"I want to see you on stage someday," he told me, when I was just a kid. "I want to see you play..."
Usually he'd name something famous, for some instrument. Some piano piece I was familiar with, or something that had a really great violin part, or an amazing flute solo. Those were the three instruments he gravitated toward.
I think I surprised all of us when I picked the clarinet.
"'Flight of the Bumblebee'?" he offered. "'Rhapsody in Blue'? I don't know much else, I don't think..."
That he couldn't list any pieces, off the top of his head, was part of why I'd chosen the clarinet.
I picked clarinet because it was a safe option. I couldn't pick one of the others. Dad could play the piano better than almost anyone I knew. I was intimidated by him. He never tried to teach me (he knew better than that), and he never tried to force me. He offered to take me to lessons, at a few different points. There was a woman who lived up the street from us that he knew, back from the days when he'd moonlighted as an accompanist, but I always found excuses not to go to her. Same with the flute, and the violin: I loved music, but I was always afraid, somehow. Afraid that I wouldn't be good enough, that I wouldn't live up to his ideal; that, somehow, I'd let him down. He loved music. What if my squeaking and caterwauling didn't give way to beautiful music? What if I never got beyond "fifth grade band" good? I didn't want to ruin any of his favorites for him, afraid that if I never got to be good enough, he'd let go of me, stop calling me his daughter.
He got me a private teacher anyway, a white-haired old man who introduced himself as "Mr. B" from our first lesson, and cheerfully told me to get all my honks out "in private". He taught me about reeds and different hardnesses, what an embouchure was and how to hold my mouth, what "tonguing" meant, in the context of playing. He didn't let my dad sit in on my lessons ("save it for the recitals, George, you don't want to hear what her lessons are like"), encouraged me even when I was sure that sight-reading was going to be the death of me, pushed me, but never too hard. He was an excellent teacher.
I never told him why I picked the clarinet, and he never asked. He was happy that someone else had chosen his instrument, didn't dwell on the whys or hows of that decision. I loved him for that, too. I never had to disclose my worries to him, the little anxieties I had about my dad and being good enough.
"Big shoes to fill, eh?" he said, sometime during one of our early lessons. "Your dad..."
It was something I was used to hearing. Dad could have gone pro, really pro, if he hadn't chosen to get married and have a kid, give up all the time he'd dedicated to piano to a full-time job, no longer working part-time at the music store while trying to score auditions. Everyone who was anyone in the music circle of our city knew his name. I'd grown up hearing, "so, you're George's kid?" before I could even talk, alongside the records and everything else; had learned to say, "No, I'm Sarah's daughter" when pressed (a sign, Dad said, of my spunk and independence).
Mr. B didn't press. When I mumbled a yes, and didn't immediately volunteer that, at eleven, I already played the piano beautifully, or that I could sight-read like nobody's business, he wisely changed the subject.
"Well, you've chosen an excellent instrument," he said. "Much more portable than, say, the tuba."
I giggled, and we moved on to more early lessons in how to read music, how to finger different notes.
I never talked to Mr. B about my specific anxieties surrounding music. In a way, I think he knew, without me having to tell him. He didn't press me into auditions, didn't tell me to compete in State Solo and Ensemble when I was in high school. He let me come to my own decisions about what I would and wouldn't do. Yes, I would audition for the woodwind ensemble that met after school, and yes, I would compete to see if I could get the cadenza in the piece we were playing for the spring concert, but no, I wouldn't go out for musical pit, and up until senior year, I didn't go to compete at State. Mr. B accepted my decisions, even as Dad questioned them, and the worries lifted as soon as I entered his practice rooms.
"You love it," he said. "I can see that. So..."
So, he didn't say, I don't need to push you. You'll do just fine without my specific guidance. You're not one of the ones I have to worry about.
The worries I held should have dissipated over time, maybe, should have been replaced entirely by love of what I did, but somehow, that never quite happened.
Dad picked up more work as an accompanist, around the time I started to realize that I maybe wasn't so bad at clarinet after all. He said to help pay for my lessons. Mom said it was because he loved playing and had missed being able to play on something better than the old upright piano in our living room.
Somehow, I'd never really played for him.
One of the big disagreements I'd had with Dad was whether I was going to let him come to my recitals or not. I hadn't performed in any, the first four or so years I was taking lessons from Mr. B. I let Dad come to the school concerts, but those were different. School concerts didn't involve clarinet solos, and when they did, I would mysteriously get the dates wrong for the concert, so Dad couldn't come after all. Recitals were different.
The first four years, I didn't perform in any recitals. Mr. B encouraged me to, gently, but as soon as I made it clear that I was flat-out terrified of playing at anything my dad might show up to, he let it drop.
"Parental pressure can be hard, hmm?" he said.
Dad mumbled something about paying for lessons and wanting to see what I was getting out of them, but Mom always shut him up.
"You can't force her to do something she's not comfortable with, George."
He bristled at this, but since there was not much that could be said (not without making it sound as though he was going to force me), he let it go.
I thought about inviting him to one or two, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to. It was the elephant in the room: he wanted to come, on some level I wanted him to come, but I couldn't connect the dots and get over myself long enough to make it happen.
"I'm good," I'd tell myself. "Maybe not Julliard good, but how many people are? I'm good. I'm first chair in school, second chair in the entire city, I've gotten perfect scores at State Solo and Ensemble, and I've gotten into every group I've ever auditioned for. How much more of a yardstick do I need? I should tell him to come to the next recital."
And then I'd heard Dad goofing off on the piano in the evenings, and I would lose my nerve, every time.
I loved it, more than almost anything.
I didn't love it enough to let him hear me.
I didn't think anything could weather that.
Senior year of high school, when we were supposed to be picking where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in, Mr. B asked me about my plans.
"I don't know," I said. "I was thinking, maybe I'll be undeclared for a while? I want to audition for the non-major woodwind ensemble though, and the orchestra, so I'm going to need help picking audition pieces..."
"Use your State solo piece," he said. He paused a moment. "Though, if you're already thinking about going out for two musical groups, I'd strongly suggest you think about majoring in music."
I fidgeted in my chair, pretended to adjust my reed. "I'm just not sure what I could do, if I majored in music."
"You'd have a few different options," said Mr. B. He elucidated them for me: performance (trying to scrape by on a musician's salary, which he thought I might be able to do, because he still had contacts with our city orchestra, and while it wasn't world-renowned, it still paid), teaching (privately or on the middle or high school levels), or minoring in something "useful" and using that as a fallback.
"I know the current lead clarinet for the city symphony," he offered. "If you want to talk to someone about what your path might look like. I'd suggest talking to your father first, though."
I looked up at him, surprised. "My dad?"
"He had to make the same choice, didn't he?"
"Talk to him, Patricia," he urged. "You're facing a remarkably similar choice to his."
"Okay," I said.
We picked up the lesson again.
At the end, Mr. B hugged me. "It's February," he said. "Our time together is nearly at an end. Another six months, maybe, and by then..."
By then I would have started college, and I would either have found a new mentor, someone to help me through the music program, or I would have decided to give it up.
I hugged my clarinet case close to my chest, thought about the beautiful wooden instrument inside, that felt like an extension of me, not merely an instrument.
"Can we delay thinking about it?" I asked. "I haven't declared yet, so..."
"Of course," said Mr. B. "Have a good weekend. I'll see you Tuesday. Remember to practice the glissando in the piece I assigned you for technical work!"
"And talk to your dad," he reminded me. "He really does have a lot of input on this."
I felt the old fear gnawing away in the pit of my stomach again, suddenly.
"Um," I said. "I'll talk to hi--"
"Good," said Mr. B, not letting me finish. "Do it. See you Tuesday."
I danced around the thought of talking to Dad for a few days. I figured, if I asked him, that meant I had to play for him, and I wasn't sure if I was up for that. What if I honked through the entire performance? What if he told me I was never going to match up to his expectations of me?
I'd picked clarinet specifically to avoid letting him down. That was the dark secret at the center of why I'd chosen the instrument I had fallen in love with, the one flaw in the otherwise beautiful relationship I had with music. It ate at me. I didn't know how to get around it.
Finally, I sucked it up. I talked to him while he was goofing around on the piano, teasing Mom by playing little snippets of songs they both remembered, the first few bars of one song melting into another, just having fun.
He played a few bars of something at my mom, then turned and looked at me. "Got a request, Pat?"
"I wanted to talk to you, actually."
He stopped playing, swiveled around on the office chair he used instead of a real piano bench, ever since his back had started bothering him the year before. "What is it?"
"Mr. B thinks I should major in music, and I was wondering what you thought."
"Ah," he said. "Well, yes. But pick a useful minor, just in case you decide you want to do something else."
I blinked. I hadn't thought the conversation would go this way. "I thought..."
"You're talented," Dad said. "You love it. Why not do it?"
"I got married very young," he said, and smiled at Mom. "You, however, unless there's someone we haven't met, aren't likely to do that. Plus, you're more talented than I was, and good clarinetists are much rarer than competent pianists."
"You've never even heard me play!" I blurted. I couldn't help myself.
"Pat," said Mom. "Your bedroom isn't exactly soundproofed. We've heard you, over the years."
"Practicing isn't the same as really playing though," I said stubbornly. "You've heard every honk, every squeak, ever swear word..."
"Including some we didn't know," murmured my mother gently.
"I figured that you'd tuned it out. I tried to practice when you weren't home. I tried..."
Dad stood up and hugged me suddenly.
"I never figured I'd be, well, good."
"That was never the point," said Dad, as he let go. "I didn't want to show you off. I knew you loved music as much as I did. I remember when you were a baby, and I used to put on Tchaikovsky, and you'd ask me to play it over and over again..."
"Romeo and Juliet," I said. "Yeah."
"I wanted you to have that same love," he continued. "And you obviously seemed to love it, so who was I to worry that you didn't want me at your recitals? I could hear you at home, anyway, and you sounded great."
"Thanks," I said. I swallowed hard, suddenly close to tears. "I'll think about it."
Eight months later, I am waiting nervously backstage at the university, warmed up and ready to go on, fiddling with my mouthpiece and practicing tricky fingering runs silently, mentally bracing myself for my solo.
"It's time," says the concert mistress, and we all file out in unison. I settle into my seat, and prepare myself for what's to come next.
"A few words before we start out performance," says our conductor. "This is our first concert of the season. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Philharmonic group, we're strictly music-majors only and highly competitive. This year, we had three hundred students audition, and twenty chosen to perform with us."
He continues on, repeating what's already in the program, and I sigh. I simultaneously want this to be over with, even as I don't want it to end. I focus on the sheet music in front of me, don't look out into the audience to find Dad. I know he's there, with Mom, somewhere in the third row. He texted me while I was warming up.
A rustle of pages, and we're due to start. The conductor nods at the concert mistress, and we begin.
I lift the clarinet to my mouth, lick the reed, and the old fear vanishes, replaced by a sense of rightness.
I love music.
I love my dad.
The old anxiety is gone. Only the love remains, and I know, finally, that I've made him proud.