The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 10, 2009


When my child started music lessons, I learned something too

“Hot Cross Buns.” “Jingle Bells.” “Au Clair de la Lune.” With their three-scale tones and measured quarter-note repetition, the songs march through my head, one after another, and then start again. Where once I prepared dinner against a background accompaniment of NPR news or Brandenburg concertos, now it’s do-re-mi, mi-re-do resounding through the house as I chop and stir. As a fourth-grader, my son became eligible for the school’s instrumental music program this year, so the sounds of his daily practice rings in my ears whether I want it to or not.

I hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like for Tim to begin learning an instrument. As fourth grade began, talk among the parents was all about who was choosing which instrument – and why. I confess that we nudged Tim toward the trumpet because it was the one instrument we already owned – a relic from my husband’s high school years – and the choice simply seemed economical, though I could have easily been persuaded to choose a different instrument based on size and weight. During much of the year my kids and I walk or bike to school, and the idea of an instrument that could be carried in a backpack had its own appeal for that reason.

Witnessing the kids choose their instruments turned out to be the first fascinating step in the process. A friend admitted to me that she fully expected her daughter, who loves dresses, nail polish and other girly accoutrements, to go with the delicate and bird-like flute; instead, her daughter chose a loud, heavy brass instrument. Kids who generally conform were attracted to the less popular instruments; some who tend to be ringleaders at recess chose a place way back in the percussion section.

Whether influenced by us or not, Tim opted for the trumpet, though when he first took it out of its dusty case, he found it nearly impossible to create any sound. After his first lesson, we found out the reason: the last time my husband put the trumpet away, 25 years ago, he’d reassembled it incorrectly. Tim’s music teacher had no trouble fixing the problem, and Tim was on his way: “buzzing” with his lips, fingering the valves and learning the difference between a half rest and a quarter rest.

Happy to let his music teacher control this particular aspect of his life, I take a generally hands-off approach to his instruction. I remind him about daily practice and sometimes sit in to listen, but for the most part I consider this to be an area of his life that he can choose to pursue or abandon on his own, and that in itself feels like a luxury. When he started baseball, I lobbed countless underhand pitches his way; for school projects I’m always deployed to collect the necessary art supplies. This is a new development, and very liberating, to leave something up to him to oversee.

So when I sat down for the fourth graders’ first concert last December, I had a big surprise. It wasn’t their tone quality: the music was okay, not bad after two months of instruction but not anything you’d mistake for, well, more than two months of instruction. What surprised me was the hush on stage, the attention they devoted to their director, the self-discipline they all showed in sitting still and following along. I’ve known many of these kids since they were three years old; the winter concert was the longest interlude I’d ever seen some of them sit in one place. I was suitably impressed.

It occurred to me then that there’s so much more to music instruction than learning to play an instrument. There’s the discipline of daily practice, the frustration of being able to hear one thing in your head and another coming out of your instrument, the solidarity of learning within a small group of peers. There’s the acknowledgment that some kids are picking it up faster than you are, and the occasional temptation to give up entirely. And there’s the triumph over that temptation when you realize that you’re improving, and that you’re beginning to like the way this sounds and feels.

Last night, I had yet another surprise. I sent Tim up to practice amidst only mild protests; then I heard a melody I didn’t recognize wafting down the stairs, pure strong notes that varied in length and moved up and down the scale. “Real music,” I couldn’t help thinking.

Our school has a long tradition of creating accomplished young musicians. It was not something I’d assumed my kids would follow, but the idea that Tim might is tantalizing to me. With “Hot Cross Buns” well behind us, it’s exciting to think of what lies ahead: more concerts, musical competitions, or just the ongoing fun of developing a skill. This time no one is asking me to pitch balls, gather supplies or help in any way. I get to sit in the audience. And it’s a really appealing change. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito