Like every other Asian kid growing up in America, I was subjected to piano lessons from the age of 4 (I blame Mozart. Who composes their first symphony by the age of 5?? It’s an impossible benchmark, yet every Asian parent feels obligated to surpass it. It’s in our cultural DNA). Most of my memories of age 4 consist of sporadic images and snippets. But I remember everything about piano lessons – the green, blue and purple lesson books featuring the picture of a grand piano in a luxurious room (eyes on the prize!), Tuna Fish (which I can still play to this day), and my mom grabbing my pinky and hammering the correct key with it whenever I used the wrong fingering (all the while repeating “Awkward! Awkward!” in Chinese).
Thankfully, my sister turned out to be the one with the musical talent, so she ended up repping the family in that department. I remained happily mediocre in the music arena, the pinnacle of my career being my 3-year tenure as a second violinist in my high school orchestra, where merely faking the motion of playing sufficed 90% of the time.
When Marcus turned 5 this spring, genetics kicked in. Music lessons! He needs music lessons! They’ll help him with math, he’ll do better in school, he’ll nurture his artistic side, which will make him well rounded, which will get him into a good college, which will ensure success with collegiate job recruiters… Oh man! Get a hold of yourself! Nature gained an edge for a fleeting moment, but nurture eventually fought back. I hated music lessons as a kid. For a second I forgot that fact. As useful as they are for childhood development, I was well aware that they could just as easily backfire on us. Lisa and I strategized on the approach, and decided that we’d present Marcus with a sampler platter of choices -- equal exposure to a representative spectrum of instruments. And that’s it. Marcus would decide if he was ready. We headed down to the local music school and signed him up for introductory lessons in piano, guitar and drums. Here’s how things played out.
Saturday, 11:00 Group Piano Lesson
We arrive at the school and settle into the classroom. One electronic keyboard per student/parent pair. The teacher comes around and instructs each child to turn his or her effect setting to piano mode. Uh oh – I know he caught that one. The fact that there is a piano mode means that there are other modes. Marcus begins to explore.
“What’s this say, Dad?” Marcus points to the sound effect labeled with a little Saturn icon.
“Space.” (oh crap…)
The teacher starts the day’s lesson by showing us where the key for “do” is located.
“Ok boys and girls, on four, everybody play it – do, do, do, do. Ready, and 1,2,3,4…”
Marcus presses the Saturn button and amidst the other 9 pianos in the room, his space do resonates like a kiddie rendition of a Yes song. She hasn’t quite noticed who it is, but the teacher is coming around to check on each kid’s progress.
“Fury! Piano mode. Now! Fury, come on! The teacher’s coming!” I feel like the good kid who got duped into egging someone’s house with the neighborhood troublemaker. He switches it back just in time. Do do do do…
“Very good Marcus!” she beams.
The lesson continues. Now we go over correct fingering. Do is played with the thumb, Re with the index finger and Mi with the middle finger. Marcus “doesn’t like it that way.” Instead, he just moves his thumb up the keyboard, like he’s squishing bugs – bad form. I start to fix his fingers… ah, SCREW IT! I press the Saturn button.
Saturday, 2:30 Guitar Lesson
We’ve been listening to KISS since lunch. Throughout his lifetime, Marcus has been exposed to everything from Dean Martin to Waylon Jennings, but when you factor in the pyrotechnics, face paint and theatrical blood, does any band really have a better shot at winning a 5-year-old boy’s admiration? Marcus is pumped for his lesson. So am I.
The room’s décor validates Marcus’ excitement. “Look Dad! Air Guitars!” (he calls electric guitars ‘air guitars’). I’ve brought along a kid-sized guitar that one of our friends gave him last Christmas, as well as my own electric guitar (ok, so I wasn’t completely successful at remaining neutral).
The teacher doesn’t look all that enthused. He asks me how old Marcus is. I tell him five. He gives me a doubtful look and tells me he doesn’t recommend kids under eight to play guitar, since their hands aren’t big enough to negotiate the guitar neck. Man, that was deflating! But since we already paid, the teacher goes through the motions and shows Marcus a very basic chord. He was right. The dexterity really isn’t there yet, but to his credit, Marcus has good strumming rhythm. Maybe drums will be his thing? The teacher echoes that same sentiment.
Not much else is taught or learned during that lesson, but at least it ends on a high note. They play Name That Tune for the rest of class. The only one Marcus doesn’t know is “Smoke on the Water.” He pretty much aces all the Guns n’ Roses and AC/DC tunes, much to the teacher’s amusement (we crank it old school at home). He even plays Marcus’ current favorite, “Iron Man.” (Marcus hummed this as his own personal soundtrack when he learned to ride a bike last month).
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Sunday, 5:30 Drum Lesson
The previous day was a bust as far as any realistic prospects for music lessons, but I’m feeling it for the drums. They don’t involve notes, and Marcus proved yesterday that rhythm is something he can grasp.
We arrive at the music school and meet the teacher, a long haired Asian dude. Not what I expected, but more power to him for breaking out of the piano/violin mold so many of us get caught up in. The lesson starts with a quick introduction on the various components that make up a drum set. Makes sense to me. But there’s one slight problem: the teacher has a major accent. Usually an accent doesn’t throw either of us off, but in this situation, he’s trying to teach Marcus how to say terms he’s never heard before…
“Ok Marcus, repeat: dis ees called high haa.”
“Good! Now, you say dis one: Snaae.”
“Yes! Now dis ees tum-tum.”
I’m trying to think of a covert tactful way to rephrase these items…
“Oh… isn’t that cool Marcus? You’ve got your high haT here, then you can hit the snaRe to make a different sound, and then make a deeper sound with the tOm tOms!”
Ok, moving on. The teacher begins to draw notations on a piece of paper. We begin to lose Marcus. I know he just wants to bang away. But Marcus is a good sport and sits through the explanation. Finally, we get to the drills. Unfortunately Marcus is tired and the drills are repetitive (as they should be). I see the look in his eyes and I know what’s coming out of his mouth before he even opens it.
“Dad, how much longer?”
Ugh. Not good. “Almost done son!” I flash him a “rock on” but I know it’s futile.
The teacher also senses it’s quitting time. In an attempt to wake him up a bit, he tries valiantly to tie it all together.
“If you practice, you can play with real song, like dis!”
He walks over to the CD player, presses play and takes a seat at the drums, sticks poised. The music starts…
Within 10 seconds, our fate is sealed. He’s drumming intensely to Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.” Marcus is sitting behind the teacher, eyes pleading with me to end his pain. I’m sitting in front of the teacher. All I can do is smile and feign interest. Both of them simply tried their best.
We’re shelving music education for one more year.