I am at that point in a parent's life when the inevitable must be faced: the choice of a musical instrument for my child. When I was growing up in New Jersey in the '60s, every kid - every kid - on my block took music lessons. Mine was a middle-class, blue-collar neighborhood, and an instrument in a child's hand was a lovely gloss, a suggestion that, although life was not easy, we knew what beauty was. For the Slavins down the street, it was a guitar slung across their boy Bobby's lap; for my buddy Rupert, it was the drums; for me, the clarinet. No matter how execrably we played, our parents heard nothing short of Mozart. No one illustrated this more than Mrs. Briguglio across the street. Every summer evening at seven, she would thrust open her windows so the neighborhood could savor her boy Salvatore playing endless verses of "The Marine Hymn" on his accordion. Then the windows would close, for a 24-hour reprieve.
In the ensuing 40 years, nothing has changed. My eight-year-old son, Anton, is about to enter third grade. Unlike many of his peers, he has not yet chosen an instrument. During his second-grade year, I often looked on at the end of the school day as parents dragged their children along, while lugging a cello or trumpet, declaiming, "We're going to be late!" while the kids dug in their heels, hoping to stave off the blossoming of their genius.
Eventually, Anton asked me what this was all about. When I mentioned the prospect of music lessons, his eyes caught fire. "Would you like to learn to play an instrument?" I asked in as neutral a manner as possible. He nodded aggressively. "Which one?" I asked. He gave me the answer no parent who lives in a small house wants to hear: "The drums!"
I stood frozen, immediately recalling my younger brother. My parents, at his request, had bought him a drum set, which they somehow wedged into the confines of our little house (I think they squeezed it in between the kitchen table and the refrigerator). There ensued two uneasy years of banging. Then, unceremoniously, he gave them up - sold to a budding Gene Krupa at our yard sale.
"Well," I said to Anton, already feeling the boom-boom-boom of the bass in the pit of my stomach, "why don't you think about it a little?"
"But I want the drums," he insisted. "The drums."
I was, however, not quite ready to give in to his demand. What Anton needed, I concluded, was a sense of the range of instruments available to him. As I drove him to a music store, I thought it would be nice if he chose a modest, child-friendly instrument like the flute or guitar, on which he would at least be able to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or, hey, "The Marine Hymn."
When we got to the store, Anton was immediately captivated by all the glitter and glow of instruments polished to a high luster. He pounded on a piano, strummed a guitar, and clicked the keys of a saxophone, while a sales clerk stood by, smiling patiently. I watched as my son lifted a little silver triangle from its bed of purple felt and struck it with the beater ever so gently, emitting a crystalline tone. "Lovely!" I said, by way of encouragement. "What a nice instrument."
Anton put the triangle down and gravitated toward a set of drums and, without hesitation, picked up the sticks and began to beat out a racket to drive the cows from home. This finally elicited a more active response from the salesman. "Er, that's a very expensive instrument," he said, followed by, "Were you thinking of lessons?"
"Thinking," I echoed without passion.
On the way home, Anton's thoughts roamed the entire gamut of options from strings to winds to percussion. "Well," I said, "you have a lot to think about. Take your time. There's no rush."
I went to bed feeling that I had performed a parental responsibility well, not pressuring my child while offering him time and space to make a reasoned choice. As it turned out, my son didn't need all that time. The next morning I awoke to a raucous clatter. I found Anton in the kitchen standing before an arrangement of pots and pans, hammering out a cacophony with a serving ladle and wooden spoon. "Drums! Drums! Drums!" he sang out in synchrony with the beat. "Drums!"
And I was so hoping he would choose that cute - and quiet - little triangle.