Several years ago, probably before Pip, and certainly before Polly, was born, the public elementary school they now attend rebranded itself around an arts heavy curriculum. The concept behind this restructuring was that every child would get at least one hour every day in an arts-oriented class and every Friday students would have opportunities to do more intensive work in an area of interest. In practice this is less dramatic than it sounds – physical education, library, and computer each get their own days along with art, music, and dance/drama – but the guiding principle is appealing and as the kids get older the intensive work times do seem to be giving them real exposure to both the creative and disciplinary effort involved in producing artistic works.
For parents, the most visible demonstration of this educational program at work is the two large musical productions put on each year, one before the winter holiday and the other before summer vacation. These productions include every child in the school and contain a mix of drama, dance routines, and full-scale musical numbers. They are a lot of fun to watch. The kids sing loud. They dance with surprising sophistication. They show great composure performing before an auditorium overflowing with family and friends
Two weeks ago, Pip came walking down the steps from his bedroom and announced that he was interested in competing for one of the solo parts in the show. As he’d never mentioned any such wish before, I imagine this impulse was driven in part by a desire to claim some of the attention Polly had gained after she was selected for one of the dance roles. What other motivations he might have remained unspoken.
That day he started trying out his voice in a concerted way and really working to put notes and words together. He’d always enjoyed singing the songs for the shows, but now he started paying attention to how his notes actually sounded. This effort coincided with the appearance of the Frozen soundtrack in our lives and soon he was belting out ‘Let It Go’ like a fourteen year old getting over her first breakup. In the process he learned to support his sound by using his stomach muscles and experimented with adding some vibrato to longer notes.
Then while walking home the rain last Friday, Pip peeks out from under his umbrella and says,
“Daddy, I’m not going to try out for a solo.”
“Why not?” I asked, surprised by this unexpected turn. Just the day before he had made a big deal about asking the teachers when the auditions were going to be held.
“Um,” he said uncertainly, “I don’t like the songs.”
Now Pip has been known to sing just about anything, so something about this answer didn’t feel right. I said as much to him.
His reply was to ask that we not talk about it anymore.
Obviously something had changed. I don’t know if he just got nervous thinking about what it meant to sing in front of other people or if some of his peers had trashed the idea or if some other thing had occurred that I couldn’t imagine, but he was not going to tell me.
I wasn’t sure how to handle this. While I wanted to respect his choices, I also wanted him to try out, not because I thought he would necessarily get the part or that he was destined to succeed but because you don’t get anywhere without trying things. A solo part in the show was something he had expressed interested in and worked towards. He should follow through on that interest if for no other reason than to see if it really is what he thought it would be.
In addition, these kind of opportunities – the opportunity to sing, act, play music, play sports in a organized way before a real audience - get fewer and fewer as one becomes older. Kids begin to specialize in this, that, or the other thing and there is less room to give something a whirl. As an adult these kind of experiences have to be balanced against the demands of work and family, making them always something of a guilty pleasure. This wasn’t necessarily the last chance Pip would have to try out something like this, but every year further on it definitely gets more and more competitive.
Lastly, I have found that the willingness to try things or not is often a matter of habit and I want both Pip and Polly to be more the former than the latter. Polly has had good success on this front. Pip’s willingness to put himself out there has varied. As such, this sudden backing away from something he’d been so interested in the day before felt like something to be pushed back against.
So, I did. I told him I thought he should reconsider his decision, that he should think some more about why he suddenly didn’t want to try out. I wanted to keep pushing further, to give him some examples of times when I wished I’d gone ahead and tried out for something but didn’t. I even began to concoct a story of a time I didn’t go out for a part in the school play and later watched from the audience wondering the entire time whether I could have made it.
Fortunately, better sense prevailed. Polly interjected with a story about what she did at recess that day, and I put my fake stories away for another time. Despite my impulse to badger away at him until he gave in, I was able to keep my trap shut and let my first statement be enough. Through the entire weekend I only came back to the topic one more time and then only to tell him that I wanted him to make a decision before he went to school on Tuesday, the day of the audition. He agreed.
Yesterday, Pip came out from school happy and bouncing as usual. He’d been sick over the weekend and had stayed home from school on Monday so I was pleased to see him feeling good. The first thing he said to me was,
“Daddy, I did it. I tried out.”
“You did? Wonderful,” I said. “How did it go?”
“I don’t know if I’ll get the part but I’m proud that I tried.”
I couldn’t have been more pleased.