Ode to joy of children’s music making

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    My grandson, Devon, has always had this latent desire to play music. From toddlerhood, he pounded discordant intervals on the piano and clanked wooden spoons on pie tins. Two years ago at Christmas he asked for and received a child-size acoustic guitar. I tuned it for him, showed him a few basic chords and turned him loose. When I saw him struggling to play what he heard, I suggested lessons, which he declined. So although he was trying, he became frustrated and eventually lost interest.

    Last year, he asked for and received a drum set. Again, I suggested lessons and again he declined. After a few weeks, the drum set was moved to the playroom and wasn’t heard from, at least in any musical context, again.

    This year, we got Mr. Liebl. There are four third-grade teachers at Frazier Park School, and, by a miraculous stroke of fortune, Devon was assigned to Mr. Liebl’s class. A few weeks into the fall term, he asked his mother if she would buy him a $10 recorder. It seems Mr. Liebl was teaching every child in the class to play the recorder, lending instruments to those whose parents couldn’t afford them or just weren’t sure if their kid cared.

    Devon played his recorder several times a day. It was, in fact, rarely out of his reach. Realizing that teaching 8-year-olds to read music is a long commitment, Mr. Liebl wrote out fingering charts for several simple tunes. Devon wanted me to show him how to play these on the piano.

    Working with the fingering chart while Devon played the melody on his recorder, I figured out which fingering produced which notes and then wrote out the piano parts. Devon was delighted. Now, when he wasn’t playing the recorder, he was playing the piano.

    In October, he was given a Yamaha alto baroque recorder, purchased through his teacher for $20. The tone is superb. He plays it constantly. I believe he now hears what he’s playing and likes what he hears. So do we. God bless Yamaha and Mr. Liebl.

    All through November Devon brought home new charts with fingering for soprano and alto parts. Then one day he announced that he was also going to play the tenor recorder in the Christmas program and maybe the piano, too. This kid’s always been competitive, but it’s always been about basketball and soccer, and motorcycle riding. Guy things. I now see a huge benefit in male schoolteachers for 8-year-old boys.

    So last night, we all go to the “Winter Program, 2002 Third Grade” at the high school, which is the only place with a big enough stage to hold all the kids and enough chairs for all the parents. Devon’s mom, dad, baby sister, grandma, uncle and his friend, Kala, a stuntman who is visiting from Bulgaria, were present.

    Holiday programs have certainly evolved from the days when my kids attended school here. There was always the traditional Christmas Play with parts for all the kids who wanted to be in it. Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, Shepherds and Angels. Baby Jesus was always played by a doll (of undisclosed gender). The Wise Men followed the star and brought gifts to the doll, the Shepherds carried staves and tended their lambs, and the Angels hung around overhead. Mary and Joseph looked lovingly at Baby Jesus nestled in the straw. Sometimes there was some singing. We always went, whether our kids were participating or not. It was nice, but really not a big deal either way.

    Sometime after my kids graduated, things changed. Classes got bigger. Some parents felt it wasn’t fair if their kid wasn’t picked to be Mary or Joseph. Some wanted all the kids to sing, even those who were tone deaf, er, musically challenged. Then came an atheist and the ACLU, and Baby Jesus not only couldn’t get a room at the Inn, he lost his place in the manger on the public school stage. Nobody seemed to notice.

    So the Christmas Play morphed into the Winter Program, where no child, or parent’s belief, is excluded. Last night, three third-grade classes sang, sometimes in unison, about Santa and elves, and snowmen and sleigh bells, and even chipmunks, for heaven’s sake, while their baby sisters and brothers babbled, rarely in the prevailing key. And not a single song mentioned the child whose birth we celebrate. And in a humorous bid to gender equity, The Little Drummer Person was played by a girl because, her classmate announced, “She keeps the best time.”

    After that, Mr. Liebl’s 21 musicians took the stage and made it all worthwhile. In a medley of songs from around the world, they played in perfect unison, perfect harmony and perfect time. Devon was front row, center stage playing soprano, alto and tenor. A very tall girl played the only bass recorder and another girl played one tune on piano. They all received a mostly standing ovation with loud cheering and a “Bravo” from at least one grandma.

    God bless Yamaha and Mr. Liebl.