Lily's First Lesson
Lily, a seven year-old casualty of one year of unhappy piano lessons, arrives at Music House for the first time. “Musical things are everywhere in this room,” I tell her. “Just look around and check out what’s here. Feel free to try any of the instruments you see. You may take things off the shelf and bring them to wherever you want. Try lots of different instruments, or if something seems really interesting, just choose that. I need to do a few things, so imagine that you wandered into this music place and you’re here all by yourself.” She raises an eyebrow. “If you need me, feel free to interrupt. It’s okay.”
Lily begins slowly to move around the room, tentative, not sure I mean what I say. I busy myself paying a few bills or looking through some papers. She stands in front of the percussion shelf for a minute, staring, then finds a mallet and plays a note on the glockenspiel. Lily looks over at me. I smile. She tries several percussion instruments in rapid succession. At this point it appears that her interest in trying out her freedom takes precedence over making music. This is typical.
Lily puts down the mallet and looks around, beginning to pay more attention to detail. Her eyes light on the autoharp, which is located, not coincidentally, near the middle of the room. Not many children have seen an autoharp.
“Oh, it’s an autoharp,” I reply nonchalantly.
This does not enlighten her. She looks at me for permission to bring it over to the low table.
“Go on – It’s fine.”
She carries it over and positions herself in front of it. For a few minutes she stares at this instrument with its many strings, buttons and bars.
“How do you do it?”
“Well, what would you do if you were here all by yourself – just you and the autoharp?”
At this point I turn to the dishes I’ve planted in the sink in advance.
“I’m going to wash these. You see what you can do on your own for a few minutes, then tell me if you need me, okay?”
Lily plays one string, then tries a few. With an intrepid sweep of her hand, she strums them all at once. She looks up at me.
I shrug, dry my hands, go over and get a pitcher of assorted picks and pour them out on the table in a rainbow of colors and odd shapes. “You might want to use these.”
Lily is visibly relieved. She’s been saved. Now, with this helpful hint from the expert, she’ll be able to make beautiful music. She chooses a heart-shaped pick and strums the strings from bottom to top. It sounds as cacophonous as before, only louder. She wrinkles her nose.
“Oooh, that’s weird!”
She chooses a different pick, a big, soft thing that’s actually not a pick at all. It ended up in the pitcher somehow.
“It sounds … It sounds … I don’t know – creepy!”
“It makes me feel cold,” I offer.
“Yeah – it’s like a cold, stormy wind!”
“Does it sound like music to you?” I can’t yet be sure that she’d like it to.
She looks at me as though I’ve just asked the world’s dumbest question.
Choosing one pick, then another (Maybe the green one will sound better than the brown one?), Lily tries strumming just a few notes at a time, then strumming from up to down. Softer, louder, still no music. After a few minutes her frenetic motions begin to reflect growing frustration. She is stuck.
“Do you see anything else on the autoharp that might help you?”
“What do these do?” she asks, fingering the buttons.
“I don’t know, try them out.”
“Just tell me,” she says with some impatience. I decide to push the limit, just a little.
“If I tell you right now, you will never ever have another chance to figure it out for yourself. Never ever in your whole life. It’s such an exciting thing, to get it by yourself.”
She seems to like the idea. She takes a breath and spends around five minutes alternately strumming and pushing buttons.
“Do you think there’s any connection between the buttons and the strings?” I ask. “Might they help the sound somehow?”
Lily spends a minute staring at the buttons and the strings, awaiting an epiphany. Then she pushes a C button and holds it down. With her other hand, she strums all the strings as before. But now - a beautiful, rich, highly musical sound fills the room. Oh yes - rapture! Lily’s eyes open wide and her face lights up. She tries it with another button that produces a beautiful sound different from the first one. The next several minutes are spent trying each of the twelve chords, changing the order, trying the strings one at a time.
Lily is beginning to strike me as a spunky character. If a question pops into her mind, she’ll ask it, but she seems to be tickled by not having it answered right away.
“What happens if you try two buttons at a time?” she asks.
“The autoharp will eat you up.”
Lily tries holding down two buttons at once and the sound is muted. She manages three, then four buttons, which further muffles the sound. Appropriating an elbow and a forearm, Lily the Contortionist manages around eight of the twelve buttons. But she wants it all. A pleading glance from our scientist, now all but lying across the instrument, brings me over, and together we push down every button and produce the thuddy, unmusical sound of an autoharp in distress. Big smile.
Lily has learned a lot with almost no help from a teacher. Certainly she has learned something about this new instrument, but more important, she has discovered the rewards of musical trial and error, and developed confidence that she herself can explore musical frontiers.
© Meryl Danziger 2004