Sixteen Seconds of Mush

That’s all it takes. Really.

Today, the eldest competed in the Cypress Creek Music Teacher Association’s Young Artist Competition. Two years ago, he finished third in what was then his first competition. Last year, he won. This year, he came in fourth, and that prompts another post from his father.

Sixteen Seconds of Mush.

I was initially disappointed for him. Proud of him, absolutely. But I was trying to empathize with what I thought might be his own disappointment. Now, we’ll ignore the issue of whether this attempt at empathy might not have been taken as disappointment in him because that was not my intention. The real point dawned on me several hours after the competition. I turned to him and said, “So you went through about two-thirds of the song and then played about sixteen seconds of mush. Then you finished up the last third.” (We’ll also ignore the fact that the math is not quite precise in that statement.) He responded by asking me whether I had heard his performance – which I had not because each performance in this competition is just the musician (my son’s a pianist) and the judges. I told him that, no, I had not heard him, but that the exact same thing has happened to me on numerous occasions. So I supposed that perhaps his mind took leave of the rest of him for a few seconds and whatever came out for those seconds, came out – and probably was not close to correct.

Now, I am something of a pianist. I play at Mass here and there. I’m actually not a bad accompanist for a choir. I even taught piano to my son for four years until his abilities so greatly exceeded mine that I had to find him a teacher or else risk holding him way back. He plays hard stuff by Bach, Chopin, Kapustin, Brahms, and others. I usually play from lead sheets and rely on a not-bad knowledge of proper chord progressions. But the fact is, my mind seems to depart my body at times – right in the middle of Mass – and what comes out, comes out, until I am able to gather myself back together. So I supposed that this must have happened to him, and I was right (for once).

The real point, perhaps, is that the same thing has happened to every one of those judges. Everything my son played was right-on – perhaps even flawless – except for sixteen seconds of mush in one of the two pieces that he played in the competition. The judges no doubt recognized all this and granted him fourth place precisely because of all the good he did outside those few seconds.

But it’s a competition and the mush cannot be ignored.

And all that leads me back to our attempts to school these children at home. Sometimes my own demands of my kids are way out of whack. I have a tendency to place a lot of pressure on them, and the fact of the matter is they respond quite well to it. But a lot of that pressure is applied in order to eliminate the academic equivalent of sixteen seconds of mush when there’s a lot of good stuff going on as well. In some sense, I have turned my kids’ academic pursuits into one long and arduous performance. And that’s exactly what none of us needs.

This tendency to view the homeschool as a long performance is a theme that appears more than once amongst the families whose homeschooling journeys are depicted in Suzie Andres’s A Little Way of Homeschooling. And it is what has caused many of them to apply some of the ideas of John Holt in their own homeschools. Let the kids pursue their own preferred interests. Provide them with opportunities to discover these interests and then support them on the way. Even radical unschooling – which takes a lot of effort when done right. But one point, at least, is to remove some of the performance aspects from the day-to-day academic rigors. This doesn’t have to mean that all performance is removed. Kids eventually have to learn how to take a test to hold down lots of jobs these days. But at least there is a decent amount of respect given to performance, making it something that is prepared for rather than something that is demanded daily, even hourly, with quiz, quiz, quiz, test, test, test, paper, paper, paper.

The musicians do a better job.

They limit their performances and spend weeks – even months – preparing for each. And when a performance comes along that is done quite well, the judges have the sense to put any mush into its proper perspective.

It’s only sixteen seconds. And all the of rest is exceptional. So I think they have it exactly right. Fourth place. The result of months of hard work and joyous labor. An extremely worthwhile result for a young boy growing into a man.

And I am so proud of him.

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