There are smiling students handing out flyers next to the entrance to the cafeteria. I take one and we enter, neither of us sure where to go. My son looks at me (he still does this, though I know he won’t for much longer) and I gesture for him to choose where we sit. He selects a seat near the back, a little apart from the other parents, families and friends. It’s not a large audience; this is just a practice performance. He points out his friend who invited him. She plays the bass in one of their school’s orchestras. He points out other friends, too, mostly boys.
The school offers six orchestra classes, two per grade, that are comprised of about thirty to fifty students each. This is one of the six classes. The teacher-conductor explains that they will be playing three songs with a short break between each for the judges to write notes; they will be performing in a few weeks in a judged competition and hope to achieve superior marks. The judges’ notes this night will help them determine where to focus their improvement efforts in advance of the judging in two weeks. My son is still whispering little things to me about his friends until just before they are ready to start. I forget we are in public and kiss him on the forehead. He doesn’t seem disturbed so I pretend I didn’t do it.
Moonlight Tango begins and tears spring unbidden but not entirely unexpected to my eyes. It’s not this piece of music but the stringed instruments that do me in. I try to hold still, just let the tears fall, breathe normally so I won’t turn red trying to hold it in. My purse is in the car and I have no tissues. I hope it will stick to tears and my nose won’t decide to join the party. A little at a time, I brush them away and enjoy the rest of the song.
In the quiet between the songs, the audience sits patiently. The musicians sit at ease but ready. I remember those days, the way my tummy would roll just a little. Butterflies, not whirlwinds.
Another teacher-conductor steps up to lead the second song, Canyon Sunset. It’s nice but it doesn’t affect me the same way. My brain is working on what we will do after the performance. It is time for my son to have some space of his own, even if he does know he’s ready for it yet. I want to go gentle into this new era, want him to want this freedom for himself.
A third teacher-conductor steps up for the final song, Stone Mountain Stomp. It’s a livelier number than the other two, though all three are very typical of middle school pieces. That’s to be expected – they are learning. To my ears, the lower-end range instruments are a little too aggressive, overwhelming the more delicate melodies of the higher-end range instruments. Our band director was always warning our trombone and tuba players away from the same thing thirty years ago.
They are done and we are thanked for our attendance, invited to the performance in two weeks. It’s in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and I know we won’t be going. I suggest to my son that he go speak with his friend, let her know we enjoyed the music. He looks unsure but scans the crowd for her. The assembly clears quickly – another group will be in shortly, the other orchestra from the same grade having their practice performance. He can’t see where she’s gone. I tell him I'll wait out front of the school if he wants to go look for her. He heads for the door. I tell him I’ll go along with him if he wants to look for her. He stays on his path toward the exit. I let it go and follow his lead.
Out the door we go into a sunny late-January evening. He quickly takes several steps out ahead and I don’t call him back to walk beside me. There’s energy in his step. The sunset is beautiful.