The freckle-faced, seven-year-old boy walks to the piano in measured steps. He turns around, looks seriously at his audience and announces his piece.
"My name is Brian Niles, and I will now play 'Dance of the Gnomes.'" He bows, then takes his seat at the piano. When he finishes the piece, he rests his hands at his sides. He stands up, turns around and bows. He smiles at the applause.
The applause comes from his mother alone, because we're not at a recital; we're just at home in the living room. For every single song, for about a week straight, I've been required to introduce the young performer, who then introduces himself, and takes to the piano bench with a flourish. I'm smiling, though the recital charade feels almost as old as that ham in the fridge that expired two weeks ago but still hasn't found its way to the garbage can. He shows no signs of wanting to change the routine – at least it's helping us build more stickers on the practice chart. I sigh and get up off the couch.
"Thank you Brian, for that excellent performance," I say. "And now, because we liked 'Dance of the Gnomes' so much, Brian will play it again, making it sound even creepier with that slow-down at the end. Give it up for Brian Niles!"
Beaming, he gets up off the couch to repeat the scenario.
Doesn't it sound adorable? Indeed. And yet, mothers get tired. Soccer practice. Trying to figure out which permission slip needs to be turned in tomorrow. Helping with math. Cutting fingernails, cleaning rooms. When do I get to practice? Sometimes mothers want to holler, "JUST PLAY IT ALREADY!"
He's ready for applause again. "Yay!" I say, clapping. "And now, after all that spooooky Halloween music, Brian will cheer us up with 'Allegro.'"
He takes his place.
Tonight I seem to have the patience. I just give in to the fact that it's going to take a really long time to play through three songs. Maybe I'm just too tired to try to hurry things up.
Or, maybe I'm coming to realize how incredibly brief childhood is, and I'm trying to hold onto something that I know must slip away. A few nights ago, a small superhero helped me take the trash out. I thought he was Superman, then he corrected me, pointing to the large helicopter on his pajamas. "I'm Helicopter Man," he said earnestly. He insisted on dragging the black plastic can, which is nearly as tall as he is, to the dumpster. Then he zoomed back to our garage, zig-zagging all over the long driveway at our condo, cape flying behind him. How long will I get to take out the garbage with a superhero?
He's played "Allegro" again, and he's playing through "Musette." He plays it like a very young superhero would: fast, loud, zig-zaggy. Time again to applaud.
"Now Brian will play 'Musette' again," I say, "and he'll play it really slowly, and peacefully, and quietly, because his mommy is so tired and that will sound soooo pretty to her."
He decides to indulge me this time, and he slows it down. It's a rare treat, when an active superhero lends his full concentration to the endeavor. Apparently he's been listening: he straightens out the rocky rhythm and plays it evenly. He plays all the right notes, and in a few places he plays softly, musically. He slows down at the end, just exactly the right amount to let it hang in the air. And in that moment I see it, a tiny glimpse of the future: he's going to be just fine when he grows out of that cape and into his own big self.
He spins around, hops off the bench and bows.
"And now," he smiles, raising an index finger as he straightens himself up tall, "Brian will give himself a sticker!"
I'm happy to say that the work that I've been doing with the little first-grade tikes at my children's public school has been endorsed by the city where I live.
The Pasadena Arts Commission awarded me a grant, so that I'll no longer be teaching as an unpaid volunteer. They liked the idea that I could build a curriculum for use in other Pasadena public schools. (Who will pay for teachers to teach in those other schools is a question for another day!) But, perhaps if I can show that this kind of a program is good for kids, good for the school, good for community building, etc., then parents will demand it, politicians will listen....
Call me an idealist!
Applying for a grant, even a small one that would only pay a very modest stipend for one person, was as vexing and complex as applying to college. I had to write eight essays, submit photos and a DVD, get a letter of recommendation from the school's principal, etc. A parent helped me greatly by taking all I'd written and translating it into "Grantese," which is its own special language.
My chances were slim. They'd never awarded this grant to an individual; the grants have always gone to organizations like the city's symphony, conservatory, etc. But apparently the commissioners understood what I was trying to do: lay a foundation in children for musical skill building. And a lot more than music stands on that foundation. In fact, I came across a list I'd written in college while taking one of the most valuable courses I've ever had: "A Philosophy of Music Education" at Northwestern University with Bennett Reimer. I think we musicians intuitively understand why music education is important. But we have a duty, I believe, to convince others.
I will print the list here, just in case you ever need to enumerate "justifications" for the music program at your school:
A LIST OF REASONS TO INCLUDE MUSIC IN THE SCHOOLS
1.Educates the creative part of the brain
2.Teaches you to express yourself
4.Basic art form
6.Keeps kids off the street
9.Puts you in touch with your environment
11.Appreciation of different cultures
13.Nurtures potential talent
15.Expression using no words
16.Carries traditions and history
18.Makes people more outgoing, confident; improves self-esteem
19.Teaches structure – the symbols, the rehearsals
20.A place to channel energy
25.Develops independent thinking
29.Learn teaching skills
31.Helps students improve in other areas: language, math, maps
32.Entertainment for the community
34.Sense of accomplishment – rewarding
35.Non-selective; musical ability crosses all races, economic groups, etc.
36.An easy A!
Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch....
Care to add to this list?
Heather Kurzbauer is covering the international violin competition for Violinist.com, from Brussels, where Lim Ji Young won the First Prize.
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles is in New York to cover the biennial event at The Juilliard School, including classes by Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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