The Bruch Violin Concerto has been going round and round in my head for the two weeks since its spectacular performance by the lovely Chloe at the school’s annual concert at St. John’s Smith Square, the London concert hall. Not all of it. Just those few bars about six minutes into the first movement where both violin and orchestra explode into a torrid flourish. To me it’s an expression of a battle against incipient and seemingly unavoidable doom. Yes. My earworms have an uncanny way of encapsulating my mood.
It is the Boywonder’s final full week at school ever. As I write this, he will have had his last trumpet lesson ever and bade farewell to his respected and admired, beloved actually, trumpet teacher of the last seven years, who has given him nothing but support and kindness and patience and encouragement. The Boywonder was once a very promising young trumpeter, you see, and a musical career was just one option of many. Having firmly decided at two years old that he wanted to play the trumpet, he started learning on a cornet four years later, when he was able to hold it. He delighted everyone with his solo playing and in concerts, and I think the music was the one thing that prospered throughout his dismal time at international School in Paris when we lived there. He passed his Grade 5 with the highest mark in the whole of that exam session in France having a few months previously secured music scholarships and awards at several local London day schools.
Yes, a bright future lay ahead of him. And then things suddenly became difficult, beyond his comfort zone. Just doing the practice became hard to fit in with a daily commute to school, hours of homework, co-curricular activities and a piano practice too. Yet some people manage it.
What happened for the Boywonder? Well, he seems to have given up. His teacher felt that he was playing so well at Grade 6 that he should progress directly to Grade 8 level where the pieces suddenly required more stamina and, we discovered, a complete change of approach for the Boywonder and his full half-Indian lips. He was required not to play anything challenging but instead to practise playing easy exercises in a revised lip position, or embouchure. This often happens to young players when they go off to music college: they have to unlearn everything they have previously assimilated in order to progress.
He tried, you know. But the embouchure change became an insurmountable obstacle for a teenager who was determined to dig in his heels and do exactly the opposite of what everyone around him was telling him. Despite all the support from school, from teacher, from music school tutors who at one stage put him touch with the Royal College of Music’s embouchure change expert, he never quite managed it. Because sometimes in life you’ve just got to plug away at stuff for years before you get where you want to be.
Music making that was originally a joy had become a chore. Having passed Grade 7 piano, all the extra practice required for Grade 8 was simply too much and he gave that up, despite being a fine pianist. Having once been Principal Trumpet, the poor Boywonder watched as all of his music school trumpet crew jumped over him in seniority. It did not help that his year at school also contained at least two fine and ultimately better trumpet players. If you’re quite good, it can be demoralising rather than a positive challenge to be surrounded by brilliant people. More than once he almost gave up the trumpet too, and it was only my begging that persuaded him not to. Giving up the piano when overwhelmed by O level work at 15 was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, you see, and I wanted to save him all of that heartache.
Yet he has struggled on and his undoubted musicianship has carried him through. Despite all of these setbacks he still plays in the Youth Windband, winning gold medals in national and international competitions. He has managed to secure a position as one of four trumpets in the prestigious Symphony Orchestra. Yet my daydream of being in the audience to watch him play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto at Smith Square has come to nothing, and nor has he ever played the trumpet solo in St James’s Infirmary Blues. Not to my knowledge, anyway. Grade 8 has eluded him thus far. We don’t know what he will do next.
Sadly the progress with music has mirrored his academic performance. An academic scholar, the Boywonder has only recently himself come to the realisation that not even prodigious natural ability will ever succeed without a an equal or greater amount of hard work and effort. It is not for lack of support from us, from teachers, from everyone. We have torn our hair out. It has been the most frustrating challenge in our lives for the past seven, ten years. But sometimes, people just have to earn these lessons for themselves. There is no telling them. And people often tell us that boys are more likely to behave like this than compliant, hard-working girls. Is this true? I don’t know. Perhaps boys do take longer to mature. It is just such a pity that so many life-shaping habits and hurdles crop up in the years before they are fully mature. Besides, there are plenty of boys who do seem to manage it.
Many, many rows have been had and it’s convenient, at the moment, to blame me. So I inevitably blame myself. Was I too pushy? Not pushy enough? Should I have engaged tutors or just backed off completely and left him to find himself in peace? I really don’t know although I’ll guess that there are plenty of people just queuing up to let me know. I’ve already had one extremely hurtful character assassination. How do I feel? Weary, frustrated, sad.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know. He’s 18 now and must make his own life. We sat in the sunshine on the garden swing seat a couple of days ago, sadly contemplating this last week of school ever. I mentioned that a former schoolmate of his told her Grandma, my friend, that she’d like to go back and start all over again.
“So would I,” replied the Boywonder.
“Would you?” I was taken aback.
“But this time, I’d work harder.”