Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Father's Day Performance

The Boy working the keys with his best pal

Father’s Day this year began, as it should, with kid crafts (and not, as it shouldn’t, with broken arms).  The Boy took a cast-off ribbon he found in the park (award-bestowing culminations are happening everywhere and for everything these days) and affixed a paper “Best Dad in the World” medal of his own making.  Q built an elaborate paper card with four origami frogs each sitting on either a blue (for water) or green (lily pad) paper pop-up.  It was so elaborate, in fact, that she had to show me how to properly remove it from and return it to the handmade envelope.  My lovely wife got me an envelope too, but I was able to easily remove its contents, which were four tickets to the Blue Man Group, a show I’d been meaning to book for us for a while now.*  I gave myself a bike for the holiday, and after the initial giving, the kids and I went out for a ride while my lovely wife stayed in to make her killer apple-ginger biscotti.

The biscotti was for the kids’ music recital later that afternoon. Q and The Boy have been taking piano lessons since September, and their teacher puts on a show every other year in which each of his students, regardless of age and ability, performs a piece. Their teacher teaches a little differently, at least differently than how I learned. He doesn’t assign scales or finger exercises or pages of A Dozen a DayHe focuses mainly on getting his students to like piano (or guitar or whatever), which means having them set about learning songs right from the first lesson, and songs they already know and like.  Given Q and The Boy’s level, the selection has been fairly predictable:  “Hot Cross Buns,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Happy Birthday,” but also “Yellow Submarine.”

Both kids have taken to the piano surprisingly quickly and well.  In the beginning, the teacher thought Q might be too young for a full half-hour lesson, but he, like most, underestimated Q’s ability to sit and focus.  She worked her way through several simple songs and went on to learning chords.  For the recital, she was to play a version of “Heart and Soul” with her left hand moving through the four-chord progression (C - A - F - G) while her right played the melody.  If the piano has clich├ęs, this song is one of them, but it’s a little tougher to play than it sounds (no right-hand notes fall on the same beat as the F chord, e.g.).  Her teacher had a fair amount of faith in her to give her this song to play for her first public performance.

The Boy’s piece, a selection from “Spinning Song” by Albert Ellmenreich, was even more demanding. It’s a clever composition with several theme changes in just a few lines, difficult sounding and showy in the way that prompts parents to put up YouTube videos of their prodigies racing through it with feet swaying from the piano bench. The Boy mastered the notes pretty early (to his teacher’s surprise and delight), and he slowly increased the pace until he could put the parts together at a respectable clip.

They were both nervous about the recital in their own way.  The Boy had over-practiced.  His execution of his piece took on some quirks he couldn’t seem to get rid of, and he began to get bogged down on a chord change that he had been breezing through just days before.  These snags caused him to think about his playing, which is never a good thing to do with a muscle-memory task.  The morning of the recital we asked him to run through his song one last time, and his frustration foiled him such that he had to try to consciously remember the last few notes but simply couldn’t do so.  We had to make him leave the bench before he could convince himself that he couldn’t play that song — or any other — ever at all.  When it was Q’s turn for a run-through, however, she sat calmly at the keys and went first note to last without a single mistake.  After she skipped from the piano to dress up a little for the actual performance, we noticed her lunch sat on the table barely touched.

The recital was staged in a trim and neat United Methodist church in a little New Jersey town about 40 miles outside of the city.  The sanctuary had been converted a concert hall, and not much of the church’s usual function remained visible apart from the organ pipes making a silver fence along the back wall.  The teacher had a house band set up in front of the altar that included a full trap set, a Korg keyboard, a high-gloss grand piano, many microphones on their stands, and several guitars and bases corded to various amps.  We sat in the second pew mainly waiting for Q and The Boy to perform.  We all knew they were scheduled sometime toward the beginning, but we didn’t know exactly when.

Given the teacher’s style and mission, we weren’t surprised to hear covers of Bruno Mars, Coldplay, some evanescent pop numbers we’d heard but couldn’t name, and a whole bunch of Adele.**  About a half hour in, the teacher started to call up his youngest pupils.  There were odes to joy, a phrase or two from the Nutcracker, a “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “This Land is Your Land.”

Then he called up Q.  She took her place at the grand piano, her white dress bettering the shine coming off the giant instrument, and I took my place closer up at the rail where parishioners kneel to video her.  I could see her arms quiver as she positioned her fingers over the correct keys to start her song.  Everything went well until she got a little lost right at the very end, but she managed to find her way out of her music with a solid C chord and then left the bench quickly to applause.  My wife and I know her well enough to read a bit of disappointment in her face.  The Boy was next.  I was a little worried he might not hold up if he made a mistake — but not too worried.  He’s the kind of person who tends to rise to whatever occasion, and he rose again there on the bench in the church.  He played smooth and clean, split a chord once but kept on going. At the very end he started to go back into the melody when he should have moved to the final lines, but he just stopped for a moment, started up again a bar back, and went right on out as he should have, no problem.  A smile began to arrive with the final notes and bloomed as he bowed just off the bench and then came back to us.  I was so, so proud of them both.

We all had trouble sitting for the entire two hours, especially the kids whose flood of adrenaline had crested and receded with their performance.  We snuck out to the fellowship hall between songs to get a head start on the cookies and fruit and punch brought by the families.  The church’s double front doors were propped open, and the day was small-town blue and clear, like the air had just been given up fresh from the grass.  All the kids, freed from anxiety and expectation, ate sweets and goofed with each other on the lush lawn, even tolerating a few pictures by and with the adults.

Both kids enjoyed the whole thing — or at least they said they did.  Q denies that she was nervous at all.  (She is so capable at so many things that she can struggle with admitting that she struggles sometimes.)  As we pulled away from the church for New York, Q said, “We’ll see this place next time.”  The Boy was already reading his book.

This is the paragraph where metaphors and analogies tend to arrive, and, admittedly, I’m tempted to use the kids’ recital to package being a father as a kind of performance.  Though to a playwright or musician, the whole world might seem a stage, it’s not.  Not really.  My family isn’t my audience (thank goodness, because tough crowd), and I don’t aim each day to put on a show in any useful sense of the term.  Much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing father wise other than trying to be decent, an approach that doesn’t seem up to the stakes involved.  Perhaps it’s because in some ways parenting — an embodiment of care so great and old — isn’t like another thing, which is why it’s more often a thing that other things are said to be like.

I do know that I prefer this kind of Father’s Day:  One where I get to see Q and The Boy reveal themselves and then come sit next to me, relieved and proud of themselves and altogether a little larger.  And then we have punch.

Happy Father’s Day, all.

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*This is the kind of gift I prefer — viz., experience- as opposed to stuff-based.  I’ve also just been thinking about how the kids are now the right age for lots of shows and that we should start going more.  Like usual, my wife is ahead of me.

**I’m constantly surprised at how many slight t(w)een girls choose to sing Adele songs.  They likely don’t have the experience that fuels her music, but, more important, they must underestimate the size and power of her voice.  She’s got a huge, deep instrument.

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