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Redwood Bark

Redwood Bark

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Illustration by Ava Stephens
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Forced extracurriculars breed resentment, not talent

Johnny’s four years old today. But the world is such a competitive place nowadays – kids just aren’t the same as they were when Johnny’s parents were growing up. Johnny deserves every advantage so, as all the experts say, playing Mozart makes kids smarter!

When Johnny’s parents bought their home – settling into a modest but comfortable neighborhood — they exhibited a due measure of clairvoyance when they splurged to buy the Kuhn Bösendorfer Grand Piano that acts as the profligate centerpiece for their living room. Hewn from polished maple that’s pliant and ready to absorb any exertions Johnny’s fingers might place on it, it’s obliged, quite amicably, to serve as a glorified coffee table complete with velvet coasters that match the rug. Because Johnny will inevitably soon be playing at their level, it doesn’t make much sense for him to begin his musical career playing an instrument any less extravagant or functional than the pianos the pros use.

“Well Johnny,” his parents say, knitting their eyebrows in a predictable display of consternation, “You’re getting to be a big boy now. So your mother and I think you’re ready to take on some new responsibilities. We know how much you like the piano in the living room. Do you think you’d like to play it now?”


Johnny looks from Mother to Father, and back again, and — connecting the dots between the antiquity in the living room and the plastic Casio keyboard with yellow buttons that plays, “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” — he nods his head enthusiastically and a dribble of orange juice rolls down his chin and onto his bib.

The much-anticipated day arrives and Johnny’s parents watch with fascination as the prodigy sits down at the Bösendorfer to touch grubby fingers to ivory keys for the first time. As he plays – if you use the term ‘plays’ loosely  – his parents look concernedly from their child, to the piano, to one another and console themselves with proverbial banalities like, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and, “Practice makes perfect.”

“Besides,” his father says in the confines of their bedroom after Johnny has dozed off, “I’m sure, even Liberace had a teacher.”

So, the following day, Johnny’s parents sit down with a yellow pages, a telephone, and a testimonial from every parent with a musically-inclined child within a mile’s radius to find a suitable teacher for their child, one worthy of his talents.

They find one.

“One finger for each key,” she says, “Never forget it.”

After the lesson, Johnny comes into the kitchen where his parents are huddled. “What’d you think darling?” they ask eagerly, but Johnny looks unhappy.

“I hate her,” he says definitively, ransacking the depths of his limited vocabulary for an appropriate expression of disgust.

“Oh Johnny. You’re just not used to it. It’ll get better. Alessandra’s coming back next week. I’m sure you’ll like it better then.”

Over the next several years, Johnny’s parents square dance with a plethora of piano teachers, a myriad of professionals who all play at Davies Symphony Hall in their free time but have been known to make charitable guest appearances at the local bar – each burdened by the weight of their own genius, each devoutly seeped in the classical, musical tradition and utterly certain that they’re method of teaching will impart Johnny with a proper appreciation of the classics and a skill that will last a lifetime.

But Johnny doesn’t like any of them. As he matures, he complains that he doesn’t like music, that his teachers are terribly boring, and rewards his parents with sullen stares whenever the doorbell rings and the latest Madame Magicfingers or Doctor Terwilliger struts towards the piano, tinkles a few notes, barks disapprovingly, and clucks sheepishly for their check on the way out the door.

Although recitals force him to memorize various demeaning tunes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Johnny won’t touch the piano between lessons, no matter what tempting morsel is offered as bribery. He says he hates playing the piano and cringes when classical music comes on the radio.

Johnny’s fate isn’t unusual. Subjected to the rigid, unyielding approach of most music teachers – ensnared between their parent’s earnest coercion and their own misery – kids end up dreading their enforced bondage at the piano keys and a child’s innate appreciation of melody is perverted by the wants of pretentious teachers. But wait! Parents cry. Kids who play music have higher GPA’s! They’re less likely to get in trouble! They process language better! They get into better schools! The benefits of music education are undeniable, but how does it benefit a child to play Fur Elise the proper way if he never wants to move on to Canon in D? Of what practicality is musical theory if the child is so disillusioned by arduous hours spend in captivity that he or she never wants to practice?

Musical interest is, as a generalization, inherent. It’s in our wiring. Purely drawn by appreciation of harmonious aesthetics, I believe most children will eventually gravitate towards an instrument. If given the resources to learn at their own pace, this interest will blossom into a passion that will, indeed, last a lifetime – not just eight years of drudgery.




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About the Contributor
Blake Alm, Author