The Art of the Response: Travailing the emotional roller-coaster of the young musician

A supportive parent is sometimes the hardest role to play in a young musician’s life; I should know (commence sigh…) I was once a young musician and a parent of a young flutist, as well as a flute teacher. But, as a parent, after any event, concert, recital, or competition, I tried so hard to say the right thing and, so many times, my good intentions fell flat! It led me to wonder why.

When I was a young flutist, criticism from loved ones made me very upset. I was hard enough on myself. When I asked my daughter “How did it go?” after a competition, tears welled-up as she could only remember her mistakes. My students often feel like they are disturbing the family when they are practicing. We, as parents, need to open the lines of communication with our aspiring musicians while staying out of the way and always being present. But how?

For over twenty years, I worked with counselors, interviewed students, and read books that were written to help parents of “intense” or “gifted” children. I realized that sometimes a parent’s responses can land on stressed receptors which often creates unintended reactions. Whoops. “How should I have responded?” Through research, experience, and application, here are eight responses that are child, parent, and counselor approved (teachers, these could work for you, too) to strengthen communication, respond with meaning, and provide security with your young flutist on their musical journey.

  • Ask “What do you need from me?”
    There are so many events, competitions, chair tests, grades, pass-offs, etc. that occur throughout the year. Most young flutists put so much pressure on themselves that any more pressure from the outside can be crushing. If your flutist is self-motivated…or not…ask them at the beginning of the year or as an event is looming how you can best support them.

  • “My ears are ready, my mouth is closed, my heart is open”
    Make yourself available for “practicing to perform.” Whether it is their very first chair test or college audition, your young flutist needs to know that you are open to being a non-judgmental audience/guinea pig. Every musician needs a trial run to perform what they have been working on. After the performance, if they ask you a specific question about what you heard, answer with as few of words as possible or with an “Honest Oreo”: One thing you enjoyed, one critique, another thing you enjoyed overall.

  • How did it make you feel?
    “Good job” can get you into big trouble because it is judgmental and you could evoke a mental response from your flutist reminding them of everything that they did wrong. Instead of saying “Good job” or “You did so well,” let them know how their performance made you feel. Of course you are proud; saying that you are proud is something everyone needs to hear, but beyond that, what would make a lasting impact is to tell them what you experienced while listening to their music. Even during practicing I used to say: “It makes me so happy when I am unloading the dishwasher and I hear you playing your flute! The work goes so fast!” Many of my students, as they leave for college, hear for the first time from their parents: “I am going to miss your practicing so much.” Let them know before they go!

  • A silent hug and an unending smile
    After a big performance or competition, a loss, a win, it doesn’t matter. The adrenaline rush is over, the anticipation complete, the nerves are fried, and “if only they could go back and do it again…” In the moments after a performance, most of the time, a young musician has so many words, feelings, and self-critiques going through their head that all they really need is a calming presence and a strong, silent hug in lieu of any congratulatory responses or uplifting words in the moments after the performance. A WOW! and a big hug if they really nailed it is always acceptable, though.

  • “I am here when you are ready to share what you experienced”
    Be patient and let them talk. After a competition or performance, questioning your flutist about everything can be annoying and overwhelming. To bombard them with questions, responses, or…dare I say…critiques, requires the child to take care of your emotions, and in-turn, distracts them from their joy or compounds their dismay with your disappointment. Allow them talk about it when they are ready; I can’t tell you how many times I had a big smile and said, “How did it go?” and the answer was a tear-filled, “Terrible!” (even though she ended up succeeding). If this happens, the best thing to say is, “I am here when you are ready to share your experience.” Self-judgement and critique is always harshest in an intense, self-motivated, high-aptitude child.

  • “You Play! We are good!”
    Give them space. At home, provide them with the mental security of a “safe” space to practice** So many students have great apprehension when it comes to “disturbing their family.” Let them know that they can play as loud, as high, as many times, and as long as they need. Flutists must learn to play strong and high (in addition to everything else). Encourage repetition, third octave playing, piccolo practice; let them know that practicing things they can’t play is not noise-pollution!
    ** If this is not possible at home, work out a time at school to practice.

  • “Will my schedule give you enough time to practice?”
    Give them time. If you have plans, let them know so you can help them find the time to practice, even if it is first thing in the morning before school or at 10 pm at night. Every family schedule and needs will be different, it is just important to communicate about making time for them to practice as much as they need; this can fluctuate from week to week. It might encourage more practicing to let them know “Here are the times that I need you (this week, etc). Will this give you enough time to practice?”

  • About: “I am so proud of you” (I must include one controversial topic, right?):
    Posting your child’s successes on social media can have a negative impact on your young flutist even though your intentions are sound. It not only sets-up expectations for future success, but it can feel to them that you only post when they are successful; that their effort, talent, passion, and ability doesn’t matter if they don’t win.  Please talk with your child before posting about their performances/competitions on social media. With all due respect, posting is for you, not them. Let them post if they want to. It is their success.

So, how did it go?
Good job!
Did you get what you needed but didn’t ask for?

See what I did there?

This is not about me. I don’t want your praise, critique, opinion, or judgement; I want to create effective communication between you and your child so you both can travel together in harmony on their musical journey.

Books of interest:

  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (The How To Talk Series by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults by Susan Daniels and Michael M. Piechowski

About the Author, Rebecca Cauthron:

Rebecca Cauthron is an adjunct flute professor at Dallas College Mountain View Campus (7 years), flute instructor at Duncanville ISD (25 years), and is in her first year teaching in the Austin area. She also teaches early childhood music, performs with local ensembles, was a founding developer of the NFA’s Youth Flute Day, and has written The Potential Contender, which bridges the gap from elementary music to an intermediate flutist.