July 24, 2009

One piano, one violin, perfect fingers (another musical note)

One of the challenges of child raising which is not included in books on the subject is musicianship, or how to get your little would-be to practice.

It's not included for a very obvious reason: no adult has yet found a way to cope with this touchy problem.

Just how ill-equipped the average parent is to handle this stickler is evidenced by the great number of your own generation you meet at parties who say boastfully, "I took piano lessons when I was a kid, and I can't play a note today. " Actually, they are just being modest. After a couple of drinks, they can usually be coaxed into sitting down at the piano and stumbling through a few measures of one of their old pieces-usually Beethoven's "Minuet in G” or “Für Elise”. When this musical mayhem is over they will then say (if there's anyone left to say it to), "I don't know why I didn't keep my music up."

I, never a member of the "Minuet in G" gang, was determined that Clive (the godson) wouldn't wind up making a fool of himself at parties.

I knew that Clive was gifted, because his grandmother, who used to play the piano professionally, told me so. I remember the night we discovered he was a musical genius. After dinner, and while we grown-ups were having coffee, we heard strange sounds emanating from the piano in the living room. It could have been the cat walking up and down the keyboard. But it wasn't. "It's me, mommy-I'm playing," Clive called out from the living room. "Aren't I good?"

"That's marvelous!" Larissa called back to him. Then to us she added, "You know, he really has a feeling for music-I can tell. I believe he's trying to pick out a song. We must give him lessons!"

"I think so, too," said dad, who was still under his mother's spell at the grand old age of --.

Larissa spent the next week interviewing prospective piano teachers and worrying over which one to take.

Personally, I couldn't see that it made much difference. From what I've been able to observe, most music teachers are strangely similar. They also have a remarkable facility for keeping you completely in the dark about their own playing ability. And they are usually quick to assure you that your child is potentially a combination of Horowitz and Liberace.

Larissa finally decided on Mrs. McGinley, who bustled into the house one afternoon with a copy of “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” under her arm. "Now, if I don't think your boy has it in him to learn, I'll tell you," she said, while Clive was squirming on the piano bench, eager to get started.

I was a little on edge as I waited for Mrs. McGinley to give us her honest opinion. But we needn't have worried. I could tell Clive had made the grade from the smile of pure rapture on Mrs. McGinley's face when the first lesson was finished.

"This young man is loaded with musical talent," she revealed.

"And he has perfect fingers for the piano, too. Would you like to show what we learned today?"

"Sure." Clive placed his right hand on Middle C and rattled off "Up the Hill and Down the Hill" like I've never heard it played before.

"And Clive has promised me he's going to practice every day, so he can get lots of gold stars," said Mrs. McGinley. "Haven't you, Clive?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'll love practicing."

I thought this was just an idle boast, but Clive surprised us.

During the next seven days he covered about a hundred miles on his many travels "Up the Hill and Down the Hill."

Then, he didn't practice quite so hard between the second and third lessons. In fact, several times I had to prod him into practicing.

"I only heard you play 'Scaling the Wall' once today," I told him one afternoon. "Didn't Mrs. McGinley say you should play it three times every day?"

"I played it the other two times when you were out. And it is turning into a math lesson.”

By the fifth week, Clive was making no attempt to deceive us. "Did you practice today?" I asked.

"I couldn't. I had a soccer meeting. Man, I don't have time for everything."

"Gould found time to practice."

"He was in no shape to play soccer."

Clive didn't abandon his musical career completely. Occasionally he'd sit down at the piano-on his way through the living room-and run through "Up the Hill and Down the Hill," for old times' sake. But his burning enthusiasm for the instrument seemed to have expired. Although, he completely took me by surprise, when he played a ‘tortured’ "Für Elise" on my birthday.

After several months, we decided on a more forceful approach. "Your mom and I are going to stop the piano lessons if you don't start practicing regularly," I warned. "How would you like that?" "I'd like it fine," said Clive. That'll teach you to make threatening remarks to children.

"Oh, come on," pleaded mom. "You don't really want to quit, do you? Don't you want to be able to play an instrument?"

"Yeah, but not the piano-I want to play the violin!" he suddenly blurted out. "Then I can be in the school orchestra. They already have a piano player, but they need violins and they'll teach me. And I can carry my violin on the school bus, like the other orchestra kids do."

"You won't have any more time to practice the violin than you do the piano," I pointed out.

"Sure, I will, because I want to play the violin," he said. "I never did like the piano very much."

Clive got his fiddle, compliments of Local 47. The next afternoon he came home from school with the announcement that he had made the School Orchestra. This will give you an idea of the orchestra.

"I think I'll get him a violin teacher, so he can learn correctly," Larissa said. "Clive tells me they don't get much personal instruction in orchestra."

A few days later, a Mrs. Stone came to the house. She was approximately the same woman as Mrs. McGinley, only she carried a violin.

"This young man has splendid fingers for the fiddle," she informed us in a high-pitched voice, after listening to Clive saw his way through one of his orchestra pieces. "And he has a good ear, too."

Under Mrs. Stone's tutelage, Clive made rapid strides. Within a week, he could tune up by himself. Within a month, he could get almost as much resin on his bow as he could on the carpet. And within two months he could hold the fiddle under his chin without using his hands. He could also play one piece-"Dark Eyes" -well enough to make me believe, if I closed my eyes, that I was in a broken-down gypsy restaurant.

Clive seemed well on his way to becoming a pit musician at the Hollywood Bowl, when a familiar problem started cropping up again. One day I realized I hadn't heard the familiar squeaking and scratching of his violin for a whole week. However, this time I decided to put the problem squarely up to his teacher, who at least was getting paid to make a musician out of him.

"Yes, I have a splendid system for making boys practice," said Mrs. Stone after the next lesson, which even she admitted had been a fiasco. "For every day that he doesn't practice, deduct a dollar from his allowance."

''He doesn't get that much," I said.

"I have a better idea," said Larissa. "We'll give him a Dollar for every day that he does practice."

"Make it two and I'll take it," bargained Clive.

For two dollars a session, Clive was confident he could find plenty of time to practice (proof of the power of positive thinking). The time he decided on was early in the morning, before he left for school.

"Oh, no," I protested. "If he's going to get paid for it, he can find time to practice when the rest of us aren't sleeping."

"He won't wake you up," said Larissa. "He can take his violin to the other end of the house, so you can't hear him."

It seemed logical, until six o'clock the next morning, when I heard someone playing the piano.

"What's he doing that for?" I yelled, jumping out of bed. "He's just using the piano to tune up," said Larissa. "It won't take long."

He barely had the violin in tune when it was time to stop practicing and get ready for school. This went on every day for a week. Finally, I decided to tune his violin the night before. We all slept-in from then on.

In fact, we had a number of brief respites after that. Something was always happening to the violin. At frequent intervals, Clive snapped each of the strings. Then he broke the bridge. After we replaced the bridge, all the horsehairs on Clive's bow snapped. At first he claimed it had happened while he was playing "The Emperor Waltz." But under interrogation he confessed that he'd been using his bow for a fencing foil in a hand-to-hand encounter with Andy, whose weapon was a toy shovel.

The bow snapped while he was trying to parry one of Andy's thrusts. "So it's all Andy's fault," said Clive, logically. "He was playing too rough."

By now I was becoming suspicious of all Clive's "accidents" with his violin. This suspicion was strengthened when I learned that Larissa was still paying two dollars a day even when his violin was unplayable. She refused to believe that such an ardent music lover would stoop to such chicanery as deliberately putting the violin out of commission (Oedipus Rex raising his ugly head again).

Early one morning, I heard some very distressing sounds Clive was playing the piano, and going at it with a vengeance.

“This is not the time to split up your interests. You'll have to decide what you want to play and stick to it. Now make up your mind. What kind of lessons do you want to take?"

Clive looked at me with a completely straight face, and said, "I want to take tennis lessons!"

That ended Clive's formal education in music.
Today when he entertains at parties, he plays
"Up the Hill and Down the Hill" on the strings of his tennis racket.


Clive said...

Wait, until you hear me play.
You remembered, I should have guessed.

Anonymous said...

so true.
but I never hear it told this way.
very funny.

Anonymous said...

I can’t stop laughing

a blogger said...

Done that, been there.
Just never had so much fun remembering.

Ms Capshaw said...


a reader said...

what a delightfully uplifting post. thank you

"Minuet in G" gang said...

Excellent post, well stated.
The comments show just how many of us remember our music lessons.

Blogger said...

I was just searching when I discovered your blog post.
I’m only visiting to say that I truly enjoyed reading your posts, they’re really well written.
Are you going to blog more on this?
It looks like there’s more material here for more posts.

a teacher said...

…Subjects like
Art History
and Music history
grew from the desire to teach young people how to
discriminate art from effect,
beauty from kitsch,
and real from phony sentiment.

sx "Minuet in G" member said...

You gave us:

Roe v Wade
Billery Clinton
all the Kennedy's
Harry Reid
Nancy Pelosi
Arlen Spector
B Frank
etc etc etc

Be glad we listen to you at all

a fan said...

My theory is that the more diversions we have,
the less we think.
It seems like many people substitute the opinions
found in the media and on the internet for their own.
I'm not sure if it's due to a lack of ability to analyze,
lack of time,lack of opportunity,
or sheer laziness.
I do see it as a disturbing trend though.
Peaceful time alone with your own thoughts can produce amazing results.
In this busy world, it's probably not something that naturally occurs for many.

Thanks for the blog. I do enjoy your postings.

Ms Edna said...

Ideas take form in my mind before I start.
The first attempts are unbearable.
I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile here on these blogs,
it is not by accident but because of real direction and purpose.

x "Minuet in G" member, again said...

No offence was intended for the author

Charles said...

Tried to ring you. What’s up?

Ms Edna said...

James, the cyberpunk was at it, AGAIN!
I think I have to hang him from his thumbs.

Anonymous said...

They seek me here.
They seek me there.
Those Lovelies seek me everywhere.
Am I in Heaven?
Or am I in Hell?
“That damned, illusive, Pimpernel.”

Charles said...

Want me to take care of this?

Ms Edna said...

Taken care off.

Glenda said...

how did we get to this subject?

Charles said...

click on title of post

a fan said...

i see that you are a patron of the Colony Theater. Thanks for the plug.

Wain said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.