Bryan Shawn Wang|
DUET FOR BEGINNERS
My daughter’s a little over half my height, a quarter my weight, one-sixth my age. We sit together in front of the piano, and it seems as if the bench should tip.
I remind Elizabeth to count to herself while we’re playing. She has trouble keeping a steady beat.
The babysitter’s name last night was Tempo. Like the car, the girl said, casual and smug, trying to make herself sound grown up.
Normally, Donna doesn’t let anybody under sixteen sit for us. Tempo couldn’t have been more than fourteen—in sneakers, she was maybe pushing five feet, and no boobs to speak of. I’ve always been wary of kids who pretend to be something they aren’t. Tempo had completely charmed Donna, though.
I point out the dynamic markings to Elizabeth, the repeat sign and fermatas, the ritardando near the end.
She tells me Miss Lorne pronounces it REE-tar-DON-do. She giggles. “Miss Lorne’s silly. Isn’t she, Daddy?”
My daughter believes equally in Santa Claus, God, and her father’s infallibility. She hasn’t yet learned things like fractions or long division, the meaning of prefixes such as di- or tri- or ambi-, the nature of morality or matter or man.
REE-tar-DON-do. I repeat the word to affirm Miss Lorne’s expertise, to appropriate the correct pronunciation for myself.
Maybe it was the way I winked at Tempo. I’d meant it as a friendly warning—friendlier than I felt. Maybe she’d taken it as something more than friendly.
She was small, I said. I didn’t want her to believe she’d gotten away with anything. Small for a sixteen-year-old, I said.
Donna lectured me all the way to the restaurant. “Vulgar and completely thoughtless,” she said. “You’ve probably dashed the poor girl’s self-esteem.”
“I could have been talking about her height,” I said.
“Tell it to the jury,” Donna said. She flipped open the vanity mirror on the sun visor. “You’ll be more careful when your own daughter’s a teenager.”
I position my hands an octave below Elizabeth’s, and she counts off. We begin in unison.
I never learned to play, but the lessons were my idea. I know the benefits, how music promotes discipline, confidence, and intellectual development. When Elizabeth practices, I sit beside her and follow along, as if I’m a guide, or a coach. As if I’m spotting her.
Sometimes I join her, playing the same music at a lower octave, but it’s getting harder. She’s finished three books, moved on from “Little Indian Brave” and “Stepping Up and Stepping Down” to eighth notes and dotted quarters, songs that span three or four pages.
Midway through the second line, I strike the first wrong note, and I think of how she soon won’t want to play duets with me. I botch an interval and miss another chord in the next measure. My fingers trip on the accidentals and stumble on the syncopation. Elizabeth skips on.
When Donna and I returned to the house, Tempo met us in the kitchen. She looked flushed, nervous. She said she’d forgotten something and bolted upstairs.
Donna started loading the dinner plates in the dishwasher, but I was concerned. Maybe there’d been an accident. Maybe one of the kids had spilled something, and Tempo was still trying to clean it up. I went after her.
I found Tempo upstairs in the hallway. She was shaking, all flustered. It must have been quite a spill.
I put my hand on her cheek and let it rest there. I was just trying to calm her down. She seemed a conscientious girl after all.
“Tempo, ma cherie.” I said it as if she were my own daughter in need of my reassurance. “I hope we see more of you very soon.”
I just wanted to calm her down. I thought whatever the crisis, she’d probably blown it way out of proportion. It wasn’t like she burned the house down. She’d simply gotten in over her head. It was probably her first time babysitting.
She looked up at me and said actually, she thought I was pretty hot.
Elizabeth looks at me, suspicious, disappointed. We’ve stopped at the second measure of the third line. Before she can ask what’s wrong, I pull back, away from the piano, away from her.
“You’re rushing it,” I say. She frowns, but doesn’t argue. She’s still an obedient child.
Soon, she won’t want to play duets with her father. Soon, perhaps, she won’t want to play at all. She’ll do what she likes, what I don’t like, what I can’t understand or even conceive of.
“Stop rushing,” I say. “Slow down, for heaven’s sake.”
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