Friday, September 25, 2009

The Axeman Cometh

Or, My Family, the musical

I did not come from a particularly musical family. I grew up with a piano in my bedroom because it was the only place we had to store it, but I never saw anybody play it in the fourteen years it was there. To the best of my knowledge, my father has never played an instrument or sung a song outside of church. My mother can play the piano a bit and can sing, but it was never something that was a big part of our lives. I took two guitar lessons when I was around fourteen, but I couldn’t get past the initial pain of the strings digging into my fingertips and I promptly quit. I never seriously tried to play another instrument.

Likewise, my wife played the violin in school for a few years, but she never identified herself as a “violinist” or “musician” – it was just something she did in school, not an aspect of her character. Neither of her parents ever played an instrument.

So while my wife and I “like” music, there’s nothing that ever seemed to predispose us to making music. Imagine my surprise that two of my three kids are well on their way. My daughter isn’t playing concert halls or anything, but she took very naturally to the instrument – both learning music quickly and actually writing her own compositions at the tender age of seven. In school, she’s learning the trumpet and, while not as gifted with that instrument, she plays it with reasonable skill for a mere year of instruction.

Meanwhile, my older son had always expressed interest in learning the guitar. My wife and I had already decided that he could begin to take lessons when he was old enough. But I was also looking for something that he and I could do together and I made arrangements to join him. For the last four months, he and I have been taking lessons every other week and practicing a half hour 5-6 days a week. And my first experience playing an instrument? Frustrating as hell!!

Yes, I enjoy it. Yes, I can see improvement over time. And yes, I know it takes years to master, but every time I can’t make my fingers hit the right strings (or can’t make my fat fingers hit just ONE string) it drives me straight up the wall. Still, after just four months, my son and I can play two Eagles songs that are, at the very least, recognizable (particularly if I’m singing – everybody can recognize the words), plus a passable rendition of What Would You Do with a Drunken Sailor and a Renn Faire pubsong called Wild Rover that, in my opinion, actually sounds pretty good. But best of all, it’s time that I can spend bonding with my oldest son, which is worth any amount of frustration.

So we’ve got the piano, trumpet and guitar covered, and now my wife has taken up the Mountain Dulcimer after hearing a demonstration concert at the State Fair. It’s a lovely-sounding instrument and it’ll be really great when she’s gotten the hang of playing it.

And there’s more to come. My older son says he plans to play the flute next year when he gets to select a band instrument in school, though what he really wants to do is learn the Irish Tin Whistle like Giacomo. So, who knows, maybe he’ll learn both. And that still leaves my younger son with an instrument or two to learn at some point.

Though I do need to be careful not to give the wrong impression. I’ve heard that there are kids in the world who will practice their instruments each day without needing to be strong-armed, ordered, scolded, or physically restrained. I have heard that there are children who will sit down with their instruments and just play them for the joy of playing them. I don’t know any of those sorts of children. I do hope that at some point the kids will get so used to their instruments as a part of their lives that they’ll practice and play without having to be told, but my daughter’s on her third or fourth year on the piano and as of yet there’s no sign of anything resembling self-discipline. Any day that I don’t order her to practice, there’s no practice. Likewise my son, despite his initial enthusiasm about the guitar, gets easily discouraged and bored with it. I’ve no doubt that what they really want is to pick up a random musical instrument and play like a professional, and I can certainly relate. With luck they’re learning all sorts of useful lessons like “you get out of it what you put into it” and “practice makes perfect” and “this above all else, to thine own self be true, for it follows then… “ err, well you get the idea. But it’s one of those things I won’t be able to judge yet for many years. By which time they’ll either have learned some valuable lessons AND learned how to play an instrument or two, or they’ll just have learned the instruments. I guess I can live with that either way.

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