The Cantankerous Clarinet Calls

When I was 9 I started taking clarinet lessons. For six years I persisted, visiting an elderly, abrupt Polish man in his small studio above a hardware store in downtown Jersey City. I remember Mr. Tutorovich watching and listening as I played my little excerpts, his face contorted as my instrument squeaked, squawked, and hissed. Sometimes I think he tolerated me as a student only because he felt so good when I finally stopped playing.

Such is my lingering impression of childhood music lessons. Playing the clarinet was - and continues to be - a special challenge. The instrument is a mechanical nightmare topped by a notoriously uncooperative sliver of wood called a reed.

I therefore made every effort to usher my young son in the direction of strings, navigating a treacherous course between his alternately voiced desire for woodwinds and drums. I even took him to hear violinist Itzhak Perlman in a bid to inspire him away from the licorice stick. But in my son's ardor to emulate his good old dad, Alyosha settled on the clarinet.

I troubled myself to warn him of the frustrations he would encounter, going so far as to offer him my instrument for a test blow to prove my point. To my chagrin, he formed a near-perfect embouchure, and belted out a sweet-sounding "G." That solitary note in the still Maine night signaled my surrender.

I found a used clarinet in a local advertiser It had been played and abandoned by a boy apparently far wiser than my son; one who recognized the limits of his endurance in the face of an instrument that has a tendency to go its own way despite the musician's best efforts.

When I brought the clarinet home, my son fell upon it with hunger in his eyes. Slowly, meticulously, and with monumental patience, I attempted to show him how to put the instrument together and how to care for it - while he tried to insert his mitts in a frenzy of enthusiasm. As I spoke he kept interjecting, "I know! I know!" To which I replied, "How do you know? How could you know?" I stopped just short of becoming irrational and realized that of all the possible clarinet teachers for my son, I would be the worst.

I suggested to him that he take lessons with someone else, someone he would know only as a teacher, not as a parent or friend. He wouldn't hear of it and was convinced of the logic of his reasoning: Why should we pay a teacher when Dad could do the job for free?

The first couple of days went rather well. I gave Alyosha his initial lesson, and he listened attentively and then tried his best to play the music. By the third day, however, he began to show impatience with having to repeat a phrase until he had it licked. His approach to music was more like that of the soccer player he is: Get to the goal! The goal! His measure of a lesson well done was a function of how much - and not how well - he had played.

In time I found myself approaching those lessons with something resembling trepidation, realizing that my son had become as frustrated with me as I was with him. I couldn't be his teacher in any productive way: He knew my weaknesses, was well versed in the limits of my patience, and could always count on my forgiveness if he behaved badly.

Real teachers don't let their pupils know too much about them. They seldom raise their voices and rarely drop the second shoe. Teachers are something of a mystery to their students, and it's the little unknowns that make the relationship between teachers and pupils such a charged one and generally give the teacher the control needed to get things done in the classroom.

The other night I was engaged in yet another lesson with my son. He was playing quite well, making commendable progress. Then I introduced a new concept - the dotted half note - and he kept missing the count. I kept insisting that he repeat the exercise. He resisted by refusing to do so and instead played through to the end. (Goal!)

"Alyosha," I said, "you missed the count."

WITH hurt in his eyes and grit in his voice, he told me, "You're not my teacher." And then he braced himself for my reply.

Curiously, I felt not the slightest ire. For he was right. Well, sort of. I was teaching him, but not very effectively. What kind of leverage could I, his father, use to gain his compliance?

Mr. Tutorovich would have made me take my clarinet apart and go home to my parents to confess my lack of cooperation. The prospect would have horrified me.

I offered to resign as clarinet teacher deluxe. My son wouldn't hear of it. For both our sakes, though, I decided to limit the formal lessons to once a week. In the interim, he would have to practice on his own.

Last night, when I thought my son had gone to bed, I suddenly heard the plangent tones of his clarinet emanating from the library upstairs.

I put down my book and listened. He was attacking "Ode to Joy" over and over; but darned if he wasn't counting those dotted half notes wrong, still shorting them a beat.

In my head I kept pulling for that extra beat, just once, to satisfy my need to hear the piece played correctly. But despite the most incredible compulsion to speak out, I stopped short of uttering a syllable and allowed my son, at long last, to find his own way in the music.

After all, I am his teacher.

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