Young musicians lift spirits around house

Published 8:56 am Friday, September 13, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

With the boy home from college over the summer and the youngest surviving her final summer of high school with us, the house was filled with noise. Only it wasn’t gunshots or screaming from his computer games or her latest pop favorite. It was a kind of noise I find I miss very much — although it took me awhile to figure out why — now that the house is emptier than before: the sound of kids practicing music.

At least once nearly every day this summer, and sometimes more often, I would hear Bach drifting up to the kitchen from the electric organ in the family room. Or Tchaikovsky would spill into the rest of the house from the piano in the living room. Sometimes it was early in the morning, while other times it would ease me to sleep late at night.

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There was a time, years and years ago, when music practice wasn’t quite so pleasurable for anyone at our house. It began with arguments about practicing, followed by threats and whining, and nearly always ended with more rules about no TV or playtime until it was done. Dissonance prevailed — unintentional — along with sharps and flats in all the wrong places.

Back in that time of strife, I have to admit I sometimes found the time to take the dog for a walk or go pull weeds in the garden … even in January. But more recently — like this summer — I found reasons to stay home, to sit at the table or work quietly in the kitchen while listening, making certain to keep my listening secret, since they both dislike it when anyone listens while they practice. This summer there were days when it was like living in a concert hall, with Satie accompanying my writing or Langlais driving my chopping of onions.

Now that the boy is gone, taking his Bach with him, the house still echoes with the girl’s Tchaikovsky (and sometimes Adele, too), but it’s not happening as often. And I’m aware of the temporary status of even her piano solos; she’s eager to be at college and on her way into the world herself.

These days I also feel regret for childhood (and childish) choices. You see, I can’t play any musical instruments, not even the piano. I can’t even read music. When I open a score, what I see are a bunch of lines, dots and Italian words (along with any lyrics). I know enough to follow an accompanist, but I can’t “see” key signatures or the other bits of important information that composers put into their music.

If you remember reading any of my columns about singing (like the recent one about performing at the Minnesota State Fair) or are reading this in Freeborn County and have heard me perform in a musical at the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center or Summerset in Austin, you need to know that all of that noise coming from my vocal chords is learned through listening and memorizing the tune. I learn by rote, is the technical description.

But, even with those regrets and my musical illiteracy, I’m not jealous of my children’s ability to sit down to a keyboard or pick up an instrument. What do I feel? Pride at their ability to read that language and turn marks on a page into song. And now sadness, at the absence of the music of kids practicing; when next September comes, and the youngest really is gone, all I will have are the radio and the CD player.

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? All that beautiful music and all I seem to be saying is poor, poor, pitiful me. But the live music of my children is what I’ve become used to. And isn’t listening to them practice now, when they mastered so much of what performance requires supposed to be my reward for the years of whining, threats and dissonance?

Out there in the world, somebody else will be listening to their music. And all those with kids still at home need to sit sometimes and just listen to the music they are making. Those private concerts are always going to be temporary. And being temporary only makes what we hear that much more precious.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.