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Musical chairs

I wanted music in the house. So, over the years, my children have been instructed in piano, violin, flute and trumpet. This year, the two youngest haul kid-sized cellos to school twice a week. At night, they practice with all the seriousness the formidable instrument inspires, their bows sawing thick notes, filling the house with a deep, resonant "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (or "Mary Had a Bighorn Sheep," as their orchestra instructor likes to call it).

The trumpet has fallen by the wayside, and the oldest child played her last solo on flute more than six years ago. The piano, mine since childhood, is badly out of tune.

The piano drives my parental ambition. When my first-grade teacher declared I had a musical gift, based on my performance clicking sticks in rhythm band, my mother scraped together the money to make payments on a Baldwin spinet and arranged for me to have lessons.

To the extreme displeasure of my siblings, I practiced every morning at 6:30, racing through the John Thompson manuals with gusto. My teacher was Mrs. Hardaway, a silver-haired lady with a clean brick house who taught me how to hold my hands by draping them over an orange and, later, balancing pennies on my knuckles.

I stuck with the lessons for almost 10 years. Classical standards gave way to pop hits, and our house was filled with the broken bass chords of "Moon River," with Broadway show tunes. Sundays, I played out of the Baptist hymnal, accompanying the congregational singing at Grandaddy's tiny church, while Brother Dwight, the minister of music, belted out the verses in a deliriously fervent baritone.

In high school, I taught myself all the songs from Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar -- straight from the book, since chord theory hadn't been part of my training, and improvisation wasn't among my musical skills. Still, wherever we lived, the house had music.

When I married, the piano went with me. In snatches, I played Chopin waltzes, Christmas carols and sonatinas until one chubby toddler or another clambered onto the bench and began banging along with grubby little fists. Eventually, the piano became theirs, and I played only on the quietest and loneliest of nights, long after everyone else was sleeping.

Decades after my first lesson, I apply parental pressure at regular intervals, coaxing and pleading with my kids to try an instrument. I imagine that one of them will hit that magical stride where notes become whole tunes and an unmistakable rhythm drives the whole thing. I imagine them learning the freedom of improvisation, leaping from the printed page to divinely inspired jazz riffs.

You could say our house has music, though, as yet, none of my children has demonstrated the unyielding drive to plow through those books. The twins listen to Casey's Top 40 every weekend, mouthing the words to every sexy love song disdainfully, breaking sometimes into spontaneous hip thrusts or break dancing on the hardwood floor.

Their brother falls asleep to the strains of Mozart from his boom box every night. My daughter, the oldest, educates her younger siblings in the finer points of the alternative rock scene, introducing them to everything from screaming headbangers to the retro-techno-pop lounge sound of a group called Combustible Edison.

Though my sons think "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" is a Christmas carol, and one of the cellists told me the other day his driving ambition is to learn to play the Coca-Cola Classic theme song, I still have faith. Their straight little spines, propped on the edge of their chairs, cellos raised, give me hope.

One night last week, I played Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano, and in spite of the mangled fingering and grossly flattened notes, my sons gathered around me on the bench watching my fingers, their mouths hanging slightly open.

"Isn't that from A Charlie Brown Christmas?" asked the youngest, dead serious.

"Mmmmmm hmmmmm," I nodded, and blissfully played on.

-- First published years ago when my sons were still little and cute. Alas, the cellos found their way back to the music store. The piano remains, the daughter writes songs for an alt-rock band and one son now plays guitar in a local band.

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