If you have a child who ever played a band or string instrument, you’ve probably been through a rental night. The school (if they have a decent program) offers an opportunity for children and their families to explore various instruments and register for lessons and instrument rentals. I’m sure my music educator colleagues would agree that rental nights make parent-teacher conferences seem like a day at the spa.
Even though I’m retired, I still go back to my old school district and help with sizing youngsters for string instruments. I measure arms, get little fingers plucking strings, adjust cello and bass endpins, and explain to parents what to expect when living with a beginning violinist. Same thing I’ve done for almost forty years, except now I don’t have to get up the next morning and figure out how to work one hundred beginners into a two-day schedule, group them by instrument, and make sure they don’t miss math.
Rental nights are an exhausting mish-mash of hope and excitement and apprehension against a backdrop of buzzing mouthpieces, squealing clarinets, and scratching strings. Most kids are over the moon about starting an instrument but have no concept whatsoever of how much work is involved. The potential drummers all want to be rock stars and the violinists think they’ll be playing Devil Went Down to Georgia in two weeks. Some know exactly which instrument they want to play, some want to try them all and some have no clue why they’re even there. I can almost predict who’s going to make it and who’s going to be GBT. (Gone by Thanksgiving.)
For the most part, parents are as excited as the kids. Phones pop out to video little Emily holding a one-fourth size violin for the first time. I meet former students proudly bringing their own children, so they can have the same experience in band or orchestra that they had growing up. Every so often, though, you get a nasty parent. Someone is angry when you tell them their child cannot play grandpa’s full-sized violin (with no bridge and a hairless bow) and thinks you’re trying to spend their money by insisting they rent a half-size. This week a dad lit into me because the school only offers classical training instead of jazz. Classical music is nothing but a boring waste of time, and he should know because he played with Maynard Ferguson and arranged music for Spirogyra in the eighties. I had a mother several years ago whose daughter had no left forearm past her elbow. When I gently suggested that violin might not be the best option, mom silenced the room by shouting at the top of her lungs, “Are you saying my child can’t be in this program because of her disability?”
But grumpy parents are the exceptions. Rental nights are all about the maybes, the why nots, the who-would-have-thought-its. The chance for a lonely child to find a best friend in the back of the second violins. The child whose heart is set on playing the flute but who simply cannot make even a whisper of a sound on the head joint and then wails like Maynard on a trumpet mouthpiece. A shy child bursting into a smile the first time she bows the violin. The young man who at age nine, informed his family of athletes that he was going to be a musician and is currently principal violist of a major university orchestra. The wiry little guitar-player I met this week who played “Smoke on the Water” on each string of a one-eighth bass the first time he had it in his hands. In tune.
Rental nights, warts and all, offer children and their parents a chance to step into the unknown, to crack open the door and peek into to a world shining with possibility. They give them a chance to say, yes, I think I could do this. I want to blow the horn, grab the bow, tap a rhythm on the practice pad, hug the cello. The sound of this instrument makes me happy and feels like something that’s been missing from my life, something I need. I know I’ll have to practice, and I’ll whine and say I want to quit by January, but I won’t. I will march on the football field, go on the trip to Disney World and play in the orchestra at graduation wearing my cap and gown. My instrument, who I will name Tabitha or Leonard, will teach me that wonderful things happen when you practice and that you shouldn’t quit when it gets hard.