It’s almost December, and I am looking back on the year and thinking about it from the musical family point of view. Last Christmas, we gave Johnny a hand-me-down classical guitar and started him on lessons. He lasted maybe three months, or more precisely I lasted for that amount of time. I couldn’t get past the day he spent the full half-hour lesson lying on the floor refusing to do anything his teacher asked of him.
Today, late in the year, I know this is par for the course in the musical education of young players (and don’t we grown ups also loll about in our own way when we’re supposed to be doing something enriching?) In retrospect, I am just as happy we gave up the guitar for the violin. The violin is a more suitable instrument for a child because of its size and its similarity to the voice. Guitar is a complex animal, hard to navigate, unsatisfying as a solo instrument and difficult for a 4-year-old to comprehend as an instrument of accompaniment (not that Suzuki has a method for that, anyway.) Moreover, for little boys who have some issues with their pincer grips and with holding a pencil, the work to create the bow-hold is like multitasking physical therapy.
We’re going on three months now with our violin lessons, and NCMC brilliantly has their “Pre-Twinklers” take a group class once a week in addition to their weekly lesson. Johnny is a very different student from Lila, and we also have a different teacher (Lila’s is on maternity leave at the moment). Johnny lacks Lila’s focus and dexterity, though his ear is remarkable. So after three months, he has yet to (legally) play his violin, though he has graduated from a magic marker to a real bow. I am getting impatient. Lila was already playing “Mississippi Hot Dog” by this point. But I keep trying to remember that it’s all about the creation of that daily practice. Every day, Johnny gets a sticker (and sometimes a health-food store M&M) for taking a bow with his little box violin and intoning, “Good evening.” He does his “Up Like a Rocket” and plays “Teeny Tiny Alligator” on his shoulder. He has named his violin Pluto and his bow Delicate, and every day he practices taking them carefully out of their case and putting them back. Last week, he tenderly kissed his violin as he was removing it from its case. Today, he begged me to let him “play” for the boys with whom we carpool.
Meanwhile, Lila has graduated to a 1/8 size which makes a huge sonorous difference. She is almost finished polishing “Gavotte from Mignon,” and we’re diligently listening to Book 3 every day to prepare for what’s looming on the horizon. When she got her new violin, I picked it up and gingerly played a few notes. I still couldn’t really make the A string sound independently, but with the bigger size, my fingers could actually find the pitches. Tom’s uncle Vinnie, an estate lawyer, gave us a broken old fiddle a few months ago, and I just brought it to Stamell to have it fixed. Today I picked it up to see if I can, as Bruce Springsteen says, “learn how to make it talk.” Probably not talk, but maybe squeak. Johnny came with me, and as soon as we entered the sweet violin shop down a little side street in Amherst, he bounded in like a kid in a candy shop, pointing out the violins, the many sized cellos, the huge double bass, the rows of rosin. Matt Stamell, formerly a guitar maker, has nurtured this little gem of a store, making it the local hub for all stringed instrument players (save, oddly, guitarists). He told me he started playing the violin at age 37. “This instrument teaches you patience,” he explained, stroking my refurbished violin. Indeed. In more ways than one.
Practicing daily with my kids has changed me, the way any kind of daily practice is guaranteed to inspire change, no matter what the circumstances. I see what is possible when one devotes a period of time to a subject. Johnny still falls on the floor sometimes (truthfully, so does Lila) but we don’t give up. The longer we stick with it, the quieter the voices in my head that drum the doubts: this is crazy! Why are we doing this? The kid’s going to hate music now! Maybe s/he isn’t meant to study this instrument. Maybe piano/flute/trumpet/kazoo would have been better! S/he’s too young/too old, etc. Today we just show up and practice. Emily has us giving the kids one M&M per review piece for the month of November. Amazing how well that works. Don’t know if I’ll continue for December; I am inclined to.
All this practice with the kids, all this focus on the daily has inspired me to attempt feebly to continue with my own lessons. In the best of all worlds, I would make it to weekly voice lessons and warm up daily, and I’d study guitar and possibly piano and bass, and as I mentioned, become at least proficient at the violin. But this is the reality of a mom with a full time job: I took a few voice lessons over the summer, and three guitar lessons this fall. This week, I took home a bass guitar, plugged it in in front of my children, played a G scale, then the bass part to “Help!” That’s my total repertoire at present. I hope to learn “This Boy” and eventually “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The amazing thing about using the Beatles as one’s curriculum, especially using McCartney’s bass playing is that if one goes chronologically, one naturally moves from simple 4 chord patterns to the most advanced melodies. As I think I’ve said before, I’d love to create a Suzuki-esque curriculum based on the Beatles for young guitar players. Maybe someone will read this and do exactly that, and then I can be their student. Stay tuned.