01 June 2009

When rivers flow on Mars

Tonight, my children's participation in the instrumental music program came to an end.

Instrumental music is required in the fifth and sixth grade, and the kids play two concerts per year. Because the school is small, the available instruments are few: violins and cellos comprise strings, woodwinds have flutes and clarinets, and brass is represented by trumpet and trombone. Each grade plays separately, and strings play apart from brass and woodwinds, so there are rarely more than three or four kids playing any one instrument, and sometimes as few as 10 on the stage at any one time. Add to that the fact that they only average about a lesson per week, and there is no shortage of homework and sports and other things required that take up their time. Predictably, the winter concert is always dreadful, in part because half the group is usually out ill and in part because most of the children have been playing for only a few months. However abominable they are, they are so earnest, you have to applaud and smile.

I think that instrumental music is a great idea, and I like the fact that my kids had an opportunity that I was never afforded. Still, sitting through the shows isn't easy, but I do it because it's important my children know I support them, and I'd really like them to pursue instrumental music on their own time.

Some of the kids take the music really seriously. The son was always great about practicing the clarinet, and he actually did really well. The daughter, on the other hand, has practiced the clarinet maybe three times in the last three months, earning her the moniker "The Woolly Mammoth," courtesy of her brother, for both the quantity and quality of her squeaks and whiffles when she does play. (Her bff A.'s brother announced that puppies die every time A. picks up her clarinet, so the daughter thought maybe being likened to a woolly mammoth wasn't so bad).

By the time they get to the spring show, the noise has resolved itself into something more like music.

Tonight, as we were preparing to drop her off, the daughter let it be known that she would be playing a solo. All I could think was: you've practiced three times in three months. And I prepared for a barrage of squawking.

J. & G., A,'s parents were sitting behind us. When the first group of strings started, the teacher announced the song they'd be playing.

"Did she say 'Scotland Burning'?" I whispered incredulously.

"I thought it was 'Scotland's Brain," the spouse whispered back.

G. leaned forward. "That's 'London Burning'," he whispered. "Or 'London Calling'."

"We can only hope for The Clash," I murmured.

"Play 'Freebird'," said the spouse sotto voce.

And we all ended up giggling, except for J. who wanted to know what we were talking about in the middle of the children playing.

And so they played, some bits better than others.

Three-quarters of the way through, one of the sixth graders played "Dancing Queen" on the piano. It was incongruous, though she certainly did a passable job and didn't miss a note. But I could only think back to actually dancing to "Dancing Queen" years and years ago and never in a million years dreaming that one day I'd be sitting listening to it at a school instrumental music recital, with lots of little people who hadn't even been thought of in anyone's wildest dreams.

The last segment was the daughter's group, and G. leaned forward again.

"L. looks very...determined," he murmured. The daughter was actually beginning to look like a woolly mammoth, her carefully brushed hair now all over as she craned to look at me out of the very corner of one eye.

Like she would be spitting pieces of clarinet across the stage, I thought.

"All the people playing the flute are girls," whispered the spouse. "How did Ian Anderson ever get the idea to play the flute?"

I kicked him.

"Maybe they'll play 'Locomotive Breath'," he sighed.

The daughter's solo came and she turned bright red, and played without a hitch, without a trace of woolly mammoth, with nary a squeak or squall.

How did you manage that, my child, I wondered, with so little practice?

From the stage, she looked at me again from the very corner of her eye and gave the tiniest smile of triumph.

Go listen to some good music: "When Rivers Flow on Mars," composed by Nancy Telfer. One of the younger girls played this piece on the piano, very perfectly. I'd never heard it before and it gave me goosebumps.

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