It was clear to me that our family was “different” when it was the Ohio Michigan game, and instead of tailgating, we were all home watching a documentary of the history of jazz in America. At intermission, our dog ran figure eights around the multiple music stands and instruments that were scattered about the living room floor. Why the living room, you ask? There is no basement in our house. We like to think that by allowing kids to play in wide open spaces, it makes the whole house vibrate to some higher frequency.
It’s a dead giveaway you are in a musical household when the most popular cutting board in the kitchen is a “Chopin board.” Or when a friend comes over for tea, the odds of them getting a mug with a keyboard or a treble cleft on it are greater than four to one. At Christmas time, instrument shaped ornaments dominate the tree. Halloween one year we gave out toy kazoos. In case you are curious, you can find these and other music themed gifts at Kings Keyboard, just ask my husband. Last year he did all the holiday shopping right there in their giftshop!
When the kids’ grandparents and cousins call us, they will automatically start to guess which instruments they hear being practiced in the background. At any given moment, it could be an oboe, French horn, piano, ukelele, or guitar. However, when the band is jamming or the woodwind sextet is rehearsing, the options multiply. The sign which hangs on the wall above my daughter’s bed reads “Music is My Life.” You could say this is true for both of our teenagers.
Last year we attended 22 musical performances and our kids performed an equal number of times at a range of venues. UMS performances have $10 student tickets and Kerrytown Concert House has $5 student tickets, making Ann Arbor a great, if not busy, place to raise musical children.
The irony here is that neither my husband nor I have any musicians in our families. With the exception of a couple years of piano lessons, neither of us was raised in musical households. The fact that our son and particularly our daughter happen to be passionate about music is an anomaly and has made for some memorable parenting adventures.
After years of working from home and hearing live music in the house, I think nothing about greeting people at the front door wearing my unplugged noise cancelling headphones. My husband and I take conference calls in the garage or on walks around the neighborhood, or even in our cars. Hitting mute on my phone as our daughter comes home is a reflex that has gotten faster (horn warm-ups approximate a fire engine siren). Clients are too polite to comment. While we have learned to accommodate varying noise levels in our household, we finally had to put our foot down about music practicing before 7:00 a.m. or after 10:00 p.m. Perhaps some readers can relate.
I thought for sure we would win the prize for one of the most unusual Amazon packages delivered when the French horn backpack arrived. It is one of the most awkward looking cases I think I have ever purchased. We also have an airport carry-on approved version.
On the subject of musical hygiene, I will never forget the morning I woke up to find a French horn resting peacefully in the tub after its first bath; the long coiled snake brush used to clean it draped over the shower head. Charming. While baseball players take pride in a well-oiled pigskin mitt, we oil horn valves in our house. I make it a daily ritual when children go away to summer camp. And when someone forgets to oil the valves, they seize up and we go see the local horn doctor, Steve Mumford, renowned for for his ability to cure all things brass and wind — horn, sax, tuba, and trumpet. The oboe healer is Ko in Plymouth.
As a non-musical mom, I have learned a lot about musical accessories. For starters, there is this blue plastic thing resembling a lotto ball dispenser that our daughter blows into everyday to increase her lung capacity. She must bring it to every lesson or she has to use “Timothy,” the community extra. As a horn student advances, they are awarded brightly colored toy pinwheels on straws to help speed up double-tongueing. To help keep up her chops on extended camping trips, my daughter was advised to bring her extra horn mouthpiece on trail to buzz into daily. It might have scared the animals, but talk about dedication.
Just like athletes, we learned that musicians can sustain repetitive stress injuries, like trigger fingers. Thankfully, local hand specialists like Dr. Handkin are there to diagnose causes of joint pain and recommend therapy exercises. If your musical child also plays sports, watch out for jammed fingers on the basketball court. Be sensitive to the fact that private lesson music teachers work hard to accommodate busy student schedules. If you have to miss lessons for sports, they may ask you to double down later.
In middle school and high school, many kids borrow instruments for free, but the contract you sign is like a rental car agreement where if you don’t opt in for the damage insurance, you’re signing your life away.
When it comes time to acquire an instrument, there are nifty little “blue books” for used pianos to help you negotiate trade-ins with Jim King at King’s Keyboards. And if you have an aspiring woodwind player, there is an oboe fairy out in Phoenix that has the best selection of used oboes. Sadly, there was no horn fairy when we were in the market. Music Go Round sells some used instruments and Shar Music has all the strings covered from what others tell me. Our kids’ school didn’t have any horns or enough oboes to lend, so we had to dip into the college savings. No matter how you look at it, it is an investment.
From a practical standpoint, minivans rule when it comes to band transport. Since my daughter decided to start a band, I have mastered the art of packing it with keyboards and amps, cellos and violins, plus the band members. (For thrills, I trade cars with a friend’s Mini-Cooper to remember what it feels like to actually drive for fun.)
It amuses me that my kids have preset radio stations in the minivan to classical or jazz stations and most of the CDs are their friends’ recordings or purchases from performers at The Ark or Kerrytown Concert House. We have to override what’s popular for the occasional pop station.
For our daughter’s first Allstate audition (7th grade), we didn’t have the horn audition music. It wasn’t available on Amazon and no music store in the Ann Arbor area seemed to have it. It never occurred to us that “borrowing a copy” from another horn player would be a “no-no,” so we went to the audition. We ended up driving out to Allen Park to get the only remaining copy of the horn music and a sympathetic band director let us reschedule the audition. When by some miracle our daughter made it into Allstate that year, we waited too long to get a discounted hotel room in Grand Rapids in the DeVos complex. Call immediately if your child gets in to Allstate. If you’re incredibly well organized, it’s a fun way to spend a long weekend in January.
The language and culture surrounding music is not easy to learn, even for a French major. I’m still figuring out what exactly embouchure and aperture are, but I can pronounce them. After years of going to Picnic Pops and Bands in Review, I understand the distinctions between the public high schools’ Varsity, Concert, and Symphony Bands. Watching marching drills at band camp taught me high step vs. glidestep. The Drum Majors wear the tall white hats on the field, but I’m still a little fuzzy on how Drum Major candidates get selected. I know “Sectionals” are not referring to Art Van couches, and “Master Classes” are like gifts from the universe that you do not ever want to miss, even the ones on Sunday mornings. Most importantly, I know when to clap in a jazz performance.
All in, alongside the learning curve, our lives have been positively enriched by the music our children have brought into our lives and the friends we have made. We have traveled this journey for ten years. For us as parents, our proudest moments are when we see the look of joy on our children’s faces after a strong performance. Ann Arbor has been a wonderful place to raise musical children and we wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
Kendra Theriot is a parent of two teenagers and has lived in Ann Arbor since 2006. Her professional background includes 16 years in the investment industry and 5 years at an innovation consulting firm in Ann Arbor. Her passions include exploring Detroit, mountain biking, and yoga.