Maybe It's Time to Take Up an Instrument?
Two of the most difficult decisions for busy parents who for years have given up most evenings out for homework and most weekends for soccer and children's exhibits at museums are (1) When is it time for ME to go to a concert, dinner out, or take up an instrument?" and (2) "Has all this exploration with my child opened new pathways in my life, which I would now like to explore?" Children are often talismans who give adults the courage/excuse to try new things. With a child safely in hand, the parent often attends the symphony for the first time; again, with a child in hand, a parent may venture into the world of the violin or the oboe. But once that child no longer needs to be shepherded to cultural venues, do parents venture forth on their own and re-visit these sites? Are parents able to move into the new world of "role model for the young adult" and, at the same time, delight in the cultural riches that their children have drawn them into? Are they able to make that psychic leap of faith and order a subscription to an evening concert series and discover that, at last, they are ready for classical music in a hundred new ways?
The Japanese mother does not physically separate from her child until he or she is well into "toddlerdom." With child strapped onto her back, Mother will don her winter coat with a neck hole and collar wide enough for two heads, and start out with this 40-pound load. The child will sleep with her, perhaps, until he or she is 4 or 5 years of age. She will spend every waking moment with her son or daughter, for there is virtually no childcare in Japanese society. The emotional separation actually will not happen until university days begin. At the national university admissions examinations, hotels offer packages for mothers and children to come to Tokyo or Kyoto, and the mothers stand by as their children consume hotel-provided energy snacks, study rooms and pencils. While in America the bonding is neither so long nor so intense, in both cultures, when the time comes that the child no longer needs to be sat with for homework or practice, or driven to after-school activities, there is the same sense of loss. Is life over? No. But how does one re-group and find the new paths that will take you into this new phase of life?
Most parents who cart their children off to music lessons do so because they wish that their parents had forced them to practice so that they themselves could now enjoy playing. If you have recently learned to use a PC or MAC, replacing the typewriter you took to college, why can't you learn to play the piano at the age of 40? Thirty minutes a day at the piano will offer far more enjoyment than an equal amount of time on the internet. To make this a successful experience, you must find a teacher with whom you enjoy spending time. Only 50% of your lesson will be spent on the technical parts of music; the other 50% will be about a recording you have listened to or a concert you have just attended, your dog, the lack of e-mail from your child at college, or the latest book you have read. Do not look for a teacher who has any aspirations beyond your enjoyment. Remember, you do not have to play for anyone else if you do not wish to. You are too old to be a performer, so enjoy your non-pressured status. Likewise, remember that there are people who are at your level with whom you might enjoy playing chamber music. Playing music with others is an age-old tradition and, as any amateur musician will tell you, there is nothing more exciting than ending together on the same note!
Try a new instrument. Have you always loved the oboe? Have you always thought you would never be able to play it? Find a teacher, rent an instrument, and give it a three-month try. Maybe you were right. Maybe it is hopeless, but I guarantee you will never hear an oboe in the same way again. By the same token, your husband may say that you sound horrible, but you see progress day by day, and you love it! (Practice when he is not at home.) Unlike skiing, iceskating or lacrosse, you are not going to risk injury, so there is no reason not to try. As FDR said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."
If you have gone to a concert series with your children that you particularly enjoyed, look into the orchestra's evening concert series. Try one. Music in small halls is particularly enjoyable for those who are relative neophytes to the concert-going tradition. (The secret is that small halls are also the choice of the most sophisticated concert-goers, including presidents and royalty, who can afford to hold concerts in their own homes, which are also small by comparison to modern concert hall standards.) If you don't like it, ask yourself why, rather than writing the experience off as, "classical music is not for me." Do you like loud, rousing orchestral music, such as Tchaikovsky? Do you prefer Mozart? Did it sound like the same old stuff, and would you like more adventuresome programming? Ask your friends if they have been to a good concert lately and try one by the same orchestra, group of soloists, or in the same concert hall. Call the offices of the orchestra whose young people's programming you have enjoyed and ask for suggestions about exceptional upcoming concerts with questions like, "Do you have an adult program this spring that you would recommend as truly exceptional?"
Don't fall for virtual reality! You can sit at home with the latest multimedia CD on your computer and dissect a Beethoven symphony, but I guarantee that you will not have had a real musical experience. Live music is like putting your hands in the paint. It is like touching a Rodin. It is like living with a Picasso on your dining room wall. The Bill Gates vision of digitalized Great Masters on your walls is about as exciting as watching your child play Battle Arena Toshiden on his new Sony Play Station: the technology is great, but... You can put real music into your life with the purchase of a few tickets and realize at the same time that musical enjoyment comes, not from playing like Horowitz, but rather in sitting down and being able to play at all. I vote for the real thing, and recommend Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway to anyone debating the merits of investing a hundred hours on the internet versus taking up a musical instrument.
Simon, Bonnie. "Maybe It's Time to Take Up an Instrument?" Washington Parent May/June 1996: Print
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