SparkNotes Blog

Auntie SparkNotes: My Parents Are Making Me Study Music

Dear Auntie SparkNotes,

I’m a senior in high school, and for almost my whole life, I’ve played violin. I’m home schooled so I can practice more and travel to competitions. My parents have always been my biggest supporters and pushed me to do my best. But now it’s time to go to college, and my parents are dead set that I attend a really prestigious music conservatory.

The problem is, I don’t know if I want to. I love violin and I want music to be a part of my life, but I have other interests too, primarily in math and science, and if I go to a conservatory every class will be about music (with the exception of a tiny number of humanities courses). I’m not sure if I really want to be a professional musician or music teacher, and I’m worried that graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music may limit other job prospects, especially those related to math or science.

I’ve tried discussing this with my parents but they told me I was being ungrateful because they have invested so much time and energy into my music, and if I didn’t go to a conservatory they wouldn’t pay for it or support me, even if I was still involved with music at a non-conservatory school. After talking with them I felt really really guilty, because they have given up so much: my dad works two jobs to pay for my lessons and transportation, my mom has sacrificed interests and hobbies to home-school me, and we moved away from family to be closer to my violin teacher. I’m really not in a position to be complaining. But for some reason I still feel a tiny bit angry at them, and I have a nasty nagging little feeling of discontentment.

Please Auntie, do you have any advice for getting over these feelings so I can move forward?

For starters, Sparkler, it might help you to accept that your feelings are not unusual—not just for someone in your very particular situation, but for anyone who’s been hit with a potent parental guilt-bomb that makes your natural doubts about your future feel like a betrayal of the people you love most.

Because geez, dude. Of course you’re not entirely sure about your future. Like so many kids who demonstrate an exceptional talent early on, you’ve been working, practicing, and performing in service of an eventual career in music since before you could even fathom what the word “career” actually means. It was basically inevitable that at some point, you would start to question whether this track was one you really, truly wanted to be on; it also makes sense that said point is coming at a moment in which you’re being asked to think long-term about where you want to spent the next four years.

It’s just unfortunate that the normal, natural timing of your questions is also as inconvenient and frustrating as humanly possible for your parents. And on this front, at least, we can sympathize with them. With a handful of obvious exceptions (e.g., the walking stereotypes you see on shows like “Dance Moms” who are basically living vicariously through their children), parents who put their whole lives on hold in order to support a kid’s musical/artistic/athletic ambitions aren’t doing it for themselves. They’re doing it because this is what the kid wants, and they won’t be able to achieve it unless the parents retool the whole family dynamic to make Kid’s dreams the family’s first and foremost priority. You’ve grown up this way, so of course you don’t realize how unusual it is—but for a child’s ambitions to be so front and center that the family picks up and moves just to make them happen? That’s pretty huge; it’s the kind of thing people just don’t do unless their kid is future-Olympian levels of exceptional. So, under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that your folks didn’t react all that well to you just casually dropping the news, after a decade of your entire family putting everything they had into helping you reach this goal, that you’re kinda thinking you’d rather not try. To you, that felt like a simple question of being honest about your feelings—but to your folks, it probably felt a lot like they’d wasted an unfathomable amount of energy on someone who took it all completely for granted.

Which brings us to the question of how you deal with your feelings, moving forward. And look: If you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that becoming a professional musician was not-not-NOT what you wanted, this next bit of advice would probably be different. But if I’m reading you right, that’s not the case; rather, a shadow of a doubt is all you’ve got when it comes to whether you want to stay on this path. And all that means, in the grand scheme of things, is that you’re a totally normal teenager with a totally normal level of ambivalence about what your future holds.

Which is why, if I may, I’d like to gently suggest to you that you stay on your current track and go the conservatory route—not just because of all the work your parents put in to get you this far, but because of all the work you’ve done yourself, and because it’ll cost you nothing but a little more time to actually give it a try and see if it’s right for you. Plus, going to a conservatory in no way closes you off from exploring your other interests while you’re there; there are plenty of prestigious music schools that are either contained within a larger university where you can take classes in math and science, or that have an exchange policy with another, more traditional college so that students can get a well-rounded education. You can absolutely satisfy your desires on that front while still satisfying your parents’ desire to feel like they didn’t put their lives on hold for nothing.

Meanwhile, you’re right: If you go for a BA in Music, and if you then decide that music isn’t for you, and if you then also want to pursue a career in a STEM field instead, then you would probably need to change directions and/or get some additional education in order to be a competitive candidate for jobs. But of course, that’s a lot of “ifs”—and even if they all came to pass, the worst-case scenario isn’t a lifetime of unhappiness; it’s a couple more years of school. That’s inconvenient, but it’s a small thing to risk for the sake of staying on track long enough to know that you’re making an informed decision about what you do and don’t want. Plus, if you see your and your family’s commitment to your music through just a little bit farther, you’ll be stockpiling the kind of goodwill that’ll serve you well in any event—because if you do decide that your path to fulfillment lies elsewhere, your folks are a lot more likely to support you if they see that you tried.

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