Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Competition Freakshow

Maya and Ziad decided to enter a piano competition in Oakland. Their teacher was on the fence about their participation -- on the one hand, they haven't been studying piano all that long; on the other, it's an education in and of itself, what with hearing the other students and getting feedback from the judges and all.

So yesterday morning, Maya and I drove up to Oakland in the driving rain. She needed to be there by 9, and all I can say is that it's extremely lucky for me that yesterday was a holiday, because I don't think I would have made it on time if there had been commuter traffic. The rain was heavy enough to be scary at times, and at one point my windshield actually got splashed by an oncoming car on the other wide of a highway median. That, my friends, is a lot of water on the roadway.

We didn't know what to expect at the competition, and this is what we found: out of the many rooms devoted to various events, ours was a small room down a narrow hallway that for some reason felt exactly like a basement, even though it was on the ground floor. The room would probably have barely held the 50+ people trying to cram into it even if it hadn't had a big Steinway piano and a large table taking up at least half the space.

So we found a seat. The judges called out the name of the first pianist, and the competition was on. One by one, the students would go to the front of the room, play their piece, then return to their parents. The judges would take a few minutes to write some notes, then call the next one. The children played at a variety of levels; some had a really impressive degree of polish and expression, especially considering that this was the elementary level.

All of a sudden there is a commotion in one corner of the room. A very small boy, dressed in a full black suit with a red tie, is crying loudly. He is so cute, with his bright red cheeks and sparkling black eyes, even while he is raising a major ruckus. "My stomach hurts, it hurts. I can't do anything with it, it hurts." His mother is telling him he'll feel better soon. He subsides a little, and the judges call out the name of the next contestant. It's the same little boy, who now starts yelling even louder, and trying to cling to his mother. There is a longish interval of hysteria before one of the judges remarks "All great artists feel this way." General chuckling and sympathy. The other judge offers to let the little boy find a piano in another room to warm up on so he can get a little more comfortable. The mother declines. Eventually she gets him to go over and play his piece. He nails it. No question. Everyone is blown away. And in that moment I realize that he has won the competition, and that I have a big problem with this whole setup.

After all the contestants have played, another young boy rushes up and starts yelling at this boy. "David! Never do that! I don't care how much your stomach hurt! I was so embarassed! Never say that!" The mother tries to calm this boy, while her younger son starts hitting him. Everyone else is waiting for the judges to come back into the room and announce the results. When the young boy is given first place, he stands quietly looking at his certificate while his mother weeps openly. Maya says she saw the older brother kiss him. And in a side note, this older brother is dressed in sweats, so he is obviously not playing today. Does he play at all? Or is he just the sideshow to this infant prodigy?

Why do I have a problem with all this? Where do I start? If this competition was for best performance by a six-year-old, I wouldn't care. Or for best pre-performance tantrum, maybe. But there were older kids who played better. And pardon my cynicism, but the judges' reference to "players who had dragons to slay" made me think that the total performance, not just the piano playing, was being rewarded here.

When her son first started yelling, the mom tried to say he had a stomach flu. Okay then, why expose a whole room full of people to his germs? His quick recovery after he played, though, makes that whole scenario unlikely. If her son really suffers from that degree of nerves, why force him (and us) to go through this? As first-prize winner, he's going to have to perform in a concert at the end of the competition. What are they going to do? How will they even get him onstage?

I know I'm being judgmental. That mom is the one who knows her son best. Maybe he's normally a very happy child. Maybe he loves performing. Once the older brother came on the scene, though, I started really wondering about that family's story. Interesting, too, that the older brother was so upset about the scene his brother made, then never noticed what a scene he was making himself.

In case you're wondering, Maya was very nervous, but played well enough. The judges didn't have much to say about her performance. One of them used the phrase "well-prepared." Isn't that the polite equivalent of "Don't call us, we'll call you?" She enjoyed herself overall, though, and is looking forward to practicing hard before she goes back on Wednesday. I just hope we've seen the last of that adorable but temperamental six-year-old and his emotionally unstable family.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Self-esteem in action

My older sister recently moved here from Phoenix, leaving behind her grown children and newly-born granddaughter. It has been wrenching for her, to say the least. Her youngest came to visit her mother for her birthday, and although our schedules were not too compatible, we got to have dinner with them on Sunday.

After dinner, we adjourned to a nearby Peet's, for hot chocolate and cookies. And it was here that Maya, who had not realized it was her cousin's birthday, improvised a present. She borrowed a pencil from her aunt and got herself a hot drink lid -- the plastic kind that fits over those paper cups, and has a small hole surrounded by an indentation. The one that could kind of look like a smiley face if you stuck two holes in it with a pencil (those would be the eyes). So she did that, and then turned it over and wrote a small note on the inside, then gave it to her cousin. And I really couldn't help thinking how touching it was that she could give her cousin what amounts to personalized trash with the full confidence that her cousin would appreciate it.

To her everlasting credit, her cousin responded more than appropriately, even saving her birthday coffee lid from being thrown away when I was clearing the table without looking too closely.

More than anything else, though, I find myself admiring Maya's quick thinking.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

So long, farewell

auf weidersehn, adieu

In the Suzuki world, you move slowly and carefully from one book to the next. And when you get to the end of a book, you get to graduate. You make a graduation tape, and a different teacher than your own listens to it gives you comments. You play in a graduation concert. You get a diploma. You get a pin.

So today, Ziad and Maya graduated from their books. Book 4 and Book 3, respectively. And since we are leaving the school where they have been studying Suzuki guitar, it was a real graduation for them, a chance to say good-bye and thank-you to the teachers they have studied with.

Leaving the regimented world of Suzuki was in some ways disconcerting. It can be so absorbing, and so challenging, to meet all the requirements of this structured and disciplined approach, that you never have time to question whether this is something you even want to be doing. Stepping outside all that, though, is to immediately confront the question of whether guitar lessons are really the appropriate activity for two children who, while musical, are hardly prodigies. Is it worth the time? The money? The effort? I don't know the answers to those questions.

What I do know is that going to the graduation today felt really good. Saying goodbye to the Suzuki world felt REALLY good.

So which child, do you think, came to this event with a pocket full of hard plastic magic props? And what better time for them to fall to the auditorium floor than during the guest violinist's elegant solo? Let me tell you, it was really something to listen to that plastic rattling down the slanted floor and to watch people looking nervously at their feet as it rolled past. In case you're not sure who I'm talking about, I'll tell you that it was the same child who, while walking offstage after playing, did not even wait to get back to the audience before beginning to tug his tie off with one hand while holding his guitar in the other.

I'm thinking they may have been glad to see the back of us.