Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Three Quarters Asleep - A Classical Concerto for Children and Octopi

The beauty of being without children is self-evident; not so with nieces and nephews. Twice a year, or something that feels like five times a year, one of the little blighters has a 'concert' at school. In English, this means that the school 'orchestra' is playing. Unfortunately it also means we run the very real risk of Christmas/holiday music and having to sit through it.

I recently had an 'animated' conversation with the child's mother about the entire musical question. Follow along here.. when is it a natural instinct for a child of late single-digit age to pick up a violin? For that matter, when is it a natural instinct for a child to pick up a violin for any part of his childhood? We know I don't have children, except for the kind who can't hold a violin, but I can claim some expertise in that I was a child at one point (a matter with which my mother will vehemently disagree - she says I emerged a small adult). I can at least speak for myself when stating categorically that it never occurred to me to pick up a violin for any purpose that involved anything but mischief. Wholesale destruction was off the table, as I couldn't afford to replace them. Granted, I am a rather extreme case (again, Mom will heartily agree), but I was always a guitar player, from the picture of me at 4, in front of the tree, playing a plastic guitar (left-handed), to the abortive try at about 8, to the almost fatal drive at 12.

At no point did I pick up an orchestra instrument, except for that one time that I wanted to see what would happen if I took a huge old bass, put it on my lap like an electric guitar, and try to play it upside-down. This almost worked, right up until the orchestra teacher caught me doing it. So our first item of confusion is why children pick up an orchestral instrument in the first place. After they pick the dratted thing up, what is the first thing they say to themselves? Gee, self, wouldn't it be cool to play some music that was written two hundred years or so before I was born? You know, instead of that music my parents or I listen to daily... Yes, there will be certain children, those children, who pick up an instrument because they're expected to and they excel at it. We're not talking about those children, we're talking about the normal children (welcome back to school, folks).

So during my animated conversation with my nephew's mother, I asked these questions.  Mom, being a rather single-minded person, managed to pull through this conversation unscathed, largely by completely ignoring any question I asked her. This is a technique that works impossibly well for anything from instrumental discussions to Congressional grilling. She kept talking about how well he was doing. At no point did I hear anything about asking the child if he wanted to play an instrument, particularly this instrument. The wife asked him, at some point, if he liked the violin and he stated categorically that he did not. Having been a child, I can guarantee that this is not the correct way to go about encouraging a child to pick up an instrument. The child needs to want to, plus the material needs to be relevant to make it interesting for the player.  Meanwhile, the kids rush to pick up my guitar when I bring it over - a sign of an instrument they want to play. Well, that and the drums - an instrument taken up solely to annoy those around them, especially their parents.

As it turns out, one child needed a better instrument and his old one got handed down to another. No word on whether that child wants a violin either but apparently this is not an issue. Bent on further destruction (for some reason I like to pull the tiger's tail), I asked the parent about left-handed violins, as one of the kids is a lefty. This caused a bit of confusion on Mom's part, but the kids set out to figure this out. It turns out at least one of them holds the violin left-handed, a fact that caused much laughter on the part of all involved, especially when they realized I was poking their mother. Mom, for her part, managed to skirt the discussion by employing her time-tested method of ignoring the question (and me, which is a popular pastime for many who know me).


We arrived thirty minutes early, in hopes of getting a parking spot. As I might have mentioned, this particular school has an interesting parking spot layout, which guarantees that anyone not arriving at least thirty minutes early will have to take a shuttle to the school, having parked in the next county. As this happened three times, I eventually learned my lesson. Sorta. Mrs lefty has a handicapped tag, so we looked for a handicapped spot. We found them, and we found all five of them full because no one told me you have to arrive a full sixty minutes early for a handicapped spot (so you can mill around uncomfortably inside). I hate this place but this is my nephew's show... so we parked a respectable distance from the building, in a spot not requiring additional transport to the venue. Mrs lefty wore her trademark antlers, designed solely to get a rise out of the children's mother. She always succeeds.

There were choruses. Again, choruses singing ancient music the children had never heard before, nor will they ever again. My guess is that their teacher decided on the songs to impress someone, possibly two hundred year dead composers, who would never weigh in on whether they liked the selection or not. If they do weigh in, I want to be there to hear it. The thought that never occurred to the teacher or the students is that the audience never heard the songs either. This is cruel, as the audience, there out of obligation (except for the parents, each with their own camcorder and phone), is made to endure children performing songs they don't know. Much squirming ensued.

As if ancient songs weren't enough, the children also sang songs from recent movies, Disney included. Assuming for the moment that Disney does not sue the entire school district, state board of education, and each student individually, what is the point of singing songs from popular movies? The kids might decide they'd rather sing two hundred year old songs instead, or rather the parents might decide they like hearing two hundred year old songs instead. This is complicated by what one would expect from a restaurant or airplane: a screaming child, alternating between loud screams of distress and loud screams of joy. Most people, except for those in restaurants and airplanes, know when their child is squalling like an entire room full of children with diaper rash, and remove them promptly. This parent apparently wanted to share the joy and distress with an auditorium of one hundred proud parents and several hundred more who showed up (or were dragged) out of obligation.

I'm sorry - my medicine hasn't kicked in yet.

After this stunning vocal treat, it was time for the Younger Concert: fifty children manhandling out-of-tune brown orchestral stringed instruments. The director was an obviously very talented individual, causing one to wonder how she managed to produce an orchestra in which forty percent of the members were inherently incapable of playing in tune.  Perhaps, like the proud parent of the screaming infant, she did not hear the out-of-tune children.  It is said that people who live near airports no longer hear the airplanes, so at least they have that going for them.

Let me step outside of the story for a second to state that I am not, in any way, allowing my many years in music compare to what these brave children were doing. That would be grossly unfair. Some children can't sing, so it's not fair to judge the chorus. Instrumentalists, however, merit a bit more scrutiny. One cannot expect famous talent from these kids, but one can expect them to be in tune, even if someone else tuned their instruments for them. One violin player can listen to the next player over and instantly know something is wrong when both are playing the 'same' note (trust me, this is fact). Obviously this did not bother the children, but, judging from some of the audience grimaces, bothered others. Still, it was evident that everyone got a trophy for participating.

After this, the Older Concert commenced. It was obvious that there was talent. It was also visually apparent that the kids were coming into their own as individuals. There was a child who looked like he could be blind but perhaps not, as everything he did seemed to occur half a beat behind the other children. The ones with more hair on one side than the other, and the children who would soon discover that their wiring was not like that of most of their friends. They too performed the songs of very dead composers, as well as horribly-arranged holiday tunes from ancient societies in languages no longer known to man.

After the chorus abated, it was time for the music. It became immediately apparent what an additional year could do for students on their pre-chosen instruments. Only twenty percent of these musicians were out of tune, as opposed to the previous forty. Unfortunately both sets of musicians featured some kids who seemed to be playing with the orchestra at the next school down the street. They did not necessarily play out of tune so much as out of time. They were like an echo of the kids who were playing in time, causing great commotion, mostly ignored by the audience.

After the show, I commented to my nephews' father that the child showed great improvement, with he group being nowhere near as out-of-tune as the other group (my nephew being perfectly in tune, of course). At this point, I heard a female voice behind me, talking to my nephew about some important fact or other. I turned around to find a male student, with too much hair on one side, who would soon discover that his wiring was not like that of most of his friends. Fortunately, no one would be surprised or care.

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