Watching Kids Learn to Play Music Humbles and Impresses Me

Around this time two years ago, my then-fifth grade son told us that he wanted to play an instrument in sixth grade. Few things he could have said at that moment would have surprised me more since he’d never expressed an interest in playing an instrument, nor did he seem to have much interest in music. But he didn’t change his mind, and settled on the viola.

He started playing when sixth grade began in the fall of 2016, and has stuck with it. I saw him play at a local sandwich shop a few weeks back and marveled at his ability, as well as his complete lack of nerves. I think most people would be a bit nervous before playing in front of a restaurant full of strangers, but my son never mentioned nerves, and simply stood up and performed.

As I stood there and listened to him play, I thought about just how far he’d come from that kid a couple of years ago who seemed to decide he wanted to be a musician at the spur-of-the-moment.

His orchestra teacher invited him to play in an ensemble outside of school, and my son joined them for the first practice of a new session just a couple of days ago. They were supposed to practice for ninety minutes, and since they were meeting about half an hour from our house, I figured I’d drop off my son, find something to do for a while, and then return to pick him up.

However, I noticed that other parents didn’t leave, so I decided to stick around, too. It didn’t take long until I realized I’d made the right decision.

My son and the other kids formed a semi-circle around their teacher, who passed out the musical selections he’d chosen.

Those kids impressed me from that moment on.

I don’t know anything about music. I don’t know how to play it, or read it. My son plays the viola—a fact of which I’m well aware—but I still mess up and say violin at least half the time. It amazes me that anyone can look at a piece of sheet music and make sense of it. And not only do they understand what’s on the sheet, but they then translate that into sounds from their chosen instrument.

I can barely read words aloud, and these kids are reading and playing music!

Maybe I’m just fascinated because none of it makes sense, but I watched in humbled awe as the kids played their instruments, took critiques and advice from the teacher, and then played again. I’d always wondered how a musician learned to play a song, and watching those kids and their teacher helped provide some insight.

They talked about things that sounded like jibberish, and used jargon that sounded familiar from my own middle school music class, but which I hadn’t thought about for almost thirty years. Measures, flats, sharps, quarter notes, rests, crescendo—it’s a foreign language. And two years ago it was foreign to my son, but thanks to this music teacher, and my son’s own hard work, he can now translate these markings on a page into sounds from his instrument without giving it much thought.

I can’t believe it!

For ninety minutes the teacher and the kids dissected those pieces of music. Despite the good-natured back and forth between the teacher and students, they clearly were working toward a common goal. At one point the teacher said he’d post a clip of the song on their website because, “This is not normal sounding.” A few minutes later a girl interrupted to share a story. The teacher asked, “Is this a quick story?” to which the girl responded affirmatively, before telling the story without pausing for a breath.

Later, the kids started to play a song, and only got through a note or two before the teacher stopped them. They all groaned, and started again, each of them recognizing that it didn’t sound right. It sounded good to me though, another reminder that I don’t know a damn thing about music.

By the end of the class they’d worked their way through three or four songs. The teacher advised them to listen to the songs during the week so they’d know how the songs should sound for next week. He encouraged them to chomp like Cookie Monster during one part of the song where they were supposed to stop playing and use their mouths to make noise.

I can’t wait to see how the songs develop over the next couple of months. Everyone (except me) seemed in agreement that the songs sounded rough, but it was the first day, they’d never played the songs before, and there were peculiarities within the songs that they have to iron out.

But watching the way worked together and practiced during the first class, I have no doubt they’ll sound great for the concert in May.

And I can’t wait to watch them put it all together.

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