Part One: Home
It still feels odd and fantastic to say it. My daughter. One day, I was a childless married guy. Next day - Valentine’s Day as it worked out - I was a father, courtesy of the complex and slightly mysterious system of international adoption. Just add water. We’ve got a daughter.
FongChong (pronounced Faaang Chaaang) grew up near the giant city of Guangzhou, China. We’ve known about her for well over a year and known her in person for six weeks now. The FongChong we imagined for all the months of waiting now seems like a caricature. She’s utterly different than our fears, and actually a lot like our hopes. She’s highly social and very smart. She’s got the makings of a delightful person, though it’s sometimes hard to see that through the fog of conflicting feelings she’s experiencing. She’s a total wonder and a total challenge. Also scared, angry, lonely and bewildered. She’s younger than her years emotionally, and older than her years in people skills.It’s all quite fascinating, and we're feeling quite blessed at this point, all things considered.
I can't share all the details here, but since I’ve been gone for about six weeks and those six weeks were entirely devoted to processing and dealing with this massive life shift, I wanted to write a few paragraphs about the musical angles on adoption, because they’ve been heavy on my mind.It feels like a walk-the-talk moment, because if I believe anything, it is that music has a uniquely powerful way of short-circuiting distances between people, and this is what we have, in more ways than you can imagine. I got myself prepared for the adoption in some ways by believing that music and sound could help. Now that I’m in the intervention stage, it’s uh, difficult. But I’m no expert. Just a dad with a bunch of instruments, eclectic taste, a rocking audio system and a faith that music is the closest thing to character-building in a bottle.
I had and still harbor dreams, perhaps ludicrous, that I will impart some musical knowledge and discernment in my child. I have hoped even more that music will be a connecting language, a game, an activity and a bonding thing. I have not given up hope by a long shot, but none of this has happened yet. She just doesn’t understand me or like me or trust me enough to regard me as an influence yet. Indeed I think in her mindset for her to acknowledge that she did like me or find something interesting about me would be like a personal defeat. But we have to remember every day that we’re dealing with a somewhat traumatized kid who has much healing and growing to do.
I did get a glimpse of what I hope the future will hold when we first met her. We got a two or three day honeymoon, before she realized that we actually had some kind of legal and moral dominion over her. I took four or five music apps on my wife’s new iPad. One was a pair of outward facing keyboards, and we did some call and response stuff that was truly entertaining. We did this a few times, and it didn’t keep her attention very long, but she found it fun and she knew what was going on. She sings along with melodies of pop songs and TV themes she knows. She's also showed a little bit of interest in my guitar, and I got the distinct feeling that one time during an upset afternoon I got a bit of a mood swing out of her by playing and singing in the living room. So she’s got the wiring for music, which most folks do, but pshew! anyway.
Some very dear and sweet friends of ours got FC an iPod as an adoption gift, and while it seemed a tiny bit extravagant for an 11-year-old, it has made her happy and perhaps more comfortable. Unfortunately, finding the music she wants and knows has led to some tense dealings. Most of the Chinese pop music she’s asked for isn’t for sale on the US services, iTunes or Amazon, which is a bit shocking, but that's another story. Thus I’ve had to burrow into the netherworlds of downloading for the first time since I wrote an article about Napster in like 1999. I’m not using BitTorrent because I’m not willing to make my digital music available, which I always thought was a more serious copyright crime than downloading something. But, if China doesn’t respect our IP, then I’m not stressing about the four or five songs I found on MediaFire, a reliable file transfer site. The one artist I could find on Amazon turns out to be pretty cool. She’s a Taiwanese beauty named Rainie Yang, who makes cute and solid teen pop, much more bearable than its stateside counterpart. We had a nice home rock-out moment with Ranie Yang on the speakers.
The source of stress has been that my crafty efforts to find her music, including putting my computer at risk by grabbing files, produces a reaction that’s a bit like we’d served her less-than-perfect chocolate cake. Like, I was entitled to that music and you sure took a damn long time. This has nothing to do with music or me and everything to do with old insecurities and deprivations. But it is interesting to see a kid who’s never been exactly drowned in technology regarding an iPod like something utterly ordinary that's been around for 300 years. Ho hum. Gimme. Waaa. It doesn’t work.
The other misgiving is that the iPod is too tempting to use as a behavior incentive. As in, unless you mind us, we'll take the iPod away. This just feels rotten, but there aren't a lot of sanctions that mean much. She's too young to go out so there's no grounding. She's too old for "time out." I did try one quid-pro-quo to encourage the use of English and respect for the family, which was when she came along one day demanding "GE!" (songs) and thrusting the iPod toward me rudely, I asked her nicely to say 'songs please' and she wouldn't and she dug in and we just hit stalemate pretty quick.
But that was a while ago. Next time I see the iPod I'll throw some new Rainie songs on there and charge it up.
PART TWO: Tennessee Waltz
Well now we’re getting somewhere. FongChong is evolving before our eyes. She’s cutting me a lot more slack, minding us better and having more fun with us. She’s less melodramatic. She seems relaxed in a way she never was the first month, and new nuances of her personality and sense of humor emerge almost every day. And with these cracks in her front, music is beginning to penetrate.
The picture here doesn’t mean she’s taken up the guitar. We just had a fun Sunday dinner last week with Taylor’s mom Polly, as is our routine. She started goofing around and strumming the strings of my old Gibson archtop. I told her she could take it off the wall and play with it, which she did with sweet and appropriate care. “Tai da!” she laughed. And yes, we agreed it’s too big. But she struck some poses and strummed a little (she even let me make some chords while she played the strings) and we all got some giggles out of it. Then came Wednesday...
I was at the kitchen counter reviewing our guest artists’ websites for late-breaking news as I always do before heading out to Music City Roots. FongChong was in her mom’s office in a bit of a gloom for lack of A) kids to play with or B) media to consume. I streamed a new track from the wonderful Jill Andrews – the title cut from her upcoming album The Mirror. About six bars into the song, FongChong comes in and asks about it. She likes it! This is the first time she’s said anything nice about any music that wasn’t in Chinese. So I showed her Jill’s pictures (which she correctly identified as “beoootifool”) and then she ran upstairs and came back with a notebook where she’d written down the words Yellow Bird.
In simple Chinese but with brave nods to English, she told me that in music class, they’d sung this song and asked if I could find it. So now that YouTube has become the repository of all the world’s music, we went there. Truth be told, I didn’t know “Yellow Bird”, but there many versions of what turns out to be a 19th century Hatian song, which in translation became a calypso hit in the fifties. There were versions by The Mills Brothers and Harry Belafonte and Chet Atkins, among others, plus a really trippy video by some lady who’d multi-tracked herself and merged together videos of the parts like a modern day Les Paul. At first FongChong didn’t recognize the song, because it wasn’t the same context or arrangement they must have done at school. And I’m not sure even now if she sang along in a chorus or heard somebody else perform it or what. But finally it clicked, and she was into it. She also was clear (and this is a pattern) that any version by a male was not interesting. She wanted a gal singer. Fortunately I found this performance by Shirley Bassey, which is really pretty good.
Then the hilarious and wonderful part. Part of our afternoon post-school and without mom who was still at work was monitoring the storms, which were booming outside. I had the TV on low, and at one point the newscaster referred to storms all across Tennessee. FongChong perked up. “Tennessee?!” she said. Yes, I told her, that map is Tennessee and that’s Nashville in the middle and that’s where we are. And with that we made one more visit to Google maps to show here where we are and where her Chinese friends live (Indiana and West Chicago) and where our family lives (West Virginia and North Carolina). We’ve been over this before, but it seemed to click better this time. Still, her verdict on the situation harkened back to her first month at home. “Tennessee bu hao. China hao.” Which means China’s great. Tennessee’s no good.” Well honey, I informed her, they have big storms in China too.
I wouldn’t be wasting your time with this but for what happened next. “Yellow Bird” and Shirley Bassey and so forth are still up on the YouTube screen, and suddenly FongChong points to a video preview on the right. A pretty lady in a fancy dress from an old black and white TV broadcast. No surprise here. Put a princess in FongChong's path and she’ll give it attention. Turns out she’s pointing at “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page. Awesome. We play it. Three notes in, FongChong amazed. “Hao ge!” (Great song) she says. “Wo yao aypaa” That last word is my phonetic version of how she pronounces iPod. And wo yao is I want, which we hear a lot. Super! That’s easy. Before I leave, she has (a legally procured) version of Patti Page’s smash hit from 1950, written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart en route to the Grand Ole Opry.
So thanks to Patti Page, Tennessee hao.
Yesterday evening I added a version of “Yellow Bird” to her iPod collection. FongChong seemed to like the song even more. She even made some credible stabs at singing “Yellow Bird” though she’s not ready to really be directed. Then, just when I thought it was time for bed, she asks for the computer to ask a rather complex question. (She can write Chinese characters on my MacBook touch pad and run it through Google translate.) It came up cryptic - something about a song by somebody’s sister on the computer. We puzzle over it a second. Then it hits me. Sister is any older girl, the word jie jie. She’s talking about Jill Andrews. I go to Jill’s site. That’s what you mean? Yes! And since Jill is giving away downloads of “The Mirror” I grab a copy. It’s now on the aypaa as well. And just maybe my daughter has started to become a fan of Americana, and dare we wish it, America.
PART THREE: The Beatles
The fascinations and challenges continue. FongChong is doing pretty well, all things considered. She’s had a bit of a relapse recently into some negative, rejecting behavior, but through June she spent a number of very exciting weeks just getting more and more comfortable with everything. Including music.
A turning point kind of night began with a good dinner on a Friday a few weeks ago. I decided that FC, who’d been only sporadically talking about or using her iPod, needed a stimulus program. I came down the flight to my music room and left the kitchen door open. Pulled out Songs in the Key of Life, the LP version thanks much, and put it on nice and loud. Not a minute into “Sir Duke,” two lovely females appeared and perched on the couch. FC learned that Isn’t She Lovely is about a baby, and she was kind of blown away by the Sir Duke horn parts, a melody I know so well from about the time I was her age.
I also had great fun introducing her to the turntable.
To my delight and surprise, she actually studied it and looked puzzled as the needle hit the record and sound came out. I let her stop the record with her hand and play it backwards. She even sort of asked how it worked. That was not easy to explain across a language barrier. But it was one of the first times I've seen her exhibit curiosity about the physics of anything. And to me, that's a foundational question for being an enlightened human: How Does That Work? It was an exciting moment.
I decided I’d found my shot at sneaking in an introduction to The Beatles, and my first impulse was to reach for a song, rather than an era or an album and that led me to pull out Magical Mystery Tour so we could all hear “All You Need Is Love.” That went over well too, but it led us of course to sample the rest of the album, psychedelic bits included (she tilted her head and scrunched up at some of that like Nipper the dog at a couple of points). “Hello, Goodbye” proved intoxicating, making verbal games out of two of the words she knows best. She kind of, uh, rearranged the Goodbye! Hello! bits with no shortage of confidence or goofiness. She was a stitch. And I got most of it on video. Haw.
FC wanted just about all of it for her iPod, and despite an interesting conversation with my wife in which she argued that early Beatles was way more age-appropriate, I compromised by transferring most of Mystery Tour and an ample collection of highlights from the mid 60s era. "Please Please Me" became an instant favorite, with FC singing "Come on! Come on!" out loud, as if in celebration of one of the very first English phrases she'd picked up.
The other big music news in FC’s life is that she got a digital piano for her birthday in late May. It’s a pretty cool Kurzweil with weighted keys. And it’s pretty convincing sounding - a solid instrument to learn on. She was excited about it and has banged away at it here and there, but she says she’s only going to be comfortable really getting into it with a teacher. She and we would like her to have a music teacher who speaks Chinese. And Taylor found one but she can’t start for a few more weeks. But it’s at least on her horizon. Of course she’s going to find out very soon that actually learning the piano, even with a Chinese teacher, requires work and then the poo-poo will hit the fan and we’ll be into another round of the same kind of “discussions” that surround our attempts to get her to study English. But who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised. At least piano is something we can require and monitor.
Not that I’m trying to confuse her or anything, but I also showed her our violin. I’ve had it for years, since I took a notion to attempt bluegrass fiddle that never took. I took the neglected instrument to the wonderful Fiddle House in East Nashville a few weeks ago to have it set up and looked over. They gave it a clean bill of health and an appraisal that made me happy, and it’s playing very nicely now. The violin is close to me because it represents my musical origins. Seven years old. Suzuki method. The whole nine yards. And for nine whole years. By the time I left it behind I was a mediocre drummer but a decent bass player, and I spent college learning about the guitar and being in bands and etc. But the violin. I wish I could play it longer these days and integrate all I’ve learned about fiddle music in the intervening years, but my neck and shoulders tend to get kinky with it. It’s hard to remember how relaxed one was at 12 years old. Anyway, FC played the fiddle and let me guide her toward holding everything properly. She made some sounds and with some help fingered some notes. And she asked about it a few days later. So who knows? It’s an option. Though I’d way rather listen to a piano being practiced than a violin. My mom was a saint.
PART FOUR: Mood Swings
Piano lessons have begun. We discovered that one of FongChong’s teachers from Saturday morning Chinese School (a remarkable Nashville institution by the way) is also a piano teacher. Her name is Grace, and she came over last week. I probably scared Grace half to death when she asked what we hoped she’d get out of lessons and I lifted off into an over-dramatic, cosmic discourse on the wonders of music. I saw my wife was aghast. I cut myself short. Just make sure FC knows that she’s free to play off script, I said. We’re about truly learning music and the discipline, but not acting like it begins and ends with the written page or classical music or heady goals of being a concert pianist. When it comes to music for kids, I believe in fun and rigor in equal measures. But all was fine. Grace seems far from the rap-the-knuckles with a ruler type. I think we’ll get along with her very well.
We didn't hover over the first lesson. They seemed to work happily together for a half hour. Off to a good start. Now one might think that after all the build-up and after all the reminders that piano lessons came with the responsibility of practicing, not to mention the luxury of a really nice, Chinese-speaking piano teacher whom FC liked right away, that DAY ONE of practicing would be easy. Not so.
The first mention of practicing produced a crestfallen face and premonitions of The Attitude, FC at her least endearing, most defensive. It’s the beast we have to watch out for most in this 6-months home stage. In her defense, she started 5th grade (two years behind her age unfortunately) at a new school, and we’ve been able to tell that’s producing stress and anxiety. But we have a lot to impart about channeling frustration and anger in constructive ways. Maybe like banging on a piano instead of mouthing off at dad.
Anyway, I said that evening, I’m in a really good mood and I’m not going to let you phase me. Turn off your computer game and let’s go practice now. “Really hard!” (which she says a lot about lots of things). No FongChong, it's just a little bit at a time. I can help you. “You no play piano; you play guitar!” Well actually FC, I play enough piano to know exactly what to do in your lesson and I can help you. We are focusing on different instruments, but we both play MUSIC. That’s the goal – learning music, not just the piano. (She is a long way from grasping this.)
I got her to go upstairs with me but she fussed and bridled and basically went to her room. So I sat there in our library/piano room with the late day sun streaming in and played my guitar for ten minutes so she couldn't help but hear me. Suddenly she comes out: “What are you doing!?” Well honey I’m practicing – playing my instrument. I do it every day, as you know. I don’t do it to get through an assignment. I do it to feel good and get a little better. Next thing I know she IS sitting at the piano and rifling through her assignment book. She is really really nervous. I’m proud of myself for truly keeping calm and positive. I tell her there’s nothing to be worried about. I’m here to help. She does not freak out. And before long she is tapping out the two-finger rhythm pattern in assignment one and playing the finger/scale exercise in assignment two and almost inaudibly counting and saying the notes out loud like she was asked. Five times each, as assigned. Now “no more!”
She actually brightened up shortly after that and we had a good evening. By bedtime she was in one of her joyful, playful moods, when she is so charming it’s hard to remember that The Attitude is part of this same little girl. And without any prompting at all she goes to the piano in her pajamas and rocks through her exercises counting and singing notes at full volume. She actually PLAYS, in the dual meaning of the word.
It is very hard to remember or comprehend what it’s like to be too young to summon confidence and calm – to be at the mercy of mood storms that hit like random pulses of energy from outer space. Certainly this is among the valuable lessons in MY assignment book these days.
(PHOTO: Taylor’s mom Polly has been a spectacular asset and help to us and a loving grandmother to FC. Waipo (maternal grandmother in Chinese) as she is known has already helped FC through a several practice and play sessions on the piano, and let’s just say she evokes less performance anxiety than I do.)
PART FIVE: No Batteries
FongChong is musical, no doubt about it now. She picks up on themes and can sing them back. It’s one of her most fetching qualities. In fact she sings pretty regularly now – most every day. The “Bamboo La-La” song is probably her finest work so far. BaaaambooLaLa, Bamboo La, and over and over with some improv rapping, set to a perky tune. It’s cute and rhythmic and better than the Scenic Ride song in her piano method book, although Scenic Ride has its allure. It’s a minor tune in the key of C major which is kind of rad. And already FC is tapping through it with ease, singing the notes accurately as she goes. I’ve tried to get her to pay more attention to the form (nerd dad at work) and to playing with a steady, manageable groove. That evokes a certain amount of pushback: Dang it, as soon as a tune starts to feel easy it’s my sacred birthright to rush the snot out of it until I make an inevitable error.
I sit with her most days and without too much reminding or prodding, she’s doing maybe 20 minutes of piano per diem, if you count the bonus visits that spontaneously happen from time to time. She’s protesting less, and in general her basic default position continues to get sunnier and breezier. She’ll focus with improbable intensity on her wee fingers, splayed one per key around Middle C. I can practically see the nerve impulses travel down her arm as she tries to get her digits to do something new.
She greets a mistake with an ‘ah!’ kind of sound that’s got a get-with-it spirit I like. She usually thinks she needs to go back to the beginning of the tune at hand upon making a mistake, rather than picking up in the middle. Repetitive practice of ideas, which can only come from a desire to improve, may come in time. We’re not there yet. For now I’m happy whenever she’s paying attention to tempo. She’s intuitively rhythmic, but doesn’t quite know it yet. Friday, she sat down cold and played her first piece basically perfectly with loud-soft dynamic shifts in place, something I’d showed her a few days before. Then she unrelaxed a little and became more aware of herself and wanted to rush everything.
We also had a fine little listening party the other night. FC was showered and in her blue bow nightgown and she came down for water before bed and I asked her if she’d listen to a few things. She truly surprised me by saying yes. I invite her to record-time in the studio regularly, but she’s still been wary of the hanging-out-alone-with-Dad thing. When we’ve listened before, it was with Mom. So I truly did think something had shifted when she agreed to hang time with me. I popped on Doc Watson’s “Black Mountain Rag” from Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and that got a bit of a reaction in that she started talking about the violin (that’s Vassar Clements sweetheart!). I asked her to flip through some LPs and she thought Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True cover was somehow compelling (is she right or is she right?) and we enjoyed “Red Shoes” and “Less Than Zero”. Admittedly, she was playing a maze game on my iPhone all this time, but she was pretty tuned in and I didn’t see any point in taking it away. We hung out for about 45 minutes and actually had a super time. The night’s big hit was Chuck Berry’s “Tutti Frutti,” who’s Whop-Ba-ba-lu-la section reminded us both of Bamboo La La.
The final story of this episode is more about my world than hers, but I made sure to include her in it, in the spirit of setting an example and exposing her to the idea of a musical life. Six weeks ago, I returned to study at the Nashville Jazz Workshop after more than two years away and got myself in an ensemble class. The NJW assembles groups with one player in each chair (ours was a six-piece with two horns) and give you repertoire and instruction. If you don’t know this organization and their amazing Jazz Cave venue, you absolutely need to visit the Nashville Jazz Workshop. Owner couple Roger Spencer and Lori Mechem are Music City saints, and having Roger as coach in a band setting is kind of outrageously great. It is quite difficult to manage pulling six like-level musicians together in a great-sounding rehearsal/performance space, and we had that and more. We were assigned five tunes from five different jazz genres – standard swing, 60s soul, bossa nova, standard ballad and bebop. The deal is you rehearse together for five weeks and then week six is an end-of-term recital for family, friends and whomever. That was last night. Taylor, FC, grandma (Waipo) Polly and I had a light dinner at home, loaded in the rain and drove over those lumpy railroad tracks near the Cumberland River and pulled up to the Jazz Cave.
For me, this was a threshold moment. I’ve played guitar since high school and seriously I supposed since college, but I’d never played through full jazz tunes and taken solos, attempting to be a functioning part of a jazz band with a guitar. The last time I played jazz in any organized way it was more than 20 years ago when I played bass. In recent years though, I decided I had to reconcile my instrument with the music I most cherish. I learned the guitar by spending a lot of wonderful years playing bluegrass, folk and blues, and that was grounding and profound. But at a formal level, I was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t play in any key with ease or describe the basic chord extensions that are central to the jazz vocabulary. So I did a few NJW classes to get the wheels turning and then set about practicing my way through proper scales, two-five-one cadences and learning the whole fretboard instead of the comfortable first two positions. This summer I decided I had to get myself in a performance setting to see where I really was and taste the joy of swinging with a group.
The NJW turned out to be the perfect environment to take off the training wheels. We played pretty well and our supportive little crowd was real enough to concentrate the mind without any cause for a freak out. I felt like we truly knew the tunes. That doesn’t mean one isn’t going to clam some notes or get a little lost. But by and large, I felt on top of things and confident. There’s a certain out-of-body feeling that’s inevitable for those new to improvising on stage, but it wasn’t paralyzing. The battle in the brain is between the conscious, frontal cortex stuff where you’re thinking about things and the intuitive flow required to make real jazz. Neither side exactly won last night. But at least I came away convinced I can do this.
FongChong seemed to enjoy the performance somewhat, even though I never expect straight jazz to knock a pre-teen out. She was struck that there was no singer. She liked the piano player, and I think one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was during set up when I let her play a little with the Steinway grand in the Jazz Cave. She’s got a digital piano and if she keeps at it we’ll get her a real piano in a year or so. But I think this was the first time she’d been around a full-sized piano. She was impressed by the elaborate machinery inside and she gave one of her outstanding I-get-it “oooh” sounds when I showed her how the hammers hit the strings. When she asked “no battery?” I just wanted to hug her. No honey, no battery.
PART SIX: Duets At Last
I haven’t posted on FongChong’s journey in ages, but now’s a good occasion, because this week, on Valentine’s Day, we’ll celebrate exactly one year of knowing each other. We’re sure to pull out the pictures and video of that unforgettable Monday in Guangzhou when we trundled off to an ordinary office building and up an elevator with our guide and then held our breath as they brought this little kid wearing a pillowy pink coat out to meet us. To say a lot has happened since then, well…
We’re a no-fooling family now. Aside from her adorably chunky (but effective) English and the fact that she’s CHINESE, you could mistake us for a bio unit. Somewhere between six months and ten months, reciprocity blossomed. Life with FongChong became a two-way street. Give and take was negotiated. Trust grew. And love moved in to stay. We goof off and have mock kung fu fights. She accepts hugs and gives them back. She’s letting me curl up next to her and read aloud. (The Invention of Hugo Cabret is our first big book. To my delight it’s about gears and sprockets and light and design and drawing and the birth of film - just the kind of thing I’d otherwise struggle to present to my little girl in an engaging way. We’re nearly done and it’ll be a treat to see the movie.)
To get properly caught up on the music front, I need to tell the story of the photo I’ve posted here...
FC’s first term of piano lessons ended with a recital at the home of Ms. Grace, her terrific teacher. That’s me on guitar and FC on piano playing “Oh Suzanna” at the Christmas-time event. I tend to have a guitar close by during her practice sessions, and one evening I worked up some swingy chord changes behind the melody of this classic Stephen Foster tune. It was a great idea because suddenly, I was a non-punitive metronome (which she hates). Keeping time with another musician seemed to work for her better than tock-tock-tock. At first she was a little thrown by my comping, but she kept at it until we had it and high fived over it. I coaxed her into playing it together for family a few times, and then, despite nerves, she was okay with me joining her for the recital. It came off great. She nailed it.
One watchword of FongChong’s year on Vaulx Lane would surely be “overwhelmed.” Everything has come at her without warning or choice and we’ve marveled as she’s tried to keep up emotionally with the pace of change that’s imposed itself on her life. That would also apply to her feelings about music in our home. She never anticipated living with somebody for whom music was a constant companion and preoccupation. Her reaction to the music being presented to her has from the beginning been wrapped up intimately in being presented with ME, her new mystery dad. So this loud white guy says he’s my father, and I don’t much like him. And he’s all about music. Ergo, I shall push back against the music too.
But I’ve tried to give her space to come to new stuff at her own speed while also applying just enough pressure to keep her from getting lazy, and as she’s warmed up to me, she’s warmed up to the music too. Happily what I don’t need to worry about any more is that no matter how many times she has said ‘YOU like music; I don’t like music,” she totally loves music. She sings all the time, picks up cues off the radio and sings them back, and when we get assigned certain tunes by Ms. Grace, FC really responds. The latest winner is a little wisp of a piece with that particular scale line that evokes a camel caravan walking across the Sahara Desert. You know the one. I think it’s harmonic minor but don’t hold me to that.
Though it’s one of the first songs she’s confronted with sharps and flats, her fingers seem to be doing just fine negotiating between the white and black keys. And I think the melody line of this tune may have called up reminders of Chinese music too. She certainly recognized the tonality from movies like Aladdin. I was able to tell her, ‘hey isn’t it crazy that with just six notes the music can make you think of a particular place?’ I think she was a little impressed by that. More exciting for me was that she was willing to dig into to practicing these tricky new phrases by themselves, over and over until they felt natural. Until recently, she’s been recalcitrant about taking a piece apart and looking at it in sections, which of course one has to learn to do eventually. She's still not exactly running upstairs to practice piano out of sheer love, but not many kids do. What's exciting is that when I sit with her, she applies herself, and I'm for the first time watching the brain development that I've read so much about in the music/education literature: symbol > interpretation > action (finger on key) > hearing > assessment > correction if need be/reward if not need be. How could there be any debate that this is a precious, almost uniquely enriching process?
On the pop music side of things, a couple fun turns. An evening browsing music videos with me and Mom led her to latch on to Adele. So I became one of the 5+ million people to purchase 21, and we're both enjoying this one. It lives up to its reputation. If this is what the kids are listening to, then the kids are all right. I’m thrilled to see a voice so authentic and songs so good defining the mainstream. (Less exciting to me was her glowing appraisal of the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, which led to those squeaky voiced songs being added to her iPod, but as long as I don’t have to hear them, what do I care?) Also, FC has finally caught up with Taylor’s love of the show Glee, and our household’s affection for American Idol, which is great because it actually sparks a lot of conversation about who’s good or not good and why. I think the stories of some of the strivers are getting to her as well.
Somewhere between these influences and her friend Audrey’s happy experience in their middle school glee club, FC has joined up and has a couple of Monday afternoon singing sessions under her belt. More on that next time. . .
music and my daughter: when the roses bloom in dixieland
The family spent Easter weekend in Atlanta seeing sights and eating good Asian food. After we got home and unpacked and FongChong had changed into her pajamas, she came down to my studio while I was getting my hands back around my guitar after the break. And lately, at last, she’s taken a bit of an interest in my folkie world, so I opened up my old notebook of hand-transcribed tunes and started singing perhaps the sweetest song in the whole thing, “When The Roses Bloom In Dixieland.” Nobody murders anybody, which is a relief. A guy sets off for the North to make some quick money and begs his girl back in Tennessee to wait for him so he can marry her and "buy a little cabin home for two." And the hook line, "when the roses bloom in Dixieland, I'll be coming home to you," is easy to sing. So FongChong made a good stab at singing it with me. She actually stuck with it for a while and let me guide her through the key line over and over while she struggled with the rapid flow of words. I really pushed her on diction. She has a hard time finishing words, so ‘roses’ becomes ‘rose’ and ‘bloom’ becomes ‘bloo’. ‘Dixieland’ is hard for her because our X sound just isn’t in Chinese, but we actually figured out a way for her to say the X sound, thanks to the song. This was the dreamed of master plan all along.
Anyway, we had a good time singing together, and I think that session kind of warmed her up, because a bit later we were upstairs winding down for the day, and I said hey let’s do a little piano practice before bed. The reflexive reply: “Nooooo. I’m tired…” But I laid my trap, which is now to just start playing her pieces at the piano. That almost always gets her to come in and try to shove me off the piano stool. So she did just that and sat down and started working on the right hand part of her trickiest two-hand piece yet. Not bad. Not good. Plenty of clunkers and rhythmic problems. But she hasn’t played in a few days, so no worries. Then I said okay it’s my turn. And I played through “Hesitation Blues” on guitar, and here’s where it got truly remarkable.
While I was singing, FongChong picked up her music and started reading it quietly to herself, with her hand playing air keyboard in space. It took me a minute to grasp what she was doing and I kind of didn’t believe it. Until I finished and she put her music up on the piano and played it through and 99% nailed it. Just one brief hesitation. Holy smoke. She’d mentally mapped her part, which is kind of an advanced technique for practicing, yet nobody had told her a thing. She did it on her own. Then, she surprised me again. Our keyboard has a simple record function, and unbeknownst to me, FongChong had turned it on before playing through the piece. So when she hit ‘play’ and her recital came back at us, it was a ghostly surprise. AND she listened to what she’d done and followed it note by note on the score. Again, wow. Then she played it again and recorded it again. And she repeated the process once more. I just sat there sort of slack jawed.
Now that she’s broken through to a place of security and trust, we can expect to see other parts of her development, long suspended and in limbo, start to skip forward. Perhaps the most important and profound is her ability and willingness to be self-aware during the learning process. Had she been ours from birth, I’d like to think that by 12, she’d be comfortable engaging with the unfamiliar and trying to remember or assimilate it. FongChong is not quite there. She’s standing at the door though.
PART EIGHT: Safe And Sound
We took the summer off from piano lessons. FC seemed to need a break. Her teacher was taking time away. So it just seemed natural. She had come so far on piano and music generally that I thought she’d earned a respite. Still, I tried to keep music flowing in other ways, playing more guitar around her and taking her, with mom, to the Schermerhorn/Nashville Symphony for an all Beethoven program. She claimed boredom at that, but that’s to be expected. It was still well worth it. You can’t hear all that sound in that special place built for sound and not have some latent reaction at least. Next time it will be more familiar to her.
Now we’re back at it, and I’m feeling vindicated, because even though she still bridles at music lessons like most kids, she lost none of her note knowledge or rhythm. In fact, thanks to that mysterious unconscious processing that goes on after the lesson ends, they may be better.
On top of that, the method book gave forth a tune that drew her in just when we needed it. “Whirling Leaves” is a trifle and it comes with completely unnecessary and horrible lyrics, but as a piece it’s kind of enchanting. Or at least it enchanted her. And I do not use that word lightly; it achieved a state of ease and connectedness that I’d been hoping to see for a long time.
This fused nicely with our other recent musical breakthrough, which in many ways is more significant. It starts with the teen phenom The Hunger Games. My daughter, being a newly minted teen, caught wind of this object of fascination among her peers and asked for the whole package: the book, the movie and, in our case because it helps her English, the audio book. Long story short, we watched the movie together a couple of weekends ago when Mom was out. (It’s worth noting that the simple act of settling in with FC for a dad/daughter movie with no agitation or sense of coercion would have been impossible just four months ago. We are now I can say pretty close. She hangs out in my man cavestudio voluntarily. Comes in my door from school (and hands me the mail). Clings on my shoulders and isn’t afraid to touch. So that’s all been exciting.)
The Hunger Games film was good -- surprisingly so. I love science fiction anyway, and it was great to explain to her there is such a thing as science fiction after watching a decent version of it. She related to the story of Katniss sacrificing herself to save her little sister and the pain of leaving her behind. In general the story, as wild and violent as it is, gave us a lot to talk about. But then a few days later, she came home from school talking about one of the soundtrack songs, which her new young English Language Learners (ELL) teacher shared with her class. This turned out to be the lovely “Safe and Sound” by Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars. I’d seen the video a couple times and it struck me as the best thing Taylor Swift has ever recorded. But then The Hunger Games soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett and it’s full of good music. FC told me that Mr. Andy (first name only here to respect privacy) had not only played the recording in class but performed the song with guitar. What?! Wow! I already knew Andy was musically inclined. He was in or somehow involved with the band Bear Cub back in his former town of Pittsburgh. They’re now Nashville based, and they’redarn good too.
“Safe and Sound” is somber and quite beautiful. It’s built on a clean and uncomplicated acoustic guitar riff that I wanted to sort out as soon as I heard it. It’s clear you need a capo up the neck, but it wasn’t obvious where. But heaven knows everything’s on the internet, even an interactive tablature. So I found some alone time to work it out and surprise FC with my version of the song. And when I started singing these lyrics, all about the protagonist promising shelter to a loved one who is more afraid and vulnerable, with its mingled rays of danger and hope, well I basically lost it. I could not sing the chorus without having the entire experience of making shelter for this lovely girl come flooding up into my throat and eyes and choking me off:
Just close your eyes / The sun is going down / You’ll be all right/ No one can hurt you now / Come morning light / You and I’ll be safe and sound.
It’s working on me even now. It’s not Kristofferson level poetry, but it is certainly folk music written with economy and elegance. And what’s a song supposed to do if not make a soft place to rest your own story, hopes and fears? And what is FC’s greatest fear? The night. The dark. Being by herself. The memory and sting of abandonment.
I know that FC was drawn to the melody and tenderness of the song, and I can only surmise that the lyrics (in this strange new language she’s learning) contributed to her love affair with “Safe and Sound.” She didn’t know about the idiomatic expression of the title before hearing the song, so there was a lesson in that. She told me she associated the song’s words with the most poignant scene in The Hunger Games, so she was clearly getting the whole subtext. And she’s clicked in to learning these lyrics and singing them properly, which is a triumph on a whole new level. I can bring up this song to practice almost any time and anywhere and she’s game for running the words over her tongue. She’s pretty much memorized the chorus, which is a victory for a girl who needs her memory muscles fired up from near atrophy.
But best of all I think, the song’s lyrics and chord changes are now on her piano bench, and she’s using this outline to figure out how to interpret music on her own. She can see you don’t need sheet music to develop your own way of doing a song. She’s only recently been exposed to the concept of chords and how they’re named, but just two days ago I marveled as she took her rudimentary knowledge and started working out the changes. Yesterday I showed her some easier to reach voicings of the chords that kept her from having to move her hands in big leaps to find the first inversions of Am-Em-C-G. She took my suggestions and worked out a smooth flow. I played the guitar with her through the changes. We even sang the tune together a few times. I managed not to cry.