Home plate pointed directly at him, and he stretched his little shoulders perpendicular to it, his eyes focused straight through the point of the plate. The earth paused in its rotation until he raised his leg, pulled his elbow back, and released the pitch with all the force a nine-year-old boy could muster. We cheered, perhaps a little reservedly, conscious of the batter who was also nine years old and whose swing-and-a-miss may not have been directly related to the quality of the pitch.
Timo tries to control the upturn of his lips when he is called to the mound. He tries to give the impression it’s no big deal that the coach is handing the ball to him, of all the boys on the team. It’s rare, but it has happened more than once. He is a natural with a ball, any kind of ball that requires rhythm in the energy forced against it, which in athletics is pretty much any kind of ball. He’s pretty natural, and he likes it. But I don’t think he loves it. There is a vast span of space between like and love. This old world is hard on nine-year-old boys if they don’t love balls. So he plays with the rest of the gang, pitching and dribbling and kicking balls.
But when he’s alone, in his safe place, with a set of headphones on and a pair of drumsticks in his hands, his pitch is passionate and impeccable. He catches the pulse of the earth and puts it into triple time, with a kick in the proper spot and a tap of the cymbal to keep the spinners awake. He is wholly in his element. And his pitch is perfect.
From his car seat behind me as I drove him home, back in the days when his mama was a med student and his dad was at the U, when I tended him almost daily…he sang before he talked. He inherited this. His Auntie Kate did the same thing. Pitch perfect, with no words, the whole melody of Brahms’ Lullaby and other oft repeated tunes. You could hum a note from the front seat and he would echo it from the back. Not only the exact pitch, but with the exact timing, like if sound had a mirror he would have it pointed right at you. He would lay his little blonde capped head on my mother’s shoulder and hum himself to sleep, Gram leading the way with her own sweetly comforting melodies.
In Michigan one year I remember waking up to a rhythmic thud repeating from somewhere in the cottage. “What is that?” I whispered to Dave, a little perturbed with the awakening. It was so rhythmic I thought maybe it was something mechanical in the basement. But then the beat changed up. Curious, I got up and went downstairs. Timo had his drumsticks flying like rubber pencils against a couch pillow.
Ask any other ten-year-old who their favorite musical artist is and they are likely to give you the name of someone on the Billboard charts. Ask Timo and he’ll tell you his musical hero is John Powell, the composer of several movie soundtracks. Last week when his Auntie Kate was in town they were listening to his CD of the Frozen soundtrack, the one without words, as they shot some baskets in the driveway. He paused mid-shot and turned to Kate…”Listen. Hear that? Don’t you just love it when the trumpets come in?”
For his Birthday three years ago I got him six months worth of drum lessons. I searched for a teacher online, and randomly found one near his house in Herriman, UT. It took some talking for the teacher to agree to teach a seven-year-old.
“In my experience they really are not ready to pay attention, let alone understand the concepts necessary to drum legitimately.”
But he agreed to try it for a month or so. It’s been three years, and his teacher keeps begging Sarah and Dave to let him put Timo in competitions. Timo sits at his drum set in the basement with his headphones on and reads his music like his teacher has assigned him. Roll, thump, roll, thump-thump…over and over. (It takes a special family to encourage a drummer.) When he is finished with his homework his reward is a set of noise reducing headphones attached to his iPod, with one of his beloved soundtracks flowing into his brain, his hands freely keeping time with his drumsticks.
Who can say what time and other factors will do to this boy. We do not get the privilege of a glimpse into his future. But we can imagine. I can imagine, quite easily. Not that what I imagine is what I would necessarily wish upon anyone. The life of a professional musician is not an easy one, nor especially rewarding in worldly terms. Musicians generally work at night, at least if they are performers. They have to fight the expectation from society that music comes to us free of charge. Musicians spend a fortune in money for their training, a fortune in time practicing and rehearsing, they sacrifice family and personal time to lug their instruments and equipment to a gig then wait around until it’s time to perform, then break it all down, lug it home, unpack it once they’re home, then fill out a W9 tax form for $100 in pay, for which they’ll effectively get $70. Then they’ll do it all again in another place the next night. Add to that the general sentiment that art in any form is not considered a “real” job. I should not wish this upon him.
And yet I would not wish from him the wonder of that moment, rare as it may be, when the stars align and the lyric fits in perfect prosody with the music, and the instrument becomes the perfectly fueled vehicle over which the voice hovers, hummingbird-like, fluttering as it was designed to be in the heavens. This divine thread of music weaves itself through the giver to the receiver…sometimes many receivers in one space. They are all one, and the conversation is perfectly understood. And the hand and the heart and the lungs are synchronized. And there is a sense of wholeness no other experience can match, except perhaps the moment a baby is born. He is not likely to find such moments at any desk, nor on any assembly line. I do believe it is as close to heaven as one can be.
And yet it will not feed a nest of hungry birds, unless the receivers will pay for it.
I hold very still and listen when I hear my boy sing. It comes usually only when he has his headphones over his ears and does not think about the fact that he is singing. I love his pitch pure voice. I pray he will find the place to plant it, where it will grow and flourish. I pray that by the time he is grown we will have come to our senses and reward what we receive. I pray that if he chooses to use his gift for a living, that his drive will equal the talent. And if he chooses to set his gifts on the second shelf while he hunts and gathers for his family, that he will keep his instrument in a place of honor, that he will keep himself and his instruments in tune and in good repair, and that those who share his home and his heart will understand that this is how he speaks.