Music Soothes the Savage—But Possibly Not the Sarcoid or 7-Year Old Boy—Beasts

December 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm (Uncategorized)

Our house has been quieter lately. There’s still the usual door slamming and video game sound effects. Jay and Andrew still communicate between floors by hollering through a heating vent. What’s been silent is our piano.

Since the sarcoidosis aggressively re-infiltrated my joints a few weeks ago, playing the piano has become nearly impossible. I can’t get my aching, swollen fingers to unfurl correctly on the keys. And without me providing motivation—or coercion—Andrew has also quit practicing.

We’ve been taking lessons together since he was five (he’s about to turn eight). Music was an important part of my childhood, and everything I read about child development suggested that getting kids started on music or foreign language earlier grows their little brains bigger. And we found a wonderful piano teacher. Theresa is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotypical knuckle-cracking, pinched-lipped, old biddy perfectionist that everyone seemed to have endured 20 or 30 years ago. She loosely follows the Suzuki playbook, but lets her students pick fun songs to work on along with the regime of “Lightly Row” and “Honey Bee.” She doesn’t start kids on mind-numbing scales until they’ve progressed enough to see the reason for inflicting scales on themselves. Instead of reprimanding kids for not practicing—or not practicing adequately—she rewards them with the candy of their choice from her heaping candy bowl if they completed five 20-minute practice sessions each week.

At the time we started Andrew on piano lessons, I was in the throes of neurosarcoidosis and infusing Cytoxan every other week to treat the intense vertigo and pain the disease brought. I felt like I wasn’t participating in Andrew’s life. Before Andrew and chronic illness came into my life in the same few months, I’d imagined myself as an active, outdoorsy parent teaching Andrew how to do all the active, outdoorsy things I loved, skiing, ice skating, snow shoeing, hiking. I foresaw long family camping and backpacking trips. Instead, I spent more days than I’d like to remember laying in bed, vomiting after chemo or immobilized by vertigo, while Jay took Andrew out to teach him all the active, outdoorsy pastimes that were mine.

“Have you ever had an adult take lessons?” I asked Theresa one day after Drew was done banging out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and inhaling a Kit-Kat. I had played the French horn through high school, and found myself drawn to the idea of reconnecting with music and of being able to share that with Andrew.

“Many times,” Theresa said. “But my adult students have to participate in all the same recitals as the kids.”

“I couldn’t just take lessons with Andrew and sit out the recitals?”

“No, that wouldn’t push you enough. And it wouldn’t be fair for the kids like Andrew who have to do the recitals.”

I could get through a recital, couldn’t I? I’d taught English literature to non-native English speakers in a foreign country. I’d taught creative writing workshops in the basement of a bookstore. I’d given a little speech in front of the huge student body of a Thai high school. I could play music with a bunch of kids, right? And there’d be chocolate.

“What do you think, Andrew?” I asked. “Would you want to do music together? Or would you like it to be your own thing? I’m OK either way.”

“Do it!” Andrew said. “I want you to do it.”

He seemed genuinely excited at the idea.

“I’ll do it,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the candy bowl.

At Theresa’s recommendation, I bought my own copies of Andrew’s piano books. Since I’d been away from music for so many years—and since I’d never learned proper piano fingering or gotten very comfortable with bass clef notes (with French horn you only have to contend with treble clef)—I’d start at the very beginning, with the first Suzuki book. Andrew and I started together on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which the Suzuki book called “Combination.” I was very excited.

From the beginning, I progressed a lot faster than Andrew did. Playing for a few weeks jolted loose some memory of all those years I’d spent on my French horn. Of course I was also an adult with much more advanced fine motor skills and cognitive capacity (on good days at least). We talked it over. “I don’t want to play if it makes you feel bad,” I said. “I’m a grown-up, and I’ve done this sort of thing before. This isn’t a competition. I want to do this with you.”

“You don’t make me feel bad,” Andrew said. “You’re really good.” He has always seemed genuinely pleased for my progress and proud of my developing skills. I’ve tried to be attuned to our skills discrepancy. I don’t want to lord my abilities over him or outshine him. I’ve been careful to introduce myself as “Rebecca—Andrew’s Mom” at our recitals. I’ve asked Andrew many times if he thinks it’s weird that we “do” piano together. He’s said no, every time.

For the past couple years, we’ve had back-to-back lessons at Theresa’s every week I’ve been healthy enough to show up. We’ve participated in six recitals together. We even convinced Jay to get up and beat on a drum to accompany us in a duet we played for the “Family Fun” recital. Playing the piano—at home during practice sessions, for lessons at Theresa’s, and on the grand piano in the space Theresa rents for recitals—has become more important to me. Music stretches me, and yet it soothes me. Hearing my improvement after playing the Suzuki adaptation of Bach’s Minuet in G Minor roughly seven million times is more satisfying than I can explain. Perhaps because much of my life feels wildly out-of-control when it comes to the big-ticket items like working and parenting, I get an extra kick out of exerting my will on Schumann or Beethoven.

I want Andrew to experience this same confidence boost that I get from chipping away at a tough song. It works for me, so I want to transfer the lesson to him. But he doesn’t want to work on piano songs right now. In truth, he’s never been the world’s most enthusiastic practicer. I’ve created about 35 different formats of practice charts to keep Andrew motivated. I’ve flat-out bribed him some months. A couple times I’ve said, “Practice five times a week for the six weeks until the recital and daddy and I will get you a big Lego set.” That one works nicely, but we can’t afford to go to that well too often.

And Andrew has become even more recalcitrant about practicing since I’ve had to scale back. To be honest, I hate making him practice. He already lacks so much control in his life, and he’s been struggling with my most recent setback. He’s asked many times in the past few weeks variations on the theme of “What’s wrong with your hands, Mommy?” and “What are the doctors doing for you?”

Mastering the fingering of “Lightly Row” and then memorizing the piece isn’t doing it for him. And I can’t bribe him into deriving something essential from piano. That has to come from within him.

I want piano to tug at Andrew’s soul, like it does mine. I muddle my way through complicated songs, struggling what they require of me. When I find a clear path deeper into the music, it feels like I’ve grasped something ineffable and essential. I catch myself practicing chord fingerings on the bed-spread while I watch television with Jay. I mull over minor chords, and fiddle with slightly atonal ones. “Do I like these notes, the way they uncurl inside me all day long?” I do.

But Andrew’s heart isn’t in piano now, just as my arthritis-ridden joints aren’t. This makes me sad. I’m not giving up on either the boy or my hands in the long-term, but for now we’re both taking a break. I’m proud of myself that I was able to ask him whether he wanted to keep taking piano together right now, and to want an honest answer. He said no. Actually, he said, “I’d like a break.” And I’m ok with that. I think that reflects that Andrew and I have enough time and activities together that we don’t need piano in the same way. It does feel like the end of an era, though.

My hope is that I’ll be able to return to practicing soon, and that Andrew will witness the joy and the respite—and the challenge, the growth, the intellectual stimulation, and the emotional connection—music brings me. Maybe someday Andrew will be ready for music again, on his own terms in his own time. I hope so.

Is there something important to you that you’ve been forced to give up or ease up? What have you given up trying to make your child care about?

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