November 29, 2008 at 2:49 PM
A few years ago, at some holiday conversation where I don't remember the holiday, around when my daughter first started taking violin lessons, my brother and I talked about what we had gotten out of our music education growing up and what we wanted to do with our kids.
My brother is a talented singer, after a few years in school with a baritone horn bigger than he was, he decided to use his voice as his primary instrument. I'd always been somewhat envious of his singing abilities, and it turned out that he in turn had been somewhat envious of my orchestral and instrumental playing. We'd been told over the years to do one thing and not another. He wasn't allowed to play the trombone by the elementary school band teacher, which was what he'd really wanted to do. I'd been told I couldn't sing.
And this was generational: our father has told us the story several times of how he, in the early 1950's, was steered away from playing the flute and toward the clarinet by well-meaning music teachers wielding various assessment tools. He claims that, because he already had braces, they told him the flute embouchure would be too difficult, and that because he "couldn't carry a tune in a bucket" they told him he couldn't play anything else. He never took to the clarinet and gave it up after a few years.
This year we had another conversation, and a concert. My brother and his family came to our house for Thanksgiving this year for the first time. They have two kids now ages, 2 and 5. Their 5-yo daughter, like our 5-yo son, is in kindergarten this year. They look alike, too: two little tow-headed kids at the computer. Like their parents, they like the computer, maybe a little too much. For a change of pace, my brother suggested that we play something on the violin.
My daughter is learning 3 Christmas Carols to play at the Christmas pageant this year: O Christmas Tree, Angels We Have Heard on High, and Silent Night. We have another violist in her class who will play too (a different violist than her friend from last year, who quit). But for now, it's me again on the B part. With all the excitement of visitors and the holiday, my daughter's practicing has been a little haphazard (as has mine), but when she wants to, she can focus. We play these 3, plus one of the Farmers' Market fiddle tunes, "On the Road to Boston" (in honor of our visitors), in the middle of the living room.
After that, my 5-yo niece wants to play too. I get out the old quarter size (the one that was not run over) and "Adventures in Violinland" to show her how to hold it. She struggles a little but after a few minutes is able to hold it properly. But she emphatically does not want to do pizzicato, she wants to use the bow. And she likes the little family metaphors in "Adventures," grandpa string, daddy string, mommy string, baby string: especially the baby, "ga ga goo goo". Her grip on the bow tends a little too much towards a fist, but she manages a "how do you do," "ga ga goo goo" on all the strings that pleases her. "I want to play a concert too," she says.
Fortunately, my brother is not ready to kill me for giving her ideas ;-) Rather, we want to put to rest all those can'ts and don'ts lost in the mists of time, but still remembered. I see that in my niece's face, and in my brother's, and in my father's too.
What a great topic, Karen!
I too wanted to play something else, but my mother said no; the drums! So I wound up playing trombone instead. However, having said that, now that I'm an adult I can see her point all too clearly.
At least I was encouraged to satisfy my musical genes. I think my mother was a frustrated vocalist. I recall her taking voice lessons at one point. I didn't find out until I was in my fifties that my father used to "jam" on mandolin and banjo with his friends when he was younger. I wonder what other secrets he was keeping? Ah me, it's probably best I don't know.
Our culture has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Your father was probably steered away from playing the flute, at least in part, because it was considered a girl's instrument. I'm glad that your family has musical talent and that most of them are training in music. It must make family get-togethers a lot of fun. I also like the mother-daughter duo as string players, and I bet other people do, too.
I think you're right Pauline, about the flute being considered a girl's instrument, but the principal flute in my youth orchestra was a guy and we have one (older than my father) in the Arlington Phil. as well. And there's Jean-Pierre Rampal, who was born almost 20 years before my father (but he's French . . .).
What my father remembers even more than not being allowed to play flute, it seems, is the "can't carry a tune in a bucket" comment. At this point it's empirically true, but I've never been able to figure out if it was always true or was a self-fulfilling prophecy or if that matters. Because honestly I don't think my family has more than average musical talent, not in the sense of early precocity in music nor in terms of an exceptional sense of pitch or rhythm. My ear is trainable, for example, but I'm convinced that many other people hear intonation--for better and worse--more easily and naturally than I do. I tend to worry that I have my father's ear for music, and need a lot of reassurance from my teacher that even if I do, that's okay, I can work with it.
And while I don't think there's anything wrong with being an average musician, it seems like it happens more often to average musicians that people think it's okay to mess around with your musical choices for all kinds of weird reasons. My brother was given the baritone horn because there were "too many trombones" in that elementary school. I can sympathize with the teacher on one hand, trying to have a band, but I don't think it matters that much at that age--I mean, it would be okay to have 76 trombones and nothing else, wouldn't it?
David--the drums is a tough one. I'm thinking garage, if it comes to that for either of my kids. I have a friend who told me that her brother hadn't been gone to college 24 hours before his mother sold his drum set.
The thing to remember about drums is that the rock band practices at the drummer's house.
Ha, speaking of drums, my teacher in London—Yfrah Neaman—his son played drums if I remember correctly:-)
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