I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
July 9, 2015
For several years now, my son has begged us to to buy him a trumpet.
At first, we thought the request was a passing fancy, sort of like his plans to build a walking, talking robot out of old batteries and cereal boxes, or his dreams of opening a bookstore in our home filled with books he’d written, illustrated, and stapled together himself. (When no customers showed up, he was baffled. “But I put an OPEN sign on our front door,” he said. “Where is everybody?”) But while other interests have come and gone, the requests for a trumpet have stayed constant– and so, for his eighth birthday, I took him to the local music shop, rented a shiny new-ish trumpet, and signed him up for weekly lessons.
What’s happened since that time has been as much an education for me as for my son. I know absolutely nothing about brass instruments and have learned the hard way that trumpets need a whole lot of attention in order to work properly. I have to give this trumpet regular baths in the tub, clean its insides with special trumpet brushes, oil its valves, and grease its slides. And then there’s the spit valve- Let’s not talk about the spit valve. Because of my son’s young age, I also have to sit in on lessons at his teacher’s request so that I can help him practice at home. The end result is that I can now play the trumpet. This was not on the list of things I wanted to accomplish by 40, but there it is. Bang a gong, y’all. I can play a freaking trumpet.
Honestly, I thought Bruiser’s trumpet fixation would last a month or two- but nearly four months in, he’s still loving it. He never complains about going to his lessons, he’s generally happy to practice each day for a few minutes, and he eagerly assures me that he wants to continue learning to play the trumpet every time I check in with him for an update– This is enough for me to justify the expense of the lessons and rental. The fact that his trumpet playing closely resembles the sounds a narwhal makes in its death throes doesn’t faze me– Just a month ago, his trumpeting sounded more like an extremely gassy Yeti. Clearly, the kid’s making progress.
Unfortunately, this kind of ‘progress’ doesn’t sit well with his teacher. From the start, the end-of-lesson comments centered around how young my son is to be playing the trumpet, how fidgety he is, how different he is from the teacher’s other eight-year-old students, one of whom, he assures me, will one day be first chair in an orchestra. “Does he resist when you ask him to practice?” the teacher asked me knowingly a few weeks in, after asking to speak to me alone. “Does he seem to not enjoy playing?”
“He never resists,” I said. “Never. He loves it.” The teacher gave me a dubious look and it suddenly occurred to me that he thought I was one of those parents who forces her kid to take music lessons. “Look,” I said defensively, “We are not a musical instrument family. This is something he’s asked to do for years and these lessons are a big expense for us, and trust me, the moment he seems like he’s no longer interested, we’re done. But he likes it. He likes it a lot.” And frankly, I have no idea why, I thought to myself.
Since those first few weeks, my son’s teacher seems to have resigned himself to the fact that one of his students is not like the others– and I’ve realized that the man is not entirely to blame for his attitude, because it’s pretty clear when I look around the waiting room before lessons that for most parents, this musical instrument thing is serious business. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no monkeying around in music.
I’m not kidding- If you want to see Alpha parenting at its finest, go to a music school waiting room. The pervading attitude among the moms and dads there is grim resignation- These lessons are clearly a Sacrifice on everyone’s parts that will hopefully pay off when the kid gets a full ride to a venerable private college somewhere in New England (or at the very least, Virginia). The children, for their part, are grave. Quiet. Focused on the task at hand. I have never seen even one of them (besides my son, anyway) gallop noisily down the hallway to a lesson while singing ‘Fart and Soul.’ (What? You thought it was ‘Heart and Soul?’ Take it from my kid: You are sadly mistaken.) It has become very apparent to me that for a whole lot of families out there, music lessons aren’t about the enjoyment that comes with learning something new and different– They’re about Getting Ahead.
And according to this mindset, a kid who shows no signs of natural ability really has no business being there.
Of course, this parental attitude isn’t limited to music lessons- It’s prevalent everywhere. “We tried basketball (or gymnastics or piano or swim team), but it wasn’t his thing,” I’ll often hear parents say. Sometimes what they mean is that the kid didn’t enjoy it. Fair enough. But sometimes what they mean is that the kid wasn’t very good at it. For many parents, this realization is their cue to pull the kid from the activity in question and enroll him in something else– and these parents have the best of intentions. I mean, we all want our kids to find their passions, right? We want to help them figure out what they’re really good at. We want them to stand out. We want them to know what it’s like to earn that first place trophy or blue ribbon.
But this attitude has become so pervasive that it extends beyond the way we view our own kids. Do you think that any of the parents sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game watch the slowest, clumsiest girl on their kid’s team and think about how awesome it is that she’s hanging in there and learning a new skill set at her own pace? Do you believe that anyone hears the sounds of a dying narwhal coming from the trumpet classroom down the hall and thinks, ‘Wow, that kid is trying something that doesn’t come naturally to him! Week after week! How cool!’
Yeah. That would be a ‘no.’
Instead, we surmise that the parents must be forcing the kid to participate– because why would anyone want to continue doing something she’s not good at? If there’s no chance of a medal, no chance of a future scholarship, no chance for distinction, why bother? And this kind of thinking quickly spreads from adults to the children around them.
I was saddled with this rationale as a kid, and it held me back from trying things like volleyball and debate- Instead I stuck with things I knew I’d excel in. Today, I regret missing out on those opportunities to try new activities, and so I’ve decided as a parent that I want something different for my own children. I want them to be unhindered by fears about whether or not they’ll be ‘good’ at the extracurriculars they want to explore. I want them to grow up with the the ability to challenge themselves and expand their abilities without worrying about how they compare to everyone else. I’ve resolved to encourage them to try new and different experiences and activities every chance they get. And that’s why you’ll find me in trumpet lessons every Tuesday afternoon, trying my best at times to not burst out laughing at the sounds coming from my son’s trumpet.
No, Bruiser may never be first chair– but I suspect that in the end, he’ll get more out of his trumpet lessons than he would if he had a natural aptitude for the instrument. He’s learning that perseverance and patience pay off. He’s learning to read music, a skill that will serve him for the rest of his life. He’s learning about the excitement that comes with using his brain in an entirely different way, and I can practically see the new synapses forming in his brain as he plays.
Besides… There may one day be a nationwide competition to see who can best approximate the sounds of a dying narwahl or a farting Yeti– and if that ever happens? I’m pretty damn sure my son will take first place.