My mom will be turning 90 this year. She no longer is able to play the piano that she taught for decades. Though her voice has a strength beyond other 90-year-old women, her singing sounds like someone who used to know how to sing. And she did. Dementia, muscle atrophy and general old age are stripping music from her piece by piece.
Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, my mom was reminiscing about life when I was a boy. While she can’t remember what happened yesterday or even 10 minutes earlier in the conversation, she recalls how she started me on the violin when I was 5-½.
“Your Grandmother loved the violin,” she said. “I think that is why I chose that instrument.” My parents didn’t take many photos. Nor are they natural storytellers that would help solidify childhood memories. So, we’ll often work together to recall events.
“You loved to play the violin, didn’t you?” I have sometimes bent the truth when asked these sort of questions by mom. But, I am old enough and have done enough with the music that she gifted me to no longer worry about whether she feels good about her job as a mom.
I told her “No, mom, I really didn’t enjoy playing when I a boy.” She looked surprised. “But I didn’t dislike it, either. It was just something we did. I liked the pats on the back. I liked being better than other people at something.” She nodded and then recalled how she enjoyed singing for other people when she was a girl. And how much she loved the praise she received. She seemed to be saying that loving music as a child wasn’t necessary.
She continued working her memory of my musical upbringing. “But you had a gift and practiced. That is why you developed into such a strong violinist.”
She was genuinely surprised when I told her I have no memories of practicing. My parents never sat with me to work on a piece of music. We sometimes rehearsed as a family quartet whenever we had performances or played at church. My dad drove my brother, sister and me to youth symphony and lessons every week. They may have wanted me to practice, but they definitely did not help me practice. And I definitely didn’t do it on my own.
My dad laughed a little and seemed to agree with my recollection when he said “We were too busy trying to hold on.”
I think that one of my jobs in life is to challenge some of the mythology that has built up around learning music. There is a narrative about the violin, in particular, that sums up an important value we want to instill in our children. If you work hard at something, you can master even the most difficult of challenges.
My mom has reshaped history of how I became a strong violinist based on that cultural narrative. In her mind, I demonstrated a love of music as a child and had discipline to work hard to master the instrument.
It is wonderfully ironic. My mom assumed I was learning the way she was telling her students to learn: go practice the piece on your own between lessons. But in fact I was learning through absorbing music around me: home, lessons, youth symphony, camp…the community.