Not Exactly Solo


It’s Sunday, a latish morning in early November. Snow falls pianissimo outside while my husband plays the studio piano inside. Our daughter is practicing her violin downstairs, Accolay’s Concerto. Each day Morgan begins by reading before she practices for an hour. Then we do a mixture of classes—in and outside of home—before going to the stable to visit our horses. When we return, she’ll practice for another hour or two, depending on whether she has an upcoming performance. Today is the end of daylight savings time, which means an extra hour for all of us. Eric didn’t muse long over what to do with his bonus sixty minutes. He knew before he went to bed that he would get up and practice for the upcoming National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competition in mid November. He is accompanying 22 voice students, which means 44 solo pieces, mainly orchestral reductions of musical theater works.

Some mornings Morgan tells me what piece she played in her head as she was falling asleep. She varies between visualizing herself practicing a piece she is memorizing, note by note, and hearing it as if on a soundtrack. Her father tells me there is always music playing in the background of his thoughts, too. Sometimes I see his fingers perform rapid runs and chord progressions on the dinner table, the steering wheel, his desk. Music fills Morgan’s conversation. She makes musical comparisons between playing the violin and riding her quarter horse, Disco. She describes the beat and movement of her mare using descriptors such as largo, fortissimo, staccato, and legato. When she rides, she sings songs, usually what she is currently rehearsing in Music de Filia, an all girl choir, but sometimes Beatles songs. A favorite is “Yellow Submarine.” She disappears so far into herself that I have to raise my voice to break through into the world that is Morgan.

I am not musical, but my kids see me try to play the penny whistle and flute. They enjoy my mistakes, they enjoy my successes, and they enjoy showing me how to play and then playing with me. I believe when a parent stands to the side of what their children are doing musically, without participating, without listening and sharing the frustrations and the successes, that the overly-busy rule-wielding rule-repeating adult can foster strong resentment rather than nurturing a passion for their instruments and the skills to play them.

I believe this because I was once one of those adults. My son is 23, and when it comes to learning a musical instrument, I think of him as homeschooling experiment number one. Alex was rarely where he was supposed to be when told to practice: playing “Twinkle” on his tiny version of a violin or sitting on the piano bench, his short six year old legs swinging. Or later, after I finally gave up dragging him to piano lessons, sitting on the guitar stool until I gave up that fight, too. The drums were the biggest failure of all because even as I told him to practice for his lesson, I hoped that he wouldn’t. I dreaded the very sound of the rattle of his sticks against the skin and rim of the snare, indications he was about to begin.

Alex seemed to loathe practicing an instrument, yet he loved music. He listened to it at night with headphones, the thumps of his enthusiastic dancing to The Beatles, Elton John, and later bands I didn’t know, drifting through the ceiling. He listened to it without headphones as he did his homework at the dining room table. His daytime taste centered on folk music: Schooner Fare, Pete Seeger, Bela Fleck, Earl Scruggs, The Mammals, and Arlo Guthrie. Once we stopped paying for piano lessons, he learned the theme to Gilligan’s Island by ear on the piano, arranging a complex version, and after his little sister was born, he brought the castaway’s song to Morgan by playing it on her wooden xylophone and her toy drums. When Alex was fourteen, newly vegan and excessively liberal about what going to bed meant, he asked us to buy him a banjo and we did. He took lessons for almost an entire year.

We could write off the difference between Alex and Morgan as simply being that all kids are different. We could say that part of Alex’s lack of motivation was that he felt competitive and annoyed with his father who is an exceptional pianist and piano teacher, two things people in the community wouldn’t let him forget. We could also say that it is frustrating for a child to have his parent come along at the end of the day and pick up his guitar without any lessons behind his short-nailed pianist fingertips and fingerpick “Blackbird” and “Alice’s Restaurant.” We could hypothesize that possibly Alex doesn’t have an innate ability for music, a talent inherent in his genes from his father’s side. Definitely not from mine. In my childhood, the only music that wasn’t met with irate fortissimo vocalizations from my parents was the yearly Christmas albums, and even then Alvin and the Chipmunks were banned.

However, Alex’s music teachers told us he was talented. Especially his drum and banjo teachers. They told us he could make a career of music if he wanted to. Alex rarely practiced yet he played almost flawlessly with color and an energy that all his teachers remarked upon.

I would tell Eric I couldn’t get Alex to sit down and practice. I would insist nothing worked: I’d cajoled, threatened, and bribed him. Initially with Slush Puppies and the ice-cream truck, but when those stopped enticing him, I went bigger. Sonic or Mario video games or parties with all of his friends. Once I promised him a cat. I’d make the deal, set the timer for 30 minutes, close the music room doors and go about my work, and shortly thereafter he’d sneak away into his room, game controller in hand when he was younger, the computer keyboard beneath his controller calloused fingers when he was older. And because I love him, I sometimes didn’t follow through on the threats. Well, almost never. I’d grown up in a house where the parents always had followed through, and it hadn’t made me a better person. I conditioned both of us to look at the piano, the guitar, the drums, and, at the end, the banjo and feel immediate dislike, stress, and fatigue.

It wasn’t lack of ability or interest on Alex’s part. It was me.

When Morgan was born, I told Eric that he could be in charge of music. It was exhausting to think of the looming lackluster parade of more instruments I’d look at and loathe, dreading the stress, their taunting me with my inability to get kids near them. I would do all the grammar, literature, history, art, and science.

Eric chose the violin for Morgan, the only instrument I requested he not reintroduce into our household. I’d learned in the few weeks that Alex had held the adorable quarter-sized string instrument against his tiny shoulder that even adorable can sound horrible. I’d struggled not to cover his ears with my hands to protect his young eardrums. But Eric chose the violin on the principle that Morgan would always be able to carry her instrument with her and never have to perform on below average or out of tune instruments like he often did.

When he explained his plan to me he made it sound less a repeat of Alex’s stint as a string player by calling it a fiddle. Morgan was five. I was 40, eleven years older than when Alex had held the same instrument we’d called a violin.

After only a few lessons, I realized that Morgan wanted to play her fiddle if I would listen and watch her. She followed me around the house, playing “Hot Cross Buns” and “Can Can.” She played and she played, strengthening her fingers and her skills. Each time family arrived, she ran to get her fiddle to show them what she’d learned. One day she played for the plumber. Another she played for the handy-man. Morgan taught me that music is not a solo activity. Musicians crave an audience the same way a horse craves water unless you try to make him drink it.

After a year or so, Eric decided Morgan should shift toward a classical education, and he began by calling her fiddle a violin. He wanted her to learn using the Suzuki method, because, he said, Suzuki is both family- as well as ensemble-based. Morgan wasn’t as happy with the switch in the first few months. Suddenly she had rules, and she insisted that classical wasn’t as fun because she said, “No matter how a person performs classical pieces, there’s always someone who says she’s not doing it right.”

Several times she wanted to quit playing the violin and return to playing the fiddle, but instead of being irritated with her discouragement, instead of telling her that if she stopped complaining, she’d be finished practicing by now, and we could go do something fun, I tried to help her note by note, measure by measure. I sat through all her lessons, writing down helpful instruction and tips, and at home, I sympathized with her frustrations. I told her that I agreed with her observation about classical music. I’d observed countless master classes during which Eric had performed and each prestigious master had told him something different: soften a phrase, angle his wrist just slightly on an arpeggio, play three notes less legato. The next prestigious master would say, “Now why would you play that legato when it should be light and quick, like a young hare?” For me, listening to those teachers was an exercise in hearing. Sort of a musical “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Commiseration creates and strengthens bonds because commiseration requires at least two people, which means Morgan never had to feel as if she were struggling through the hard parts alone. It was during one of these episodes, after Morgan had been playing the violin for about two years, that I realized I’d left Alex alone during his practice. Sure, I’d been there. Present in the house. But as soon as I’d closed those music room doors and gone on to my own work, I’d been just as guilty of disappearing as he’d been. I’m not saying that I should have hovered and not allowed Alex independence and identity, growth of his own, but just as it takes multiple notes to form a melody or a musical sentence or even a measure, it takes more than one person to make music.

Beginning with the piano, Alex didn’t have the opportunity to follow me through the house as his sister did. Soloists are never completely solo. There is often another musician accompanying them. There is an audience. I allowed Alex’s music to be separate from my life, without that audience, appreciative and encouraging listeners. I’d told him to make music the way I’d told him to make his bed. But not the way I asked him to do his schoolwork. For that, I’d sat beside him through hundreds of division and multiplication problems to make sure he understood. I’d read him the Lord of the Rings trilogy twice and every Harry Potter book and countless other series and classics. During car trips and walks we’d discussed American history and new findings in science. But the one thing that required at least two people, I’d left him to do alone. The irony still bewilders me.

I don’t ever tell Morgan to practice. I ask her what she’s going to practice. Just as I ask her father how the rehearsals are going for the 22 solo NATS students, who won’t exactly be solo the day of the competition. Eric will be there accompanying them, following them. Even if they forget the words and skip measures, Eric will stay with them. They will have an audience, judges.

I no longer stay in the same room with Morgan now that she has a full-size violin as I can hear her everywhere in the house and the yard, but I do ask her what she likes about what she plays and I tell her what I like. I never forget to praise her. And it’s genuine praise. Kids can tell the difference. She graduated from the Suzuki method, and has moved on to difficult classical pieces. Morgan plays in the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra and tells me that she wants to tour as a professional violinist. Maybe she will. Maybe she won’t. What’s important is that she loves to play the violin. Not for herself, but for people. None of us can know the future, but we can learn from the past, especially if we discuss it with others. Especially if we’re not alone.