»  The Straggler, No. 58

September 10th, 2007

  Fled Is That Music


There is a specter haunting the Straggler household. The specter is not actually very spectral in form. It is, as a matter of fact, a large solid object weighing several hundred pounds, and occupying a prominent position in the living room. Still, it is haunting us — making us uneasy by its mere presence, robbing us of peace, calling to our minds past hopes and joys, now all gone with the wind.

Perhaps I should not over-dramatize. The issue here is child-raising; the child, my son, recently turned twelve; the specter, our family piano. Like all good bourgeois parents — and no doubt many bohemian ones, too — we wanted our kids to be able to play some musical instruments. Neither Straggler parent can do so. We both came to serious music too late in life to properly acquaint ourselves with it, and we both regret this. The children, we resolved early on, would get full exposure to music, and would play one instrument apiece, at least.

With our daughter, the first child, everything went according to plan. We started her at age five on the violin, under the inscrutable ministrations of a local Japanese lady and the much more distant spiritual influence of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki (who, I am mildly surprised to learn from Wikipedia, had only just died, aged 99). Now, nine years later, our lass plays the violin as naturally as she walks, and her practices fill the house with lovely sound. Girls, as everyone says, are so much easier.

We started the boy out on a small electronic keyboard at age six. He seemed to like it, or at least not to mind it (it is not always easy to know what's going on inside a first-grader's head), so we rolled the dice and bought an upright piano. I understand now that the boy's infant brain had taken the keyboard lessons to be a transient feature of life's pageant, like a bout of influenza or a trip abroad. With the arrival of the piano, and parental grumbling about how much it had cost, and the discipline of weekly lessons and daily practices, it dawned on him that this was to be something that would go on for ever.

Signs of rebellion came up. There were tears and scenes. Bribes were proposed, threats were made, deals were cut. After a couple of years of this parent-child diplomacy, I began to feel that settling the problems of the Middle East could not be so difficult after all. Thinking that the boy might respond better to a male teacher, we dismissed the kindly, patient old spinster who had carried him from "Twinkle, Twinkle" to "Für Elise," and hired a breezy young man  … who failed to show up after the fourth lesson. Of his successors, the only one to make much impression was Tanya, a fierce Bulgarian lady who terrified the boy so much he performed in a recital for her, but who then moved to New York City.

Now we have given up. The strain in family life from the daily fights over practice, the embarrassment of dealing with resisted instructors, the boy's unbending hostility — now entering its seventh year — to the whole business, has broken our resolve. Lessons and practice have been suspended "for the rest of the summer." We all understand that the cessation is permanent, and that one day this fall people will come to take away the piano. It takes a while to fully internalize such severances, though. We are still, as psychobabblers say, "in denial."

I will confess, too, that I have a sneaking admiration for the boy's spirit in struggling against the pressure to do something he really does not want to do. We all, of course, must do things we don't want to do. Quite long stretches of life consist of little else. Children must learn this. The spirit that struggles against it, though — the spirit of ornery rebellion against impositions on one's time and inclinations — is one of the most precious human faculties. If it were allowed free rein, no organization, not even a family, could function; but if it were altogether stifled, liberty would soon follow it to the grave, and human beings would be nothing but driven sheep. My boy will never grace the stage of Carnegie Hall, but he has learned to kick against the pricks, and knows that the world can be shaped by dogged efforts of will, in defiance of all authority.

Am I only consoling myself for my weakness? I don't think so. Human beings are not, after all, infinitely malleable. No one who has raised a child could think so. A human personality has a grain, like wood, that cannot be ignored. The trick with raising kids is to discover their grain, their innate inclinations, and encourage those that are healthful and civilizationally positive.

Will anything remain from all those hundreds of hours at the keyboard? Here Mom and Dad differ. Mom thinks there will be some lasting benefit, that her son might even return to the piano one day. Dad, ever the reductionist, inclines to the view that we have only been pouring water onto a sheet of glass. My boy's recollections of the piano will, I suspect, resemble those of travel writer Jan Morris. In her wonderfully dyspeptic essay on Vienna, Morris plumbed the darkest, coldest depths of her antipathy to the city when visiting Beethoven's grave at the Zentralfriedhof:

Yet even this grand sanctuary did not make my heart race, or inspire me to heroic yearnings: for with the gilded lyre upon its headstone, its old German lettering and its generally metronomic or Edition Peters manner, it reminded me horribly of piano practice.

(The Straggler connection is more apt than it seems. When Morris commenced piano practice at age four, s/he was still James.)

Meanwhile football practice has begun, there is a new school year to be prepared for, and the boy has read all twelve books in the Darren Shan saga with keen pleasure. Even music is not a lost cause: He played trumpet in the school band last year, and assures us he will continue to do so. There is only the piano to dispose of. "Can we put it in the driveway and smash it up with hammers?" No, son. You can't expect to love every aspect of the civilization you have inherited, but you must at least show respect.