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The Thirty-Tenth Monkey

October 27th, 2009

This is my blog entry for the Oregon Music News. You can link to it:http://oregonmusicnews.com/blog/2009/10/27/the-thirty-tenth-monkey/

or read the whole thing here:

The Thirty-Tenth Monkey

by Eric Stern on October 27, 2009

Try taking a three year old to the Oregon Symphony. I did, although he’s really three-and-a-half and it was a rehearsal. I’m not the sort of parent to make others endure screaming, tantrums, or errant behavior (tossing jam on heads, that sort of thing), and although the exceptions tend to stand out, I have found that in Portland, at least, most people enact a similar philosophy. But this was upping the ante. The rehearsals, for the audience, are no different than actual performances. You sit, you listen, you grimace when someone inevitably coughs during the adagio, you and your neighbor do a pas de deux on the armrest with your forearms. But it is a rehearsal too, which means, at least in Portland, that the lights are on, and the conductor and the musicians are dressed as if they slept backstage, woke up, draped themselves on cozy couches to read the New York Times with a cup of French-press coffee, then casually wandered out to play for a bit before the afternoon soccer game.

I’m a professional musician. My son is used to this sort of thing: The Process. He sometimes “rehearses” with Vagabond Opera (my ensemble), his ukulele poised as a cello, a drumstick his bow, and later at dinner he will parrot phrases like, “Daddy, let’s take it from measure sixty-one”, even though he can barely count past twenty-ten. When he was an infant I sometimes had him strapped to my chest as I led rehearsals for a singing group in my synagogue, and just yesterday I brought him onstage with me to dance with some larger-than-life owls at the end of a kid’s show I emceed.

Never mind that as he wandered backstage with me we’d encounter various Decemberists (Chris Funk, their guitarist and his wife Seann had organized the show and the band headlined). What my boy couldn’t believe was that there were all these cookies back there. And all these people. And that the people weren’t shoving the cookies in their mouths. “Dad”, he whispered to me, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t they eating the cookies?”

Having a kid around is a surefire way to eliminate hierarchies and cut through bullshit. Rock stars, sure, but this cookie conundrum, that was what was really important.

It’s lovely to have him with me. Lovely for me. And lovely for him, he lets me know that. But I do wonder if this is one of my blind spots as a parent? We are parents, all, blinded by our biological imperative to some extent. Some parents know to scoop up their screaming child from the restaurant table and walk outside, but then instinct departs with them as they exit and they’ve left much of their child’s food inside. On the floor. Or elsewhere (and twenty percent is not enough of a gratuity to compensate for cleaning up mango salsa mixed with enchiladas verdes from the ceiling).

But perhaps that young Portland couple’s ancestors left food behind in the forest or the plains to divert the wolves, or the lions, or the bears, or whatever predator from eating their young.

Have I inherited the tendency of some simian primogenitor? “Oh great! He’s always bringing his young to sit in while we bang coconuts together.”

I am driven to share my life with my son, and this seems right. But there are moments when I have doubt: At the dress rehearsal at the Newmark for the Northwest Professional Dance Project’s Fall premieres, did Edgar Zendejas, Artistic Director of Montreal-based ezdanza, really need to deal with stepping on the(wooden) pieces of my child’s puzzle of a cow as he made his way to the tech station to issue lighting cues? And why the hell did I have the puzzle there? It’s not like Jascha could see it in the dark. Did the stage hands really want to baby-sit my boy in the wings as I sang my aria for that rehearsal? As I left the stage my son said, “The man told me to stop touching the light because it could burn me.” Oh God, aren’t sandbags and stuff always falling on top of people’s heads in the movies? Leaving my boy there—was that a form of neglect? And why the hell am I dragging him around to see all of this anyway?

But then I recall that it was my son who led me to the dance company. As he and my wife were walking by the studio one day the director invited them in, and he was enraptured immediately and now insists on going every time we are near. I sit with him and whisper, “Are you ready to go yet?” after five minutes, then ten, then twenty, and each time like some elfin oracle he gazes straight ahead at the corps de ballet and whispers back, “Soon.”

We have a mutual interest in this, then. Whenever I take him to a performance I let him decide whether we stay or not, I never force him to, and on the occasions when I am working, he’s either with me (I brought him onstage at the end of the Kid’s show to dance with the Owls), or with his mom watching, or backstage with a caretaker. I  am following instinct, and my instinct says to keep him close, let him in to my life.

What can I say? I like the village model: keep your baby strapped on to your chest as you work in the fields. I happen to have an accordion strapped to my chest most of the time, but my boy is seldom far.

And yes I believe that art, music, dance, are life support for a vital society, and moreover that these forms of expression are inherent and important to our biology. And that belief is inherited. Or at least nurtured. I’m one of those lucky artists whose parents supported him. I’ve met so many performers whose folks either didn’t understand their endeavor in any way, or had some long process of coming around and reconciliation.

Or artists whose families support them outwardly—like the plumber who came to my house the other day and told me his son was majoring in music in college, and even though he didn’t quite get why he dropped out of refrigeration apprenticeship, that he was behind him one hundred percent—but inwardly are quaking in their boots. Or their hip waders; the man could barely conceal the terror on his face and seemed relieved when I told him that I’m a professional musician, and yes, I make my living. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I dropped out of college.

But my father dropped out of his job with computers when I was two years old and left us to move to a farm and continue his real love, composing. My mother picked up her clarinet, or sat down at the piano with her Scott Joplin, and played her way back into sanity, met my step-father and they and their friends started up a record store. Say what you will, my family followed art, let it shape them, even as they shaped their own craft and just as importantly enjoyed all the art the city had to offer.

And it goes back at least a generation further. I recently framed one of my grandfather’s set lists. He was a violinist and my other grandfather was a painter. My father’s children are all professional musicians, like me, and no one’s in the family has ever seemed overly concerned. I know how lucky I am.

I thought about these things in the dressing room before the show with the Northwest Dance Project. I had left the house early because I know what parking can be like downtown near PCPA and the Schnitz on a week-end night, but luck was with me and I had maneuvered into the right lane just as someone edged their way out of a space near John Helmer’s.

So I had an hour to kill. My boy was coming to the show with my wife, but for once I was enveloped in silence, alone in a dressing room.

And you know, it was a beautiful thing to be alone. No one asking me for anything or pretending to be a zebra, or a goat; I let the silence envelop me. I was singing a difficult aria that night, I had caught a slight cold earlier that week, so would have to do some vocal negotiation with the hard passages; it was good to be able to center myself.

After my performance Jascha made it for two other pieces, and at the symphony the next morning he was behaving well and he was, thankfully, being a kid. Squirming in my lap, whispering questions, asking when we could eat, looking mostly at me or behind me, not at Carlos Kalmar. It wasn’t ideal for those around us and as soon as I could I moved him to the outlying areas of the auditorium (this was after a break when we looked again, and again, and yet again, at the cow with the saxophone that sits in the concert hall foyer).

Growing up, I had a whole record store to wander around in. I am grateful to Portland that my son has…Portland to wander around in. A (rose) garden of delights. Dance company rehearsals in the mornings and performances at night, one Saturday the Decemberists, another the symphony, free shows at Mississippi Pizza. I can only offer my child what is in proximity, and in that respect I have found luck once again.

I tried taking my son to the Oregon Symphony. We listened, he squirmed, we changed seats, we left early and walked in the rain to get sushi.

Before we left a man actually thanked me. “Thank you for bringing your son here.” As a father, I might be blind sometimes, it’s inevitable, but that, at least, was an affirmation. I do want everyone to enjoy the symphony. And that’s why I moved seats. But everyone includes my son. And it’s why I didn’t just give up right away and leave.  I just want my kind, and the next generation to thrive. My kind—the monkeys that like to bang their coconuts and watch the other monkeys stomp their feet to that rhythm. We monkeys like it here in Portland.

So now let’s continue from measure…thirty-seven…thirty-eight…thirty-nine. Yes. Measure Thirty-Ten.