Sing, sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad.
Sing, sing a song
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
for anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song.
From “Sing” by Joe Raposo, performed by the Carpenters
The summer Noah was two, during a visit to Beth’s parents house, Andrea gave him her guitar to strum and he played it until his fingers bled. When we noticed and pulled him away, he screamed in frustration. Beth’s brother Johnny said we should tell this story to the journalists who would surely interview us when Noah was a famous musician. Knowing what we know now, I think he was probably having a tactile under-sensitive day, but it shows how sure we all were Noah would be a lifelong musician, and possibly an accomplished one.
Noah was passionate about music when he was two and three. He idolized Banjo Man, the children’s musician who plays at the Takoma Park Farmers’ Market. My mom bought Noah his CD when he was not quite two and almost immediately we had to institute a rule that he could only hear the Banjo Man CD three times a day. Noah called the ukulele he carried everywhere his “banjo.” We could not leave town (and sometimes not the house) without it and a few others instruments carefully selected from his ever-growing collection. The toy saxophone and the little accordion were long-time favorites. Whenever we visited relatives, Noah loved to give everyone an instrument and organize a parade through the house. He also enjoyed setting up his ukulele case as if he were a street musician and soliciting donations. We had to throw real money in the case; just gesturing as if we were throwing money was not good enough.
In those days, every Saturday night we would go to Savory and listen to Takoma Zone (http://takomazone.com/Index.asp?PA=0&XX=46&XX=48&XX=83). We’d stay for the whole Traditional/Bluegrass set and sometimes for a little of the Singer/Songwriter set. It wasn’t kids’ music, but Noah would cuddle up in my lap or dance in front of my chair for an hour or sometimes even two hours. I always looked forward to Saturday nights. I was teaching then and there was always work I could be doing at home, so to be away from the piles of papers to grade and lessons to plan, in a comfy chair with a snuggly toddler on my lap and a cup of coffee within reach was the most relaxing time in my week.
Noah was in a toddler music class then and when his teacher had trouble filling a session, she suggested we start him in pre-Suzuki lessons. He was two years and eight months old then, a little young even for Suzuki, but we decided to give it a try. At first it went well. Noah could pick out simple tunes as soon as he picked up the instrument. At a recital when he was three, he broke out into a variation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” when he was supposed to be playing a single note. When he was three and a half, he insisted on dressing as a violin for Halloween. But his progress stalled almost from the beginning. He never seemed to get much better than he was when he started and he chafed under the strict discipline of the Suzuki method. He started complaining about lessons and never wanted to play the instrument unless we asked him too. So when he was four, we pulled him out of the lessons. I was thinking of it as a break, but he’s never gone back to playing, and he doesn’t play his other instruments much either. I wonder sometimes if music was just a passing fad for him, like so many others we’ve seen come and go, or if he had something truly special and we squelched it by pushing him too hard, too young.
I have been thinking a lot about all this recently because June is the age Noah was when his love of music started to blossom and this week in particular we’ve revisited a number of our old musical haunts. There is still a lot of music in our day-to- day lives. Noah sings morning, noon and night and June does, too. Right now, anything by Milkshake and the soundtrack to The Jungle Book are big on their hit parade. Beth says living in our house can be like living in a musical. Here’s what it sounded like this week.
Saturday Evening: Takoma Zone
We don’t go to Savory nearly as often as we used to, but we were lured by some new menu items (real fruit smoothies instead of the artificial ones they used to have and some new desserts). As we came into the restaurant one of the musicians greeted us and exclaimed over how both kids have grown. He couldn’t believe Noah was seven. It was a beautiful evening so they set up outside. I sat with June in my lap, swaying slightly and sipping my strawberry-banana smoothie. The musicians played “Arkansas Traveler,” especially for Noah. (It used to be one of his favorites, though he doesn’t remember). All was well until about twenty minutes in when Noah wanted to know when we could leave. Beth didn’t remember what time we’d come in and said after the song was over. I was disappointed. I thought a half an hour had seemed like a reasonable, pared-down goal, but I didn’t want to push my luck by insisting on the extra ten minutes once everyone was getting set to go.
I sulked a little on the way home and wondered if we should even bother going anymore. It doesn’t seem to give Noah the pleasure it used to and he just irritates me, insisting we leave when I want to stay. But then on Sunday he surprised me by asking if we could go again soon. I guess it’s worth another try. We just have to take it in small doses.
Sunday Morning: Banjo Man
We went to the co-op and the farmers’ market to buy plants and seeds for our garden, which has turned into something more elaborate than we originally planned. We kept thinking of new plants it might be fun to grow—carrots, cucumbers, herbs, and wildflowers. We saw the first local strawberries of the season and snatched up three cartons, so I could slice them over the buttermilk pie I was planning to make for Memorial Day. After a while, June and I peeled off to go listen to Banjo Man while Beth and Noah continued shopping. We sat on the sidewalk and June scribbled with the chalk he provides. I wrote her name in pink while Banjo Man ran through his repertoire, which ranges from the ABCs to “The Wabash Cannonball.” (During this song he accompanied himself on the train whistle.) When I spied Beth and Noah approaching, I expected them to gesture for us to come along with them, but Noah ran over and plopped down on the sidewalk next to me. I glanced at Beth and she shrugged. Apparently, Noah can be a little nostalgic sometimes, too.
Monday Morning: The Be Good Tanyas
I was giving June a bath. Through the open bathroom window I could hear the clickety-clack of the mower as Beth mowed the lawn. It was the beginning of a day the four of us would spend mostly in the yard, mowing, putting in the garden, splashing in the wading pool and eating a picnic lunch and a picnic dinner. As soon as June was clean and dressed, we’d go outside. For now, though I was watching June play in the water and listening to a new CD playing in the kitchen with about half an ear. Two weeks ago I received four new CDs for my birthday. I’d only listened to two of them so far and not with what I’d call complete attention. When I was a teenager, listening to a new album or tape was a solemn ritual. I’d close the door of my room, sprawl out on my bed and read the lyrics as the music played, completely absorbed in the experience. Now I just let music, brand new or deeply familiar, play in the background of whatever chaos is currently unfolding. If a song catches my attention, I might glance at the lyrics later, if I remember. My best opportunity to really listen comes on Sunday mornings while Beth and June grocery shop and Noah disappears into the study and plays computer games. I do my housecleaning then and listen to NPR or a CD.
So, I’ve played this CD, but I wouldn’t say I’ve listened to it yet. It sounds like something I’d like, kind of old-time and bluegrassy, but I can’t remember a single lyric. I think I will give it another spin next Sunday.
Tuesday Afternoon: Water Music
Noah came off the bus, kind of subdued and complaining of a headache. He asked what we should do. I reminded him that I’d promised he could play with the sprinkler when the predicted high temperature for the day reached eighty degrees. We’ve had a run of unseasonably cold weather, but the high was eighty-four that day. He immediately perked up. I got him some Tylenol and changed June into her bathing suit while Noah changed into his. We set up the sprinkler in the garden. At first it seemed like we placed it in the perfect place to water the garage roof, but eventually most of our little plots got a good soaking. I’d water the rest with water from the wading pool later.
As the water showered down on June she sang:
The old man is snoring.
Noah was running under the sprinkler and singing, too:
You woo-woo-woo-woo can do woo-woo-woo-woo a la la la la la lot in the water
You woo-woo-woo-woo can do woo-woo-woo-woo a la la la la la lot in the water…
Splash and swim through the blue green waves
move your arms and kick your feet.
play with the dolphins, chase the pretty fish
but don’t bother sharks you might meet.
Wednesday Morning: Kindermusik
At 8:25 I asked June, “Are you ready for a bath?”
“No,” she said decisively and waved the CD she was holding in her hand.
“Do you want to listen to music instead?”
“Yes,” she said, in a satisfied tone.
Just as well, I thought. We had to be out of the house by 8:55 to catch the bus for Kindermusik anyway. Squeezing a bath in would have made us rush and if I put on a CD it would occupy her while I did the breakfast dishes and gathered up our things. I took the CD from her (it was one of mine) and popped the Kindermusik CD in instead. We haven’t been listening to it as much as I’d resolved. I thought she’d get more out of the class if she became familiar with the songs. When Ms. Becky sings them in class they’re fine toddler-fare, but the performance on the CD is beyond cloying so I haven’t been playing it much. June ran to the couch and sat down, ready to listen. I went about my business and when I came to put on her shoes she announced, “I poopy.” Indeed, she was. I didn’t even need to check. I looked at my watch: 8:53. There was no time to change her. I’d have to take her on the bus as is and change her at music class. There would be plenty of time. We’re always early.
This was my first mistake. If I stayed to change her and walked to Kindermusik (it’s not that far—we usually walk home) we might have arrived close to on time. My second mistake was not asking to get off the bus when it stopped in front of a “Road Closed” sign where Sligo Creek runs under Maple Avenue. The bus detoured along Sligo Parkway and I had no idea when it would return to its regular route. The driver was uncommunicative on this point when another rider tried to engage him. Every few minutes, June would say “I poopy” in a plaintive voice as the bus took us further and further from music class. As it turned out we were almost to Silver Spring when we finally were allowed off. I walked as fast as I could, pushing the stroller up the long, steep hill at the end. I was sweaty and out of breath when we arrived, but we were only ten minutes late.
“Music class is fun!” June declared as I undid the stroller buckles, and hustled her into the classroom. Ms. Becky handed us some rhythm sticks, which we took into the bathroom. June lay on the floor, banging her sticks together as I performed the long-delayed change.
I signed June up for Kindermusik during the week and a half in March when we thought she would not be attending nursery school in the fall. I was looking for alternative activities for her and it looked like we’d have a little extra money to spend since we wouldn’t be paying tuition. Up to now my mantra had been “free or cheap activities only.” Kindermusik is neither free nor cheap. And in some ways it’s similar to the free “twosies” program at the library. It’s a group of twelve kids about her age (eighteen months to three years). There are songs and rhymes. There’s more dancing and moving around, though, and there are a lot of cool instruments to play.
We emerged from the bathroom ready to play. I wrapped June in a scarf and we pretended she had butterfly wings. We scurried around like squirrels. (The session theme is “Creatures in My Backyard.”) We played with jingle bells and assorted shakers, rocked to the rocking song and watched Ms. Becky blow bubbles. June always observes this ritual solemnly, never reaching out to touch the bubbles or chasing them as the other children do.
She has come out of her shell a bit at Kindermusik, though. Two weeks ago, after class on the playground adjacent to the class building, she spoke to a child other than Noah for the first time. June approached a classmate on the play structure and said, “Hey, Baby.” (In June’s world, all children under the age of five or so are babies.) The boy did not answer, but the next week she tried him again. Still nothing. She spoke to another boy, who was holding a plastic dinosaur: “Is your dinosaur looking good?” June has a tendency to turn statements into questions so she probably meant “I like your dinosaur.” It’s hard work talking to other toddlers. So far she’s zero for three in terms of getting a response. I hope she keeps trying, though. These mysterious little people are the creatures in her backyard and she’s trying to learn their ways. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Thursday Morning: Welcome to My Backyard
I was sitting under the shade of the silver maple in our backyard, watching June roam around. Every few minutes she’d come over with a small tribute for me—a leaf, a wild strawberry, or a handful of sand from the sandbox.
This time she was empty-handed and clapping rhythmically as she approached. “Are you ready for your song?” she asked.
“What’s my song?” I said.
“Welcome to My Backyard,” she prompted. So I sang the kindermusik welcome song:
Welcome to my backyard
Come along with me
Wonder what we’ll see
Come along with me
Welcome to my backyard
Listen to the sounds
Listen to the creatures all around
Clap hello to June, clap, clap, clap
Clap hello to Xander, clap, clap, clap (Here I pointed to our cat Xander, sitting on the back steps.)
Clap hello to Mommy, clap, clap, clap, clap
I paused. The names come in groups of four. I needed one more. June waited. I ventured:
Clap hello to the tree, clap, clap, clap.
June laughed with surprise and delight. You are never as good a singer, or a comedian as when you have babies and toddlers.
Thursday Afternoon: Love Song for A Jellyfish
For language arts homework on Thursday, Noah had to pick a poem he liked, copy it and be prepared to read it in class. In preparation, for the past few days we’ve been reading poems from a collection of poems about animals (http://januarymagazine.com/kidsbooks/beautybeast.html). We read the whole insect section, the fish section and part of the bird section. He decided he’d pick one from the fish section since ocean creatures are his current scientific passion.
I fully expected Noah to spend a half hour paging through the book, unable to choose a poem, or to pick one full of words he didn’t understand. (Some of the poems are a bit advanced for him). But almost right away he chose this one:
Love Song for a Jellyfish
By Sandra Hochman
How amazed I was, when I was a child,
To see your life on the sand.
To see you living in your jelly shape,
Round and slippery and dangerous.
You seemed to have fallen
Not from the rim of the sea,
But from galaxies.
Stranger, you delighted me. Weird object of
The stinging world.
It was perfect. I asked him to practice reading it aloud so I could give him some pointers, but I didn’t really need to. He read it beautifully, with only the occasional stumble. He read with expression and paused in the right places.
As part of his bedtime ritual Beth reads him four poems a night from anthologies we check out of the library. I think he must have absorbed something from this experience without any of us knowing it was happening. I taught literature long enough to know how few people can read poetry well. You have to hear the music in the words to do it. He hears it. He really does.
Friday Morning: The Master of His Feet
“There’s a pirate in the kitchen,” I told Beth. Noah had emerged from his room, wearing a t-shirt with a dog dressed as a pirate on it.
Noah skipped off toward the study, singing:
I am the master of my feet, The captain of my ship
I choose to sail the seven seas and make the most if it.
Adventure waits for all who come so climb aboard m’ mate
We’ll head due west when the winds are best Oh, I can h-argh-dly wait
Heigh ho (Heigh ho)
Hoist the anchor friends
Heigh ho (heigh ho)
Come sail the seas again.
The real lyric is “the master of my fate,” of course, but Noah always sings it that way and we are too amused by it to correct him. Considering how often Noah trips and falls and crashes into things, being the master of his feet might seem almost as glamorous and improbable to him as being a pirate anyway.
Friday Evening: Pan Masters Steel Drums
Noah, June and I got off the bus at 6:05. The steel drum concert outside the co-op was scheduled to begin at six, but I could see the big drums still being unloaded from the trucks across the street. I told Noah they wouldn’t be starting for a while, but he urged, “Let’s go! I want to be early.” I suggested we go inside the co-op and buy some drinks first so we’d have them when Beth arrived with the pizza. We were having a Friday night picnic at Function at the Junction, a free weekly outdoor concert series in the co-op parking lot. Tonight the featured band was Pan Steel Drum Masters.
By 6:15 we were seated with our drinks and the band was set up and playing. Playing really, really loudly. Noah put his hands on his ears and complained it was “like thunder.” I thought we might get used to it after a few minutes, but when Beth arrived at 6:20, we decided to re-locate to the picnic tables in front of the co-op. From there we could still hear the music but not at quite such a deafening level and we could eat our pizza more easily.
I listened to the music, recognizing the occasional Bob Marley tune, while we ate and chatted with each other and waved to people we knew. Noah and I summarized the plot of the segment of Peter Pan we’d watched without Beth the night before so she’d be caught up when we watched the rest. It was a pleasant outing, even if as we walked home, Noah expressed some skepticism that that was really “the finest steel drum band” as the announcer had maintained. “There must be one that’s finer.”
Just before I put June to bed, I listened to her sleepily recount to Beth the events of the evening. The music was loud. We ate pizza. She was “very happy.” I’m not sure if it was the music, the pizza or both that made her happy, but I was glad to hear it.
Noah will probably never be the musical prodigy I once envisioned, but music is still a big part of the children’s lives. It helps them express their joy at running through the sprinkler on a warm day, relax enough to approach others and feel “very happy.” Every day, they sing out loud; they sing out strong. And, with any luck, that will last their whole lives long