I’m a little late commenting on this, but I still think it’s an issue worth addressing. Last month there was a minor scandal over an incident in a Farmington, New Mexico school orchestra program, where a beginning violinist was informed that she would not be allowed to use her own, um, unique instrument. Most of the reporting on the story took a similar tone to that employed by the Los Angeles Times:
The gift violin was a surprise from her grandmother. The color was purple, the girl’s favorite.
Lopez encouraged her daughter to stand up for what she believed in. “I told her, ‘Camille, you’re not like everyone else. We’re all different.'”
“She’s done with the orchestra class,” Lopez said. “She switched out. She no longer plays.”
Lopez said she’ll never know whether the decision ended the career of a budding Yo-Yo Ma. “I’d pay for private lessons if I could afford them,” Lopez said. “But it doesn’t matter now, I guess. Camille is taking choir now.”
The Times story sets up the uninformed reader for outrage: an underprivileged but spunky girl, a gift from a grandmother, stifled individuality, personal “beliefs” under attack, abandoned dreams, and a stodgy, stuffy establishment.
But a more careful reading of the Times story reveals some details that won’t escape the attention of music educators.
The budding violinist’s mother, on the teacher’s appraisal of the colorful instrument:
“…She had to keep tuning it, suggesting it was a piece-of-crap violin,” said Lopez…
And on uniformity of appearance:
Lopez lobbied district officials to no avail. … “In this orchestra, they won’t even let the kids wear white socks — they all have to be black. One school officials [sic] told me that, ‘What if one of our football players wanted to wear a bright helmet? We just can’t allow it.'”
My sympathies here lie squarely with the orchestra teacher. It’s all too easy to imagine how this scenario could have played out in my own private studio:
Well-intentioned but uninformed parent: I found this purple saxophone for my child on eBay. I got a really great deal, way cheaper than the ones the band director recommended! Plus, it’s her favorite color!
Bret Pimentel: I’m so pleased that you and your child are so excited about the saxophone. But I’m afraid I have some bad news: the pads on this instrument do not seal like they should, and the keywork is severely out of adjustment. It’s just not playable in this condition. Plus, none of the repair shops will fix it because it’s made of inferior materials that break under the normal strains of routine maintenance. I feel terrible that this happened to you; unfortunately there are a lot of these purple instruments out there, and they just aren’t any good.
WIBUP: Purple is no good? Why do you hate purple?
BP: No, no, there’s nothing wrong with purple, exactly. It’s just that none of the current makers of usable saxophones are making purple instruments, so the color is a red flag, so to speak. Besides, the color is very bright and attention-getting, which could make your child stand out inappropriately in the school band’s performances.
WIBUP: What? Let me guess, next you’re going to tell me my child isn’t allowed to wear whatever she wants for concerts. You’re taking away everything that makes her special!
My reading of the situation is that a conscientious orchestra director identified an unusable violin (one that wouldn’t hold its tuning and had an uncharacteristic tone), after giving it more than a fair trial. (Another article seems to indicate that the student was, at first, permitted to use the purple instrument.) And this educator’s syllabus, no doubt, includes a very detailed section on appropriate concert dress, including, yes, black socks.
A purple violin does stand out in a crowd of plain brown, and I think an ensemble director has the right to demand a reasonable level of visual uniformity (a sports coach would never be questioned for requiring the team to wear identical helmets). But I don’t think the visual effect is the real problem. If a maker of high-quality student violins started turning out colorful instruments, and this motivated students and parents to buy something really nice, I think we would see a lot of school orchestra directors quite happy to have a rainbow in the violin section. The problem is that the visually appealing (to some, I suppose) violin in question is likely to motivate students toward instruments of insufficient quality: the Times article indicates classmates’ reactions along the lines of “Oh, that’s so cool. I wish we all had purple violins.” Add to this the appeal of bargain-basement prices for parents whose budgets are already stretched thin. I can only imagine an orchestra director’s horror as the whole violin section forgoes decent student violins for shoddy ones that happen to be brightly colored.
There are a great many instrument-shaped objects on eBay and other sites, and in big-box and warehouse stores. Make no mistake: these are toys, not real instruments. But they look very much like instruments, and novices aren’t able to tell the difference.
It’s difficult to really blame parents, who are used to shopping online and at discount stores to buy everything from groceries to clothes to electronics at low prices, and don’t know enough to realize the pitfalls of buying musical instruments at those same trusted spots. The guidance of a qualified teacher—like, I suspect, the sainted person teaching beginning orchestra in Farmington, New Mexico—is crucial for getting kids of any age off to a good start in their musical pursuits.