The future history of music here
I take my grandson, Baxter, to his piano lessons. He wants me to watch his lessons. I wouldn’t if he didn’t. But when he started, nine months ago, when he was 5, he wanted me in there, and that hasn’t changed yet.
He’s always been very musical, and I thought he might start music lessons when he was 6, which is when I started. But he began asking if he could take piano lessons when he was 5, and though I thought he might be too young, I also believe that the time to start kids on music lessons is when they want to. So, I asked his parents if I could start taking him to piano lessons and that was fine with them. Also, kids are older now than they were when I was a kid; so at 5, he was probably where I was at 6.
Baxter’s taking lessons at Musicologie—on Fairmount Boulevard, just east of Taylor Road—which used to be the Fairmount School of Music, started, 35 years ago, by my former bandmate Kevin Richards.
Like most kids, Baxter doesn’t love practicing. But what scares me, a little, is that he usually plays MUCH better in his lessons than he ever does when practicing. It scares me because that’s what I always did—and still do, as a professional musician—and I wonder if it implies that he has that performing gene, or whatever it is that makes some of us want to be performers. Maybe he doesn’t; it’s too early to tell.
I was worried about Baxter and his sister, Westin’s, music education in public school when they started at Fairfax. Westin likes music, too, but hasn’t yet shown any interest in playing it. When I went to Coventry Elementary School, almost every classroom had a piano and almost every teacher I had knew how to play and could lead us in singing. We had at least a little music every day. I know it’s not that way anymore. You can hear that it’s not that way, anywhere, because, well . . . listen to any group of people singing “Happy Birthday.” It is sung in almost as many keys as there are people singing.
When I was in elementary school, singing with the class, my teachers stopped and told certain kids to sing in tune. And then those kids did. Most of them. It works. I have done that with kids. Most can do it. You just have to help them with it. Like teaching math or reading.
I also had exceptional music teachers in junior high and high school—people who went out of their way to help me when I expressed an interest in becoming a professional musician. At Roosevelt Junior High, the band director, Wilbur Turner, let me come in after school and try every single band and orchestra instrument, when I told him I wanted to become an arranger. Then he let kids who played those instruments give me a few lessons each.
At Heights High, my choir director, Clair McElfresh, encouraged me in many ways, including letting me arrange music for vocal ensembles to perform in our concerts, and letting me play my songs solo in concerts, and sitting and talking to me, at length, about music careers.
Even one of the instrumental music teachers at Heights, Vince Patti—who wasn’t my teacher and didn’t really know me—allowed me to arrange a piece for a brass quintet, and went to the trouble of assembling one for an after-school session, so I could hear my work.
Today, my grandchildren, Westin and Baxter, have a great music teacher at Fairfax, Tamar Gray. I attended Westin’s winter concert last December, for first- and second-graders, and I was extremely impressed. I’m not saying that just because my granddaughter was in it. I’m a musician and I can tell the difference. The kids actually sang in tune. They actually paid attention to Mrs. Gray the whole time. They did actually good songs—not dumbed-down stuff.
This month, I’ll get to hear Baxter’s first-and-second-grade winter concert, and I have no doubt that it will be just as good. There’s hope for the future of music. At least around here.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.