Guess What My Li’l Chopin Played Today

When I was about 17, persuaded by arguments whose logic I have long since driven from memory (the guilty party must have been either my mother, who never sang a note, or my elder brother, who rather enjoyed bellowing), I briefly took singing lessons. One-on-one with Grace Lamarr in her Westport studio, I would assume the regulation posture — facing out toward the "audience," one hand demurely resting on the piano, the other at my chest in a kind of Presidential salute — and wreak cultural vandalism on Stephen Foster, Schubert or Mozart.

The only lasting knowledge I carried away from the experience was that "Il mio tesoro" could not possibly be sung by any normally constituted human being, unless Don Ottavio happened to have a wind tunnel built into his thorax. Mercifully for all, my career as an operatic tenor ended before I celebrated my 18th birthday.

A couple of decades later, fortuitous circumstance led me back in the direction of musical education — not for me this time but for my son. The fortuitous circumstance was named Nicole de Havilland-Cortes. She was a pianist who specialized in plunging kids into a bath of hot Bach. "The younger you get 'em, the better," she said in her business-like way "then full speed ahead! They'll get turned off to music forever if you try to pound scales and sight-reading into them. Just make them play, and everything else will come later."

Even age 3? "But yes," cried Mme. de Havilland-Cortes. "Perfect!" And so it was that our son became a child prodigy.

Well, in a manner of speaking. At 3, he had the advantage of up to 15 years over Mme. de Havilland-Cortes' other students, and everyone in show biz knows there's no competing with an animal or a kid. With his little blond head, his big blue eyes and his tiny feet suspended in midair from the piano stool, all it took was the first six notes (the slow ones) of Bach's unfinished fugue to knock any audience dead.

My wife and I made all the predictable noises that parents will make: "You don't suppose, I mean, um, that he really might be, well, uh, a prodigy?" Parents are such suckers. I'd be willing to bet right now that, at this very instant, there are at least a million couples around the world asking themselves the same question after hearing their darling's violin squawk or clarinet squeak for the first time.

We encouraged Romy, of course, and played him endless hours of classical music. He insisted on having the record cover in his hands as he listened, so he could look at the picture. One of his favorite pieces was Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite," even though the only picture on the cover was a big black-and-white photograph of Prokofiev, bald, bespectacled and benign. Presently we saw how deeply that image had worked its way into Romy's brain. "Look!" he piped up urgently one afternoon as we were driving to town. "There's Prokofiev on a motor scooter." Sure enough, a balding, bespectacled little man, benign of appearance, was weaving through the traffic.

That year Romy told us he wanted a wig for Christmas. Of course! Every picture of Bach on the record covers showed him wearing a wig. Did we actually go and look for one? We certainly did. Luckily a Star Wars spaceship came along that struck Romy's fancy even more, and we were spared the embarrassment of having our 3-year-old toddling around the neighborhood in an oversize white wig.

Romy's total immersion in music so thoroughly jumbled present and past, reality and imagination that it occasionally spooked visitors unfamiliar with his juvenile Weltanschauung. In the middle of his brief but all-consuming Chopin binge, a lady bent down to him, cooing: "And when did you start listening to these mazurkas, you sweet little boy?"

"When I was dead in Poland," he shot back, poker-faced.

Inevitably, the day came when we had to buy Romy his own piano. A mere upright wouldn't do, naturally — concertistes don't play on uprights — and it had to be white, because one of those record covers featured a white piano. We took out a loan and got a baby grand. What next?

Next, it turned out, was the beginning of the end of prodigyhood. As the years passed and Romy's feet grew closer to the floor, the moment arrived when he had to start reading music, doing scales and practicing-in short, working. That changed everything. That was boring. By the time Romy's feet reached all the way to the floor, my wife was playing that white piano more than he was.

Well, you may turn them off Bach but not necessarily everything else. We discovered that a few years later, when that great clanging freight train called adolescence arrived. Romy went back to music after all, but not quite as we had figured ten or so years earlier. He discovered rock. Oh, dear.

Romy's in Boston now, studying to be a professional. He's practicing scales and reading notes. His instruments are electric guitars and synthesizers, and his daily references are not Johann Sebastian and Wolfgang Amadeus but Bon Jovi and Sting. His big old LP records have been replaced by compact disks, which come in those teeny-weeny boxes on which no kid will ever be able to see a decent-size picture.

The white baby grand? It's all paid for now — and hardly ever used.

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