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Musical instrument gift that can change your life

In his captivating history of 20th-century music titled “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross reveals that acclaimed novelist Ralph Ellison “once thought of becoming a composer. He took a few lessons from Wallingford Riegger, an early admirer of Schoenburg. Then, like so many others, he stopped.”

That last sentence stopped me in my tracks. What might Ralph Ellison have achieved as a composer? What music would he have written? He gained literary fame with his 1953 novel “Invisible Man,” but a quick peek into his biography reveals that he was musically inclined long before.

As a boy, he played both alto sax and trumpet. After high school, he attended Tuskegee Institute, where he continued with trumpet while adding piano and composition to his training. But then he stopped.

No doubt many young people awakened Christmas morning to find a musical instrument under the tree. I know one young lady named Hannah, the sixth-grade daughter of friends of mine, who got an alto sax. Who knows how many guitars of various sorts and sizes waited to be unwrapped?

But similar to what I’ve written about the way so many little girls abandon ballet as they grow older, many of these gifts will, sadly, be collecting dust a year from now. Mastering a musical instrument is hard work, but playing one always looks easy. Lots of high hopes and best intentions will fall by the wayside once the inevitable difficulty hits home.

There’s much truth in the old adage “anything worth doing takes work,” but most kids naturally seek ways around it. In seventh grade, I took up the trumpet for junior high band simply because I figured that with only three valves, it had to be easier than any of those instruments that required all your fingers. Let’s just say I was mistaken. Then a few years later, when I picked up the bass, not having learned my lesson with the trumpet, I was initially drawn by the fact that it had only four strings.

Writing for “The Music Parents Guide,” veteran music educator and symphonic trombonist Anthony Mazzocchi makes it clear that far from being a solitary journey, music education is a partnership. The parent has to be equal parts cheerleader and construction foreman, and it also falls to the parent to make it clear that sticking with it is a must. “You wouldn’t let your child quit math, would you?” he asks. And like math or science, “music is a core subject . . . period. The more parents treat it as such, the less students will quit.”

Is the child who begins guitar lessons next week already heavily scheduled with school and extra-curricular activities? The answer is, of course, yes, but that isn’t an excuse to quit either. “Parents need to understand that the enduring social and psychological benefits of music are as enormous as those of sports,” he said. And everyone can experience them. “Playing a musical instrument is a craft that, if practiced correctly, is something that all children can find success in. As long as students know how to practice and that it needs to be done regularly, they will get better.” Those are encouraging words by someone who knows there’s truth behind them.

The job of a parent doesn’t end when an instrument appears under a Christmas tree. Indeed, that’s only the beginning. You’re now a partner in an ongoing project. But with determination and perseverance (on the part of all involved), it could be the beginning of something that will change a life.

By DAVID A. SMITH, www.wacotrib.com, www.msidallas.com