Saturday, April 9, 2016

Piano Lesson Dilemma

            I don’t know why my mother decided that my sister and I should take piano lessons. Unlike swimming – another thing we pay others to teach our children how to do – playing the piano isn’t really a life skill. It’s more a pose, a boast, a feather tucked squarely in the back of one’s cap to be pointed at every once in a while and otherwise left to rot. I mean, how many people who took piano lessons as a child still play the piano as they grow older? Not that many from what I can tell (though maybe more than I think, maybe the secrecy of it all is part of the allure).
            While my mom would probably say that her own inability to make a piano do anything but cough and spit probably had much to do with her interest in our taking lessons, I imagine that our family’s social class actually played the more significant role. Our family occupied the upper end of the middle class spectrum in what was at the time a small furniture and carpets town in southern Virginia and that made piano lessons – one of those marks of achievement and social sophistication towards which my mom often strived - something we could afford to try. My sister and I, still young enough that we couldn’t really differentiate between our parents’ interests and our own and not knowing what piano lessons entailed until the decision was long past done, went along with things because that’s what we were supposed to do. Plus, it was exciting to bring a piano into the house. I still remember reading the name scrawled across the left-hand side just above the keyboard – Baldwin Acrosonic – and feeling like it sounded special.
Even though I didn’t like practicing for the requisite thirty minutes each night – Mom had to resort to setting a timer and even then with trips to the bathroom and various meanderings away from the piano I found plenty of ways to cut things short – I eventually learned to make my way through a respectable number of pieces. However, my heart wasn’t into it enough to ever get really good. The only reason to push on when a piece got dull or to repeat a measure again and again when I wasn’t getting something was that my parents were paying someone to teach me to do this. While that was all fine and dandy for a bit, it was not a particularly good motivator when the pieces got harder. At some point the input-to-success ratio got low enough that something had to give. Either I needed to find another reason to do lessons or it was time to stop and look for something else to do. I, like most kids, did the latter.
            Then something unexpected happened. It turns out that the moment I stopped taking lessons, the moment playing the piano could be something I did for me and not for someone else, the moment the music became a means of expression instead of social training, I started to really enjoy it. Dispensing with the lesson and recital books, I took up a couple of New Age piano solo books, playing them cover to cover, experimenting with how fast I could play the pieces or how dramatic I could make them. Released from having to meet anyone’s expectations, I found playing the piano could become an outlet, an opportunity to be loud or sharp or mischievous or mean or sulky or ecstatic or inside my head, to scream and yell or cry, to be something I was not for a few minutes at a time. I wound up spending many a lonesome teenage evening banging out two or three of the pieces that seemed to speak to me, calling forth thunderstorms or dreams or naked dances in the moonlight. Sometimes, Mom and Dad would come and listen – taking a seat in a velvety blue wingback chair that faced away from the piano, obscuring all but their legs from my view - but it always felt a touch awkward. I didn’t mind their presence, but I wasn’t playing for them. I was playing in spite of them.
            Maybe that’s what my mother was hoping for all along.


            Ironically, it is because of my parents that my children may wind up learning to play the piano as well. About three years ago they bought us a piano. They didn’t ask us first. They found a used piano in good condition at a charity auction and decided that it was something we should have; so they bought it. It was only after the fact that they pretended to broach our interest before revealing the fait accompli. At the time Ava, the kids, and I were living in a rental house and contemplating a move to a new city. The last thing we needed was a five hundred pound box of vibrating strings that only I knew or cared how play. And yet, how can you say no to an idea your parents have invested so much in that they are willing to rent a truck and drive the thing seven hours for you to have it? We couldn’t, and so we wound up with a piano.
For the first six months it was in our house, no one touched it. It sat in our dining room, a respectable upright dust collector with some framed pictures on top crammed back into the corner so we wouldn’t trip over it when we brought food out to the table. Eventually I started playing for a few minutes before Pip came home from school just to see what kind of chops I still had. It was a pleasant diversion, but in no way did it feel essential. When we finally bought a house of our own two years ago, we contemplated donating the piano to the owner of the rental house just so we didn’t have to move it. However, it turned out to be less painful to move the thing than try to explain to my folks why we left it behind.
            In the new house, the piano once again occupied a spot in the dining room, but this time it was centered on the back wall in the direct line of sight whenever you came in from the living room, right where you could never quite put it out of your mind. I continued to fiddle from time to time, playing Christmas songs and seeing how much of my old recital pieces I could still play, and Pip started plucking at it some too. After he expressed interest in learning how to play, we tried a couple of lessons together. But the dynamic didn’t work. As long as the pieces were easy, he was willing to let me teach him things, but the moment he started having trouble, he didn’t want to do it anymore. He’d been less interested in the music itself and more in seeing if he could do something that I was doing. Remembering my own experience, I didn’t make an issue of it. We closed up the books and put them away in the bench for safe keeping.
However, I had liked listening to him work on things; the plucking and plinking of the notes – even when they weren’t doing anything much – was soothing and pleasant. The sound of a piano with a child at the helm is not like what you get with a clarinet or a violin. With those instruments the bad notes are so grating they make you want to fill your ears with cement, but with the piano, the harmonies can be wrong and the rhythms can be all over the place, and it still sounds inviting. There is something timeless about the searching and stretching of a child feeling their way along a keyboard. The music that comes from this is simple, primal, tentative, murky, halting, repetitive and yet viscerally progressive; it’s like a condensation of childhood itself and listening to it always made me feel both hopeful and nostalgic at the same time.


Last year, it was our great good fortune that Pip was invited to take lessons through his school and, with someone else teaching him, he’s found some new interest in playing. In hopes of nurturing this interest while not overdoing it, I’m constantly trying to thread the needle. I remind Pip of times he could play the piano but never tell him he has to. When he finishes after only ten minutes of practice, I want to tell him to go back through his pieces again or find something new to work on, but I keep my trap shut so that he can maintain control over his own progress. I ask questions about things he’s learning and jump in to play with him whenever he asks but otherwise try to let him do it on his own. This means that some weeks he’s just not interested and when he winds up practicing only twice or three times, I have to make my peace with that. However, there are some nights where he’ll sit and play for thirty to forty minutes. We’ll be doing the dishes and he’ll begin with something he knows and then continue to something new – a new piece, sometimes a scale or a new chord. It captures him and he tinkers with it, often asking us questions or running through a tricky measure repeatedly until he gets it. On those evenings I take my sweet time cleaning up, stretching out the tidying and the sweeping, hoping that if it seems like everyone else is busy with their own things, he’ll just keep on playing right up until it’s time to go to bed.


It doesn’t look like Polly is going to get the same opportunity to take lessons through the school that Pip did and this leaves me stuck in a dilemma. Polly’s interest in playing is furtive and difficult to discern. Whenever I suggest we sit and play for a few minutes, she puts up a half-hearted resistance before dragging herself glumly over to the piano. Yet she has collected together all of the earliest exercises Pip brought home from school and placed them in a folder with her name on it. Also once she starts going she often wants me to find something more for her to play. She’ll go for a good ten minutes without pause and seems genuinely interested in learning about the various things she sees on a page of music. If she had disavowed any intent in playing, I would respect that and leave it alone. But she shows enough casual interest that I keep wondering if I should push a little harder, give her enough of a start so she can see if she really likes it or not. I feel as if she might.
There is one example that I keep coming back to as I ponder what to do about this. When Polly was four, I decided it was time for her to dispense with the training wheels on her bicycle. We were riding down to school with Pip every morning and the training wheels were becoming dangerous. Not only were they wearing down but Polly could get the bike going fast enough that one false bump in the wrong direction would send her flying. She needed the maneuverability and nimbleness that comes when the training wheels are gone. However, she wasn’t particularly interested in this project. It wasn’t that she was against it necessarily, but whenever I brought up the idea she preferred to do something else. She was comfortable with her training wheels and the challenge of learning to go without them didn’t excite her. So we came to an agreement: we would practice riding without training wheels once a week for ten or fifteen minutes; just enough time for me to teach her a little bit but not enough for her to feel trapped in something that wasn’t fun for her. If after our time was up she wanted to do more, we could. If not, we would stop for the day and pick it up again the following week. This gave her a sense of control over the project allowing for her both to plan for our lessons and shut them down when she was done for the day.
It took about four weeks of these short lessons before Polly was interested in doing more. But once she got there she really went after it. We would ride up and down the street together for up to an hour at a time and even started going out multiple days of the week to practice. The elderly couple who lived up the block began coming out to cheer for her as she improved. Within three months she was riding on her own down to the school and back.

I feel as if the same thing could be true with playing the piano. We could do ten to fifteen minutes once or twice a week, and she would gradually acquire a comfort with the instrument, the kind of comfort that could lead to real enjoyment in playing. And yet, I’m hesitant to even push that much. Riding a bike without training wheels was a necessary skill for Polly to acquire. We move about our city on our bikes and she needed to be able to keep up. Playing the piano is not. At what point am I helping my child and at what point am I merely indulging my own self-interested whims? It’s a dilemma that brings me back full circle to where I started. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Power of Holding Hands

            One of the things I try to do with my kids is make physical contact with them as often as I can. When we walk places together we often hold hands. When Pip is standing nearby, I usually pull him in to bump against me. When we brush our teeth together, Polly sits on my lap. I give them kisses each morning before sending them into school, hugs whenever they do something well, and piggy-back rides when things around the house get particularly slow.
All of this contact is strategic. As Pip and Polly go out into the world each day, I want them to feel connected to me. I want them to feel my presence - my touch on their shoulders, my hand in theirs – wherever they go. I want them to know that when they need support or help or care, I will be there. I want them to feel it – in their skin, in their skulls, in their bones. I can tell them these things in words all I want, but there is something infinitely more convincing when that knowledge is more than mental, when that knowledge is visceral as well.


            On most days we ride our bikes to school. We live about a mile from the school building and it usually takes about ten minutes or so to get down there. Polly has a pink bike she has named Taffy which she likes to pretend is a horse carrying her swiftly through the fields. Pip has a red mountain with gears and handbrakes that he got over the summer and he can really move when he puts his mind to it. During the early fall and late spring the ride down to school is really fun. The sun is rising. The birds chatter. The air is warm. We whip down the sidewalks and cruise happily along, bouncing over curbs and racing along the open stretches between streets. During the intervening months from late fall to early spring the ride is more of a challenge. The mornings are significantly darker. The air is significantly colder. Over time we’ve built up the proper equipment to handle these conditions. Each of our bikes has its own light that flashes brightly in three directions. Sometimes we look like a line of ambulances going down the sidewalk. We’ve also evolved the proper assortment of clothing to keep the cold at bay – hats that go under helmets and cover our ears, scarves to cover our mouths, thick gloves to keep fingers from freezing, and good coats to push off the chill. This allows us to ride almost every morning.
            However, there are some mornings when it is just too cold to ride even with all of our gear. Last year after too many frozen fingers and some collisions with stationary objects – a trash can, a parked car - because hats were pulled down almost over our eyes, we determined that when the temperature drops below fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, we should bundle ourselves up in all our gear and walk to school.
            Last week brought us two of those mornings. On Wednesday Polly in particular went all in, putting on three layers of sweaters and fleeces before donning her heavy coat then adding a thick scarf and a second hat over her first. This second hat was shaped liked a horse’s head and with its eyes and mouth protruding from her forehead she looked a good six to eight inches taller than she actually is. Running down the street with her hands at her sides, her skinny legs clad only in a pair of khakis and everything from her hips up layered in all that cloth, she looked top-heavy and a bit unsteady like one of those sausages that race between innings at baseball games. As Pip bounded up the sidewalk ahead of her she kept up a solid pursuit catching him from time to time before he sprinted off again. I walked briskly behind them, my gloved hands balled up in my pockets and my nose tucked down tightly into my scarf.
            About halfway down to school Polly stopped chasing Pip and asked me to hold her hand instead. In the darkness and with her face almost completely covered with the scarf I think she wanted to have me guide her along for a while, helping her keep her balance and providing some moral support as the cold began to overcome her initial burst into the dark. I was happy to do it. There’s a strength in doing something like that together. It makes the cold less painful. It also helped keep the two of us on pace, her moving forward and me from going too fast. It was nice to be helping out each other.
            It was nice for another reason as well. The previous week or so Polly had gotten in a negative rut. She’d started whining and complaining about things, pouting whenever something small didn’t go her way, finding something wrong in whatever was going on around her. What was particularly frustrating in all of this was that she wasn’t really sad or moody. It was more that she had gotten into the habit of talking about things in this negative way and had literally forgotten any other route through which to engage the world. At dinner she would want to become part of the conversation and her go-to starter would be to complain about something – the food, the cold, being tired. We’d ask her to try another angle and she would have a hard time coming up with anything else.
This streak of negativity had a very gendered feel to it. Polly was starting to sound like a prototypical whiny girl - a caricature of one even – who shrieks at the slightest provocation and groans whenever she’s asked to do something that doesn’t immediately interest her. This made Ava and I think that much of this was coming from being back at school with some of her friends after the holidays. For whatever reason, those moments of reconnection tend to intensify Polly’s sensitivity to some of her friends’ less admirable qualities.
After a week or so of eye rolling, complaints about food, and a general unwillingness to say anything that wasn’t negative in some way, Polly and I sat down and hashed out how these things were making everyone feel. We grabbed some time on Saturday morning when she was fresh and I was not yet frustrated over constant corrections and talked about ways to change the general scope of our interactions. What we came up with was an agreement that I would signal her anytime she made what I felt was a negative comment. However, I would not try to correct it. In this way we could make her aware of the things that were concerning us but avoid moving into the patronizing lines that we were all more than tired of hearing. Only after she had a better sense of what these things were would we then move towards finding alternatives. It took about two days of this for Polly to begin catching herself and by Wednesday it felt like things were on an upswing.
That she wanted to hold my hand that morning as we walked down to school gave me extra confidence that we were all going to be alright. The emotional bond between two people is never a permanent thing. It’s always subject to the emotional swings of a given day or week, and I’ve never been more aware of this than I have been as a parent. You have to push your children to do things they don’t want to do, to fix things they’re doing wrong, to learn lessons that no one wants to have to teach. These things are not pleasant, and they test the connection between parent and child. You want them to know that you love them even as you push or punish them. But it’s easy to mix things up, to say one thing and do another, to undermine one’s seriousness by switching too quickly to expressions of love, to bring your expressions of love into question by dwelling too heavily on the serious. You break the bond a little each time you have to disappoint them or punish them or point out when something’s wrong. And you never know for sure if those breaks will heal or eventually lead to a much bigger tear. So it was a relief to have Polly reach out for me to help her. In doing so she gave us the chance to heal over the smaller breaks between us and maybe even help make our bond grow a little stronger.
We walked on towards her school quietly and without speaking. This too felt right. Words would have been too abrupt, too quick, too definite for the work that needed to be done. Words would have required a rehashing, an articulation of feelings gone past, a dredging up of the past week that would either revisit our frustrations or minimize their importance. Without words in that moment we were able to keep walking forward, leaning on one another, helping keep each other upright and going in the right direction.

Friday, January 8, 2016


            There are plenty of times in life when your children can make you proud. They get a good grade on a test. They finish a puzzle you’d thought they’d struggle to complete. They share a toy with a friend without anyone having to suggest to them that they should. While these are pretty standard moments in the course of raising a child, they are still nice to have. But then there are the moments that really mean something, the moments when you learn something specific about who your child is and, just as important, what things really matter to you. We all want our kids to do well and be happy, but what does that look like in everyday practice? What skills, attitudes, or interests constitute at a fundamental level what it means to be good? These vary from family to family, from parent to parent, and it’s often not clear what they are until you see it in action.


            One day before school finished up for winter break, I went to Polly’s class to help out with their holiday party. The party ran up to the end of the school day, and so we decided to stay after and help clean things up. Just before the dismissal bell, I stepped over to Pip’s classroom to let him know that he should come over to Polly’s class to meet me instead of going outside like he usually would. When I got there, Pip’s class was already lined up at the door. They had their backpacks on and three boys were jostling playfully with each other at the front of the line. One had his arms and legs spread across the door frame blocking the way. The other two were squirming all around him – sticking their hands through the gaps between his limbs and tugging back against his chest. They were laughing and giggling as they struggled, periodically knocking back against a pod of girls behind them. The girls regarded this jostling with a combination of amusement and disgust. When the dismissal bell rang, all three boys stumbled out into the hall and scurried off to their various points of departure. They were followed by the pod of girls, a second clutch of boys who were hopping up and down and jabbering excitedly, and a second collection of girls who filed passed me in a secretive huddle. Then came Pip.
            In the last six months Pip has undergone a regular and consistent stretch of rapid growth. He has busted through shoes and outgrown pants in what feels like the blink of an eye. Fortunately, this growth seems to be occurring in an even way. His arms and legs haven’t gotten out of proportion to the rest of his body. His feet seem to be about the proper size. And since he’s slender and wiry, he just doesn’t look that big when he’s standing around on his own. As such I hadn’t realized how tall he’d become until that moment when, as he walked out in the line of kids, it was clear he could look out over every one of them. His eyes were about level with everyone else’s skull.
            Seeing me standing on the other side of the doorway, he smiled. He’s been fighting off a cold for a while now and there was an extra touch of pink in his cheeks. His straw blond hair, still cut in a simple, neat-around the edges fashion by Ava, was brushed straight forward and down with no part. The tips of the hairs around his ears were darkened by a shadow of sweat leftover from playing tag on the playground.
            As he made his way over, it struck me, not for the first time, that unlike everyone else that had passed before him, Pip didn’t seem attached to anyone. He wasn’t part of a group or palling around with a friend. Instead, he was moving in a kind of quiet bubble, his head up and those sparkling marbled blue eyes that everyone had said he’d lose as a newborn locked right in on me. I’ve wondered before at this distance he seems to have from the ruckus around him. I’ve worried that he doesn’t have a close friend or two in his class or that he doesn’t know exactly how to connect with the other kids. I’ve worried that he might be lonely. However, he doesn’t look it. The smile isn’t forced and his posture doesn’t reveal any unnatural rigidity. Instead, he looks like a person who isn’t fighting against things, isn’t hiding things, isn’t rushing to get away. He looks like a person easing through the chaos, an ocean tanker gliding steadily along regardless of the tide. He looks like someone who is exceedingly comfortable in his own skin.
            And I really liked it.
I don’t think this quality would have made such an impression on me had I only seen it once that day. But later that evening, I saw it again. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, Pip goes down to the Episcopal cathedral downtown for choir practice. These rehearsals tend to run ten to fifteen minutes longer than scheduled and instead of hanging out in the car until he finishes, I usually park and go inside the vestibule to wait. It’s usually empty in there – just me and the stony-faced kid who works the front desk – but it’s a pleasant enough place to hang around. If there’s something going on in the sanctuary or one of the chapels you can listen in to the music and most of the time there is some small art exhibit displayed along the halls. As I wait I usually pace slowly around perusing the church message board to see what activities are coming up or examining this exquisite recreation of an image from a medieval illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kells which hangs on the wall. In the painting the gospel saints, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are depicted as an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle respectively and colored in vibrant waxy reds, blues, and greens. They have a cartoonish aspect that makes them appear almost satirical, like the work is some weird postmodern cross between an Andy Warhol print, a Looney Toones poster, and a sacramental banner. The quiet of the space is broken only by the periodic arrival of members of the men’s choir who begin their practice after Pip’s group is done. Some of them will say a muted “Hello” as they pass but most just give a quick nod and smile.
Then the boys choir finishes rehearsal. The choir practice room is down a hallway, around a corner, and up some steps so you can’t hear them singing from the vestibule. However, the moment they break out of the practice room door you can hear them coming. The first three or four of them are usually moving quickly, bouncing against one another and talking in loud voices. In their wake come the rest moving along in various states of hurry. It’s easy to think of all this racket as disrespectful or careless but mostly the boys are just oblivious. They spend enough time in the church hallways that the place doesn’t seem any different to them than their homes or schools.
Somewhere in the middle of this Pip comes around the corner. Once again, he’s not walking with anyone and once again this doesn’t seem to be a problem. His head is up and his eyes are wide. Sometimes he smiles. Sometimes he doesn’t. He isn’t rushed by the speed of the others around him. He doesn’t stare after one kid or try to talk to another. He’s aloof in a happy, floating way, a way that seems absent of longing or jealousy, a way that feels comfortable.
And I love it. I love the steady calm. I love the happy distance, the sense of peace. I know this isn’t a constant state for him. I know he worries about things and gets hurt by people and feels uncertain about where he is and what he is doing. But the fact that in these bustling moments he’s capable of catching an air of peaceful self-assurance, even of delusional ignorance, that is something I love. He doesn’t need to fill the place with his noise. He doesn’t need to be cool. He doesn’t need someone else to give him confidence. He walks along. He smiles. He takes my hand and we walk out the door together. It is a moment of quiet strength that I didn’t realize was so important to me until I saw it firsthand.
I hope he can hold on to forever.