar school and we hope our daughter will too. We don’t want our talented kids to be held back by other’s perceptions or a need to fit in. At grammar school, the aspirations will be so much higher and the ‘fitting in’ will be with other talented kids, not with kids who want to muck around and frown on hard work.

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. My son started playing in Primary School – he started with a violin and could not make it sound how he knew it should and got frustrated. Then he tried trombone and piano- and it turned out that was what he loved. He continued through Senior School and 6th form and there was a good mix of boys and girls. It’s weird how it’s seen as geeky when there’s so many different types of music.
    Maybe the violin is not actually your son’s instrument…maybe he should be doing the saxophone…. I do think if he’s not going to knuckle down there’s no point in keeping paying for it.
    My son is a very good musician and I think music is important, but you have to find the right thing.

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    • Thanks very much, Stella. It’s inspiring to read how well your son has done. I think changing instruments sounds like a good idea, but my son insists he likes playing and doesn’t want to give up, but I’m not seeing the evidence of this!
      There’s no logic to what teenagers find geeky and I think what is socially acceptable in one school can be completely unacceptable in another!

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  2. I suppose nowadays, children tend to want to play cool electronic instruments – guitar or drums, which are more lonely or played in bands rather than large groups. I know in my secondary our wind band and orchestras were pretty much 50/50. It’s strange how there’s suddenly a change from primary to secondary and very sad, because there’s so many benefits to playing….especially if there’s a tour and the kids get to go away without parents. Could you imagine the opportunity for girls when there’s only a couple of boys in the group! (probably not what you want to hear as a mum, but funny how kids don’t think of these things).

    It’s a hard one to solve, but I know what you mean on the grammar school front. We’re just in catchment, but even if N was clever enough to pass 11+, we do live some way away so he’d have to score massively to get in over others further out, unless he continues his love of music and does well in sports. I am a tad concerned that most of the instruments our local schools teach seem to be ukelele (hardly a good orchestral instrument with lots of opportunity for playing in a group and learning good skills that way) or similar ‘funky modern’ instruments rather than the classical ones.

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    • Thanks very much for taking the time over such a detailed comment. It’s interesting how things have changed so much since your day (I never played music, so I don’t know what they were like in our day!). Boys definitely do have more of a tendency towards guitar and drums, but he has never expressed an interest in those – or in giving up violin!
      Where we live, the catchment carries no weighting with grammar school – they just have to pass the exam whether they live next door to the school or 40 miles away (people will genuinely travel that far to get to the school my son is going to go to!).
      There’s a fair amount of ukele at our school too – I guess it’s an instrument that can just be picked up and played very easily.

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  3. I thought the post was going to head that way! The grammar point is interesting – it’s great you have that option, we live nowhere near a grammar so it will be the choice of two regular secondary schools for us. I have panics over this and the whole aspirations and knuckling down and fitting in elements. I hope he keeps it up – it’s a rare skill to have 🙂

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    • Thanks very much. Strangely, I think he will keep it up as, even though he hardly practises, he doesn’t seem to want to give up either! I guess if you’ve got no grammar schools it levels the playing field rather. I must say his school seems good for the right kind of kid, but they need to be self-motivated as the school doesn’t seem to push or challenge kids. At grammar school, kids will always be challenged.

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  4. My son is 13 at the end of this month and yr8 at senior school, he goes to an all boys state non selective school. He passed the 11+ but we decided not to apply for the school as there is only one near us with a huge catchment and it is a long way for him to go each day, involving 2 buses and over an hours journey each way (not including rush hour traffic).

    He also started violin in yr 3 and continued for a while, but as much as he was ok at it, he didn’t really enjoy it and so changed to guitar and piano and he loves it. I like another comment above, don’t see the point in paying for lessons if he’s not playing or practising to his full capabilities.

    With regards to state v grammar, I feel you made a few sweeping assumptions there, I have an older son who went through non selective state and now my almost 13yr old. The older sounds similar to your son in that he was fascinated by the ‘naughty’ boys and girls and wanting to keep a low profile and not be outed as geek, however ds2 really couldn’t care less what others think of him, he’s himself and if people don’t like it tough. He will comment back if anyone calls him a geek/nerd and I’m so glad that he has the confidence in himself to be strong in the face of others.

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    • Thanks very much for your comments. It’s good to hear that your 13yo has found music he is happy to play. I am really torn with my son as I do feel I’m wasting money as he won’t practise, but he is adamant he doesn’t want to give up!
      Of course, different schools work differently for different kids. I’m sure my younger kids would have a different experience to my eldest at his school as they are different personalities. I admire your younger son for being himself and being strong, but unfortunately my son isn’t like that and sadly I don’t think he’s in quite the right environment for him.

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  5. That is really interesting, I have had similar issues with mine, The teen played the guitar and really enjoyed it (although hated practising) and gave up when he moved to secondary as he didn’t want to stand out. R was brilliant at the piano but the lessons were so expensive and he wasn’t practising at all so in the end we chatted to him about it and he decided to give up. It was a shame but he does so many other things that something had to go. L seems to like playing and is taken with the guitar and A has just started the piano. I think it is so sad how kids are perceived to be geeky or otherwise when the play an instrument, I bet there are lots of adults who gave up in the teenage years and wish that they had continued.

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    • Thanks very much. I bet there are! I never played an instrument, but I wish I had done. And I certainly wish I hadn’t given up dancing when I was 7!
      It’s good to hear that your boys have been similar, although it’s sad too. Here’s hoping L sticks with it and good luck to A with her piano lessons!

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