Ripe for an Instrument

Last night we had dinner with friends. Their older child is also a Suzuki student, and he kept bringing me his Book One as the adults were eating dinner and the other kids had scampered off.

“Ask me to play anything!” he said, shifting back and forth excitedly, practically vibrating with enthusiasm. “I know all these pieces.” So I kept choosing–“Go Tell Aunt Rhodie,” “Allegro,” “Minuet 3”–and as we ate, we heard the music wafting in from the next room.

His mother plays the piano–or used to. We got into a discussion about The Practice Wars and how best to navigate them. “Incentives, baby,” we both agreed. But she had some concerns about just how much to push. The reason she no longer plays the piano, she is convinced, is because she was pushed too hard.

I on the other hand gave up piano at the age of 13 when my teacher gave me an ultimatum. “Nerissa, you need to decide whether you are a girl who plays piano or a girl with long fingernails.”

I opted for the fingernails and found I had to cut off half of them (the left hand) when I seriously took up the guitar a couple months later. The nails got in my way. This hadn’t bothered me when it was piano (since I never practiced). No one ever pushed me to practice guitar, though I used to wish someone had. I wish someone had made me play piano, and while I took the initiative in my own guitar training– finding teachers, paying them with my own money after a spell–there was no sense of urgency or particular enthusiasm for my practicing. My parents who encouraged us copiously in our performing pursuits were oddly silent about telling us how much or when –or even if–to practice. Probably this is because they too were victims of the Practice Wars.

My son doesn’t seem to want to play the violin anymore. He’s not interested in the piano. He had a smidgeon of interest in the cello last month, but recently he’s all about the guitar. He says cryptic things like, “I only want to play the guitar, and then the violin, but just one time.” I am worried that he is observing his sister and taking in both her unusual prowess and also the intensity (and here I am being very kind to myself) around my insistence that “we” practice daily.

It’s funny. Maybe because the guitar is my instrument, I have a lot of fear that I am somehow going to dampen his enthusiasm by making him studying it formally, whereas with Lila and the violin I have no fear. (First of all, she adores the violin, and second, if she gave it up, I suspect it would be for…the guitar, and then I would shrug and we would switch instruments.) Naturally, I want nothing more than kids who will play better guitar than I do. I only said yes to Lila’s violin request because she wore me down over a period of nine months. It’s all I can do not to sign Johnny right up for Suzuki guitar. In fact, my friend Karen just sent me her daughter’s old tiny classical, just the size for a three year old, and it’s sitting boxed up in our attic waiting. For this Christmas? Next (August) birthday? Do I really have to wait until Christmas 2012???

When is a child ready for an instrument? When do you push? When do you pick that particular fruit? I am so glad I made Lila wait. My dad made me wait to play the guitar; he kept telling me my hands were too small, and that when I turned eleven I would be old enough. And while I learned from occasional lessons and my Beatles Easy Guitar book, I didn’t start my formal studies until I was seventeen. As a result, (maybe) I don’t have the chops of those who have played for years. I don’t have the discipline to practice that someone trained from an early age might have.

But then again, maybe it’s written in the stars who will be a master at an instrument and who will just be a weekend strummer, and who will be somewhere in between. Maybe it has nothing to do with parental involvement. Maybe my friend who no longer plays the piano would have cast it aside anyway. Maybe nothing could have given me or my dinner companion the rage to master our instruments any more or less than to bring us to where we are today.

My guitar students are mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers. They are picking up the guitar for the first time, or pulling their old instrument out from behind the equally neglected sports equipment in the coat closet. We start with the basics: first position chords, simple fingerpicks, strumming patterns. But it doesn’t take much at all to learn a three chord song, and within a few weeks, my students are beaming. “I played ‘Slippery Fish” for my kids last night at bathtime,” they will say. “The kids made me play it five times. Great practice opportunity.” And these hardworking parents somehow do manage to practice, fitting in five minutes here–in the morning after lunches are made and before carpool, or after the kids are finally asleep, or even with the kids hanging on their backs, or in the tub or protesting that their version doesn’t sound like Dorothy (that would be “Over the Rainbow.”) My students persevere. They have a new relationship, and they are true to their beloved.

This much I know: when I hold the guitar in my lap, I feel complete. I chose it. I think the same is true for Lila and her violin. The relationship between a person and her instrument is as complex and complicated as any relationship between brother or sister, mother and child, committed life partners, or best friends. And even in these cases, we need to make time for our beloved, our family, our friends. So I will continue to insist that Lila and I sit down to our practice every day. And I will wait another day at least before I sign Johnny up for guitar lessons.

(But please, those of you with older children, give me some advice!)

About nields

musician, writer, mom
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3 Responses to Ripe for an Instrument

  1. Marilyn Rea Beyer says:

    Hi, Nerissa: I’d say the first rule with young children (under 10) is to remember that the verb is to “play” an instrument. I bought my kids every musical instrument “toy” we could find. Not junky stuff. A real ukulele, a small button accordian (because both kids were so fond of Harry Belafonte’s “Angelina” song in which a concertina is prominent), a nice 2 octave xylophone, percussion pieces, flutes, recorders, etc. We had a piano. And we let them “play.”

    Daughter Bobbie took piano for a while, but lost interest when her beloved teacher moved on. She took guitar until singing overtook her time. She later sang for many years, but now at 24 just isn’t interested in making music except for the singing in the shower stuff. Loves Broadway.

    We gave Andy, now 22, that little accordian for his 6th birthday. A day or so later he popped downstairs and said, “Mom! See if you recognize this!” He played “Shenandoah” all the way through. Again, thank you to Harry Belafonte. Andy is not out in Seattle making all kinds of music. He sang at New England Conservatory, has had a couple or three bands, plays a little trumpet left over from school band days, is an amazing guitarist, asked to learn piano after his fave trumpet teacher left to take a symphony seat in Baltimore. “If I’m going to write music, I should know piano.”

    I think it’s because we let them play, play, play until they wanted to know more. As for me, I begged my Mom to let me take oboe lessons in 4th grade. She refused. “You’ll get tire of it in 3 weeks, and we’ll be out all that money.” Of course, I found other ways to get music into my life. But oboe is still my favorite sound.

    Love to you and yours. Marilyn Rea Beyer

  2. Marilyn Rea Beyer says:

    Ooops. Typo: Andy is “now” out in Seattle.

  3. Amstr says:

    We just started violin this year. N (4) has been asking for about a year, and once we rented her a violin E (6) wanted one, even though he hadn’t shown any interest before (he flat out refused to practice piano with me teaching him, and he really wants to play drums, which I’m not quite ready for.) So we let him get one, on the condition that he would go to lessons and practice for three months, and then we’d reassess. We’re at 2 months, and just yesterday he said he really liked learning it, and that he wanted to practice longer so it would get easier faster.

    I think one key has been giving him ownership in practicing. We negotiate a time each day, and then I assist, but he gets to choose which one of the four things he does first, second, etc. Sometimes I’ll suggest we leave something for the next day, and he’ll give his input about that. We’ve also done lessons every 2 weeks, which has left a lot of flexibility in practice schedules.

    And this webpage helped immensely, especially point 2, in giving me ideas about how practice should work for young kids: (and his kids are amazing musicians–check out Molly Tuttle on YouTube–so his advice seemed to have worked.)

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