Have you ever known or have you ever been the kind of student who doesn't always feel like practicing? Let's face it... regular, industrious practice is an absolute must for individuals of any age to develop into musicians. But (and this is one of my best kept secrets), I did not always get around to practicing when I was young.
It's not that I didn't want to, but I didn't always think of it. I was so busy concentrating on drawing, painting, reading a book, or my favorite activity: sitting up high in a tree, staring into space and daydreaming.
Fortunately, our family dog was a poodle of discerning taste. Every time I sat down to play the piano, she immediately lay down beneath the piano bench and fell asleep. I will never know for sure if it was... me... or the thick, shaggy carpet underneath the bench, but, for years, she was my constant companion at practice time--silently encouraging me to play on and on... I could not bear to disappoint her, you see; and I enjoyed showing off my special doggy fan club to the rest of the family.
And when she finally moved on to interests other than my music, there was, thankfully, another mentor to take her place. A four year-old boy in our neighborhood began appearing every day after school to listen to me practice. (Remarkable, that in the sixties parents were not alarmed when their children disappeared for hours daily, as long as they came back for supper). I was sixteen years old, now; and, believe me, when I got home from school, the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at the piano. I habitually made a bee-line from school bus-through-front-door-to-nearest mirror to see if my eyelashes had increased in length since the morning. But just as I was settling down for a good stare, there would be a knock at the door; and soon little Tommy would be parked next to me on the piano bench. Did he want a drink of water? No. Did he want to look at a book? No. He was silent... he was listening... and I played on...
Many people have an emotional hunger for music, for some of us more than others, and this is best demonstrated for me by a child named Agnes, whom I knew long ago. It was the 1970's, and I was teaching music in a Cape Coloured school in old apartheid South Africa, a lone white teacher in an otherwise strictly segregated environment. This was a middle-class school in an economically-diverse community. Some of the neighborhood children lived in cozy homes, but others lived in shacks, and some walked barefoot year 'round--even in the snow. Every day after school several of the local children would appear to help our lady-janitor in her duties. She rewarded them by feeding them from the scraps she had saved from the children's lunches.
As I was packing to leave one afternoon, one of these janitor-children appeared in my room with a solemn request:
"Juf, ek wil blokfluit speel." (Miss, I want to play the recorder).
I stared at her in astonishment. It had been a long day, and I quickly came up with evaluations such as: she is not a student at the school; she is very poor and cannot pay the tuition or purchase materials; she may not be very intelligent, probably will not be able to learn and will soon lose interest. I thought up an excuse and sent her on her way.
Throughout the following weeks, I often found her in my room--an apparition holding a broomstick--each time uttering the same solemn words:
"Juf, ek wil blokfluit speel."
She was twelve years of age and nearly my own height, with bare feet, clothing several sizes too small, and hair determined to go in several directions at once. Her face... a face that will haunt me forever... was a worn-out face, devoid of laughter, the face of an old woman in the body of a twelve year-old.
One day I told her, "We are starting on Monday," and I set about organizing thirteen children to form a recorder class after school. I bought her a plastic recorder.
At the first class everyone struggled with the usual squeaks and bleeps that children can be expected to make. Agnes seemed reluctant to try, however, and remained very still at the end of the row, watching the others. I decided to give everyone an individual turn, knowing that she would eventually have to participate, but that she could observe twelve others beforehand.
It was Agnes' turn, and I convinced her to try. She brought the recorder to her lips and blew a short, shrill, high-pitched sound, like a whistle. Equally shrill was her own squeal, as she sprang from her chair. She stared at the recorder, as if in terror. More shrill pitches followed, more shrieking and springing, more staring in fear, disbelief, curiosity. I have never heard the recorder played quite like that, nor have I since heard a human voice to match the vocalizations of Agnes in the "elan" of her first musical sounds.
On the day of our second class, a child appeared in my room with Agnes' recorder and explained that she would not be returning to the class or to the school. She had to stay home, now, to look after the younger children. I opened the box and found that the recorder was broken at the mouthpiece. Plastic recorders being fairly indestructible, it had to have been whacked.
Music education will always be a gift--but for some, it will be a gift that comes too late...
...and I owe it all to my dog...
The Gift of Music