I had one of those unexpectedly lovely moments the other day, in the midst of the school run. This is not to say that my life isn’t regularly punctuated by shafts of brightness, not at all, rather that it is the school run itself that is rarely a cause for celebration. My school-week mornings, without exception, operate on a whirlwind schedule; I generally arrive at work in a sort of state of sweaty flap, and on my days off it takes me at least two hours, a couple of chocolate biscuits and a comatose stare at my smart phone before I feel remotely recovered. On Thursday, however, right in the moment when I knew that me and L were going to be not only late but spectacularly so, despite our best efforts, something rather lovely happened.
Not that us being late on a Thursday (or at least not rushing about, shouting at the children) is in any way unusual. For a start, it’s my day off, and there’s nothing like the concept to have you exiting your bed with slug-like similarity. I lie there hitting the snooze button at least three times, telling myself that because I don’t have to get ready for work there are at least twenty extra minutes on offer, and every week I am confounded.
Thursday is music lesson day you see, for my boys at least, and, as well as all the other things we do in the morning, the showers, the breakfast, the washing up and the putting away, the teeth, the hair, the turning off of the youtube, the packing of packed lunches, the checking of the correct books in the school bags and sending in of reply slips and signing homework diaries we must pack a violin and a guitar and their various bits of music and notebooks. You wouldn’t think that a couple of musical instruments added in to the general morning melee would make such a difference, but there you are.
The guitar lessons are a new thing for Sam. A has been learning the violin (slowly) since Year 4, but Sam, despite bringing letters home from school since he started there, is a new student. At first, when he brought them home I filed them straight into the bin, assuming that they were a circular sent to all of the children. Sam, despite appreciating music to a great degree is not what you might call a ‘natural musician’ so I thought no more of it. Until they started to come with more frequency, and he started putting them on top of my dinner, making sure that I would read and inwardly digest. In the end, despite our misgivings about his suitability for the instrument, we caved.
The husband took him off to the guitar shop, armed with instructions on what sort of instrument to purchase, and they returned guitar in hand, the husband rather fuller of tales of Fenders and electro-acoustics than expected. The day of the first lesson, we cycled up to school, his little guitar inside my massive carrying case. That day he walked out of school taller, and more proud than he ever has before. He practices away (with reminders), and we haven’t a clue whether he is doing what he is supposed to or not (R and I are both self-taught), but he takes it very seriously.
And last Thursday, while I was hurrying him through the front door to school, as I turned to go and chivvy L back down the path to her own place of education, it happened. I met Sam’s guitar teacher.
When your child learns an instrument at school you don’t get to meet their teachers very often. It’s usually at some sort of concert that you see them, and on those occasions they are busy; they sweat as they herd nervous performers into different positions, they look at the time and count and conduct. After years of producing concerts of my own I know that they haven’t really got time to talk to people like me who want to thank them for their time, for their commitment to my child.
And that’s what I did on Thursday morning. I tried to express, no doubt far too clumsily, that I knew that Sam was never going to make it to the Albert Hall. He isn’t going to be up on stage in a competition, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care. That for him, and for our other children, and indeed for many other children up and down the country, learning to play an instrument is about more than the music itself.
It’s about learning the power of practice, and how, when it all feels like it’s really hard and you’re really stuck and you’ll never get it right, a little bit of practice every day makes the difference. It’s about learning that if you stick at something, results will happen. Eventually. It’s about forging new neural pathways, the pleasure of learning something new. It’s about coming out of school with that guitar case on your back, your little chest puffed out because you are doing something you think is important; you are getting the chance to experience what you have watched others do for ever so long. It’s about that relationship with a teacher that is so precious and so special; the shared joy and interest in something that makes both hearts beat quicker, both hearts sing.
And, when I think about it, when I follow this train of thought, it’s about learning that nothing is ever perfect. It’s about bum notes and learning how to recover from them, in practice or performance. It’s about knowing that everyone has to start somewhere, and we all start at the beginning. It’s about the realisation that the perfect sounds you can get out of technology or recordings, just like the printouts we are so keen to hang on our classroom walls, are fake and mechanisitic; like photoshopped pictures of celebrities they give us unrealistic excpectations of who we should be, of what we should be able to do. It is about learning that music, and making music with a real instrument, is like us – human – and getting it right is hard.
It’s about putting the power in his hands.