The mythology goes something like this: when I was three years old, I told my parents I wanted a piano. They may have chuckled, or pet me on the head, I don’t really know, but the upshot was that I was not taken seriously. I mean, why would anyone entrust a toddler with an expensive musical instrument that would test the floor joists? So I asked them again a little while later. And again. Persistence was my modus operandi. When I turned five, I got a Baldwin upright piano from my folks, a chestnut brown instrument with carefully turned legs and brass pedals. My brother David promptly scratched it up with his hair pick, but it almost looked like a whimsical music bar, so I mostly ignored the destruction of the varnish. I practiced with a teacher, mostly by ear, learning boogies and ragtime and all kinds of classical songs with a contemporary piece thrown in here and there. I won an award when I was seven, but I don’t think I was ever much good at playing. I had heart, though.
Over the years I developed an eclectic taste in music, and I still love any artist who can surprise me or do something new. I’m also a big fan of music education because I think it gives young students so much—it’s helpful with math, creativity, developing auditory skills, teamwork, practice, and patience. In a world where mere participation in group activities earns one a blue ribbon (rendering blue ribbons what? a simple color?), learning a piece of music is a rich reward all in itself. I may have gotten away from playing as an adult, but I still have a fondness for the feel of polished keys, and I can still tell if any of an instrument’s 88 keys are off in tone.
It’s been on my radar to get music in Emile’s life, in part because I know kids who practice an instrument do well across a variety of measures, but also because life is better with music in it. When Susanne alerted me to the Kindermusik class in town, we signed him up. So every Saturday I stand up and sit down and kneel more times than in a month of Catholic Masses as part of his class. He says he loves it, even if he gets a bit shy during the classes themselves.
Now he’s taken to singing, cute little children’s songs like John Jacob Jingleheimerschmit and the classic Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but he’s also a fan of a few Broadway show tunes, and some truly terrible European dance music. Sometimes he wants Susanne and I to sing with him, and sometimes he begs us not to. He had a thing for Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack’s rendition of When We Grow Up, and then he declared that Michael Jackson “lives in Daddy’s computer.” A little too close to the nose on that one, kid. Now he seems to be done with anything from Free to Be You and Me, but they had a good relationship for a while.
A few weeks ago I learned that the Harlem Quartet would be performing in far away Walla Walla at the city’s chamber music festival, and also doing a short performance at the public library for an audience of children. Hey wait a minute, the voice in my head said, Emile is a children. Take Emile! It was slated to start right when I was supposed to relieve the nanny, so I told her about it as I rushed him into a coat and out the door, and she and her toddler joined us. The library was packed, about 25 kids sitting on the floor, with another 20 or so sitting in chairs, on parents’ laps, lingering in the wide aisle, for the music to begin.
The fellow who organized the festival, himself a viola player, stood before us and started talking about music. Okay, great, but can we get a move on, guy? I’ve got a 2-year-old on my knee and a suspicious odor coming from his diaper region. I’d zipped out of the house so fast I hadn’t checked him. I had no food, no diaper bag, not so much as a square of toilet paper.
He talked about chamber music, and notes, and rhythm. I’m sure it was interesting—to a high school or college audience. Emile started asking where the music was. I began bouncing him, which was a risky move if poop were anyway involved. One woman turned around and scowled at me. PLEASE PLAY SOME FREAKING MUSIC BEFORE IT GETS UGLY BACK HERE. I made note of the exits.
Finally a few folks emerged from behind a curtain and showed us how their instruments worked. Better, but we were getting into red danger territory, a few seconds away on the Doomsday Clock for Toddlers. One musician blew through his double reed to make a quacking sound.
“This music?” asked Emile.
“No buddy, this is them showing you how their instruments work.” He gave me a bit of a suspicious glance at that one. I couldn’t blame him.
Finally they sat down and played a little, which was nice. Emile looked mesmerized, as did better than 80 percent of the assembled children. I breathed a small sigh of relief. Maybe I hadn’t had the worst idea ever. At long last, the Harlem Quartet sat down and played their lively rendition of Take the A Train. They’ve made a name for themselves by playing jazz with their classical music formation of three violins and one cello.
Emile seemed especially taken with the cello. “Is that a violin?” he asked. I told him what it was called, and he nodded. I think when he nods it’s like clicking new data into place in his brain. Click. CELLO ACCEPTED. I looked at my knee and noticed he was tapping me along with the beat of Duke Ellington’s piece. When they were done, so was he. He gave me a look and asked for a fresh diaper, so I hauled him back home and we talked about cellos for a bit. The next two times we’ve ventured to the library he’s asked where the violins and cello are. I tell him they’re only there once in a while, but I’ll keep an eye out for when they’ll be back so we can go again.
Last week instead of asking for the Itsy Bitsy Spider on YouTube, he asked for “cello.” So I googled Yo Yo Ma and found several videos of him. We’ve watched Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1 and 2 of course, some works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, Op. 19-3, and he’s been entranced by all of them. I pointed out to him one afternoon, “Look how Yo Yo Ma closes his eyes when he plays. He doesn’t even need to look to make those notes. He’s not even looking at the music. He just plays.”
This morning Emile picked up my Guitar Hero toy and put the strap around his shoulders. He “strummed” the black bar and held onto the neck tightly.
“I’m closing my eyes, Daddy. I’m like Yo Yo Ma.”
I may have made a monster, but I’m good with that.