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Beautiful Music, Bad Notes and All

He'd only had six lessons. He's only six years old. Still, our son was committed to taking part in his first piano recital. He exudes that "can do" attitude so often found in kindergartners. Never mind that everyone else involved in the late-spring concert had been playing since September, at least. But his teacher seemed to feel our son was up to the task, and apparently so did he.

He chose two pieces. He played them well, as well as one can play "Old MacDonald," described on the program as "Traditional," and "Mary Had a Little Lamb," described as "Folk Song." Apparently, no one wants to take credit, or blame, for either of these fine selections. And when I say he plays them well, what I mean is he plays all the right notes and in the right order, too. There's not much to interpret. There is no subtext at this stage of the game.

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Since it was his first-ever recital, I thought I'd better sit in on the dress rehearsal the day before, to get a feel for what was in store. I was the only adult present - other than the piano teacher, who had to be there. The other parents dropped and ran. I was there as an advance man to scout out the doings for the rest of the family, to let them know just how bad the whole event was going to be.

"Bad" is such a relative term. In some contexts, "bad" can even mean "good." Alas, this was not that context. This was children ages 6 through who knows what; I'm not a good judge after age 10. Maybe they were all young and some were just very tall.

Remember Prof. Harold Hill's "think system" in the movie "The Music Man"? This was somewhat better than that. What these kids lacked in artistry they made up for in brevity. And they all knew how to bow very well.

But perverse parent that I am, the worse it got, the more I liked it. For one thing, my son did just fine, thanks, as did most of the kids. But it soon became apparent that this recital was not about the mastery of music. It was about doing something as well as you could, in front of your family and a room full of friendly strangers. It was a microcosm of life, and how to succeed in it: Do your best, be brief, then make room for the next guy. Share the limelight. Don't panic.

There was some bad violin. There always is. There was an unfortunate cello selection, Beethoven's "Minuet in G," the very piece that is mangled in "The Music Man." I kept wanting to point at my forehead and say, "Think! Think!" as the young girl valiantly struggled against the instrument. In the end, the girl won the match - she was unbowed. I wish I could say the same for the cello.

By rehearsal's end, I knew we'd all get through the recital in one piece. I let the rest of the family know about my guarded optimism.

The next day was spent pretending that whatever was happening at 5:30 p.m. was no big deal. We left our house at 5:15. We walked across the street to the concert hall. (We live across the way from the college where our son takes piano lessons.) We probably could have just opened all our windows and let him play at home. But that wouldn't have been the same as surviving the recital.

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My husband brought along a camera with a flash attachment. He sat poised with the camera in front of his face the entire time our son played. He never took one picture until the very end. He caught the upside of our son's final bow. I knew why he didn't snap a shot. He was afraid the flash would startle our son out of his concentration and "Old MacDonald" would turn into "Kitten on the Keys," or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into "Slaughter on 10th Avenue." Mayhem would ensue, tears would flow, and for what? A parental paparazzi? My husband made the right choice. After all, it's not like we'd need a Polaroid to refresh our memories. Before there were cameras, people just remembered stuff. It was a lot more economical that way, and required less storage space.

The rest of the recital was mostly short and mainly sweet. Some of the kids were quite good. One girl was quite bad, but gratefully she didn't know it. All of them were troupers who showed grace under pressure and sensitivity, too.

You can't play or hear Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart - however rudimentary the execution or reception - without being humbled by the presence of such soul. And best of all, no one tripped, slipped, or skipped. A collective sigh of relief was breathed at the end of the afternoon.

God bless the parents for paying for the lessons, for showing up and listening, with the least of expectations, attentively to all. God bless the teachers for patiently instructing tiny fingers into finders of notes, chords, and (occasionally) music. And God bless the children for dressing neatly but not gaudily, for having good manners, and for playing, well, as well as can be expected. I'm hopeful that the musical path our son is on will eventually lead to our basement and long rehearsals with a high-school rock band.

I don't want to push him, but I can dream, can't I?

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