Why I'll Keep Nagging

Michael Miller

Struggling to get my kids to practice their music, I hear my own voice locked in tedious, repetitive urgency. And in those oh-my-God-I've-become-my-parents moments, I have to wonder why I am doing this. What do the kids get out of my harried hectoring except the conviction that their mother is a nag? Recently, I came upon an answer.

Both my daughters belong to the Bay Area's Peninsula Youth Orchestra. The oldest, a 14-year-old violist, has talent but little drive to bring it to fruition. Still, for the past three years, she has found the inspiration to master the 15 or so pieces they play each season. My younger daughter, an 11-year-old keyboardist, took to drums like a woodpecker to a telephone pole. She has a jazzy instinct for order and disorder, and the orchestra lets her explore a whole range of percussion instruments.

About 225 young musicians make up the beginning and intermediate ensembles. It's a diverse bunch, spanning ages 6 to 16. For each of three concerts a season, the conductor and her assistants somehow bring these kids from sight-reading cacophony to real music-making in the space of about 10 weeks. No-nonsense rehearsals take place weekly, and I never fail to be amazed at how my fun-loving girls approach these rigorous sessions. They go in eager to play, and they come out smiling two hours later.

It doesn't all happen in the rehearsals, though. Each musician must arrive prepared--and that's where I come in. My daughters may have some musical gifts, but they're not exactly itching to play in their spare time. Like all musicians, they need to practice, and like most kids, they need, ahem, shall we call it encouragement to do so.

So I nag. I plead. I threaten. I chase them around the kitchen with a dishtowel. I even resort to reason. "Playing music is good for your brain!" I declare. "Students who participate in music programs improve their sat scores by more than 80 points! And orchestra looks great on college applications!" (Not that it matters to an 11-year-old.)

My husband groans at my crassness. "They should practice because they love to play," he insists loftily. Yeah, right. I regularly threaten to quit nagging and let them lose their orchestra opportunity in their immature fecklessness. "Go ahead, throw away your golden futures," I tell them. Then, fearful of they know not what, they practice.

At a recent concert, I realized why I so passionately want my children to play in the orchestra, why, indeed, I should embrace my enforcer duties. Before launching into the Finale from Symphony No. 9 (which, the program notes teach us, Beethoven composed after his tragic loss of hearing), the conductor announced that one of the percussionists was missing. Sam, she told us, was very ill in the hospital. The orchestra kids had all signed a card to send him, and she dedicated the concert to him.

I noticed that Sam's father was missing, too. Though I didn't know him well, I had always liked the tall, friendly man who spoke of his son with an endearing blend of pride and indulgence. Someone whispered to me the rest of the Sam story. "Sudden and incurable," she said.

Then the concert began. Through the sorrow, the swell of symphonic music gripped my mind. They were pulling it off again. The kids played fervently, the audience applauded--and everyone did it for Sam. We all felt the magic of the orchestral experience, that fusion of vision, talent, connection and heart that uplifts everyone in the concert hall together. It's a miracle no musician can achieve alone.

And I knew why I would stand to nag another day. I want my kids to find in orchestra the momentary exaltation that raises us above tragedies such as the loss of a friend. In the ritualistic beauty of orchestra--even down to the white shirts, black bottoms, black shoes and please-no-white socks--our children may find transcendence. They may glimpse the mesh of order and emotion that makes art out of life, that gets us through the bad times. My nagging is a small price for a delight so exquisite, an armor so potent.

Theresa Donovan Brown, '76, is a Woodside-based writer who won last year's Stanford Fiction Contest (March/April 2000). She has just published a novel, Summitville (iUniverse.com).