ONE of my sublime pleasures is to steal a half-hour or so to play my clarinet. Especially on these bitter winter nights, when even the furnace doesn't seem quite enough to warm the walls. Music warms me to the threshold of comfort.
My nine-year-old son shares in the allure. For a year now he has been in the habit of sitting cross-legged at my feet while I play, rocking to the music, and then, without warning, bursting into song. At first I was startled by this, but I have long since learned to maintain my composure in the face of his assault. There is a certain sense of loss, of course, because Mozart for solo clarinet is sweet. But, when accompanied by a nine-year-old boy howling nonsense lyrics, the leap from classical to cacophony is almost too much to bear.
I've never tried to discourage Alyosha from accompanying me, because although the effect is enough to drive the cows from home, the idea has irresistible appeal: rondo for clarinet and voice performed by father and son.
All this led me to wonder what kind of musical aptitude Alyosha might have. No sooner had this thought occurred to me than a calling card crossed my path. A new violin teacher had moved to the area. From Russia yet. The real thing. He was looking for students.
I approached Alyosha and asked if he'd like to take music lessons. He nodded eagerly. But when I suggested strings he only frowned. ``Clarinet,'' was his reply.
The problem is, the clarinet is a notoriously difficult instrument for a young child to learn. It therefore baffles me that clarinets, more than any other instrument perhaps, are thrust into the hands of aspiring grammar school musicians, who are commanded to play like angels. I still don't understand how their music teachers are able to survive the squeaks and squawks and quacks of a legion of clarinets in beginners' hands.
The violin seems so much more accessible: Anyone can pass a bow across a string and get at least a semblance of a note. But it might be a week or more before a child can get a clarinet's mouthpiece to behave properly and generate one modest, plaintive tone.
I explained all of this to Alyosha: the heaviness of the instrument, the fragility of reeds, the difficulty of producing a clear tone, saliva dripping out of the bell and onto one's shoe. His response was to ask if he could try my clarinet.
It was an inspired thought! Now he would see for himself how frustrating an affair it was. I handed over my professional LeBlanc Paris instrument, helped him align his fingers and hold the clarinet correctly, watched as he took a deep breath, and - darned if he didn't get a proper ``G'' out of the thing!
But subsequent efforts were less productive and he retreated to kneeling at my feet, howling as I intoned the solo from a Mozart sonata. After a few bars he broke in with, ``Is it hard, Dad?'' I paused and reassured him that yes, it was very difficult, and wouldn't he rather play the violin? A broad smile broke across his face as he shook his head. ``Clarinet,'' he said, slowly and with deliberation, as if he were tasting the word.
A big break for my point of view came a few days later when a flier went out from our local arts center saying that Itzhak Perlman, the great violinist, would be giving a concert. It was time to bring out the big guns. Without hesitation, I picked up the phone and ordered two tickets.
In the meantime I obtained a video, ``Perlman in Russia,'' about the violinist's triumphal debut in that country with the Israel Philharmonic. Alyosha and I cuddled up on the couch and watched the spectacular production, the masterful playing of Perlman forming a continuous theme as various aspects of Russian culture were highlighted on the screen.
Alyosha, to my delight, was captivated. He clapped avidly at the end of every piece. ``How does he do it?'' he asked. ``Practice,'' I said, nodding sagely. ``Practice.'' And then, ``Would you like to learn to play like that?'' Alyosha reflected for only a moment. ``Nah,'' he said. ``Clarinet.''
The crusade to acquaint my son with strings had taken on its own momentum. Like a character in a Poe story, I was becoming single-minded about the idea. A few days later we found ourselves in a packed concert hall, on the balcony rail. When Perlman appeared my son's hands fluttered like a flight of doves.
And then the music began. Slow pieces, sweet pieces, playful pieces. The coup de grace was a devilishly difficult and inhumanly fast piece called ``Dance of the Goblins'' by Bazzini, which caused Alyosha to spring from his seat with wild-eyed enthusiasm. ``How does he do it?'' he pleaded. ``How?''
It was late when we returned home. As I tucked my son into bed I asked him if he had enjoyed the concert. ``He was great,'' he said. ``No, he's the greatest.''
It was time to strike. ``So, now would you like to learn the violin?'' I asked, flush with anticipation. Alyosha looked at me with disappointment, as if I had still not got the message.
``Dad,'' he said, ``he's the greatest with the violin, but he can't play the clarinet as well as you.''
I was totally unmanned by my son's estimation of my abilities. But it went beyond this. The magnanimity if his statement was one of those singular gifts of son to father, and it never fails to warm me.
I immediately dropped any plans for negotiating Alyosha into the world of violin. And so, as I save my pennies for his first clarinet, he continues to sit at my feet, assigning lyrics to my imperfect renderings of Mozart's melodies. And in those moments when the accompaniment becomes almost too much to bear, I am encouraged by my son's expression of faith - that I am better than Itzhak Perlman - and once again anything is possible, and together we move into the minuet.