INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE

That Sam would play the oboe seemed inevitable. Someone had to.  He was the youngest of three children, after all, and his two older sisters had both failed at the piano and refused to play the oboe, respectively. With my wife, Katie’s professional-quality, hand-crafted instrument consigned to the back of a closet for decades, he represented the last chance one of our children would carry on her legacy as the one-time second chair of the Connecticut State Youth Orchestra.
“You can take piano lessons, if you prefer,” we offered, knowing he had long-refused to consider the beautiful instrument anchoring our living room, by then reduced to a silent piece of furniture.
“Why do I have to take anything?” Sam protested.
“Because musical training is important, your sisters suffered through it, and it will be good for you,” we answered, more or less. We probably also suggested: “it will enhance your college applications, provide an extracurricular activity in high school, and develop whichever side of the brain might otherwise be neglected.” We figured if we threw enough half-baked rationales against the wall, one might stick.
Sam was in fifth grade when this ambush took place. He had just entered middle school where there was an extensive music program. Each participant received a weekly lesson from the band director. Some students took private lessons, too, but the instrumental program at the school was renowned for developing beginners. Eventually, the talented and/or devoted would feed the award-winning high school band, an institution in our town whose fervent following rivaled that of the sports program. In fact, at Ramsey High School, the home football crowd was known to swell just before halftime and diminish precipitously after the band finished performing.
Nearly all the boys who began lessons in fifth grade chose to play the drums or something brass. We’d bought Sam a drum, at his insistence, when he was five. But he abandoned it after just a few days of sporadic pounding. Nearly all the girls chose the flute or clarinet. Not since the eighteenth century, perhaps, had a ten-year-old clamored to play the oboe. When the band director learned that our household held a prospective oboist, she nearly leapt with excitement.
“Does he already play?” asked Ms. Latronica (“rhymes with harmonica,” she always told the students on the first day of school).
“No,” we explained, “but Katie can teach him the basics, and he’s agreed to practice at least fifteen minutes a day.” We didn’t think it necessary to reveal the arguments and bribes involved in gaining the latter assurance. Suffice it to say, Sam’s ice cream and video games were secure for the balance of fifth grade.
“This is so exciting!” enthused the twenty-something Ms. Latronica. “We’ve never had an oboe before. Sousa wrote some great oboe parts!”
We nodded and smiled, but thought back to our daughters’ failed musical careers.
“I fear,” I whispered to Katie afterwards, “that she is headed for some disappointment.”

*****

Fortunately for me, I was at work when Sam commenced his initial oboe practices after school. One day, I arrived home earlier than usual and heard a braying sound emanating from the living room piano bench, where he sat.
“Do we have geese?” I asked.
“That’s Sam practicing,” said Katie.
“Wow,” I said. “Does it always sound like that?”
“Sometimes worse,” she said. “But he’ll get better, eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“He’s already made a lot of progress,” Katie assured me. “He can play a scale.”
“In three weeks, that’s all he’s learned?” I said.
“If he took the French horn, he might not be able to hit a note for a year,” she pointed out.
I nodded in agreement, recalling the unfortunate French horn player in my high school orchestra.
“But, at least a French horn sounds mellow. This sound is irritating; it’s hard to take,” I said quietly, cringing, as several additional honks bounced off the walls.

Over the next several months, Sam did make progress. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, became recognizable. But he clearly lacked a gift. Since Katie had been an excellent oboist decades earlier and I’m one of those people blessed/plagued with music running through my head at all times, I couldn’t understand our progeny’s lack of musicality.
“They’re all good students,” I said. “And they’re great at soccer. Why do they lack musical talent? We’ve provided nature AND nurture, and received nothing in return,” I continued sourly.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s hope he’ll be happy he tried, someday. There won’t be much pressure. He’s playing third-oboe in the holiday concert.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “How can he play ‘third’ when there’s no first or second?” I asked.
“Actually,” said Katie, “the third part is what Ms. Latronica thinks Sam can handle. Remember, he’s just a beginner.”
“Fair enough,” I said, apprehensive.
On the night of the concert, we were stunned and impressed to see the middle school band file into the gymnasium before us. Over eighty players made it larger than all but the most august of professional orchestras. Several of the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushed forward to hand flowers to their children. Others stood brandishing video cameras. We remained quietly in our seats, heeding Sam’s request that we “not do anything embarrassing.” Still, we were proud to see Sam amidst the ensemble, though his sheepish posture revealed his desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Ms. Latronica, glowing with excitement, took the podium in a form-fitting outfit guaranteed to command the attention of students and audience alike. The band performed a selection of Christmas carols with a Thanksgiving-themed song and a Hannukkah piece mixed in. The skill level was impressive; many of the students played with enthusiasm.
“I can’t hear the oboe at all,” I whispered at one point, though Sam appeared to be blowing.
“That’s probably a good thing,” whispered Katie. “The third part shouldn’t stand out.”
After the concert, while waiting in a long line at Baskin-Robbins (we weren’t the only bribers in town, apparently) we congratulated Sam for his efforts.
“I didn’t play a single wrong note,” he said, smiling suspiciously broadly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, warily.
“I was just blowing,” he said, “but not hard enough to make sound.”
“Sam,” said Katie. “Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.
I considered expressing anger or, at least, canceling ice cream. But the latter was difficult because I wanted ice cream, too, and the former would have been hypocritical because I’d done the same thing decades earlier at a high school holiday concert. In fact, what I’d done was worse, since I was the first trumpet, and responsible to carry the melody!

We didn’t let Sam quit the oboe mid-year, despite his requests, but we did move his practice location to the basement. Several closed doors would insulate the rest of the house from the noise.
“He’ll probably be watching television while he practices,” I said.
“Probably,” said Katie.
“Do we care?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said.
I pondered the situation for a moment. “What kind of parents practically invite their son to goof off when he practices?”
“Realistic,” said Katie. “He’s not gifted and he’s not excited to play. We can’t force it.”
The school year ended with a spring concert. We attended and applauded and didn’t even ask Sam if his instrument was contributing to the sound. And he didn’t volunteer the information. When we arrived home, the oboe reassumed its place in the closet.
As the years proceeded, Sam developed a healthy enjoyment of music. Now that he is in graduate school, on the rare occasions the subject of playing musical instruments arises, I note that my son expertly plays the I-pod and Pandora, and he’s perfectly satisfied with that. Therefore, I suppose, so am I.

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