Grumpy about music lessons

This morning before I took Jesse to school, I felt inclined to hear something pretty but I had little time. So I settled on the bench and played myself a short prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. I’m obviously not performance-quality anymore; in fact, my playing of most things is halting and incomplete. But the notes coming out of the piano help me remember the beautiful music as I hear it in my head, which is really all I ask for, and sometimes I amaze myself with what my vaguely arthritic fingers are still capable of.

It went better than usual with the kids. Nick was running around making animal noises a few feet away, but at least he didn’t sit on the keys, beat my wrists with plastic dinosaurs, or try to grab my boobs. Jesse came over and rummaged on the bass keys for some rolling-thunder sound effects, but she actually stopped when I asked her to. Then she listened until I was done with the piece and announced quietly, as she watched my fingers noodle a tune, “I want piano lessons.”


It’s been a long road to here. I was hoping to hear these words someday. We tried Suzuki violin when Jesse was four, before we understood less opaquely what was firing in her brain. The teacher spent 4 weeks on the bow and wouldn’t let Jesse touch bow to string until she got the bow hand right. In hindsight, Jesse didn’t interpret this rather extreme approach as a learning process. Instead the reiteration of instructions and the need to practice the same thing over and over sent her the same message it would now: “you suck.” Since Jesse was late to language and verbal self-defense, and since I was clueless, she couldn’t convey this problematic feeling to me successfully and I couldn’t help her overcome it. Instead, by week 4 she just shut off and refused to participate in lessons, retreating to a corner of the practice room and whining strangely. I got really irritable about the whole thing, which – surprise! – was counterproductive.

It all made me very sad. When they were infants, I had high hopes that my kids would take early and easily to some instrument so we could play together and make beautiful music. I started piano lessons when I was 4; I was reading music right from the beginning; I participated in my first recital at 5. I always loved it. But now for some years I’ve been thinking my kids have the musical talent and inclinations of bullfrogs. Jesse has trouble remembering simple tunes and matching a pitch. When Nick tries to sing, he turns into a strange mini-basso, intoning on a single low note with strange overtones. Several times when he was a toddler, I had moms ask me if he was feeling sick after hearing him sound off. “Oh he’s just singing,” I would answer nonchalantly, shaking my head and wondering to myself if I should have his hearing checked.

But there’s music in our lives, and I keep waiting for osmosis to work. So my heart skipped a beat happily when Jesse made her announcement this morning. It took less than an instant for reality and experience to dampen my cheer. I looked at her sidelong, remembering the violin lessons and every other organized extracurricular activity Jesse has ever tried to participate in. It was like a surge of PTSD. “Would you use good manners? You can’t be rude to a piano teacher or act weird. I don’t want to waste money on that.”

(I know. I’m a classy mom. I have a deft, subtle touch when I communicate with my children.)

Jesse actually snickered. “I don’t want a teacher. I want YOU to teach me.”

Oh. I mean, oh no. Her intuition is right, of course. I’m the one who should do it, because then she can avoid a lot of anxiety and pressure. But I’m already exhausted just thinking about it, because I think it’s fair to anticipate that Jesse will act like a jackass and push all the limits of my patience. I’ll probably go for it anyway, because she asked and because I do believe it’ll lift her soul if she can get past her self-criticism and learn to make her own music. Like most things in the life of this parent, I suspect the lessons will suck, AND they’ll be awesome. Here’s to the next adventure.

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