avatarClaire K. Yu


Sharing a Lifelong Joy of Music With All Our Children

Despite a series of extraordinary setbacks

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Recently, I embraced a challenging volunteer opportunity to serve as the accompanist at my children’s Winter School Concert. The last time I played choral accompaniment on the piano, I was a kid myself in middle school. Yet, no prior stage experience could have prepared me for the unique plot twists that followed my acceptance of this invitation.

I had only limited time to learn a dozen songs from scratch. In addition to finding a way to fit daily practice into my impossible schedule already packed with work, writing, parenting, and co-designing with our school district leadership a new prototypical community partnership, I put together a personal refresher course on the best practices of collaborative play.

Ms. R, my kids’ music teacher and a violinist by training, makes a point of incorporating diverse world music into the children’s curriculum and repertoire. This winter’s concert program is linked by a double theme of moon and snow, featuring American, Chinese, French, Japanese, and Ukrainian folk songs and original polyphonic compositions by contemporary musicians.

Though longer and more complex, the contemporary numbers came with full scores, which I could simply learn and memorize. For the folk songs, I needed to arrange left-hand accompaniment. Luckily, most of these songs written for children’s voices are in the keys of F and C major. I resorted to common chord progressions, alternating between blocked and arpeggiated patterns across different verses, especially as the kids switch from singing the English translations to lyrics written in the songs’ native languages.

My children soon settled into a new routine of falling asleep to live in-house instrumental lullabies. Whenever I managed to get to the keyboard before putting them to bed, they rehearsed their assignments to help me determine the appropriate tempo. Before long, my kids also learned the lyrics to songs assigned to grades other than their own.

One behavioral change I was thrilled to witness: my disciplined regimen has inspired incremental patience in my children’s practice on the recorder and the piano. Mastery of a musical instrument is akin to mastery of a language — no shortcut exists besides diligent practice, which my Gen Alpha children have long regarded as a tedious obstacle that prevents them from enjoying the instruments.

As parents, sometimes we have to lead by example.

Ms. R was considerate enough to ask me to rehearse with only the grades that benefited most from the extra support. The third grade at my kids’ school happens to be a particularly difficult cohort whose learning challenges and behavioral difficulties are emblematic of pandemic-era learning losses and stunted social-emotional growths. Consecutive district-wide budget slashes had also resulted in classroom cuts in their grade, where each general education and Sheltered English Immersion class is maxed out at capacity.

Moreover, our third grade was singing a couple of polyphonic songs that are ten pages long each, both involving midway key changes. To minimize page turns, I memorized these songs in true musician fashion and practiced alongside YouTube recordings of other choirs’ renditions to ensure the consistency and fluency of my play.

Further, I had to budget time for multiple sessions to work with these third graders because Ms. R, in order to tackle behavioral problems in one general ed class — which I witnessed firsthand — had divided the kids into two halves mid-semester. Thus, I rehearsed with each separate half, and the whole grade did not get to sing together as a group until dress rehearsal.

According to Ms. R, my presence in the classroom had a calming effect on the rambunctious children, for they displayed a newfound interest in music and an unprecedented seriousness in choral singing. When Ms. R asked the class to stand up and sing like pros, they were more than willing to oblige. I in turn felt the pressure to perform equally like a pro: One time I got distracted and my fingers stumbled, so the kids had to start over from the top to correct my mistake.

Nonetheless, the immensely forgiving children appreciated more than anything my taking the time to help them and often gathered around after class to pose various questions about my experience with the piano. When my parents had casually expressed doubt about my ability to carry a ninety-minutes show after years away from the stage, I felt beholden to the children and their trust and resolved not to let them down.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

As the concert date fast approached, one morning, the district surprised our school with an urgent request to enroll a large group of migrant children who had been staying at an emergency shelter our city had established to host incoming migrant families.

These children and their parents had fled their homes in the Caribbean, found temporary sanctuary in South America, traveled north for months across Central America, and finally entered the U.S. by way of Texas. Governor Greg Abbott then made the executive decision to bus them further north to Massachusetts, our home state and the only state in our country with a right-to-shelter law, which grants emergency assistance to all seekers.

Our school community and neighborhood scrambled in the ensuing days to be supportive and help keep this migrant community together. Local nonprofits provided the children with winter clothes, boots, brand-new backpacks, quilts, and blankets. The school cafeteria offered their parents hot lunches outside the shelter’s operating hours, while teachers and parent groups spearheaded a food drive.

This sudden mid-year influx of students helped boost enrollment at my kids’ school and increased the number of performers on stage. Ms. R devised additional hand and body movements to accompany the chorus so that the new students could engage with the music through body language and feel part of the team. A few Kindergarten-aged among them quickly began picking up phrases in English and learning the gestures. However, the older kids were all English learners who spoke only Spanish or Creole and couldn’t be expected to learn to sing in time.

I empathized with the teachers’ concerns during dress rehearsal. Even though Ms. R rearranged the formation of each grade for optimal sound projection, the children’s singing voices still came out unbalanced in the spacious auditorium. In a last-ditch attempt, I reached out to the Chief Operating Officer of our school district, with whom I had been working on the community partnership co-design, hoping against hope that he could help us find some choral mics on short notice.

To our great relief, the COO came through. He persuaded the high school to loan us a set of professional choral mics and arranged for staff from the district’s Performing Arts Department to assemble them in our auditorium the next day, fifteen minutes before the start of the concert.

Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

I woke up on the morning of the concert feeling a bit woozy. My kids had felt unwell in the previous days and taken turns staying home from school, though they each had a swift recovery. The extra caregiving duty not only prevented me from practice in the week leading up to the concert but finally rendered me vulnerable to whatever new bug that was making its rounds at their school. After taking a COVID at-home test — thankfully with a negative result — I masked up and left with the children on time to brace the early morning frost.

As soon as I entered the auditorium, the familiar shine of the limelight and the familiar buzz of an anticipating crowd conjoined to pump adrenaline through my body to a level high enough to sustain me for the next hour and a half. I chatted with the Performing Arts Department reps, thanking them for coming to our rescue at the eleventh hour, then checked in with the conductor and took my place at the piano.

The concert started brilliantly. Students in the lower grades gave a hearty performance, amplified by top-quality choral mics set up at strategic locations, and their parents reciprocated with enduring applause.

In the middle of the third grade’s rendition of a most melodious tune, a mysterious draft suddenly blew the taped-together sheet music off the stand and landed them right atop my dancing hands.

Good thing I had committed the score to memory!

I carried the chorus through, blindly feeling for the black and ivory keys, until a parent sitting in the section nearby rushed to my aid and restored the sheet music to their proper place, allowing my hands to breathe again.

By the time my oldest’s grade came on stage to showcase their aptitude on the recorder, I had succumbed to dizziness and incessant chills. Their grade had always been most enamored of my play, but I disappointed these lovely kids by messing up the opening, playing the intro to their second song instead. I realized my mistake only when I noticed out of my peripheral vision that some of my kid’s classmates had turned their heads toward me.

Despite the mishap, this group of resilient children proceeded to play the song designated to start their portion of the program as I semi-seamlessly resumed the correct lines of accompaniment.

Afterward, I half-joked with the skeptical children that I meant to impart to them an important life lesson: Even as adults, even after adequate preparation, we still can and will make mistakes, but the most crucial thing is to pick ourselves right up and carry on.

And, of course, when the audience rewarded us with a standing ovation at the end and saw me “curtsy” as I rose from the bench to accept the bouquet from Ms. R, I was not trying to curtsy at all but almost collapsed from the onset of a 103-degree fever that lasted on and off for the next three days.

Photo by Demi He on Unsplash

My children’s school concert has presented a unique opportunity not only for close community collaboration but also to mark the first meaningful experience those migrant children had in American public education. Through the universal language of music, the new students forged positive memories of their initial participation in American school life. Through a heartwarming encounter with vibrant music, their families who had gone through much were welcomed into our community as they embark on new lives in this country.

Music has brought and continues to bring me infinite joy and adventure in life. I can only wish the same for all our children.

Power Of Music
Life Lessons
Community Building
Migrant Crisis
The Riff
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