Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Heart strings

Sapphire has been playing viola since she was eight, an instrument she chose herself.

I'm not sure why: Love Chunks grew up learning the trumpet and the guitar and now plays the piano and I.... well, I struggled with piano for two years as a child and loathed it.

In year three, her class was the lucky one chosen by the SA Education Department to each receive a violin, viola or cello for the year along with lessons. Even their teacher was included and the couple of concerts they gave during year were pretty inspiring. After the project ended the kids wanted to continue, so every parent in the class chipped in to pay for a music teacher and rented or bought the instruments.

Sapphire was the only one who chose the viola and when we moved to Melbourne she remained the only kid in school with an overgrown violin. It's a tough one to learn because it is kinda sorta in harmony or backs up the main tune and can make for challenging listening when it is played on its own.

Signs have been emerging lately that the viola perhaps isn't the Be All and End All of eleven year old Sapphire's waking hours. There is a new 'to do' item on my list called 'Remind Sapphire to do her viola practice' and this request is inevitably answered with a sigh or an eye roll (or both, if it's been one of those days) and a tired, "Oh Mum, can I do it later?" refrain.

Do I blame her - no. She's already lasted a year longer than I did and could do in a couple of weeks what I was unable to do in twenty four months - read music. This she's inherited from Love Chunks. Both can somehow naturally summon the mysterious magic of being able to see black dots with sticks growing out of them on thin lines, work out in their heads what note they are; convert that into a command to send to their fingers and play that note on the string (Sapph) or key (LC).

Despite all the Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit, FACE and Good Boys Deserve Fruit Always learning techniques, I could not read music. My stubborn brain just did not get it. Being unable to convert the black marks on paper to the inside of my brain and back out to my fingers and onto the keys was about as achievable as not whispering during Silent Reading. Instead, I would practice the piece over and over until it sounded right and was learned off by heart. The actual sheets of music might as well have wrapped up the kitchen scraps for the good they did sitting on the little flipdown stand above the yellowing ivory.

By age ten, I finally plucked up the courage to say to my mum that I didn't want to play the piano any more.

She was disappointed and said a sentence that is as fresh and as true as the day it was uttered thirty three years ago: "When you're older, you'll regret not being able to play a musical instrument." How right she was, but in 1978, I had a much more immediate stressor: telling Mrs Matthews.

Mrs Matthews was an old widow who lived several blocks away from us and attended the same church. Her kids were all grown up and left home but married well, had been 'good students' taught by my father (he taught pretty well half the town) and visited their mother often. I'd have my lesson there every Wednesday morning before school using the old but neat music book that my own mother had learned from three decades earlier.

Wearing her preferred outfit of floral dress, homy peds and a warm cardigan, Mrs Matthews was unfailingly patient and kind, so there are no horrible stories of rapped knuckles, being scolded or having to perform at humiliating recitals. She selected a piece of music - always something achievable and, more importantly, something that sounded pretty decent to me - and taught me how to play it.

But if I was going to quit, Mum insisted that I had to be the one to tell her. Wednesday morning came around far too soon. I didn't dare drag my feet or I'd be late for school and being told off for anything by the teacher would have been a fate worse than telling Mrs Matthews that I was quitting piano. My cheeks would go all red and blotchy and stay that way for hours as my insides shrivelled with embarrassment and shame. Being late would not do.

She opened the door. "Good Morning Katherine! Are you ready for your lesson today? How did you find the Moonlit Sonata?"

I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was mumbled out clearly enough for her to understand, pat my arm, say that she'd enjoyed teaching me and that I was welcome to start again any time. I never did of course and as I continued walking to school she didn't suddenly rush and and try chasing me along the gravel path to beg me to stick at it: clearly the world was not going to become a darker and gloomier place for the lack of my musical contribution.

It also didn't occur to me that Mrs Matthews supplemented her pension by teaching and perhaps having to be up and dressed ready for a reluctant and not-exactly-talented ten year old on a wintry Wednesday morning might not have been the life she'd dreamed of either. I'm so sorry, Mrs Matthews, and hope that another pupil or three turned up to replace me and stayed the distance.

Still, as I hear Sapphire scraping her strings in her bedroom up the passage I hope that she does stick at it. She has an 'ear' for music and can tell you what note is being played - surely that should be nurtured? It might not be the viola that she ends up with but I hope music features in her life for a longer while to come.

Not the piano though - too bloody heavy to carry on the bus or around a campfire.


Elephant's Child said...

Oh wow. I hope she stays with it. I have a tin ear and it is one of the many things I regret. So many people get so much pleasure from something that just doesn't do it for me. I, too, learnt the viola (briefly). Reading music was beyond me, and I left. But there is a fair size part of me that is sorry.

Hannah said...

As someone who played piano and clarinet for most of my life but stopped during university as academics took over, I can say that I hope Sapphire sticks with it! I've just started popping onto the piano again when I visit my parents' place, and it's such a wonderful escape to just be able to play my old Broadway and movie soundtrack sheet music and sing to myself for fun :)

But I definitely went through the being-nagged-by-my-mum-and-not-allowed-to-quit phase, too!

Andrew said...

It would be good if she could keep some connection with written music at least. It is not like riding a bicycle. You do forget. My piano teacher is now banged up for child offences. He was creepy.

R.H. said...

My previous piano had woodworm. It also resounded a bit but was a quality instrument. I got my current piano at an op shop in Preston for $200. It came here on a ute and three of us had an enormous battle getting it inside. I've removed most of the cabinet, intending to get it restored, but never have; the pieces are all leaning against the wall. The only trouble with it was a few hammers were sticking. I freed them up with WD40, which gave some folks a laugh. Often I get in a mood and bang out Jerry Lee Lewis numbers, but an upright can't really handle that sort of thing, the hammers are too slow.
I advise all young people to learn an instrument and play it for life, you can play your way out of anything.

franzy said...

There's a comic I can't be bothered finding, but it's basically a picture of a guy honking away on a french horn or something and the caption is:
"When your mother said that it would be great for you to learn a musical intstrument, she meant the guitar"

As a childhood clarinetist/saxophonist, I can tell you that's true. Maybe not the guitar in particular, but something which plays music that you yourself like. What kind of music does Saph like? Maybe think about learning that so that she can enjoy making the music, rather than just learning it and having that be the goal. It's like learning how to lay bricks and never being allowed to build a house.

WV: pring!

River said...

To me, the solution is clear and in your second last paragraph. Ask Sapphire if she would prefer switching to a different instrument now that the viola is not so interesting anymore. Since she has an ear for music and can read it too, learning something should be continued if she's at all willing. If she isn't willing, then maybe a year or two off wouldn't hurt. She's had a good grounding and will be able to pick it up easily later. Or sooner, if the high school Sapph's going to next year has a good music class/teacher. And doesn't music count as one of the Math subjects when being graded at Uni?
I also regret not being able to play anything, but I can't read music either and never did have any lessons, which was probably a good thing since I'm tone deaf and can't sing either.

Plastic Mancunian said...

G'Day Kath,

If I had chosen the guitar over the trombone I might have stuck at it. Had I started earlier than 11 I might have done too.

Still, I managed five years before I got bored. I also used to be able to read music (probably can't now though).

I didn't start until I was eleven so it is never to late to switch.




deepkickgirl said...

As a child who was nagged to within an inch of her life to practice the piano I swore I would never do the same to my kids.

Last year Will tried guitar lessons for a few months. He was quite good, had a good ear but just wouldn't practice. We had to give up in the end because it was just money down the toilet.

Now Marianna is doing piano (after my mum donated my sister's old piano to us). She loves the lessons but again just won't practice. We're not at the point where she has two more weeks to prove her commitment (sounds so ridiculous considering she's FIVE). Then we give up for a year or two and possibly give it another try.

As a parent I find it hard to know which way to go with these things.

Helen said...

I played the viola for 8 years - hated practising but loved orchestras enough to keep going. Maybe see f there's something different she can do with it, I remember playing in 3 different orchestras and a band at one point, and desperately trying to figure out jazz scales to join a jazz band (although that had a lot more to do with a certain band member at the time).

Trying to play after a long break is so depressing, it sounds HORRIBLE!

Jackie K said...

I love music passionately but cannot imagine playing an instrument as I have no talent for music at all. I remember some music lessons in school and being absolutely lost most of the time. My husband plays guitar and bouzouki and can't read music but learns songs in one go by ear - he tells me about playing and his experiences and I am interested but can barely comprehend - I didn't even know all the TERMS used in your post! (glad you reminded me viola is the giant violin, I was going to have to google it). Kudos to anyone who plays music and is good at it - good luck to Sapphire, hope she continues the music in some form.

Baino said...

Ah so true. Keep plugging plugger, she won't regret it when she's older. Well perhaps the choice of instrument but it will help her pick up another if she chooses. I did exactly the same as you and gave up piano at 10. My mother played it all her life and her baby grand is still sitting in the corner next door. Not one of us plays more than chopsticks. I love it when someone who does, comes over and tickles the ivories

nuttynoton said...

Miss NN the elder started on the piano but after a year and her not practising we stopped the lessons, she did learn to read music took up another instrument as part of a band, and 4 years later she is studying for grade 5, Miss NN the younger started the Saxophone but her interest wafts and wanes depending what she is doing and we have to nag nag to practice, so do not give up and keep encouraging. Hope millie's leg is ok

Kath Lockett said...

We had a chat about it last night and she wants to keep up with it because "it sounds great when it's part of the school's Senior Strings band," which it does. Also it helps that she does have a soft spot for classical music and slower stuff: she's not a hip-hop or dance music fan but I'm always happy to help her track down music that she likes.

This blog can be quirky old beast - when I wittered on a few weeks ago about my Achilles it then got injured and is worse than ever and now that I've written about Sapph's waning love of the viola she has practised - un-nagged - every single night this week!

And yes Franz, we've given her music that she likes. 'Titanic' songs mostly at the moment.

Pandora Behr said...

As somebody who has a minor regret for not having piano lessons as a kid (though I did Music through to Matric and I used to play the flute) I can see where everybody is coming from. It's great Saph's taking an interest - and practicing. For me, I still wish I could play the piano - maybe that can be next on the list of things to do.

Nicole said...

I had the exact same experience Kath. I convinced my parents I needed a piano and they bought me a second hand one. I can't recall how long I lasted in lessons but I hated it. I too could never read music properly but somehow memorised the songs? I hope I can encourage a love of music in my children though and hope they choose an instrument to learn at some stage. For now it's bashing on tambourines and the demo on the toy piano. They both love to dance so maybe that will be their calling?

eleanor bloom said...

Have read your comment Kath & see the darling girl is practicing again, how lovely to hear (from here at least, being nowhere near Adelaide). I think it's cool she's gone with the less ubiquitous viola and congratulate her on attempting it at all.

I would have gone the cello myself. There's just something sexy about its heft and bulk and the strength required to press down those darn strings. Well, and the strength to carry the darn thing around - that I lack/ed more than musical talent.

In the US when I was a kid it was Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Which makes a lot more sense really. Who wants to be good for a banana?

p.s. - indeed the blog has moved entirely. i now be doing my thing here:

Vanessa said...

Oh yes, violin lessons began again here after a long and quiet summer break. Miss e broke her arm in early November so she has had an extended break. She had her first lesson with new teacher this week and is keen again. Miss i has her first high school lesson tomorrow but has already attended the symphony orchestra practice and strings orchestra this week. It is great Sapphire is back into practice. Viola players are an extremely precious commodity in this area and scholarships are being promoted. For her sake, ride it until high school at least because the opportunities for joining bands, ensembles and orchestras are endless. And great ways to belong immediately to a group.

Jan said...

I was a quitter too because of indulgent parents. I wouldn't let my children quit until they got good at their instruments and they are grateful today.

Strange how life works.