An appalling lack of progress on anything this weekend. It’s as if I just . . . lived and did stuff not related to keyboards and glowing rectangular screens.


Saturday, though. Erg. Yikes. A month ago I signed up Daughter for something called “Piano Fun,” where kids just played for the Love and Joy of playing. Or so I thought. Turns out it was something else, which I discerned the moment we entered the room: dead serious small humans in dark suits. Confidence assassins. Professional recitalists. Children who had been drilled since year one with one overriding value: PERFECTION.

She had a short simple piece, a Gavotte. She knew it so well she played it with loose contempt: yeah, yeah, whatever, da da da da dum-da. But the last week or two I tried to instill some drama and dynamics: think of it as a soundtrack for a mouse who’s a spy.

Got that look. Huh. Dad. Really.

No, think of it, it sounds like a mouse who’s creeping around, but a civilized mouse on a mission on behalf of a good government. Or he could be a gentleman-thief type muse, I suppose.

A what?

Never mind. This part, here - that’s where he’s almost discovered. Here - that’s the part where he gets the secret plan from the safe.

Dad. Really.

Just - try it. We worked a week on eight notes to try to get the crescendo just right, and then: STREP swung its red rusty blade. Even in her strepness she practiced, taking time out to honk and hack, and I felt guilty; what am I, Tiger Dad, standing over the bench with a stopwatch and a bullwhip? The piece was complete. Let it rest. It wasn’t as complex or demanding as the last Chopin she did, but what was this event called? Right. Piano FUN.

As I said, we walked into the room, and I saw the other kids, and thought: this is more serious than I expected. It was in a local branch of a local music chain store, noted for its downtown wall mural. They used to be in the Galleria, but the Galleria, ever intent on keeping its retail mix popping, declined to renew the lease. I think it was eight, or six, or ten, or four years ago I went to the Galleria store and ran into an old girlfriend from college. She was a cellist, so it wasn’t surprising she’d work there, selling catgut and rosin and black marks on paper. She loved Brahms, I remember that, and I remember trying to love Brahms as well. We could agree on one movement, the XX of the XX - a piece that had the sad angry melancholic attitude familiar to one’s twenties. It’s autumn, late afternoon, rain on the panes, dark brow, staring at the window with an opened letter in one hand, swept up in the Drama Of One’s Self. Most of Brahms I can do without, except for that, and the two piano concertos.

Anyway, I didn’t see her in the store. We took our seat in the back. The first performer got up and played a rather complex piece with no small skill, and I thought: uh oh. The second performer, a little fireplug in a black suit, sat down and HOLY JEEZUM CROW, he rippled off a quicksilver riff of fluid arpeggios to get our attention, then nailed a score best described as this:



I thought, well, he’s won PIANO FUN. But the next one: same thing. And the next. And the next. This was the 11- 12 year-old group. Astonishing technical skill for the age, with flashes of virtuousity.

Now, let’s get down to it. Anyone want to guess the particular ethnic composition of the brilliant performers? That’s right. Asian. Not all but most. There are several things I love about this.

A) At the very least - if you buy the Tiger Mom paradigm - it's proof that technical proficiency in a difficult art can be achieved by sheer brute force of endless practice. You know who else learnedan art by force of will and constant practice?



B) Assertion of universality of these tonalities and compositions that surpasses ethnic composition. If go the route of those who insist that skin tone and eye shape are paramount determinants of character and psychological makeup, then none of these kids should have been able to inhabit these pieces. But it’s quite possible that the human heart is the human heart regardless of the paint job on the chassis, you know? Some of these kids just leaned into it and breathed it and exhaled the gnat-cloud of eighth-notes with intuitive skill - I mean, there were tiny fleeting dynamic nuances you would expect from someone ten years older who had Loved and Lost. Was it instruction? Code, downloaded from the Teacher Unit? Does it matter?


A sandy-haired kid got up after the Perfection Brigade had sent up three soldiers; he played, fraked, stopped, started again. There was a sloppy quality to his performance, but the nuance, the emphasis, the > and the <, it was heartfelt and natural and messy and grand.

Next up: Perfection Robot #16, who married crystalline technical perfection with an uncanny sense of dynamic variation - great leaping chromatic arpeggios, rumbling thunder in the lower registers, icicle showers in the right-hand chords, my GOD. These kids. Astonishing.

Annnnnd now it’s mine up there. Every time one of the Perfection Robots banged out a masterpiece I winced, because I could just imagine what my daughter was thinking. Which was, more or less: I’m sorry, what? This? Me? Here? Excuse me?

She sat down, and played her piece. Simple. Clear. Nice. Done.

There were 14 more after that.

When it was done she came back to where I was sitting, and I was smiling:

“That was brutal,” I said.

“I GUESS,” she said.

I was worried she’d want to quit piano forever. I feared the example of the Perfection Robots would make her think there was no point. But her attitude was just right: those kids were really, really good. I can draw, and I can write, and I like what I am good at, so there’s that. But that was SO EMBARRASSING.

No one judged you harshly, I said. You were crisp and clean and short. Those kids spent four hours a day practicing. We laughed. It’s like priding yourself on your ability to move a grain of salt a millimeter to the left with your mind, and then you go to the X-Men school and see 25 kids who can move trucks and houses and gas stations with telekinesis.

Was that the weekend, then? More or less. I watched a harrowing movie called “Take Shelter,” which has this guy:



I recognized him right away from “Boardwalk Empire,” which made his co-star choice all the more amusing:



It's Steve Buschemi's brother as Dave Barry!

I can’t recommend the film, because it’s really one of those love-it / aw-hell-what-was-that movies, but I was hanging on a hook through my sternum through the whole thing. Plot: a man has premonitions of Something Awful about to happen. Either he’s right, or he’s mentally ill. The main actor, Michael Shannon, makes it work; he walks through the entire movie like a big slab of granite painted with pain, and his wife, Jessica Chastain, is the epitome of Long Suffering. The ending is decisive. And also completely open to interpretation. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sorry; seem to have contradicted myself there.

Today: some Matchbooks. Enjoy!











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