Where I grew up, we had the opportunity to start playing a stringed instrument in fourth grade. Anyone who wanted to play a band instrument had to wait until fifth grade.
When I think about it, the fact that in fourth grade, in a public school, we had the opportunity to learn an instrument…it boggles my mind. What a privilege we had!
Here in France there is nothing like that. There is the Conservatory, which is the official “sanctioned” school at which music is taught, and as it has national standards and competitions, is the process by which people become professional musicians.
There are various other music schools, which are “unofficial”, but nonetheless reputable, which might be built around a particular type of music (jazz music, modern music) or an instrument (a drum school or classic guitar school) or around a specific teacher.
My eldest started at the Conservatory in 2020 when he was just barely five. Not because I have any pretentions that he will become a professional musician, but for two very specific reasons: 1. The Conservatory is literally a three minute walk from our apartment and 2. We had an incredible encounter with a music teacher there which marked me, and my eldest too, for life.
The Conservatory moved into a new building in 2018…the aforementioned building which is three minutes from home and right next door to the school where my husband teaches.
When they opened the new building (which is a re-purposed shopping mall), there was a first Open House. Curious about what a music school could look like inside of an old shopping mall, we took our brood, who, at the time were three years old and one and a half.
My eldest was fascinated by the saxophone at the time, but also, had, for as long as I can remember, liked taking my guitar, holding it upright and pretending it was a double bass. He would take a toy bow (like for archery) or a ruler and pretend it was a bow (like for playing a stringed instrument.)
That was why, that first time at the new Conservatory, we stopped to see the saxophones and the double bass.
The double bass teacher noticed this little pipsqueak, who was so very intrigued by the instrument. But he was too shy to go inside the room to take a look at it. So what did she do?
She brought a double bass out into the hallway, and leaned it in a corner, saying, “If you want, you can try it out here.” And she left it there.
For like a solid five minutes, he hemmed and hawed, and even insisted that no, he didn’t want to touch it. So we left.
And then another ten minutes later told us he wanted to go back. So we did, and the instrument was still there.
So he tried it.
Once he was old enough, we signed him up for the Music Discovery classes, in which kids learn about rhythm, and different instruments. Because of the pandemic, much of this ended up getting cancelled in his first year.
This year is his second year, and it is at the end of the second year that kids pick their instruments.
So yes, whereas I was nine when I decided to wanted to play the viola, my eldest is six when he decides what instrument he wants to play. Talk about privilege! Also, talk about pressure!
The music school set up a fun instrument discovery program called “The Carousel of Instruments” which started with a series of YouTube videos which presented the different families of instruments, then individual instruments.
In the second part of the Carousel, kids could sign up for an introductory group lesson for six instruments: three instruments they chose and three the music school suggested.
My eldest, obviously, wanted to discover the double bass and the saxophone, plus the guitar, but was disappointed when he learned it would be classical guitar and not the electric guitar (which you can only start after age 10.) The Conservatory picked the oboe, clarinet and the flute.
We went to all the group lessons, and it was obvious that my eldest did not care to have an instrument in his mouth. Although he was good at making the sounds, he just didn’t like the way it felt.
That said, the oboe teacher said, “When picking your instrument, the only way to do so is because you fall in love with the sound.” I thought this was an interesting piece of wisdom, which I immediately poked holes in. I mean, does anyone pick the drums because they like the sound of the drums, or is it more like they are kinesthetic types who like to move and hit things? Or the Tuba. Seriously. I surmised that the lady said that because she likes the sound of her instrument (and I get it. I love the oboe, too!) but to say that this is the only reason to choose an instrument…well, just for that, even if he had liked the oboe, I would have written it off for him
Besides. If this were the case, my eldest would be playing the electric guitar. That is the instrument, the sound of which, makes his face light up like a Christmas tree.
This “choosing of the instrument” had become something of a real point of concern to my husband. I know why: For the twenty-five years I have known him, he has always said he wished that he could have learned an instrument. He wants his children to have something that he never did, and that is why he would gladly rearrange his week for his boys to be able to attend music classes.
That said, I have gone back and forth about him being too little to have to make this kind of decision. I mean, I love the opportunity to learn about music and try different instruments. But I didn’t see how a six year-old could be asked to imagine the instrument he would still want to be playing in ten years.
In any case. The third round of the Carousel had us choosing two or three instruments for which to go back and have another group lesson. Anything that goes in the mouth was off the table, leaving us with the double bass and the classical guitar.
The first time we went to the classical guitar, I had a very icky feeling about the teacher. He was impatient with the four kids, kind of sarcastic and not at all encouraging. My kid wouldn’t have noticed, I don’t think, but that I mentioned it to my husband when we got home.
So when we had the opportunity to do the third round, I asked if we could have the second group lesson with a different teacher, my excuse being, “variety is the spice of life.” Due to a scheduling mix-up, it ended up being the same guitar teacher as the first time. And this time, my eldest noticed the sarcasm. And he didn’t like it.
When we arrived for the second double bass group lesson, he was the only kid who showed up. The teacher remembered him, yes, from his first round of the Carousel, but also as being the little pipsqueak for whom she left the double bass in the corner at the very first Open House.
Already, this had my kid feeling like a star. She showed him how to adjust the stem on the double bass to get it the right size for him. She handed him a real bow, and off they went to the races.
I know I am not the only parent in the world who thinks their kid is the cat’s meow. But I do think my kids are pretty special.
This one in question is particularly sensitive. He has ups and downs within the span of five minutes that give us all whiplash. I pray about this often, because I don’t know how else to handle these ups and downs. I still think he is the cat’s meow.
From the first time, in 2018 he held a double bass in his hands, I have had this image in my mind of him learning to play it. That somehow, this instrument which provides the musical and rhythmic foundation to a musical ensemble, could be a model for his moods.
It doesn’t hurt that there are three, count them three people with the same first name as his who play the electric bass in our church. (And it isn’t that common of a first name, either!)
So, all of my own thoughts about this aside, it was amazing to see him interact with the teacher. She was made for this kind of thing. I mean, she clearly loves the double bass, just like the oboe teacher loved the oboe. But she didn’t feel the need to convince my kid of anything. She just made different sounds on her double bass, asking him to recreate them, which he did his best to do.
As observant as he is, he was mostly pretty much on the mark, and once she showed him how she did it, he caught on very quickly. And the way he would look at me when he got it…. He was so happy! I have rarely seen him so consistently happy. He was proud, because he was getting it right. The teacher had just the right mix of encouragement, enthusiasm and pedgogy.
At the end, she said, “I would be really pleased if you would be my student.” And again, that smile!
When it’s right…
I’ll be honest. The only reason I was worried about this whole Instrument Carousel thing was that my eldest has a very tough time making decisions. He gets buyers remorse about everything, from library books to the lollipop he chooses out of bouquet when offered one for free at the bakery to which costume he should wear for Mardi Gras.
We attended the Open House again this year at the Conservatory, and we made a stop at the Modern Music wing to see if there was an electric guitar teacher. And there was. We spent some time asking questions (“Why do you not get an electric shock when you play?” and “How does it make that sound?”) and, truly, I could see that this made him very very happy. Especially the sound of the instrument.
But whereas the classical guitar and the double bass are his options right now, electric guitar is not one. That can come in a few years, when he is old enough to join the Modern Music wing.
As my mother always used to say, “It is when we actually agree on something that I know it’s right.” And I am using this same logic.
Plus, I love the idea of, in ten years, my eldest playing the double bass for the orchestra I sing with. I have all kinds of thoughts about this, especially when I see families of musicians playing together. A family that plays together, stays together, I often think.
So, that photo up top is of me and my incredibly grown-up looking six, almost seven year-old, about three minutes after he decided that he is going to play the double bass. And he’s still sparkling!