It was the end of fourth grade when our youngest son, Hank, came home and announced that he was going to join his elementary school orchestra. For the princely sum of $75 per school year, he could rent a cello and have a lesson once a week while his classmates remained behind tackling current events.
At first we weren't positive which was stronger – his desire to play the cello or his longing to escape the current events class.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" my husband and I asked before reciting our standard list of warnings. "We don't want you to sign up now and quit in December. Your orchestra teacher is going to have to be able to depend on you. You'll have to commit yourself to at least the entire school year. And you'll have to practice every day."
Hank readily agreed to all our stipulations. "I'll practice," he told us. "I want to play the cello."
Slightly skeptical, I wrote the check to the school district, and Hank waited for his cello to arrive and his lessons to begin.
It wasn't that I doubted his desire to learn how to play an instrument. It was more that I wasn't sure how long this red-hot enthusiasm of his was going to last.
Hank, like many children, tends to need to master things quickly to keep his interest whetted. Playing a cello was obviously not going to be something he could figure out as quickly as, say, his latest PlayStation acquisition. But he assured us that he really wanted to be in his school's orchestra, and we promised ourselves to make sure he stuck to that commitment.
On Wednesdays, Hank lugged his cello to the school's orchestra room for his lesson. Only four other fifth-graders from his school were signed up for orchestra. That made for a comfortably small class and not much competition for the coveted first chair, a spot Hank rapidly secured by being the only cello player.
At first he practiced diligently, but as fall turned into winter – and as lessons began to become routine – his enthusiasm for cello music seemed to be sinking, along with the mercury in the outdoor thermometer.
"Time to practice," I'd tell him each evening at precisely 6:30.
"Now?" he always asked, as if I was slipping something new into his schedule.
"Now. Remember, 20 minutes a day. It isn't that much."
On cue, Hank's father would join in: "I wonder how much Yo-Yo Ma practices each day?"
Ignoring the comparison, Hank would set up a chair, yank out his cello, and saw away for 20 minutes with all the eagerness of a chicken plucker working on his 700th chicken of the day. By March we were sure that the only way he'd decide to play the cello the next year would be via a miracle.
Then spring arrived, with its eternal promise of fresh starts. The elementary school's concert was announced, and Hank informed me that he'd need black pants, a white shirt, and dress shoes to wear with the rest of the orchestra.
"I'll be on stage," he said. "Can you make a video of the concert?"
Believing that it might be the first and last time Hank and his cello were ever on stage together, I assured him that his family would be front and center on the night of his concert, video camera in hand.
The concert was everything an elementary school concert is supposed to be: loud, intense, often off-key, and exceptionally wonderful. It wouldn't have impressed anyone other than the relatives packed into the school's auditorium, but I doubt there was a person in attendance who'd have chosen to be anywhere else.
As we watched those serious 10-year-olds up on the stage, there was a sense of universal pride in the room, an almost palpable feeling that we'd done something right as parents if our offspring could get up and perform "Ode to Joy," clinkers and all, and manage to make it sound heavenly – to our ears at least.
As we were driving home that night, Hank announced he was going to stay in the orchestra the next year. My husband and I both smiled into the darkness. Our miracle had arrived.
Even if Hank doesn't keep playing his cello beyond his elementary years, that's OK. He's learned a lot about finishing something he started. For a child who gets sidetracked by a breeze coming in his window while he's making his bed, that's saying quite a lot.
At the end of the school year, Hank's teacher found a college student who taught lessons over the summer and was willing to take him on as a pupil. That brought us to her living room and Hank's first solo lesson.
After he played his somewhat brief repertoire for her, she showed him a few new techniques – how to hold his bow and stroke the strings of his cello more cleanly. With a concentration normally reserved for building the latest LEGO masterpiece, Hank copied her moves precisely.
"You've got it," his teacher told him, pleased.
From my seat on the blue sofa, I was pleased, too. Hank had gotten it. Even better, he was sticking with it.