Neither my wife nor I have much musical talent. She can sing, I can’t, and neither of us play an instrument. But our son Lucas, who is nine, seems to have an inborn talent for music. He’s been taking lessons for a few months, and is progressing nicely in his formal study, but there’s way more going on there inside that kid. As I type this, he’s in the living room messing around on the piano, doing amazing things with chords and rhythms. He’s just doodling, but it’s astonishing to listen to it, and to think about what is going through his mind and coming out through his hands. It sounds like outtakes from early Steve Reich.
When he was three, we visited his uncle, my wife’s brother, in Austin. I heard little Lucas banging on the piano behind us, and after a minute or so, I realized that it wasn’t mere banging, but there was order in that chaos. He was a very small boy, and could barely stand at the keyboard, much less read music. But he intuited a lot.
This is how it is with him. He took lessons for a short time in Philly, but I would hear him on his electronic keyboard writing songs of remarkable complexity for a seven year old. I don’t want to overpraise him; it’s not like he was little Mozart or anything. It was rather that this kid had, and has, in him an inborn talent for music that is astonishing to see. I hear him around the house sometimes, tapping out syncopated rhythms on countertops, and think, damn, that kid really has it.
Here’s the reason I’m taking note of this: Lucas resembles his Texas uncle physically, far more than our other kids, and in his temperament. His Texas uncle also has a phenomenal musical talent that was inborn. He learned to play piano, and to play it well, by ear. He only took formal lessons after he was playing well, so he could learn how to read music. There is no doubt in my mind that my son’s musical talent is innate, not learned, and that it comes to him through the genetics of his mother’s side.
It is fascinating to contemplate how genes express themselves in subsequent generations. Neither one of my parents were big readers, but I grew up obsessed by reading, and made the written word my life’s work. Lucas has parents who aren’t musical and aren’t athletic, yet he is highly musical and very athletic (but unlike his parents and his siblings, doesn’t bury himself in books). The genetic sort is, as I said, fascinating, but also more than a little frightening, insofar as it undermines our own sense of freedom and self-determination. But it can be misleading too. Music comes easily to Lucas, but he could waste that talent, or choose not to develop it. Music comes harder to his siblings, but if they were willing to work harder, they could become better musicians than he (this was the case with my sister and me, by the way; I was more naturally talented in most academic areas than she was, but she was by far the harder worker, and made better grades than I did).
Anyway, I’d like to hear from readers who are musically gifted, or who have children who are. What is that like for you? How can a musically untalented father like me best help his musically gifted son?