Confessions of a Reluctant Tiger Dad: Piano Lessons

I hear the piano wrestled into submission, notes pinging to my ears in a familiar tune. Mary had a little…a little…a lit-tle…MARY HAD A…mary HAD a little…Mary had a little lamb! Every now and then Erin hits all the notes the right way, but it’s not often. She’ll get better.

IMG_2017

We started Erin in private piano and music classes when the school year started. The music class, a computer-based group lesson that involved putting shapes on a screen and printing off pages to take home and throw away, proved a total waste of time. It was supposed to, I think, introduce young children to the idea of music having visual representations that can be manipulated and turned into different sounds in orchestration. What it did, instead, was encourage the kids to do four seconds of object placements, then try to flag the teacher down to print their music sheet. Erin was bored, I was bored (I couldn’t sit in the class with her, but nor could I leave the music school grounds, so I spent 40 minutes each week sitting out in the hallway, with an equally bored Adrian), and by the end of the session she couldn’t do anything that she couldn’t already do much better on our computer at home (or with an iPad). It was almost like the teacher was an obstacle to the computer program, instead of using the program to facilitate a lesson. We did not re-register for the new session.

Erin’s piano lessons have proven to be a different challenge. She is never bored. She loves performing, and getting music right, and showing the teacher what she can do. She loves learning, and with the music book she is using for her lessons she actually learns things like what notes are called, and how long to hold them based on their representation. No, Erin’s obstacle in her piano lessons is me.

Erin has instructions from her teacher to practice every day, and to do a certain number of exercises and worksheets to accompany her sight-reading. This requires, however, that I remind her to practice, and remind her to do her worksheets; and I am the worst person in the world to keep anyone else on top of their homework. Some weeks are better than others; but some weeks are one day long, short cram sessions to squeeze a week’s worth of knowledge into her head the night before her lesson. When your father is a procrastinator, you might be doomed to procrastinate too.

Compounding my sin, I have the impatience only someone who is himself a somewhat frustrated musician can have when his progeny refuse to turn prodigy. Of the two parents in the house, I’m the one with the most music training, so I work with Erin on her lessons. I refuse to accept that she can’t recognize the B below middle-C on the staff: It’s right there! Look at it! Just, I don’t know, count one down from middle-C. I will not tolerate Erin telling me “I can’t do it” or “It’s too hard”, reading into her pleas a malingering ploy rather than what is probably the truth: she is not getting enough practice.

The last-minute cram sessions are frustrating for the both of us, and I’m starting to realize that it’s almost all my fault. Sure, Erin exaggerates her short-comings for sympathetic effect; I did the same thing when I was younger. And older. And probably recently. But I’m the one who turns into a crazy person because my daughter keeps trying to play middle-C with her index finger instead of her thumb. It’s pressure I’ve put on myself by letting her go without practice; by being worried that she’s not going to get all her learning done by the time the next lesson comes around; by being worried about her failing. I’m imparting all of that anxiety to her. I can feel myself doing it.

I don’t think I should hold her to soft standards. But I do recognize that I’m the source of many of the things that are frustrating about our piano time. I don’t want her to strive for perfection at the cost of being good. That’s a flaw in my own being, and if there’s something I don’t want her to emulate in me, it’s that.

But still: middle-C is right there, kid, so that one is A. Look at the music, not at your fingers! You’re slowing down. You call that a half-note? Drop and give me twenty scales!

All of that over an instrument I can’t even play myself. Heaven help her when she asks me to teach her how to play the guitar.

On Raising Geeky Kids: A Reflection on Fantasy and Horror Films

As part of my attempt to raise Erin as a geek, we’ve been reading The Hobbit at night. She knew that there was a movie coming out, and has wanted to see it, but I told her we’d have to read the book first. She agreed, and we’ve been picking at it for a few months now, on nights when she doesn’t have books from school to read.

Emily and I saw the movie, and before we did we let Erin know that if it was too scary for little kids, she wouldn’t be able to see it, which turns out to be the case. (It’s also just overall geared toward adults who care about boring things being boring interspersed with violent things and an occasional jokey moment for kids. I do not understand the balance at all. I did not like it as an adaptation or even as a movie.) Erin was, understandably, devastated.

It’s a weird line to draw, the one about violence in media, or scary themes, and one that I bump up against again and again. The kids just watched the original Star Wars trilogy, which isn’t exactly non-violent. And they watch scary-gothic-horror styled movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, and Frankenweenie. But maybe they’re not ready yet for someone to behead someone else with a sword. (In support of this: Erin caught a moment of the Body of Proof season finale I was watching on Hulu a couple of months ago, right when Dana Delany finds the brain has been removed from a dead body, and I spent a long time explaining things like movie props and Egyptian burial rites to her. She would not just let me say “nevermind”, and I didn’t want her worrying about someone actually going around stealing brains.)

My own childhood was, well, less restricted might be a thoughtful way to put it; neglectful might be a different way. I remember watching The Beastmaster when I wasn’t much older than Erin is now.

Though it’s not the most violent fantasy movie ever, it’s still not a hug-fest. I also remember seeing Cat’s Eye at the drive-in with my parents, and Christine, and as I got older we saw more and more horror films. Next to the horror films, the fantasy movies I was watching when I was about Erin’s age, like Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, and Krull were utterly tame. The Hobbit isn’t much more violent than those (and might actually be less violent and scary than Conan was; it’s hard to remember), but it’s still not something we’ll let the kids see until they’re older. We’re just going to raise them differently than I was raised, in that respect.

My parents seemed to want me to see every possible horror movie they could find, or maybe I bugged them to watch and wore down their defenses. (I know how eroding a child’s pleas can be.) Only a few ever really disturbed me. Pet Sematary was one of them. Something about that cat, and about a murderous toddler, just creeped me right out. I don’t even want to watch it now. The other was about a guy who goes to a farm, and he thinks there’s something in the water that’s making the family there turn into mindless, gross things. I only remember three scenes from it: the family is sitting around a table eating chicken, and I think the chicken was raw, and gross-looking; the mother is sewing, and whatever she is sewing she ends up sewing right into her hand; the guy is in the back of a police car, yelling at kids playing in lawn sprinklers in a suburban neighbhourhood that “it” is in the water. The sewing scene in particular has always stuck with me, as well as the fact that the “guy” in it was Jon Schneider, whom I recognized from watching The Dukes of Hazzard.” I think I wanted to see it because he was in it.

Despite my young exposure to violent fantasy and horror films, I turned out alright. Didn’t I? Well, I turned out to be a geek, anyway. But what if I’m only a geek because I saw the raw chicken movie when I was a kid? I like my geekiness, and I want my kids to like the things I like, among the other things they end up liking in their lives, because I…well…because I like them. That’s a reason, isn’t it? If I were an old football player, I’d want my kids to like football. Just wanting them to like it doesn’t also imply rejecting them if they don’t, or being unwilling or unable to relate to them. But if they like the things I like that’s a bond.

I sent my mom the complete set of Doctor Who DVDs for Christmas, because I like Doctor Who and because I was sure she would like it too. (It turns out she was already watching the show, and loved it, but wasn’t very far along yet. So, I pretty much win at Christmas.) I sent my dad an old copy of a Strategy & Tactics magazine from the 80’s, a duplicate of one that he had when I was a kid, the one he used to introduce me to tabletop strategy games like Squad Leader. I bought those presents for my parents because I’m a geek, and because I’m the geek they made. A lot of my geekiness is my own, but I can trace a straight line back to them, and yes, in a way, back to their permissiveness about movies, back to seeing the raw chicken movie or Conan when I was young.

It’s a fine line to walk, I think. We’re doing okay, but what if seeing The Hobbit while young is the difference between Erin buying me socks for Christmas when I’m 60, and her buying me the Firefly: Seasons 2-7 box set instead? (I can hope.)

Thankfully, there is a stopgap, at least where The Hobbit is concerned: the Rankin/Bass animated version from 1977:

We ordered a DVD copy online. As soon as we finish the book, it’s going in the DVD player. It will have to do. I remember watching it when I was a kid anyway. It’s just one of the many things that went in to making me a geek.

P.S. The raw chicken movie with John Schneider? It’s called The Curse. And it stars Wil Wheaton. GEEK ALL THE THINGS.

Bowling Trophies and Bouncing Balls

Erin and Adrian were invited to a bowling birthday party this weekend. They had never been bowling before.

image

When I was Erin’s age, my father would take me bowling. It was one of the few regular activities I can remember him being present for. During those early years, the army years, he was away a lot. But he was around for bowling lessons.

I used to have four bowling trophies. Each one was inscribed with “I Beat My Coach”. My coach was my own father, so I’m not sure how hard he was trying. He liked to tie me in games and races and contests. I didn’t like to do things I was bad at, I guess. (I lost all enthusiasm for ice skating lessons when I started late, and saw the toddlers who could skate rings around me.) I used to think I was a pretty amazing bowler. That’s probably not a good thing, in retrospect. I am not an amazing bowler. There’s a comedy in there somewhere, about the kid who got too much praise, going on the pro bowler tour.

Erin is definitely not a good bowler. But of course, she’s only done it once. Adrian is even worse: he was a little hesitant to even push the ball. It’s okay to see my kids as not great at something, isn’t it? I don’t have to give them trophies, do I?

Maybe a trophy for cuteness.

image

When we got home from the bowling alley, Emily put together a makeshift lane in the hallway with toilet paper rolls and a superball.

image

The bowling will continue. When they beat me, I’ll definitely give them a trophy.