Taking Time for a Teachable Moment

April 15, 2013, 12:15 PM · I was pretty tired after playing for the early church service yesterday -- a service that featured two pieces of modern, atonal music written by a member of the congregation, for soprano plus a quartet of flute, violin, viola and cello. It was handwritten, rather exposed, with frequent meter changes and some rather awkward 32nd notes. It was a fun challenge, and with some excellent and good-natured colleagues, who voluntarily got together before the service for one more rehearsal. But I was already pretty spent.

Knowing we'd be playing it all again in an hour for the second service, I was thinking pretty hard about my coffee, which was sitting back in the green room, getting cold. I'd just determined that I'd socialized adequately and I could make a beeline for the breakroom, when a young mother came up to me, holding in her arms her curly-haired toddler girl.

"Emma (not her real name) didn't really get to hear the music at the service because we were sitting outside in the back, and she was so disappointed!" said the mother, indicating her girl. "Could you tell her a little about your violin?"

Choice: Say something nice but cursory, and get back to my coffee and colleagues. Or, seize the moment.

"Well, this is a violin," I said, resigning myself to cold coffee. I looked at my rather shy, new young friend and smiled, slowing myself. "It is about 200 years old, if you can believe that!" I thought of the article I'd just read in the BBC: "Before it was a violin, it was a tree that stood in a forest for hundreds of years," I said. "Birds lived in that tree, and squirrels climbed up it and the wind blew through the leaves. Then someone took the wood from that tree and made this violin from it. They made my violin a long time before I was born, and people played music on it before I was born. I wonder what they played! What songs do you like? Do kids still know the Barney song?"

"No, she doesn't watch T.V.," her mother said. "She does know Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…"

I played the old Barney song anyway (which is a very slow "This Old Man,") and she listened quietly, hugging her mom. A small crowd began to gather, in the front of the church. I segued into a nice "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a slow and pretty one.

"Wow, thank you for the concert!" said the mom, as I finished.

"You are most welcome!" I said. I noticed later that she stayed with her daughter, sitting in the front row, for the second service, so they could watch and hear the music the little girl had missed the first time around.

These days, we can't count on others to introduce the violin into children's lives; we have to seize the opportunity when it comes along. You might be the child's relative, who just watched a squirmy toddler through a long program and would happily go home rather than introduce yourself to a musician. You might be the musician who just finished playing and is thinking about coffee and how to count that random five-beat bar better next time, who isn't exactly in "teaching moment mode." You might be an amateur musician or parent, a little harried when another parent, who sees your involvement in music, comes up to ask how to get involved with music for their own child. Whatever your role, if that "teachable moment" lands in your lap, don't miss it!

There's certainly no guarantee that children will be introduced to instrumental music at school, and for so many people, the sight of a real instrument anywhere during the course of daily life is a rare event. What a fascinating object a violin can be. If people seem curious about it, let's encourage and feed that curiosity.

little girl


April 15, 2013 at 08:28 PM · What a nice thing for you to do.

And I just love the thought of birds living in my violin's tree before it was a violin :-)

April 15, 2013 at 09:17 PM · :) Thanks for the reminder. Children are usually fascinated by any instrument because they really are rarities these days. Who knows, maybe your little introduction will inspire them to explore music later in life...

April 16, 2013 at 08:50 AM · Thank you, Laurie, for writing such a thought provoking article and what a beautiful thing you did with the girl - thoughtful and selfless. She will well remember... This bit is lovely, too:

"I listen to the crackle of the fire and the sound of cello strings making the wood sing.

And think that I will never quite hear this music in the same way again.

Because around here, when you hear an instrument like this, you think of the snow and the wind and the cuckoos and the bees in those tall violin trees."

April 16, 2013 at 02:43 PM · "There's certainly no guarantee that children will be introduced to instrumental music at school …. What a fascinating object a violin can be. If people seem curious about it, let's encourage and feed that curiosity."

Agreed. Your experience reminds me of an impromptu moment from summer 2012, when I was playing the evening session in the garage. A neighbor's kid, about 6 years old, knocked on the garage door. I wish you could have seen this. He'd been riding his bike around in the driveway and had stopped to listen.

I wasn't at all surprised that he wanted to try out my instrument. I felt like I was watching a replay of my preadolescent self. I knew he was feeling the same curiosity and delight I'd felt as a kid when a professional orchestra played at my school.

With or without school influences, I feel we must keep taking the music to where people are. There are a lot of creative ways to do this. I keep thinking of how many kids wanted to stop to listen to Josh Bell's playing at the Washington metro station. If only it hadn't been rush hour, I'm sure more parents would have been willing to let them.

April 16, 2013 at 03:06 PM · I love that story, Jim!

April 18, 2013 at 03:20 PM · You did good, Laurie.... and let's face it, most people need to cut down on the coffee anyways! :-P

April 21, 2013 at 02:21 AM · Our school district (Berkeley Unified in California) received an award from the US instrument makers' association (or something like that) for its dedication to music in schools. However, very few kids who start taking an instrument in the 4th grade (as at our schools) are going to become professionals at it. (Although possibly they'll become lifelong music supporters.) So I agree that it's good to catch kids when they're very young.

But here's something amusing that came out of your article this morning: I was singing the Barney song in response to my daughter humming it. She chided me, and said she was actually humming "Yankee Doodle". Then she told me that for Pi Day (March 14-15) their teacher taught them "The Pi Song" to that tune. (Words on request.) And I just realized that "This Old Man" uses the same tune!

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