When I was growing up, my parents forced me to do a lot of things that I didn't want to do. I had to clean my room, make my bed, go to Sunday School, and worst of all, take piano lessons. Whenever I tried to negotiate my way out of these tasks my father would say, “Alison, there are a lot of decisions you are going to make in your life, but this isn't one of them.” It was a line I heard quite often. And now that I am a parent, it is a line that I find myself using quite often with our three boys. Especially when it comes to playing an instrument.
Everyone knows that forcing your child to play an instrument is a parental rite of passage. We do unto them as our parents did unto us. I am reminded of this every night when I hear our thirteen-year-old, Abe, playing his classical guitar in the living room. While my husband and I find the music both soothing and impressive, we know that each practice session will inevitably end with a tirade of anger and frustration as Abe reminds us that we are the meanest parents in the whole world for making him take guitar. To be fair, we didn’t force him to take guitar; we just didn't give him a choice. Although he was initially resistant, he did agree to start playing in seventh grade once I told him that guys who play guitar get the girls. This might have been a convincing argument for a seventh grader, but as an eighth grader he has changed his tune. And it's one that I know all too well.
When I was his age, I was forced to play the piano. After eight years of lessons I had little to show for my efforts except a bad habit of biting my nails and the ability to play either hand of “Heart and Soul,” which I actually learned from my Nana, and not from Mrs. Englebert, my piano teacher.
I was never good at reading music, and even years of supplemental theory classes didn't help. Sadly, the acronyms I learned when I was in first grade are still the only way I can read the notes on a treble or bass clef today. Every Good Boy Does Fine. FACE. Great Big Dogs Fight Animals. All Cows Eat Grass. At least I know where middle C is. I think. My mother would constantly nag me to practice and would justify her nagging by saying, “Barry Manilow's mother used to force him to practice piano every day, and look how he turned out!” I didn't care. I hated that piano. And Barry Manilow.
In eighth grade I convinced my parents to let me switch to the acoustic guitar. I traded in Mrs. Englebert for Marc Morrison, who was a senior and one of the coolest guys in my high school. Instead of reading sheet music and playing songs like “Für Elise,” I got to play by ear and learn songs like “Blackbird.” It was bye-bye Beethoven, and hello Beatles. Instead of sitting on a floral covered couch, I got to hang out on a giant bean bag in his basement and jam on his electric guitar at the end of every lesson. But after nine short months of playing the guitar I realized that the piano wasn't the problem after all. I was. I was musically challenged. I couldn't stand the necessary calluses forming on my fingertips, and never got the feel for holding the guitar or got past the awkward finger placement. I noticed that Marc would slightly cringe at every note I tried to play, so when he graduated my guitar lessons came to an abrupt end, without so much as a single song under my belt. That blackbird never did learn to fly.
Even though Abe and I have a shared resentment toward our parents for making us play an instrument we cannot stand, the difference is that Abe is actually good. In fact, he's a natural. And I’m jealous. He holds the guitar and places his fingers like a pro. He connects the notes like they are old friends. When he's learned a piece, he plays with a quiet confidence and determination that I never had. So every time he asks if he can quit, I just smile and say, “Abe, there are a lot of decisions you are going to make in your life, but this isn't one of them.”
I guess Barry Manilow's mom knew what she was doing after all.