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.

 

 

 

Hi, I’m Grumpy, and this is my brother, Sleepy – and this is my other brother, Sleepy

I know it’s going to be a difficult morning when I go to wake Buster. Buster is the closest kid we have to a morning person. After one week of school, I’ve formed the habit of getting him up first. I start off easy and work my way up to the hard cases.

It’s Tuesday morning, after the long Labor Day weekend. Last week went all right, but now they’ve had a four-day weekend to consider things and realize they dislike school just as much as they ever did. The new year hasn’t changed the fact that “The Man” is still holding them down with classroom rules and homework.

They’ve gone for the gusto over these four days off, trying to relive the entire summer in a long weekend. It’s time to pay the piper.

Buster (2nd grade) doesn’t sit up when I put my hand on his covers. I try to rub him awake. “I can’t,” he groans. “I’m too tired.” I pull the covers off him. He pulls them back on.

I move three feet below to the lower bunk. I don’t have high hopes for waking Big Man. Big Man (Kindergarten) is sleeping upside down. This isn’t a good sign he’s well-rested and ready to face a new day. He does not respond to any of my gentle attempts to rouse him. The lower bunk is like a bear cave. I contort myself to squeeze under the upper bunk without banging my head (which I’ve already done twice in 3.5 days of school). I grab the cub’s toe and drag him out of his hole.

Leaving Big Man in the bathroom to brush his teeth, at least the front ones, I return to Buster. All the tumult in the bunk below has made it impossible for him to get any rest. His spirit is broken and he allows me to carry him to the bathroom.

It’s now time to tackle the biggest Billy goat. At least Big Brother (6th grade) doesn’t have a bunk bed, so I won’t bruise myself waking him. He is larger though, so I have to pull by booth feet to drag him from the bed.

Downstairs, I offer the little boys breakfast. Buster answers all my overtures with grunts. Big Man says he isn’t hungry, but I don’t want to send them off with empty bellies. Big Man finally condescends to accept some bread and butter. I’ve got to get these kids off and get myself to work, so I don’t have time to negotiate him into a heartier meal.

I give Buster and pad and pen. I tell him to write what he wants to eat. He doesn’t know how to sound out grunts, so he writes Nothing. It’s spelled right.

I hate to send him to school like this, but he might learn a lesson from a hungry morning. Plus, he spelled Nothing right. It’s too early in the morning not to accept the victories these kids hand me.

This one’s all ready to go. Good work, Dad!

Portraits of the artist as a 1st grader

As of noon yesterday, the school year is officially over. Truth be told, we’ve been phoning it in for a couple weeks now. Even though this June has been cool and wet, the sun still stays up late, and that’s enough to make it feel like summer vacation.

Besides, with all the field trips and special events that end the year, it’s hard for anybody to concentrate on homework or any straggling, late-year tests. The birds in the trees say it’s summer, and who should know these things better than them?

The boys have spent the last week cleaning out their lockers and desks. Our house looks like a paper recycling plant with a year’s worth of schoolwork dumped from their backpacks in daily doses. Most of this rubble of their educations is going straight to the real recycling plant, but there are a few gems that merit saving.

Big Brother is old enough to realize that if he throws it out at school, he doesn’t have to carry it home, so most of the reams of school-year detritus are supplied by Buster. In 1st grade, you dutifully bring it all home, hand it to your parents, and it becomes their problem what to do with it. Your problems are over until fall.

Of all the things Buster brought home in the final cleanout frenzy, this is my favorite.

Nothing quite captures the melancholy passage of time and turns it into a model prisoner like regular self-portraits from elementary school. Here are a few highlights:

He came into 1st grade with the maniacal smile of a comic book villain. He was also suffering from a lack of sleep, or maybe pink eye. The colored pencils had not been distributed yet, so it’s hard to tell.

By December he’d gotten his color back. A few months of solid rest made him bright-eyed, and even perhaps a little dilated. In preparation for a cold winter, he’d grown a nice pair of warm eyebrows.

Now, at year’s end, he looks like such a nice boy. He might be a little dizzy, but the end of a long year will do that to you. He’s been crowned and earned a star, which are both great confidence builders for a six-year-old. I struggled to figure out what “6 set” meant for a while before I realized it was his disordered spelling of “best”.  He is the best 1st grade graduate. I wasn’t expecting this, but I’m extremely proud to learn he earned that honor. I’m sorry to all the other 1st grade graduates that they did not win this award, but 2nd grade, and another chance, is right around the corner.

But for now, enjoy the summer, and maybe help Mom and Dad bundle up papers for a trip to the recycling center.