Growing up in our family, music was THE most important thing right after school work. We didn’t do sports. We did music. My sister, brother and I all played at least one instrument. (I tried the cello, on top of the piano at some stage.) Our week was divided between school, and running to the “conservatoire” where we all had our classes – piano, theory, violin, cello, you name it. And on week-ends, we ran from orchestra rehearsals to concerts, auditions, exams, or private tuitions.
The little academy we attended in the 9th arrondissement of Paris was led by a fantastic man, a man with an infectious love for music and children. His name was Alfred Loewenguth, from the Quatuor Loewenguth, and even though he died many years ago, I still see him interacting with us, cracking jokes, conducting the orchestra, and always, always, sharing his passion for music. He was truly an inspiration.
I was reminded of him, yesterday, when I attended my daughter’s Piano Concert at their current school. I did mention recently that I need to write about our experience with international schools, but it’s a long, very complex story/issue, and I would probably need several posts. For now, let me focus on yesterday’s piano concert and what it brought home for me.
Our family was of very modest means. In fact, I realize more and more the sacrifices that our parents made in order to pay for all these lessons for three children. The people around us were pretty much the same. Lower middle class. Middle class. But our music made us very rich indeed. It was all about learning our instrument and getting better and better at it, listening to GOOD music and becoming a discerning musician, even at an early stage.
My daughters’ school gives its pupils the possibility of taking piano lessons, twice a week, with an expatriate teacher married to a Bangladeshi man. At first, we thought it was a great opportunity. She comes from the Eastern bloc, and they’re usually very good musicians, and solid teachers.
By Christmas, I knew that this arrangement was not satisfactory, but we’d already payed for the lessons, and there was so much to take care of during this year of transition to our new life in Bangladesh, I had no choice but to let it go. Next year, I’m finding another teacher. Someone who’s invested in sharing her passion for her instrument, someone who is able to choose a piece according to the level and capacity of her pupils, someone who actually listens to the children when they’re playing, as opposed to talking on a cell phone or painting her long nails (quite telling for a piano teacher).
In the meantime, I had to sit through a piano concert that was, in my opinion, a masquerade.
To begin with, the piano was pushed to one side of the stage. I entered the auditorium a few minutes late (having found myself stuck in traffic, after a crazy episode at an ATM machine that spewed a ticket stating I had just received 20 000 Taka, and then died on me without having delivered said amount) and wondered at this strange stage setting – until the child who was playing finished her piece… She bowed (very nicely) and the teacher walked out on the stage with a medal, after which they both paused in front of a photographer. This happened in the MIDDLE of the stage, precisely where the piano should have stood.
Now I got it! This was not so much about children learning to appreciate music and mastering a piano piece, as it was about… the teacher showing off her high heels, her silk dress and coat, and boys and girls wearing anything from their Sunday clothes (well it would be Friday clothes, here) to sparkly gowns of the type I have never owned myself, and I will soon reach a half century on this earth.
Want to hear what else had me grinding my teeth, in my seat ? The photographer (that photo thing was a very big deal) kept walking to the children sitting at the piano to push their hair from their face before he took his pictures ! I mean, WHILE they were playing !!!
Two young girls, dressed for a ball, stood at a lectern, and announced the names of the players, and the title of the piece they were going to play. As a lot of what I heard had nothing to do with classical or jazz music (most pieces were transcriptions from the whole movie repertoire – I came out with the Love Story theme stuck in my head), they never bothered to mention the composer, not even for the very few (including my older daughter, but she and I had chosen that piece, against the teacher’s advice, and boy, am I glad I put my foot down for that one!) who played pieces by Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin.
Do I sound angry? Actually, I think I’m sad.
Of course, my daughters were excited. The little one insisted on wearing her fairy dress, and she looked like an angel, and played very well, a piece far too easy for her, after the teacher had chosen one far too difficult, and only realized it three weeks before the concert ! My older daughter did pretty well, too, considering the fact that she has to practice on our digital piano, with keys that will not come back up after they’re pushed down (a direct consequence of the move and something that cannot, apparently, be fixed). Most importantly, I tried to explain to her that her piece was actually one of the most difficult I heard, yesterday. It was a complex Mozart Menuet, and required technique. It was not a wishy-washy transposition played with lots of pedal so as to muddle the whole thing up, and impress people who know nothing about music. (yeah, I know, I’m getting snarky).
I think that, more than anything else, what this parade of a concert brought home for me, yesterday, was the fact that even though we didn’t have much money, growing up, we did have access to what really matters.
Our daughters’ international school is attended by very wealthy families of Bangladesh. The cars with drivers waiting for the children, each day, are a catalogue of luxury brands (Porshe, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, you name it). The school provides bus transportation, but only a ridiculous number of children use it (ours do, of course). The campus is gorgeous. Their auditorium is state-of-the-art. They have computers, tennis courts, a football field, a swimming pool, and they bring in their teachers from all over the world (some great, others not at all, I might add – being a foreigner does not guarantee that you’re a good teacher, and we got confirmation of that fact, this year).
But you know what ? I think I’d rather see my children in a more modest environment, running around with kids who look their age (as opposed to 11, 12 or 13 year-olds parading in evening gowns, perched on 5 inches stiletto heels) playing music for the beauty of it, and not so their parents can have their picture at the piano for the world to see, and most important of all, learning good, sound values, acquiring work ethics, and understanding that… all that shines is not gold.