Yesterday morning, I had to get up early to drive With-a-Why to a piano competition. Well, I don't know if competition is the right word. He had to go in to the piano studio and play a couple of songs in front of a judge. He had the early morning time slot, which meant he was half-asleep as we drove over. When we walked in the studio, only one kid was ahead of him, a little boy dressed smartly in dress pants and a dress shirt. The kid's mother seemed all nervous, "This is his first time, " she said to me. I think the sight of With-a-Why, dressed in an old black band t-shirt, his uncombed hair hanging in his face, calmed her down.
The first little boy went into the other room, picked his way laborously through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and came out looked pleased with himself. The mother and I congratulated him, and then they stayed to listen to With-a-Why. One of the songs he was playing was the "Flight of the Bumblebee." It's a fast song, and his fingers fly across the keys as he plays.
The mother turned to me. "Wow."
Then she asked, in an undertone, "How often do you make him practice?"
That question always surprises me, although it shouldn't because I get it from other parents all the time.
"I don't make him practice," I said. "He plays all the time — someone in my house is always playing the piano — but it's completely up to him whether or not he chooses to play."
It's a weird thing amongst parents in my area. They have the idea that a "good parent" tells their kids when to do homework, when to practice music, what to eat. I never do any of those things. I never tell my kids to do their homework, I never tell them when to practice their music, and I let them eat whatever they want whenever they want, although they are limited by the fact that we keep only healthy food in the house. What shocks parents is not how casual my parenting is (because after all, they all know I'm the crazy liberal feminist), but the fact that my kids have turned out so well: healthy, smart, and musical. Despite their slacker parents! The idea of empowering their kids to take charge of their lives is simply an idea that has not occurred to many parents in this community.
The piano teacher came over to talk to me, while With-a-Why was talking shyly to the judges, and she asked whether or not Shaggy Hair Boy liked the piece she had sent home with him the week before.
"Your kids can be hard to teach, " she said. I looked at her in surprise.
"See, most kids take lessons because their parents want them to," she explained. "So we just go through the songs in the book. But your kids play because they want to. So I have to find songs they will like, or work with songs they bring in. It's more of a challenge."
I laughed. Then With-a-Why came out, and she hugged him. We looked at the judge's sheet. He always gets high numbers but I can never understand the comments, hand-written and full of musical jargon : "Your something-or-other is excellent. Something-or-other dynamic shaping. Your left hand something-or-other. Great something-or-other and musical control!"
But I loved the last sentence on the sheet: "Your playing is full of sparkle!" That, I understood. As we drove home, I looked over at With-a-Why. "That sentence sums it up. Your playing is full of sparkle!"
He looked at me sideways, "Mom! That was the one sentence that didn't say anything."
"No, it was the one sentence that said everything."
He was muttering about something he could have done differently -- he sets very high standards for himself -- but as we drove home through the snowy world, he gave me one of his rare smiles. He shook his long, unwashed hair back into his face, and snuggled back against the seat, this quiet child who knows how to make the music sparkle.