Baked goods in the key of C: a musical prequel

Last post, I wrote about my son bouncing from instrument to instrument in his school’s music program. Since this seems to be a genetic condition, it’s fair I explain how he inherited his musical vagrancy.

In sixth grade, three friends and I decided to become drummers. The music teacher needed tuba players, but tubas weren’t how we wanted to make noise; we needed to bang on stuff. We began with borrowed sticks, playing on an old wooden table. Eventually, each bought a lesson book, sticks, and a little drum pad. At year’s end, the music teacher retired. I presume this retirement was planned before he met us.

Meanwhile, my mother put me in piano lessons. My sister was going to college and Mom didn’t want to lose my sister’s time slot with her highly regarded music teacher. The teacher’s reputation was a mystery to me. She was a hoarder. Her piano was an extension of her clutter. It gave me anxiety to sit at it.

She was a chain smoker. Her house reeked of stale tobacco. Between puffs, she instructed me. I recall an image of her swatting my fingers with a ruler when I messed up, but that must be an invention of embellished memory. Yet, I did frustrate her by messing up a lot, and there was certain to be a ruler somewhere among the old newspapers and cherub figurines.

I hated piano.

Our junior high and senior high were combined, so 7th grade put me in the high school band. The music teacher was new. On the first day, we sat on risers as he called out the various sections. Players of the called section stood and were directed to their places. Brass, woodwinds, percussion, etc., he went through them all. When he finished, four of us remained. He looked at us sideways. “Well, what are you then?” he asked.

We looked at each other. One of us marshaled the courage. “We’re drummers.”

The room exploded with laughter. The teacher shook his head and pointed toward the back, where the older percussionists stood in their places.

A group of Civil War percussionist boys preparing to percussion the troops into battle ranks.

We must have ruined that teacher’s day all year, because in 8th grade we had a new one. After enduring our playing for a while, he decided we should try other instruments, just in case. The school had one alto sax available, which two of us wanted. We held a competition for it. I made the least cringeworthy noise come out of it, so I won.

I was even worse at saxophone than piano. All I played were overtones, until I got winded and whatever tune I was playing shut down completely, at which, no one complained.

Spring brought marching season. I was still playing a snare in band. One scorching hot parade day, the bass drummer developed a problem walking and keeping a beat simultaneously. The band teacher asked me to carry the bass. I thought I was in a position to negotiate. I said I’d do it if he gave me an A in band. In my mind, he agreed.

Maybe I had a lot of balls, trying to bargain with my teacher, but I was fixed when I sweated them off under that tyrant drum. But I kept the beat.

I got a C+ in band.

The next year we had yet another new band teacher. I didn’t care. Stung by band teacher treachery, I took Home Economics instead. Our town sounded better, and I baked brownies. Things have a way of working out for the best.

The little pianist, violinist, clarinetist, drummer boy

Our guest room has transformed into a percussion studio. There’s a snare drum, a marimba-ish/xylophony instrument, a drum pad, and assorted sticks and mallets where once there was a peaceful rest for weary guests.

Big Brother, the artist formerly known as a clarinetist, and even more formerly known as a violinist, and still kind of known as an occasional pianist, is suddenly a percussionist.

He’s been taking piano lessons for a few years. He’s pretty good. He could probably be really good, but that would require practice, and of course that’s out of the question.

In 5th grade, he had to choose between playing a string instrument or joining the choir. He chose violin, and he hated it slightly less than he hated the idea of singing for an audience. It was an unfortunate choice, because you don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to rent a voice for the school year, even one that just mouths the words.

Sixth grade brought the option of switching to a wind instrument. His mother still had her clarinet from high school, making the instrument’s cost roughly equal to that of a child’s voice. The small clarinet case was easy to transport to school. It was the perfect situation, until the boy discovered he hated clarinet as much as he hated violin.

A month ago, we got an email from the band teacher. Some students were being allowed to switch to percussion. Big Brother wished to be one of them. This was not a decision to be taken lightly, as it would entail the procurement, at parental expense, of additional apparatus, and (I’m hoping the email didn’t actually say this, but I fear it did) enrolling in private lessons – also at parental expense.

“I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum. My family spent it all on my drum, on my drum, on my drum.”

I grilled the child about this. Yeah, he told his teacher he wanted to switch to percussion, but he changed his mind. He probably wasn’t even going to audition for it.

Relieved at the false alarm of additional parental expenses, I deleted the teacher’s email and went along with my marginally contented existence.

Last Friday, at my regularly appointed time to nag the kid into practicing his clarinet, he told me, “Oh, I don’t have to do that anymore. I switched to percussion.”

“You said you weren’t going to switch,” I accused.

“Yeah, but then I tried out and the teacher said I was pretty much the best at it.” (Note to band teacher: You just sunk any chance of having him practice by telling him that.)

Monday evening, the boy and his mom were late coming home from his piano lesson. When they finally arrived, they brought boxes. Inside the boxes was my percussion nightmare, lacking only a cluster of tympany. I didn’t ask if we were renting or purchasing; I’m not ready for that info. Either answer is the wrong one.

Let’s see if he ever practices on any of this.

This kid changes instruments as quickly as . . . well . . . as his father did when he was in school. But that’s another story.

 

 

 

Give it the old middle school try

There’s an old American phrase: “Give it the old college try.” If you are not American and old, you may not have heard it. To give it the old college try means to lend a task your best effort, even if you believe the challenge may go beyond your abilities.

Saturday morning, we woke up to six inches of new fallen snow. I went out to shovel. Buster was planning on coming out to help, but when I told him he had to wear his snow pants, he decided he’d rather stay inside and whine about how much he hated wearing snow pants.

The snow was wet and heavy – the kind they refer to as Heart Attack Snow, because it takes down so many older gentlemen like me through overexertion. I didn’t experience any coronary events, but it was slow going through the heavy snow.

When I was half way through our driveway, Big Brother came outside, wearing snow pants and not whining about it, which made him my favorite kid for the moment. I asked him to grab a shovel and begin on the neighbor’s driveway. Our neighbor does helpful things for us, and I’m trying to teach the boys to be neighborly.

Big Brother went to work on the neighbor’s driveway and kept up a good pace for all of three minutes. Then he came back, complaining of tightness in his shoulders. I told him that’s what hard work feels like and if he did it a little more often the tightness wouldn’t come around so quickly.

I said he could take a break, which he understood to mean he should go inside. He did reassure me that he might come back out after a while.

A good day’s work – when you are 11 and disinterested in work.

There was no sign of him when I finished our driveway and sidewalks. I walked to the neighbor’s driveway to see what Big Brother had accomplished before his shoulders gave out on him. He’d cleared a fine-looking rectangle with sharp right angles. His work was an ode to geometry – a very small ode. Seeing the extent of his industry inspired me to think of the old college try.

I don’t know why it made me think of the old college try, because there was no evidence of it here. I’m calling what he had given “the old middle school try.” The old middle school try is what happens when your dad asks you to do something and it turns out to be harder than you thought, so you come up with excuses to give up after a few minutes.

I couldn’t leave the driveway in that condition, so I finished shoveling the snow. Thanks to the old middle school try, nearly 10% of it was already done for me. By the time I was finished, my shoulders and forearms were sore. It’s right that I should have more sore spots than the kid, since I’ve had the benefit of college and he’s only been to middle school.

 

When you wish upon a chicken bone

A couple of Sundays ago we smoked a whole chicken. After all the meat was cut off, I showed Buster and Big Man the wishbone. I explained that if two people tugged at the wishbone, the person who got the bigger piece when it broke could make a wish. Buster was lukewarm to this chicken bone voodoo, but Big Man was intrigued.

Big Man wanted to give the wishbone a good yank right then, but I insisted we wait a day until it dried out. I put it behind the sink to dry and Big Man only asked three more times that night if it were ready to break.

The next morning, before school, he asked me again. He came home from school asking about the wishbone. It was dry by then so I let him pull it with me. Using all the structural physics he has learned up to Kindergarten, he deftly twisted his end upward so the greater stress applied to my side. My end broke, leaving him in possession of the larger part, and the right to a wish.

Winner! Winner! A day after the chicken dinner!

“I wish for a tower of candy!” he announced without hesitation.

I had hardly disposed of my losing sliver of bone before he began asking when his candy would appear.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “That’s the thing about wishes; sometimes they come true and sometimes they don’t.”

He furrowed his brow. “What good is a wish if it doesn’t come true?”

“If all wishes came true, you could have everything you ever wanted,” replied the man without a handy tower of candy. “And we know that isn’t the way it goes, don’t we?”

Reluctantly, “Yes.”

“We’ll just have to see if this wish comes true. But you have to be patient. Even wishes that come true can take a long time.”

He inquired about his tower of candy for a few days, then moved on to other concerns. I almost forgot about too, once he quit reminding me every 20 minutes.

At the store, some days later, I recalled the wish. For about $5 and a few pieces of tape, a modest tower of candy was assembled and left where he would find it.

Not quite the Swiss Colony tower of chocolate, but for the price of a broken chicken bone, not bad.

I expected him to be disappointed at its size. I imagined him envisioning a tower taller than himself. He said not a single word of complaint. He was happy to have the candy, but he was thrilled that his wish had come true.

It wasn’t about candy; it was about magic.

I made sure to remind him that although this wish came true, it doesn’t happen all the time. Soon enough he will be wishing for a car, and I can’t patch that together with tape.

Seeing his wish come true was a precious moment, but it didn’t stop us from switching to smoked pork ribs. We need to steer clear of animals with wishbones before I’m overcome by wishes.