Are you familiar with the Suzuki method? I wasn’t. Oh sure, I’d heard of it—all those cute little violin prodigies, and something about kindergarteners learning how to play by ear that sounded impressive—but I didn’t know many details until I signed my kid up for piano lessons with a Suzuki teacher.
It turns out that Suzuki is great for kids. And really, really rough on parents.
Want to drop your kid off at a lesson once a week and pick him up an hour later? Nope. Because you’ll be sitting there during the lesson, watching and taking notes and cringing at each flaw that you were supposed to work on that week. How about listening to your kid practice in another room while you check your emails? No, that will not be your life. You’ll be in the room, listening, watching, helping.
I won’t bore you with the other details except to say that you practice the same songs many times and by the end the kids turn into tiny musical geniuses. What they do is incredible. They can switch hands and play the right hand part with the left hand and vice versa. They can play songs by heart, and they can do things like play the songs backwards, and they can improvise. They can switch keys in mid-song. It’s astonishing. And they all can do it.
Halfway through our first year I realized my kid had developed perfect pitch. It really could not have been going better.
But there I was. Night after night I sat in the chair, listening patiently to my seven-year-old run through the same songs. Twinkle in every possible variation. Honeybee. Cuckoo. Lightly Row. London Bridge. Mary Had a Little Lamb. Long, Long Ago.
All these songs, night after night. And me just sitting there, smiling and nodding and making mild suggestions.
The boredom creeping in. The tension building. Waiting for something new. But no. Back to the Twinkles. Variation A. Variation B. Variation C. Variation D. Honeybee. Cuckoo. Lightly Row…more Twinkles…
Until finally one night I walked out in the middle of practice. I went to my office, closed the door, and turned on the computer.
That was the night I bought a bass guitar, an instrument I did not play, because I needed something new to happen.
Learning the bass guitar was something I had always wanted to try. I had dabbled with some acoustic guitar without much success. But I liked the idea of bass lines: thumping out some subterranean rhythm while the melody floated overhead. You only played one note at a time, which seemed reasonable to attempt even at my age. Besides, I had listened to enough music to know how to support a melody with a simple bass line. I could read a guitar tab. I liked a good groove.
And now I knew a set of songs very, very, very well. Au Clair de la Lune. Goodbye to Winter. Go Tell Aunt Rhody. Eighteen songs total. Songs I heard in my sleep.
When the guitar arrived my son was excited, though not in the way I expected. I was hoping for a “whoa, dude, we’re going electric” sort of thing. What I got was more of an “I’m serious about music and you have just introduced a new instrument into the mix, which presents an interesting challenge with some good opportunities.” What could I say? He was a Suzuki kid.
“Can you play this?” he asked after I had removed it from the box and plugged in the amp. He played a part for me on the piano with his left hand. All quarter notes, a simple rhythm. A bass line I had heard him play literally a thousand times or more.
I checked my book to make sure I knew where C was and worked out the pattern on the guitar. The strings buzzed a little but I soon managed to get that under control.
We sounded fantastic.
My son clearly agreed. “And this? Can you play this?” He jazzed up the line a little with syncopation—not that he knew that that was what it was called. To him it was just a different sound in his head.
I listened to his line, my heart pounding. This is what bands did! Real bands, bands who played in basements and garages and bars and studios and arenas and stadiums!
I took a deep breath. Once again, the notes were the same as before. Easy. The rhythm was not all that difficult. I managed to play what he wanted. It sounded incredible.
He, meanwhile, played the melody with a jauntiness that floored me. My bass line and his left hand were in perfect sync. The way we fit together reminded me of those acrobats who clasp each other’s wrists and heave a third acrobat—the melody, in this case—into the air to do somersaults. We were doing noble work, his left hand and my bass guitar. We were setting up the right hand to soar.
“What do you think!?” I cried as we wrapped up the best Go Tell Aunt Rhody ever heard in our house.
He nodded with approval, eyes still on the piano. “And can you play this?”
With his left hand he suggested a different part. Once again, it sounded amazing. I was giddy with how well this was working. This time I added a few grace notes of my own. Like all instruments, bass guitar is difficult to master, but it’s pretty easy to get up and running if you have even a basic idea of what you’re doing.
“What do you think?” I shouted.
My son nodded and smiled. I was passing the audition.
We went through half the songs in the book. I was playing simple lines, mostly half notes and quarter notes. Already I could hear in my head things I wanted to try. And he could too! Several times he stopped, narrowed his eyes, and continued—recording in his mind spots where he thought the bass line could be improved. I could see he was getting inside the music in a way he hadn’t before.
“This is just like being in a band!” I said, concerned that it was more my dream than his. In high school, he would know just how cool this was. But what about now? Didn’t he feel it?
He smiled and pumped his fist. “A band! We can call ourselves…Lightning Rock!”
Lightning Rock. I was in a band with my son. A real band. A rock band. Who knew where this would lead? His younger brother liked to bang on things and claimed his favorite instrument was the drum. His mother had a beautiful voice. We wouldn’t be Van Halen or anything, of course. But maybe a few local gigs…? Not now, but maybe in a few years…?
But I was getting ahead of myself. This was fun enough as it was. My son and I were close in a new way: not just family close, but musician close. Where you can anticipate each other’s moves and read each other’s minds and communicate ideas without using words. It was a fantastic feeling. I felt as if I had reached some kind of pinnacle of parenting, one that I had not even known was there.
What a transformative purchase! This whole thing had cost 89 bucks, amp included. Strap and vinyl case and pitch pipe thrown in for free. And for a pinnacle of parenting! It was the best money I had ever spent.
I was proud of both of us: him for being able to give me direction—all those months of lessons were really paying off. And me, of course, for being clever enough to buy the guitar and skilled enough to take his instructions.
As I got more comfortable I experimented some more. Coming in later to give the bass line an echoing effect, for example, and now and then jumping octaves. Hitting the fifth instead of the root. Coming in with a pick-up note. As I did each little flourish I would stare at my son to see what he thought. Most of the time I had to read his body language, which didn’t tell me much. On occasion he would nod, which filled me with joy, and whenever he would smile my heart would jump through the roof. He liked what I did! He approved! I was making it in the band!
This lasted about ten minutes.
“How about…this?” he asked, playing a left-hand part for Goodbye to Winter that I had never heard before. It was a little tougher, but I managed to get it with only a couple of mistakes.
“Well, okay…” he said. Clearly he didn’t like the mistakes. “And can you do…this?” He played a different line.
This one was even harder. How did he rattle these things off?
I had to ask him to show me a second time. But he had already launched into Christmas Day Secrets. I started on the wrong root note and never caught up. “Wait!” I said as we were halfway through. “I’m not there yet. You have to wait. And…slow down!”
He lifted his hands from the keys and turned to look at me. He looked surprised, as if he couldn’t believe that he had needed to stop. “This is the right speed,” he said simply.
“It’s too fast! We’re just practicing!”
He shook his head slowly, puzzled by my objection. “But…it’s the right speed.”
He turned back to the piano and started over. Something bothered him: perhaps it was the first moment when he realized that I was just a beginner. Parents are typically not beginners at things. He shook his head slowly.
My heart fell. It was the same thing I did when watching him try something ridiculous, like the time he was four years old and tried to eat an ice cream cone from the bottom up. What’s he thinking? Is he even thinking at all?
Meanwhile I was trying to get my part right—the part he had suggested. My mind couldn’t quite remember what he had wanted, and my fingers weren’t keeping up with my mind anyway. And now he was speeding up even more. It was maddening.
“Slow down!” I said. “You have got to slow down.”
“Oh, never mind,” he said and changed his own left hand part. He was playing both parts now, the one he had intended for himself and the one he had invented for me. Both parts himself. It was an impressive feat, but I felt insulted.
“Don’t cut me out like that—I can get it if you just slow down!” I had to shout to be heard over the piano, which he was playing loudly, with every note perfect, of course.
“You need to speed up!” he said again.
“I’m the bass,” I said. “I set the pace! Your job is to follow!”
“I’m the melody. The lead. You have to keep up!”
He had a point. I doubted that Eddie Van Halen ever slowed down for Michael Anthony. (Who’s Michael Anthony, you ask? Exactly: he was Van Halen’s bassist.)
I tried to go faster. Of course I made even more mistakes. I realized at one point that I was playing in the wrong key, but how could I change on the fly? I was nowhere near that nimble. And he wasn’t slowing down or stopping. I pressed on. It sounded bad but not completely horrible. You could sort of bend your ear, so to speak, and hear how it should have sounded. Good enough for our first practice.
For me it was, anyway. For the Suzuki boy with perfect pitch, it was the last straw. He finished the song and swiveled on his chair.
“Maybe you could play it if you weren’t drinking beer,” he said, jabbing his finger at the bottle sitting on the table next to me.
I stared back at him. Yes, I drank an occasional beer! One beer a night, once in a while! Didn’t he know how hard I worked? Slaving away all day, working under intense pressure, and then to come home, listen to this piano every night, and homework, and baths, and reading the same books over and over at bedtime…and weekends were all birthday parties and soccer games and all things for him and his brother…my whole life was parenting, and obligations, and adult responsibilities…
I took a swig to demonstrate that I did not intend to give up the beer any time soon. He sighed in a way that made me regret my defiance.
Then, as I set the bottle down, he started again at the same impossibly fast pace. I launched into my part.
It did not go well. This time I lost the rhythm altogether and had to mime the notes with my fingers so I’d be ready the next time. When it was over he turned and looked at me with total disdain.
“You have to play,” he said. “You can’t just hum.”
The air was thick with tension. Was this the end of Lightning Rock? I could hear the voiceover of a million VH1 Behind the Music documentaries. “And then the band’s bassist, wrestling with substance abuse issues, was forced to make a difficult choice…”
No! I couldn’t be the bassist kicked out for substance abuse issues! I jumped from my chair, ran to the kitchen, and poured the remaining beer down the sink. I returned to the piano room, smiling, expecting a hero’s welcome. We were a band! Bandmates have each other’s back when they’re coming out of rehab!
Not this bandmate. He was playing Christmas Day Secrets again. Harder than ever.
“That’s in a different key!” I cried, aghast.
He nodded and sped up. I could not even begin because I had to wait for him to finish to tell me what key it was.
I do not have perfect pitch. We are not all so gifted.
Sighing again, he looked at the keys, brushing them with his fingertips, lost in thought. Then he turned slowly and delivered a gaze that shot right through me. Michael Anthony probably felt this way when they kicked him out of the band so Eddie’s son Wolfgang could join the reunion tour. No! Please! I was Lightning Rock’s bassist. I’d been there since the beginning. I needed this!
“Come on!” I said. I pulled out the pamphlet that had come with the guitar box. “Show some loyalty! I’ll find the notes! And no more beer! I promise!”
He remained quiet as I unfolded the paper and tried to orient myself amid dozens of chord charts that all looked the same.
“How long is that going to take?” he said at last. His voice was cool.
I looked up, completely humiliated. He shrugged and went on to play the song by himself. Unaccompanied. Eddie was going on a solo tour.
“Okay, okay. Let’s try one more time,” I said, having zero confidence in my ability to play what he wanted but desperate to keep the band together. Can’t you see? Can’t you see how much I need this!?
“Come on,” I said. “One more. One more try.”
“It’s my bedtime,” said my son.
Upstairs the balance of power shifted. I was required again, which gave me some hope. Did Michael Anthony ever tuck in Eddie Van Halen? Read him a story? Tickle him to make him giggle and forget about the monsters in the closet?
I was still the parent! It was my piano. My guitar. My house. He wouldn’t be able to play at all if it weren’t for my wife and me. He wouldn’t even eat.
Except the music. I couldn’t own the music in his head, or the talent and skill with which he expressed it.
Talent wins, and I defer. That was how it had always been for me.
As I was reading the bedtime story, I reflected on how many times I had lost in my life. Losses, losses, losses: it was my entire life until that point. Losses as far as the eye could see, with some poor semblance of a victory every thousand miles or so, bobbing along like a lonely buoy on a vast sea of losses.
Losses to a million different people who proved themselves better than me in every endeavor. That had been my most common experience: watching the superior talents of others be recognized. Losing to all those people, again and again and again. And now losing to him. Losing to him was no different.
Except it was! Losing to him filled me with pride. The boy – my son – had talent! He was already better than me! Well on his way! How wonderful for us both!
“That was fun tonight,” I say after I close the book. “Lightning Rock!”
I’m trying to rekindle his nostalgia for something that began and ended less than an hour ago. It was a good run. Van Halen had the ’80s. We had from 7:05 to 8:02 on an evening in February. The era of Lightning Rock. The peak minutes.
“I love you, Dad,” my son says in response, devastating me with his recognition of what I was trying to do.
Parents think too much sometimes. While I was playing out these psychodramas, he was just having fun. He was not following the VH1 narrative of a band’s rise and fall. He was just playing the piano, one night among many. And I just happened to be there too, hanging out the way we did when we shot hoops, or went to the movies, or got haircuts. For him, it was no more complicated than that.
I pull his covers up to his chin and kiss his forehead. There’s always a part of him that hates going to bed, because he wants to continue the day. I feel the same way. The days are not long enough and could never be.
“Hey Dad,” he says as I reach the door.
“Tonight, when I’m sleeping, do you think you could go back downstairs, and maybe practice a little?”
“Yeah maybe,” I say, chafing at the implied criticism.
But I can’t stay angry, because his expression is so earnest, full of hope and love and seriousness. And trust. He trusts that I will be able to learn, because that’s what parents do when they’re at their best. They come through. I smile and turn out the light. “Good night, son.”
“I mean…just so you can keep up a little better?” he says in the darkness. “We’ll have even more fun when you can.”
“I’ll try,” I say, hearing his smile.
And my voice catches a little, because I am alone in knowing that he has already surpassed me, and I will never be able to catch up, but none of that matters and it’s all going to be okay.
Music lessons! You can see my own childhood efforts attempting to learn piano in the popular Object #7 – The Keyboard (and don’t miss the follow-up post full of surprises). And of course there’s failure in just about all of these, starting with #1 – The Padlock. There are more insights into parenting in #8 – The Burger Car (Dad orders burgers with a slice of Proust) and #9 – The Intersection (Hamlet Dad goes to the movies).
All the Objects are linked to from the 100 Objects page. And all are available for free!
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