My 3-year-old son and I have a nightly jam session – he on guitar, me on bongos. When we switch instruments the results are actual music, but it’s somehow more musical when he bangs the guitar and I strum the drum. It must have something to do with anarchic spirit of children and how this can animate something primal and transcendent that completely sidesteps my studious years as a six-string samurai.
Is the boy a better musician than me? No, he’s 3. He’s not even sure if he’s right- or left-handed (or both), let alone destined to be the Eddie Van Halen of his preschool class. Could he be better than me? Seems likely. There’s a twist of DNA that winds through our family’s genes like a musical staff. I’ve got a small piece of it, which allows me to self-accompany a credible croon without too much embarrassment. My brother scored the complete box set of musical genes, which led to major label record deals and a recent turn scoring “Dora the Explorer” among other commercial triumphs in the “jingles trade.”
My brother was no prodigy, however, nor I suspect is my son, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. Sure, he’s a gifted child. They all are, aren’t they? But given his druthers, there are days he’d surely smash the guitar over the coffee table in some Who-infused Pete Townsend tantrum. And that’s “Who” as in “My G-G-Generation” not Whoville, you know, where the Grinch lives. I’ve learned that with certain cultural nuances, it’s important to clarify, lest mine and the child’s worlds unhappily collide.
For example, he inherited an Aerosmith T-shirt from his cousin and denied that was authentic because he heard “arrow,” which he associates with “target,” or more specifically, the big box store’s bull’s-eye logo. The shirt features Aerosmith’s encircled letter A with wings, not a bull’s eye, ergo, it couldn’t possibly be “arrow smith,” whatever that is in his wee mind. It’s not the band, I’m sure. Music, for the boy, seems to be something else entirely – like an encoded alien language used to transmit orders to him from the mothership. Like many parents of young children, I’m convinced my kid is from outer-space. And wants to destroy me. Or at least the living room.
Six months ago, the boy decided that he must play violin. This came as a result of his fascination with YouTube videos of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman that his grandfather clicks on to lull him into civility when he’s having an outbreak of being 2. His godparents got word of this and sent a violin for Christmas. Though he’s still too small to fit it under his chin and reach the fingerboard, I now find myself shopping for lessons and making the hard choices between the Suzuki Method or some foreboding Austrian with pince nez glasses and coffee breath.
Granted, these are First World problems and I’m grateful to have them but it does lead to the question of how hard does one push a nascent talent? Should one push at all? I was pushed a bit and the results were disastrous. I was a so-called “gifted” child, which is to say, my behavioral problems seemed to have an upside in the arts, according to my teachers.
This was the 80s, when the social-economic caste system was a bit more fluid (versus the stark us-and-them framing of the 99 and 1 percent) and teachers thought nothing of segregating classes based on who was “gifted” and who was not, like some middle school eugenics program (or pogrom, if you like). Naturally, their selections followed the perceived pedigree of the parents’ pocketbooks.
So as not to be polluted by the potential intellectual deficiencies of our, ahem, peers, we “gifted” kids were removed from the rest of the class to receive special instruction at another location. Come every Thursday, the implicit lesson we learned was, “You are better than everyone else.” I took it to heart and decided I was also better than the other “gifted” kids. Not coincidentally, this is when I began cutting school. I realized the “gifted” instructor didn’t take roll, so I began hoofing downtown to chum it up with the vagabonds and burnouts whose afternoons wafted away in the steam of espresso machines and blue plumes of hand-rolled cigarettes.
This is where I learned my first guitar chords and jotted the first tremulous phrases of what would become my life’s work. This all occurred on the Norman Rockwell-esque streets of Petaluma’s west side where a ’tweenager was once relatively safe. I do not recommend this sort of extracurricular tutoring in any other time or place. If you have a time machine – great, go for it, otherwise, the program has been canceled.
Of course, having been “gifted,” I was keenly aware of my inner-child prodigy and mourned its slow death as I entered adulthood without having delivered some magnum opus or made millions being cleverer than the other kids. Then, finally, I was free – free to fail my way up like everyone else.
The fact of the matter is, all children are gifted and all adults are too when we remember it. This is how to jog your memory: Get a drum or a pot or a box or any other relatively hard and flat surface – then bang on it. Loudly and terribly. If you have kids, invite them to accompany you. Continue jamming like this until one of two phenomena occur; A) the cops show up and fine you for disturbing the peace (bravo!); or B) You enter a trance-like state, space folds in on itself and for a brief moment you commune with your dead inner-prodigy. You won’t be able to hear it over all the racket you’ll be making but, trust me, they really haven’t much to say anyway. And this will be music to your ears.