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‘Tis spring, and our thoughts turn to love, life, and music recitals. Photo by Phil Houseal


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Recital Time

by Phil Houseal
May 4, 2011


It’s May, which means it is time for young and old to gather into groups to witness that enduring rite of spring: the recital.

I was introduced to this ritual under the metronome of Mrs. Gardner, a kind lady who taught me and my eight brothers and sisters to play piano.

Every May we would meet at the local Methodist church (why are recitals always held in Methodist churches?) to show off another year of progress on our musical journey toward becoming accountants, coaches, and insurance salesmen.

I remember my first recital piece: The Wise Old Owl. I can still play it by heart. And I still remember the stark terror leading up to the actual performance. I endured the weekly piano lessons. I endured the oppression of practicing seven or eight minutes every day. And on the evening of the performance I endured the cruelty of washing my face and wearing a bow tie.

I remember waiting my turn sitting on those cold folding chairs, digging fingers into thighs trapped inside black polyester pants. I remember hearing my name called. I remember standing up and walking to the front of that room full of staring adults.

But I can’t for the life of me remember actually playing the piece.

I now know that my first recital was not the most terrifying experience in my life. No - it would be topped in sheer terror many years later by... BEING THE PARENT OF KIDS WHO HAVE RECITALS.

For over 25 years my wife and I have watched our children solo in dance, singing, piano, and violin. We are now on our fourth kid, and let me assure you young parents it never gets easier.

But I do have the advantage of perspective. I can sit back and have as much fun watching the audience as I do listening to the performers. Even in a Methodist church full of strangers, you can always tell whose kid is on stage. They are the couple that strain forward in their seats, neck veins bulging, cheeks flushed, and nails clawing into their thighs through black polyester pants.

The best outcome for these parents is having their prodigy get clean through the song without missing more than three notes. The absolute nightmare is... the pregnant pause. That is when the earnest student - who has undoubtedly worked many weeks to memorize the piece - freezes up. It happens at least once at every recital. Ditty-ditty-dum-dum they go along, then... silence. Silence in a church full of people is like darkness in a cave - it becomes a suffocating specter hanging from the flying buttresses. The parents stop breathing, the accompanist poises to jump to where the student goes, and the teacher smiles and pretends this is normal.

But the reluctant star of the pause is always the student. The sacrificial innocent stares into the ether, certain the next note will show its face from the choir loft. Parents squirm, grandparents wake up, little brothers stop poking little sisters. Slowly, mercifully, the student recovers, fingers start to move, the piece continues. The recital is saved!

I know there are benefits of the recital experience. It teaches confidence and builds character. But maybe we could reinvent the recital into something like a Luckenbach jam session, where players sit in a circle and take turns leading the song. I know having access to alcohol would help.

But as long as there are music students and music teachers, there will be music recitals. And someday my grandkids will be playing.

I’ll be there... clutching my thighs.