Often it begins with a fist bump. Streaming into the room like two turtle-shelled lemmings, backpacked baby cellos almost as tall as they are, comes two 8-year-old girls. Let’s call them Kate and Amy. Two attractions stand in opposite corners of the room: their teacher, brave-faced but with the darting eyes of the overwhelmed, and a broad floor-to-ceiling mirror. One girl will trace a path directly towards me, eager to greet with a jab to the knuckles (for anything can be called a competition after you’ve been the first to do it), and the other will bustle straight for the mirror to gaze adoringly at the sight found within.
A typical lesson will limp forth from this point, as I exhort our mirror-smitten girl to detach from her burgeoning self-love and beg both to unpack their cellos as quickly as possible. While I attempt to tune each improvement-resistant instrument (whoever builds these ½-size cellos cares not for the patience of teachers), the girls will ramble breathlessly, their respective streams of consciousness independent of interaction from each other, me or any sense of internal logic. Once tuned (ish), we will spend half an hour together in the familiar terrain of the ultra-beginner:
Girls, how do we hold the bow?
Kate: Like this, Cam? Cam, like this?
tiny hand like a penguin wing
Yes that’s it, but now just spread your fingers a little bit.
concentration ensues, hand is examined, effort made
fingers remain unchanged
Like this, Cam? Cam, like this?
These girls are hilarious, and even though I will admit to moments of existential hand-wringing, wondering if my life’s course should have led me here, teaching them is a genuine pleasure. When I started I had barely a notion of what an 8-year-old personality was like and was initially startled at how adult their behaviour can be. Amy and Kate also take part in a five-student group lesson, and in this I will witness sarcasm, sass, envy, power struggles, hurt feelings, sulking, loyalty and jealousy. Complex, difficult emotions taking shape amongst these miniature humans. I don’t know what I expected, but I was wrong.
Mostly though, the mood is upbeat and I am accustomed to oddball questions, bizarre stories and irreverent comments. In one lesson with Amy and Kate, the last before a holiday, I enquired as to their plans. Kate’s singular aim was to ‘be amazing’, while Amy’s ambition transcended human possibilities as she proclaimed ‘hibernate. I’m a bear’. A third student, unfortunate enough to glimpse me on another sleep-deprived, panda-channeling morning* asked me with a smirk (she’s 9, by the way): ‘What’s wrong with your eyes?’ Unperturbed and eager to walk straight into what was coming, I probed further:
What do you mean?
I dunno, they’re just…all black or something.
I praised her keen eyesight, if not her tact. I laughed at her indelicacy, she laughed at my monochrome visage and the lesson gained a freshening levity. Her bluntness embodied the innocence these young girls possess, big personalities and idiosyncrasies not yet curtailed by societal forces. Even when they behave in the seemingly ‘adult’ ways mentioned above, it is almost an impersonation, their sweet naivety lending those dramatic emotions a softening air of theatricality. It is not always so, however. A recent lesson with Kate and Amy demonstrated this emphatically.
It is difficult to recount the full impact of this lesson here, with my prematurely faulty memory, imperfect tonal control and structural shortcomings (I wish to be as bold as Donald Trump and believe that ‘I know words, I have the best words’, but alas it has proven otherwise). Really, I have tried. I wrote down the entire dialogue of the lesson with witty and insightful annotations, added a splash of poetic license, a twist of exaggeration and a sprinkle of sentiment, and the result was as forced and clunky as this sentence. Not to mention self-aggrandising. Obviously I write things and share them on the internet so I’m no shrinking violet, but believe me, I have that hellish and exhausting mix of low self-esteem and enormous ego, meaning my self-love and self-loathe are like those cheap toothpastes whose only selling point is that they have a mint flavour – the paste comes out in two halves, one half white and the other a disturbing, chemical blue. Both fight hard for attention, but in the end you’ve benefited from neither and are left wondering about the point of it all.
See, this was supposed to be about two innocent, sweet girls who in one lesson suddenly plumbed the darkest of emotions before rising from this nadir using the power of musical expression, and I’ve just shoehorned a whole paragraph about myself into it. Let me try again, and I’ll aim for brevity.
It seemed like a normal lesson. They came in as usual, just like I described above (gosh, that feels like a long time ago). Then, out of nowhere, Amy asked me:
Cam…when you were little like us, did you like your dad or your mum more?
An unusual question, I’m sure you’ll agree. I answered honestly, that as far as I can recall I thought of them equally (I barely remember a thing from that age, apart from getting into lots of trouble for telling my whole class about sex. It did not go down well), and threw the question back at both of them. They told me their preferences (two victories for motherhood), and just as I was finding the whole conversation illuminating and quite funny, it took a sharp and unexpected dive into genuine melancholy. Eyes welled up, feelings were confessed with tremulous voices, and anguish rose in me for the breaking hearts of these two tiny, tiny people. As I imagine parents must feel acutely, you simply can’t protect anyone from suffering, no matter how much you’d like to. The most poignant moment came from Amy, who said:
You know how my mum is sick?
Yeah and she has to take these pills, but she gets scared to. And then I,
I get scared that she’ll go to heaven.
As the writer who just described my emotional life as a tube of toothpaste, I’m certainly incapable of conveying how it felt to witness this last (verbatim) sentence being uttered by a lip-biting, tear-stifling 8-year-old girl. It was tough. And being aware that we’d only sailed into these choppy waters because our relationship possessed the requisite level of trust and affection for such sharing, I knew I couldn’t respond with a mumbled ‘umm right, so…let’s have a look at those bow holds’. I also knew that the music that lay open and gawping from the music stand (such pieces as Lift Off! and Tap Dancer) would be of no use today; we had drifted far from the lesson’s original course.
Rather, here was an opportunity to at last teach these girls a significant, potent lesson about music, and one that is hard to communicate between all the repetitions of ‘sit on the front of the chairs please, feet flat on the floor’ or ‘please don’t touch the hair of the bow with your fingers – yes, it is very sticky’ or ‘let’s try once more and this time, no one play in the rests’. A lesson that will later seem as clichéd and self-evident as they come, here stated in the Hans Christian Andersen formulation (there are many variations): when words fail, music speaks. In the case of Kate and Amy and the inner turmoil that had burst forth seeking expression, they never even possessed the words to fail them.
So we made sad sounds (slow sliding laments on the C-string, the cello’s lowest); angry sounds (fast, loud bowing on the A-string, the highest); peaceful sounds (descending waves of harmonics); triumphant sounds (boisterous plucking and strumming of the strings with both hands, a cacophony of euphony); scary sounds (playing any string with the bow right at the bridge, an effect known as sul ponticello, producing a rasping, icy sound).
Within minutes, Amy was no longer lamenting with her sorrowful C-string but giggling, telling me ‘it sounds like…a fart!!’ Kate, whose moist-eyed moment was due to suffering a parent’s ill temper through no fault of her own, uncapped her full emotional bottle and poured out a stream of scraping frustration on the A-string. A riveting story was created about zombies (Kate: Yes Cam, let’s make it about zombies, like the Walking Dead!), their inexorable slow march (a stolen drrr-dm, drrr-dm figure from Jaws, to Amy’s gleeful terror), fleeing townspeople (panicked scratching), zombie annihilation (much ponticello, victorious pizzicato), relieved humans (harmonics) and finally a slowly rising Sun dawning on a new, hopeful day (a long, as-slow-with-the-bow-as-you-can D-string, beginning very softly and getting louder and louder).
As the lesson came to an end, Amy said:
So, so, like, we were learning stuff and being creative?
Exactly. Fun, wasn’t it?
Yeah, but you only let us do it because we got all sad. We should get sad every week!!!
Oh, I hope not. Lift Off! needs a lot of work.
*see previous post Music, the Consoler