My six-year-old daughter has just started keyboard lessons during her Grade 1 year. She’s had about a month of lessons. We have a shiny new keyboard in the study.
And there I am, nagging her to practise. To hold her hands just so. To warm up and strengthen her tiny fingers by doing some simple scales.
I am my parents.
Except that my parents retained their optimism about my erratic and negligent piano playing ways for about a decade. They invested in private lessons, theory + practical. My sister and I sat the AMEB exams. I managed to scrape my way to Grade 5 piano + music theory. My sis made it all the way to Grade 8; she was good, and had passion for the instrument and music.
Don’t get me wrong. I love that I learned the piano, know how to read music, and can appreciate the labour and diligence required to become a good player of any instrument. Education about music and the physicality of playing music have added dimensions to my experience and my life, but I was never great at it (nowhere near enough practice or passion).
One of my clearest memories about piano lessons was sitting with my very nice teacher at the piano in the cultivated surrounds of her Kenmore home.
Again, I hadn’t done much practice. She was trying to have a serious talk with me about whether I should continue with piano because I obviously wasn’t engaging with the music or instrument. There’s no point being forced to do music, she told me, and think of how much my parents were spending on sending me to lessons that were not being developed further at home with regular practice.
I remember blinking away tears. The easiest way to bend me to your will is to invoke guilt about parental sacrifice and hopes. I have loads of that guilt at the ready on those fronts, as many of those who come from migrant backgrounds do.
In the end, I made it to Grade 5 piano, then diverted my attention to finishing up high school.
Until recently, I hadn’t played on a keyboard for close on twenty-five years. Since we got the shiny keyboard for E., I’ve been practicing my major scales (all of them – they came back to me after a bit of aural havoc). My fingers still hit the keys as they should. Seeing E. mash the keys with her small fingers, instead of hitting them cleanly, brought back to me how much of playing was about posture and fluidity of hand movements.
Our reasons for having her in keyboard classes were twofold, driven by logistics and gender politics.
Her one extra-curricular activity through her Prep year was her calisthenics class (see the Calisthenics Australia website – that image on their banner captures many of the aspects that I dislike about the activity). She fell into those classes mostly because the mother of a classmate of hers was actively spruiking it around her grade and a couple of her buddies signed up. There’s a lot to like about calisthenics (which is nowhere near the Richard Simmons kind of calisthenics that involved star-jumps and knee-bends…). Being a blend of gymnastics and dance, it built strength and flexibility, rhythm and coordination.
BUT: it also involved being in competitions where girls (and the groups that I have seen are overwhelmingly female) aged younger than 6 wore make-up and had their hair ‘standardised’ into chignons (or slicked back). The dodgey element of group presentation and costuming occupies a big part of comp successes. I can’t stand that kind of stuff – being judged on how the group (and, by extension, you) look? Girls get enough of that through a range of everyday channels; they don’t need it fed to them in formal extra-curricular activities. Speaking with other parents/aunties whose kids were involved in this activity just confirmed my dislike of it. There were mentions of spray-tanning to ensure the girls looked “the same” (!), inappropriate songs (cutesy renditions of “I gotta wash that man right outta my hair” by tweenies), and continued emphasis on full make-up and leotard/sequin get-ups.
I love helping E. get dressed up, putting on her face-paint, all that good, messy creative stuff. But the aim of that kind of activity differs greatly from that of the ‘dance’ that requires you to look ‘consistent’ with your team, and seems to prioritise looking pretty.
It’s cute when she and her preppie friends dressed up as bumblebees and gambolled around the stage (no comps when they were younger). It’s very different contemplating investing time and money in an activity that we thought led to values and emphases with which we disagreed.
So, keyboard it is. She’s loving it, despite the nagging to practise, and she’s doing an informal ‘dance’ class after school with some of her best buddies in her grade.
And the keyboard lessons are during school-time – one fewer run-around for the already busy week!