Strong, lively violin notes drifted through the crowds at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum at their 20th birthday party in June. Since this was Bach and not “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie,” I had to do a double-take on the young musician: a boy barely big enough to describe as a wisp of a thing.
So I sat on the museum steps, next to his mom, Robyn Avalon, and watched her son Phoenix play. He performed solo, small thin fingers vibrating confidently on his one-eighth sized violin, golden hair swept back from his gentle face. Not quite four feet tall, he wore a white ruffled shirt, black pants, shiny black shoes, and a real cummerbund, “squeezed as tight as it can get,” his mother laughed.
Phoenix stopped for a break. He’s 8 years old, he answered. How long has he been playing? Since he was 3.
“So tell me,” I asked, looking between mother and son, implying no judgment: “How does a 3-year-old start playing violin? Does he decide it’s something he wants to do, or does an adult decide to sign him up for lessons?”
Phoenix rested his violin in the crook of his arm and leaned against his mother, as she explained. When he was a year and a half old, she took Phoenix and his older brother, Lucian, to a Santa Fe Pro Musica concert for children. Before the show, kids were invited to try special child-sized instruments. Phoenix picked up a “pint-sized violin,” as Robyn recalled, and held it against his chest upside-down, covering almost the whole length of his body. He ran the bow across the strings for several minutes.
“It was extraordinary,” Robyn said. “You could see there was something going on. He looked mesmerized. He made these nice, long scratchy notes, but he made sound just fine.”
When the concert was about to start and children were asked to put down the instruments, Phoenix didn’t want to let go. He no longer remembers this incident, but his mother may never forget her toddler’s outcry: “I WUV the VIOWIN!”
That wouldn’t be the last of it.
Robyn and her partner Katherine got Phoenix a toy violin, which he slept with at night like a stuffed animal, but he wanted the real thing; “Can I play yet? Can I play yet?” he kept asking.
“So we started looking around for people who would teach a young child violin,” Robyn said. They found the Santa Fe Talent Education, a Suzuki-method school that takes children ages 3 and up. “Am I 3 yet?” he asked for the next year or so until at last, on the week of his third birthday, he started lessons.
“He hasn’t fallen out of love with it yet,” Robyn said.
Break over, Phoenix tucked a piece of felt between his chin and his violin and resumed playing. At 8, he is already building a diverse musical repertoire and a foundation of performance experience. Throughout the summer, he busks at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, earning tips that helped pay for the next-size violin. When he’s done performing, he donates something back to the Farmer’s Market and gets a Sno-Cone.
Watching Phoenix play, his face relaxed and totally focused, I thought about the awesome, sobering power we have as parents to nurture or smother our children’s dreams. Sometimes, once in a precious while, a child puts forth a passion that will stay with them through life. We’re entrusted with guarding that interest, to hold like a tiny bird in the cup of our palm. Will we encourage it to grow and take flight? Toss it aside with a dismissive put-down? Crush it with criticism? Or overlook it in the flood of everyday details? The way we respond will shape the adults our children will become.
“I’m tired,” Phoenix told his mom after he finished his second 45-minute set. She stood up and we said quick goodbyes. Watching them go outside for a piece of the museum’s birthday cake, I felt a tender gratitude to Robyn and her partner Katherine for spotting a toddler’s dream, and letting it lead.
Contact Claudette Sutton at email@example.com.