Archive for Saturday, July 28, 2007

A perfect audience for banjo novice

July 28, 2007

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Parental involvement is essential to successful schools. Sometimes, though, it seems involvement is more about the parent than anything else.

When I agreed to visit my son's first-grade class, I felt compelled to outdo my last performance, when I read the kindergartners a story and played songs on my guitar. I had heard of parents giving multimedia presentations or bringing in puppets or animals. Maybe this year, I mused, I would compose a Broadway production and play all the parts myself.

But then my son brought me back down to Earth. He handed me a note from his teacher saying how much the students were looking forward to my visit because many had never seen a banjo before.

Banjo? I asked Ethan.

"I told them you would play the banjo," he said.

I play the guitar. My wife gave me a banjo last Christmas. I bought some books, watched some videos on YouTube and have begun teaching myself.

"You're getting it," my wife said.

"Yeah, but nowhere near performance level," I said.

"They're just 6- and 7-year-olds. Ethan thinks you play great. They all will. Just learn something simple," she suggested.

I asked my son what songs they sang in his class. He shrugged.

You do sing songs, right? I asked. He nodded.

So what do you sing? "Mm mm mm," he hummed.

I thought about what we sang when I was in first grade.

How about "This Land Is Your Land"? He shrugged again.

"How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" "I've Been Working on the Railroad"? "Camp Town Races"?

He shook his head. These kids were missing out on the classics, I thought.

"We sing 'Bingo,' " he said. I smiled. All was not lost.

I figured I'd explain a little history of the banjo, play "Bingo" and then hand out cookies before they could ask me to play some more.

On the appointed day, I signed in at the school's main office and was finding my way toward my son's classroom, carrying my banjo, when I was approached by a teacher.

"You're a banjo player," the man said. I explained that I was teaching myself the banjo. He said he used to play the banjo a lot, said he had two, in fact. We chatted a few minutes before I arrived at Ethan's classroom.

I was escorted to a miniature chair at the front of the classroom. My son carried his chair from his desk and parked it next to mine.

"First, we'll interview Ethan's dad," his teacher said.

"What's your favorite thing to do with Ethan?" the first student asked. "Where's your favorite restaurant to take Ethan?" another asked. "Where's your favorite place to travel with Ethan?" "What do you like to do when you're not with Ethan?" "What's your favorite sea animal?"

As I sat there answering questions, I realized these kids saw my life through the perspective of my son; he was suddenly the center of my universe, my entire existence was through him. Here I was, not a protector, not an authority, not a hero, just an extension of my son, nay, this individual, a great role once we choose to accept it.

After the interview, it was time for the song. I showed them the banjo, told them a little history, strummed a few chords and then broke into "Golden Slippers." They all clapped; a couple even got up and danced.

This was great. First-graders who had never heard a real banjo were the best audience for a developing player.

I asked if anyone knew the song "Bingo." They all raised their hands.

Before I plucked the first note, the teacher I had met in the hallway came in. Ethan's teacher asked if he needed anything. "No," he said. "I just came to hear the banjo."

A wave of angst jabbed my gut. I would be playing in front of someone who actually knew how to play. What would he think if I plucked a wrong note or two? I looked down at Ethan. His enormous smile reminded me that this was his universe, not mine. And so I played as well as I knew how, which to my son was flawless.

- Dean P. Johnson, a freelance writer, is an adjunct professor of writing at Rowan University.

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