Ode to Boy

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    The jutting chin. The inscrutable eyes. The shock of unkempt hair. It’s all there in the alabaster bust of Ludwig von Beethoven sitting just outside the door to the violin shop.

    We’d caught his brooding gaze many times before as we passed by with our daughter, who fell in love with violin three years ago and can’t wait to start a fourth season with her school strings ensemble.

    And there we were again last fall as another school year kicked in, bringing a second budding musician to be fitted for a beginner’s string instrument. I glanced at the bust as we opened the door, then looked down at my son to compare. His chin set firm. His brown eyes deep and still a mystery. And hair? Well, unkempt would be a kind word. Might this be the profile of another musical prodigy?

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Remember, we’re talking about a boy.

    At first, Will embraced the violin – or at least the idea of it. Maybe he didn’t want to be outdone by his diligent sister. Or maybe he kept at it because he knew several of his buddies were yoked to strings class for the whole year, too. In any case, he took to the rituals of care and maintenance quickly, carefully applying rosin to the bow and always remembering to put the instrument back in its case when he was finished playing. We attached a tag to the case handle with his name marked in bold, black Sharpie and noted his weekly “violin day” on the calendar stuck to the fridge.

    And for a time we heard the sounds of practice scales and bits of basic melodies drifting up from the den. The draw of bow on strings became clearer and bolder, and before long Will asked us to sit and listen as he performed exercises from the weekly practice sheets that came home with his music book. Every Wednesday, the violin went with him out the door. At the end of the day, he never forgot to bring it in from the car.

    Until one night he didn’t. Which was okay, because everyone forgets a time or two, especially when you’re only eight years old. But as the weeks went on, we started to hear less and less music coming from downstairs, and it wasn’t long before we started losing track of the practice sheets and music book, too. Will still carried the violin in week after week. Then came the day when it went home with the wrong child, and we spent four panicky days trying to figure out where it was.

    We cajoled and nagged him. We gave mini-lectures about finishing things you’ve started. We even tried to inspire his boyish sense of adventure (and horror) by playing the bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM strings-driven theme from the movie Jaws. But it turned out strings class cut into recess, and movie scores couldn’t hold a candle to basketball.

    By the time spring arrived, we’d heard so little violin that we didn’t know if the instrument was even in tune anymore. Will’s music book was nowhere to be found. The exercise sheets kept showing up for us to approve and sign, but I suppose we hit rock-bottom the day we started logging practice sessions that had never actually occurred, just to make the music teacher think we were on-the-ball parents.

    Still, the school year was almost done, and the group’s final strings performance was just around the corner. If we could just get Will through that last concert, violin would be over for the season. Then we could reassess his musical future.

    The night of the event, the members of the Second Grade String Ensemble took their places onstage in the school gym as parents, grandparents, siblings and friends filled the floor and bleachers on the opposite side. As the youngest group to perform, Will’s ensemble got to play first. The children rose to their feet, the conductor tapped his baton, and strings of every size and sound began to churn out a simple melody listed as “French Folk Song” in the program. Soon after, the group plowed through the methodical tempo of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

    Then, for their finale, they raised their bows once more, took a collective breath, and played the famous final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the lyrical and rousing “Ode to Joy.” And let me tell you, they played the piece with gusto, bravissimo. They rolled and soared and charged to the final notes, and in their own youthful way took the great anthem by storm, just as the master composer had intended.

    And as Will turned toward the thundering applause echoing across the gym, I could see in his face just what strings had meant to him over the course of the long school year. He had indeed played a brash and winning ode. An ode to brotherhood, to unity. An ode to grit, to promise, and even to perseverance.

    But not to joy.

    The next day, as he was heading out to ride his bike, I asked him once more about the violin. One last chance to stick with it, I said, holding the case in front of me. Or we can wish the violin good luck and send it on its way, back to the shop where another child might give it a try. It’s up to you.

    He set his chin, and looked at the case with his steady brown eyes.

    “Good luck,” he said. “With someone else.”

    I held out a faint hope that he’d reconsider as I turned to put the violin in the closet. After all, who knows what genius sleeps inside him? But I know my boy. And he knows his own mind.

    I smiled, and turned back to tell him so, but he was already out the door.