Dragon Scales

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom author Amy Chua gets a lot of flak for the long hours of musical practice she forced on her two daughters, which enabled them to debut at Carnegie Hall at a young age.

What rarely gets mentioned is that she was at her daughters’ sides for every second of their musical practice. Both daughters. She wasn’t knitting and I doubt she was sneaking glances at text messages. She was fully engaged and immersed in her daughters’ piano and violin practice for hours and hours, each and every day, for years and years and years, even on vacations, which she wrecked with her fanaticism about music practice. Many critics have seen her long practice sessions as extreme and even abusive.

I, however, am a Dragon Mom, and this is the Year of the Dragon. I’m not exactly sure what that means, except that good things are destined for me this year, especially if I wear red underwear (check! but only a stubborn Dragon like me could manage to track down red underwear that’s wider than dental floss).

What I am sure of is that I don’t care if my son ever plays at Carnegie, but I would like him to have some artistic tools at his disposal—whether these are paints or tap shoes, a tuba or a typewriter—since someday I think these will be helpful when he needs to express inevitably complicated emotions about his past.

On many days, I spend as much as a half hour teaching my son how to play a simple recorder. I don’t know how to play the plastic, clarinet-like instrument, but I accompany him on the keyboard, teaching him how to read music and keep time. We play the same songs over and over and over again, day after day after day, until he masters them. His elementary school music teacher came up with the ingenious motivation of awarding colored “karate” belts for every level passed on the recorder; the belts are really lengths of colored yarn hanging from the end of the recorder like a pom pom. After two years of steady practice, the Little Monster is now close to earning his black belt. It’s my black belt, too; almost all of his practice is with me at his side. The recorder, and my portable “mouth piano,” even came with us on our trip to Hawaii and our road trip to Wyoming. Perhaps Tigers and Dragons aren’t so different. But Tigers have claws, whereas Dragons breathe fire, perhaps more necessary for teaching wind instruments. Dragons also know a thing or two about scales.

After being in the musical trenches with the Little Monster for a couple of years now, I have no condemnation for Chua. I have only awe that she had the stamina to suffer through years of long, daily practice sessions with two children. But I doubt Chua ever had to scold her daughters with admonishments such as these:

“Stop chewing on your instrument!”
“Stop spinning in circles!”
“Stand up when you play! Not on just one leg!”
“Your recorder is not a drumstick!”
“No hopping during rests! A rest means rest! I said rest! No talking during rests, either! The other instruments are playing! Never mind what other instruments, just pretend!”

I think of my junior high school band leader Mr. Kuwada and my high school band leader Mr. Yamane, and I know that someday my son’s future band leader will thank me. We rowdy French horn players gave them hell (disruptive nerds are worse than slackers because our antics are unexpected), so I owe it to them.

Sometimes I lie in bed at night, eyes closed, the squeaky shriek of a staccato and manic “Ode to Joy” refusing to relinquish its imprint on my eardrums. I hum “Ode to Tylenol” to deaden the echoes.

Maybe I can stop with the black belt, I think. That’s good enough. He can take it on his own from here on out.

But, no, the music teacher added a silver and a gold belt because of some damn go-getters who refused to stop, and then she added beaded belts. Oh, I covet that beaded pom pom on his five dollar recorder as badly as Chua wanted her kids to be the best at Carnegie.

Besides the cool belts, my reasoning goes that if he can read music and follow rhythm, he can grow up to play any instrument that he wants to. Except drums. No drums, except for the silent electric kind, maybe. No trumpet, either. I’m allergic to the trumpet. Or bagpipes. The Man I Married won’t tolerate bagpipes. But other than the drums, trumpet, and bagpipes, the Little Monster can play anything he chooses.

I tried to get lazy and record the songs on cassette tape so that the Little Monster could play the song over and over and over again by himself, with at least two closed doors between us and a martini glass for me to caress rather than piano keys, but it didn’t work. He needed the intense focus of an adult human lording it over him, “encouraging” him to repeat difficult passages until they became easy. Otherwise he just shrieks on the recorder like a hungry baby bird who jumped from the nest too soon and landed wrong.

Sometimes our lessons were fraught with conflict and crying (I won’t say whether his or mine). Sometimes they were a delight and a joy as we mastered songs together and did high fives after getting through a hairy couple of measures that became a piece of cake. Sometimes they were ecstasy when we managed perfect duets together.

Without these recorder lessons that on at least three occasions lasted a whole hour because I was feeling particularly energetic and masochistic on a weekend—hardly the Carnegie Hall prep of Chua and her daughters—I wouldn’t have understood something that isn’t addressed in Chua’s book nor in anything I’ve seen written about it, and that is the intense bonding experience that results from music lessons with your child. Chua and her daughters must be incredibly close-knit because of those music lessons, tightly bonded in a way that might be difficult for the rest of us to comprehend.

I bond with my son when we walk home from school or to the library together. We bond over Bananagrams or Yahtzee. We bond over old Disney movies and dinner conversation. But these are just appetizers compared to the raw steak we chew and digest together over recorder practice—no, I’ll go further: it’s like the raw steak we have brought down together on the open savannah and then bloodily devoured. There is the intensity of teamwork required, the synchronicity, the dependence of one upon the other, the thrill of mutual accomplishment, all wrapped up in the (attempted) beauty of music, which is its very own language.

Perhaps music carries more weight for my son and me, who didn’t hear each other’s heartbeats for nine months. I met my son when he was six years old, and with much focus on discipline because of his behaviors, bonding remained an unresolved issue even a couple of years into our relationship. A seemingly unbridgeable gap between us lingered. I couldn’t have guessed that the gap was only as long as a dime-store flute.

Neither did I have the intense bonding experience of giving birth, although, lemme tell ya, sometimes hearing Twinkle Twinkle played with the wrong note at the wrong place every fucking time probably feels a lot like an impending contraction during labor, when you just know it’s about to come and you dread it with every fiber of all of your internal organs and your molars and eyelashes.

I thought that the Little Monster and I would finally bond when I took him home to my birthland of Hawaii, which he hated. While there, I “volunteered” my father to manage the recorder lessons. In Wyoming, I “volunteered” my 11-year-old niece to do the same. Fun was had all around during these practice sessions; tra la la! Wait a gosh darned minute, I want to move to the planet on which music practice is fun.

But fun wasn’t the point. He had fun with them because we’d done the dirty work of learning the songs already. Connection was my reward.

Learning to read music and play an instrument is difficult. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be impressed with prodigies onstage at Carnegie. Mastering something difficult is good for the Little Monster’s self-confidence. Imagine his pride walking the school halls with his colorful tassel, which only a handful of the kids there have earned, and anything that helps with his self-confidence is worth some struggle. It would be easier for both of us if he quit, which he would do in a second if I let him. But the once traumatic brown, orange, and yellow belt songs are fun for him to play now that he is facing down harrowing black belt songs like My Country ‘Tis of Thee: a song which, to my horror, he had never heard and wished he still hadn’t after I bellowed it out for him, word for word, though I hadn’t sung it in perhaps two decades, joined halfway through in my a capella aria with bonhomie and gusto by the Man I Married. Any passersby would have mistaken our household for one of fanatical Republicans.

My son’s music teacher is frustrated by her students’ unwillingness to practice, and as a compromise she urges them to practice during television commercials. I wouldn’t have known what I was giving up had this been the scenario in our house. My son and I connect in a deep and integral way that transcends language. There’s a heartbeat in the music that passes between us. And a pulsebeat in the headache that sometimes follows. Sometimes I think of the many things I’d rather be doing than recorder practice, but at the lesson’s close, I realize as I mix my stiff martini that there’s nothing I would rather have been doing.

Last year my son took up the violin in addition to the recorder; the school system has hired a teacher who travels around to nine different elementary schools (if he copes without a flask in his sock garter then he’s a better human than I). The Little Monster is very, very good at the violin, objectively speaking. He taught himself the Can Can one evening, proving my theory that if he knows the basics, he can apply them to other instruments of his choosing. Still, though, my husband and I looked at each other in astonishment. Carnegie by age 16, maybe?

But when the Little Monster needs help with the violin, I say, “Go ask your father.” I’ve done my time, and I’ve he’s got the belts to prove it.


The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories by Jennifer D. Munro
Kindle Edition at Amazon

12 humorous stories about sex and the sexes. These sensual yet comic stories offer a fresh take on literary erotic fiction, as if Anaïs Nin and Erma Bombeck met at the library to spin tales of laughter and the libido. Collected from the pages of Best American Erotica, Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, Best of Literary Mama, Clean Sheets, Zyzzyva, and others.

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