Thursday, March 09, 2006

reverse influence

In our house, sometimes the water flows uphill.

The principles of influence generally apply the way they always have, and you can safely say about the girls, "Oh, she takes after her mother that way" or "She gets that from her father." I take great pride in Evangeline's burgeoning interest in Greek mythology, and there's no doubt that my wife appreciates the relish Rachel has for the outdoors and nature. What parents don't love it when their children emulate them?

But lately, in my own life, I've seen that sometimes the tree doesn't grow too far from where the apple falls. Every once in a while, the water flows uphill.

Evangeline displayed a flair for artistic self-expression as early as two years old. Her interest waned for a few months, but particularly after we lost Christopher, she threw herself into drawing with abandon. We enrolled her in courses at a nearby art academy after she turned five, and she had her own art exhibit there a year later.

What's curious is how this has affected the others of us. I've noticed in the last few weeks that Rachel has started displaying previously unknown levels of interest in art, particularly when it comes to painting. Tuesday night she painted herself a rainbow that had an unmistakable bow shape to it, and when she draws, she's paying more attention to detail than ever before. She's spending more time on her art, and getting better every day. She's becoming an artist.

So am I. On Monday I asked the art instructor enough questions about Evangeline's art supplies that she told me I should just start taking lessons myself. I've noticed that my knowledge of different techniques, and my level of effort, have shot well past the stick-figure level where they effectively lingered for twenty-odd years.

In order to jumpstart Evangeline on the cover for her Roald Dahl research project, I drew my own sloppy copy and was reasonably impressed with the results. I'll never show at the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art, but with a little effort and some coaching, I might actually turn out to be half-decent. It's a shocker.

The real shocker, though, has been musically. All the way through high school and college, I heard from my more musically attuned friends that I should give my vocal chords and their ears a rest whenever I felt the urge to sing. I had played the tuba for six years, and had been seated ahead of the all-state honors band player, but the general consensus of my friends was that I would do everyone a favor if I just left music to the musicians.

Generally speaking, I have. Even setting aside the question of vocals, there's not much demand for tubists in any sort of small-band capacity, I don't think I even remember half the valve combinations anymore, and I've always considered the time requirements for learning to play a new instrument to be too unwieldy at this point in my life.

As fate would have it, about two weeks ago, Evangeline started pleading for piano lessons. I had been trying to teach her piano from a music book during kindergarten, with mixed success, since I had no idea how to play it myself, and homeschooling texts are notorious for claiming how easy it is to teach a children a language or knowledge base that you haven't mastered yourself. (Mind, it's not impossible, but it is a lot of work, and it requires humility since you have to learn alongside your child, instead of imparting things from your own experience.)

But Evangeline was persistent, so I asked a friend who plays keyboards for his church if he would be willing to give it a shot. Rob, who is trained in elementary music education, took a different approach from the theory-scales-songs progression I recall from school. It's more like getting the kids to "think musically," and letting everything else follow. Professor Harold Hill may have been a con man with his "76 Trombones" and "Trouble in River City," but I have to say, I like Rob's approach just fine.

He taught Evangeline exactly one note, C natural, and told her to use that as the starting point for any song she wants to sing. After she matches her voice to that note, she then finds the next corresponding note on the keyboard, and then the next, and so on, until she has learned to play the whole song, entirely by ear. She undoubtedly will rearrange the song from its more familiar key in the process, but she's training her ears and fingers to match the notes she plays with what she sings.

Once she has learned to play two or three songs, we're supposed to call Rob for her second lesson. Practice, in the meantime, is at her pace and set by her level of interest, although we encourage her to practice and try to redirect her when she starts wandering off. (Forcing the issue with regimented daily practice times of 30 minutes a piece, I'll attest, leads to resentment, frustration, and not picking up the bloody instrument again once you graduate, so it's safe to consider it counterproductive.)

Rob insisted up front that he would not accept payment of any sort, since he simply enjoys seeing others learn to play, and is not trying to turn her into a concert pianist. That's a lucky thing for us, since Evangeline has already lost most of her interest in the piano, despite her initial enthusiasm.

But if Evangeline has lost interest, I've gained it. I already have figured out how to play some fairly simple children's songs like "Mary had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle Little Star," which Rachel loves to hear me play; and "Majesty," a praise-and-worship chorus popular in charismatic churches in the late 1980s. I'm now working on "Holy, Holy, Holy," a more complicated and theologically deeper song that has been a church mainstay for ages.

I'm doing a decent job and one day soon may even be able to play our keyboard for our family devotions time, at least for one or two songs. I doubt I'll ever lead worship at church, and I'll certainly never play at Carnegie Hall, but I'm experiencing a renaissance in an area of artistry I never knew I had, and that alone makes it worth the price of admission.

And since both Rachel and Evangeline see my renewed interest and enthusiasm for the piano and drawing, I've a feeling these things will be a part of our family for years to come. If the water continues to run uphill and the trees keep growing near where the apples fall, we're going to have quite a tidy little orchard before long.

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