Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unschooling Music

So, over a year ago, I arranged for Tal to take cello lessons with Corbin. It had nothing to do with cello, although I do love the cello. Tal had never tried one, and had no desire to. It was about Corbin's personality, and how I knew that Tal just needed somebody he could really connect with.

Corbin happens to be "The Wild Cellist" (and also teaches guitar), but if he were a flute-player, Tal would be learning flute, now. If castanets, castanets. You get the picture. Tal did not, and refused. "No cello." So I ambushed him with the idea. I brought him to a house where I was mural-painting, when I knew Corbin would be there, painting the ceilings. And voila! Corbin met us at the door. The conversation went something like this:

"So Tal - this is Corbin. You remember Corbin, right? What do you think about trying out some cello, now?"


Corbin expertly interjects: "So you like to play violin, hey?"

"...uh. Yes."

"How do you like to play it?"

(Tal mimics holding his tiny violin like a cello.) "Or upside down."

"Oh yeah! Have you ever tried playing it with your hair? Like your own hair?"

Tal's eyes just about popped out of his head. It was like Corbin was reading his mind, and he looked away, then back, as if checking to see if Corbin was still there. Then he took on a very cool posture: "Yes?"

"Well you know, if you rosin your hair - you know, like you rosin the bow - then it'll work way better."

Tal filled with joy. And within seconds they were comparing mouth-percussion sounds and other remarkable things. Tal went to Corbin's studio to try out his cello, Corbin bought a 3/4-size cello for us to rent for Tal, and for a year now, Tal has been playing cello. Not because he particularly loves cello, but because he loves Corbin.

And he never practices. Well, never without coercion, and I admit to falling down the coercion hole once in a while, probably to the detriment of his future. He is not a virtuoso, and has repeated loudly that he will never play in public, nor will he sing with his playing. He just goes to spend time with Corbin, making up songs (which Corbin inputs to his midi program on the computer), learning to follow sheet-music together, picking out tunes Tal enjoys (but will not practice), and experimenting with awesomely odd cello-playing techniques.

So after about a year, his sister decided to play guitar, and joined Tal, for back-to-back lessons, once a week. She's much more goal-oriented, but Corbin has inspired her enough that after only a few months of lessons, she now sits around experimenting on her uncle's lovely Larrivée Parlour guitar. She's become a huge fan of Melanie Martinez (who recently rose to stardom on the reality TV show, the Voice), and tries to learn the songs she's heard Melanie sing. Corbin, knowing nothing about Melanie, sees the glowing cheeks on Rhiannon and follows along, nurturing her passion for emulating a pop star as he does Tal's passion for never doing anything the same way twice.

Now back to that practicing. I've tried all sorts of convincing arguments: "Imagine how awesome it would be to walk into Corbin's studio and say 'hey listen to what I can play!'" "Wouldn't it be nice if you could just pick up your cello/guitar and play that song without even thinking about it?" Etc. No luck. And when they do practice, because they feel obliged "Come on - I pay for these lessons! Can you please try to get as much out of it as you can?!" (I hang my head in shame...), then they run into each other for time, and someone invariably gets off the hook because the other is busy playing.

Then it hit me: Communal music!! They were both sitting around singing Hit the Road, Jack, beautifully on key and full of joy (yet another song they learned from Melanie Martinez), when I said "hey - see if you can play that together on your guitar and cello". For some reason, neither objected. They just got out their instruments and within a couple of minutes were picking their way through it! Amazing! Who knew!? In fact they've now done this two days in a row. I don't care that it isn't one of the songs Corbin has been working on with them; they got the spark and the confidence to do this from their time with him, and for that I am extremely grateful!!

I love how even when I forget, let the coercion and my own childhood experiences undercut the unschooling we try to achieve, unschooling itself is there to catch the tumbling falls. Oh isn't life beautiful!!


  1. Love this! Wish I had found a way to preserve Wilde's love of music and playing the violin. Trying to get her to practice around her lessons killed her desire to play.

  2. Emily, my a completely unschooled and self-taught musician let me be the first to topple the last barrier you have to unschooling music:

    There is no such thing as practice...
    There is only playing.

    You are either playing music or you are not. And no one likes to be coerced to ruins the fun. Kind of like when our kids are small and we make them apologize for things. We know the apology isn't authentic, but somehow, we feel it is necessary to make it happen.

    Same with music practice. So the thing to do is relax about Tal's cello and keep supporting the collaborative music that Tal and Annie are playing. Let the boy play as much or as little as he wants. He already has all the right conditions for a musical life - surrounded by singing, befriended by musicians, taught by friends. All he needs to do now is play, as much or as little as he wants and on his own terms.

    And who knows, maybe he'll surprise you. Maybe in the end, he will become the world's best castanet player!

  3. Thank you both for commenting!! Tal grows most joyfully when Bob calls the occasional junket and he brings his concertina and plays along. But goodness I wish we had more of these times for sharing music again. We all miss them so.

  4. Sweet story. Communal playing takes many forms -- around here it's called chamber music -- but I love the freedom of making music happen. This morning between the Bach and the Vivaldi it was "Puttin' on the Ritz."
    I love that they love it.


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