Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This is the year that my middle child gets to play either a band or string instrument as part of our school’s music program. After a few days worth of exploration, a petting zoo of instruments, Duncan decided to play the trombone. Yes. The trombone.

To be honest, I have no relationship whatsoever with trombones. I couldn’t even tell you what it sounds like except in a vague trumpet-y sort of way. Now that we have one in the house, let me tell you, a trombone is one flashy, big, loud, shiny instrument. It comes in a large, heavy case. I actually thought about bribing my son to choose something that I perceived as more elegant, like the cello or the clarinet. But Duncan proudly informed me that he was one of the few kids who managed to make three different sounds with the mouthpiece alone. I knew he was hooked.

Duncan loves the trombone. The look on his face when he opened the case and explored was pure bliss, especially when he discovered the spit valve. (Really, what could be better for a 9-year-old boy?) And the sounds that come out of that thing are so deeply annoying and loud that we secretly think of it as Duncan’s weapon… a satisfying weapon, used to annoy family members in the name of “practice.” We’ve already had to institute a “No Early Morning Practice” rule.

Last Wednesday, I took Duncan to the Band & Strings Kick-off Meeting. This was a district-wide event, so there were about 6 music teachers on hand to talk about the program. I should say here, I am not a musician. Other than a passing (and mandatory) flirtation with the violin and the flute, I pretty much skipped the whole music thing. But there have been musicians in my family. In fact, my childhood was littered with music; three “rock star” brothers and a string of drums, tubular bells, and electric guitars. Hell, my father played the BONGOS. At some point my mother, to her credit, gave over our living room to the riot of noise. It became the “music room” right in the middle of our house. She even covered an ugly, hand-me-down piano in aluminum foil, trying to make it work with the rest of her mid-seventies d├ęcor, but that's another story. Confession: I used to pretend that the phone was ringing just to have a quiet hiatus. This only worked some of the time.

But back to the Kick-off Meeting. When the high school marching band filed into the auditorium with the drum-line leading the way, I had to look down because I got so choked up by their performance. The youth. The earnest vitality. The talent or lack of it. The music filled the space and stirred my very soul. After the performance, the kids went to different rooms, instrument by instrument, for a little teaching session, while the parents stayed behind for a talk with the music teachers.

They talked about practicing: how the kids will learn a simple song like Hot Cross Buns and then do “Ambush Tours” around the school to show it off. They talked about how music can help get your kid into a good college, how it can help them organize their time, how it can improve their lung capacity and motor skills. They talked about how music moves a child away from an instant-gratification society to one grounded in hard work and positive self-worth. They said all of this to justify something that in my mind needs no justification whatsoever. Music, the arts, it all makes the world a better place. They told us to always encourage them. Always. And to hang on because really, they will get better over time.

But what struck me more than anything was the sheer delight and true passion these teachers had. To be honest, they’re all just a teensy, tiny little bit…quirky. I mean, who could possibly devote their careers to teaching 4th graders how to get a sound of out a trombone that wasn’t fart-like? Day after day? Class after class? God love them. They can’t help themselves. They are committed, that intense. “Those Weirdo’s,” I thought to myself as I went down to my basement and finished the 275th pinch pot of the year, “What a strange passion they have…”

And really, this is why I didn’t exert my control-freaky self on Duncan’s trombone choice. Making art in any form takes an abnormal kind of devotion and passion. It takes practicing every day whether you’re really in the mood or not. It takes not getting discouraged, having faith, celebrating all the little break-throughs, believing in yourself, loving the process, loving the spit valve and the lint-free cleaning cloth. It takes love.

I figure that to do any of this you’d better start off liking your instrument. Hot Cross Buns, here we come!

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