The Primary School Music Concert
Where are my earplugs?
I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: violins screaming fit to make even the most gushing and doting parents' ears bleed; the piercing cry of many recorders, reaching notes that only dogs can hear; the sporadic squeak of clarinets, the players of which almost burst with pride when they manage to get a sound out of their instruments; guitars splinking* piteously, all in tune with notes that each player picks randomly out of his or her own head; and various percussion instruments being indiscriminately banged in time with different pieces of music all at once. That's what primary school music concerts sound like, don't they?
Ensemble pieces of classical nursery rhyme tunes, and parents with fixed false smiles, secretly thinking 'is this what I'm paying for?'. (Music lessons are not free at our school; at some schools I believe the parents receive a fee for sitting through the concert, with bonuses given to those who don't faint.)
So imagine my utter astonishment when my eldest son, Thomas, came home and told me that, after only two months of flute lessons, he would be playing a solo in the concert. And that everyone else who took music lessons would also be playing either solos or duets. I quizzed him about an ensemble or a small orchestra, but he assured me that there would be no straggly group rendition of Beethoven's 9th. I didn't quite trust Thomas to have this right, as he is quite day-dreamy and sometimes misses important information, such as whether parents might be advised to wear earplugs. But he was right this time.
For a fortnight Thomas practised his piece, Winter Moonlight, with some tips and direction from me (he uses my own flute, which I learned to play when I was his age and attending the same school; nothing changes around here, we're still in the 70s). I taught him how to stand, nice and tall and straight, and how to hold the flute even though it hurts one's arms for a while. And after a few days of 'stand up straight', 'keep your head up' and 'your arms are dropping' from me, and 'I can't do it', 'my arms are dropping off' and 'I'm rubbish' from Thomas, he began to get a beautifully clear tone from the instrument. He even began to smile excitedly about how nice his solo was going to be.
The day of the concert arrived, and I was possibly more nervous than Thomas. Mrs Main introduced each child in turn, and each one played a little solo and a few played duets, just as Thomas had said. And it was glorious. There was ne'er a squeak or a screech to be heard. Granted, there were a few little mistakes, but the children were nervous, being stuck out on that limb all by themselves, and they were all between 8 and 11 years old. I think what was so great about this way of staging a little concert was that no one could hide behind anyone else. In a school orchestra, what often goes wrong, from what I can remember, is that children feel less need to practise because they think their mistakes will be covered up by the more able musicians; hence, cacophony. But when everyone plays a solo, they have to practise, because there's no one to hide behind. The result: beautiful music, and confident children.
My heart almost burst out of my chest when Mrs Main introduced Thomas, around the mid-point of the proceedings. He was very smiley, and looked more excited than nervous. And he played his little piece, with a beautifully straight back, good strong, high arms, and a lovely pure and loud tone. Now, I may be biased, but I think our fortnight of practise paid off because Thomas, despite being the newest flautist, had much the nicest sound. Afterwards he told me that he hadn't been nervous, and that 'it was brilliant!'. But every child sounded superb, and the concert was pure joy to watch: happy, excited little faces, accepting their rapturous applause with shy grace. I was a little nervous for every child, willing each one to do well, even those I didn't know. And every child did him- or herself proud.
I scanned the rows of spectating parents at one point, hoping to see tears streaming down cheeks, so that I could indulge in a happy-cry without shame. But there wasn't a glisten to be seen, so I reigned it in. It wouldn't do to be the only one crying over little Jack's valiant trumpet solo of Jingle Bells, especially when Jack was not even my child.
The primary school music concert: not at all what I had been expecting. I can hardly wait for the next one.
*Yes, I'm sure you're right, 'splinking' is not a word, but it seemed to be the right kind of sound to describe what guitars do in the hands of people who can't play them.