All suburban kids take piano lessons at some point in their lives. If they don’t, their parents worry they might turn to drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, and all before the age of ten. Mine are no exception. They’ve been taking lessons for two and a half years now, which is fine by me because which one of us wouldn’t like to be able to play the piano? But no one warned me about the recitals, a ritual whereby parents gather in a suburban living-room and politely pretend to be impressed by the below-average musical skills of kids they don’t know.
At their last piano teacher’s (whom we left because she accused one of our daughters of stealing “knick-knacks” from her – quite what a ten-year-old girl would want with the possessions of a pious, austere woman in her 50s is anybody’s guess, but when, at the end of one lesson, she was ordered to empty her pockets, only to show that there was nothing in her pockets to empty, we decided it was time for a less Victorian-era approach to piano tuition), recitals were stiff occasions, with printed programmes, formal dress and the inevitable pot luck obligation, an important part of modern American culture which decrees that people showing up at someone else’s house without a plastic Tupperware container or a foil-covered casserole dish will be mace-sprayed, gagged, bound and dumped in the basement until the occasion is over. Purely for the sake of sparing them the embarrassment of not having contributed, of course.
Things looked more promising with the new piano teacher, and not just because she’s a very kind and friendly woman. Recitals would be informal, she said, with people milling around and chatting while kids played piano in the background, if they felt like it. Did we need to bring anything? Nothing at all. This looked good. Plus, the new teacher is in our neighbourhood, so perhaps we’d bump into one or two people we knew. Though my wife made the kids promise to play as early as possible to make sure we were home in time for ‘Desperate Housewives’.
We didn’t meet anyone we knew, although this could be related to the fact we don’t actually know many people in the neighbourhood. And though it was all very civilised, the problem with the new recital format soon became clear. The White American Suburban Pop (WASP) has yet to learn the basics of making conversation in any situation where there is no flaming barbeque loaded with burning dead animal parts, a six-pack of beer, or a large screen TV about to show some form of ad-blighted sporting spectacle whose result will be forgotten by tomorrow morning (or, even worse, remembered). There was no opportunity for buddy-popping – an all-male version of body-popping that involves a mutual backslap, the clinking of two bottles and a joke about “the wives” talking a lot, but which is not at all gay - and soon I found myself babbling on to reserved, silent types about piano lessons, and pianos and, erm, the time I played baritone euphonium in the school band over thirty years ago. Receiving little response, I then felt as awkward as they looked and shut up too.
So while kids ran around, ate biscuits and played piano, the buzz of conversation among adults, who looked like they were spending their first evening out for a decade, remained absent. Not that the women were much better, but at least they smiled instead of looking like they’d just landed in purgatory and would rather be off hunting wild boar. My daughters played and we indulged them with praise, though thankfully they were as imperfect as all the other kids. No one wants to look like the smug prodigy’s Dad, eh? Although the night could have been a little more memorable if I’d started grunting primevally at the mute WASPs, pointing at my scrotum and shouting, “Look what this produced – a perfect note rendition of ‘The Merry Farmer’! Ha!”
We left in time to be home for ‘Desperate Housewives’. I was astounded to find out we’d only been there for 45 minutes. And we made no new friends. But it's the taking part that counts.