Bittersweet Moscow II: Music school

Bittersweet Moscow II: Music school

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Marco North continues his four-part series this month on coping with life as a single father in search of quality and happiness for his daughter in Moscow.

Music class begins with a flourish of Soviet bureaucracy, as the secretary inspects our shoes.

Every parent without blue bags stretched across the soles of their boots are given stern warnings. Moscow is a filthy city and dirt accumulates in seconds no matter how many old ladies there are with wet cloths at the end of makeshift mops. A thin layer of grime is spread across the linoleum floors every hour, in every building in the city.

Ludmilla, barrel-chested with a flip of sandy blonde hair, enters. She takes attendance as children relax into their chairs, as parents at the back of the room take furious notes, filming the lesson or snapping photographs of the chalkboard with their cell phones. 

She will teach our children the basics. She will show them a different hand position that relates to every note. One hand on the piano, one hand in gesture, the children copy her. She tests them, giving marks between 0 and 5 as they come to the chalkboard one at a time. Their voices small and scared, some bold, some correct; they gingerly approach the piano for an individual moment. My daughter knows what she is doing but seems to forget sometimes. 

In Russia, everything is slightly different for absolutely no reason. As a boy, I learned my first musical scale as do, re, mi, fa,so la, ti, do. This is Western music’s simplest description of a major scale, sight-singing, or solfeggio.

Of course in Russia the same scale goes do, re, mi, fa, so, It is another moment when the familiar becomes foreign. This confusion of split languages, this nuance of a few letters is part an expat’s daily routine. I am reminded once again about the myth of Babylon, the curse that caused all people to speak different languages, forever struggling to understand one another. The punishment still stings, and I teach my daughter both si and ti, the same as she learns both Russian and English.

Once the differences are pushed aside, I see a rigorous and successful method of teaching. The children are challenged in every class. They are tested constantly, rewarded but never scolded. Ludmilla presents an air of confidence -- every one of them can do what she asks if they just concentrate and practice at home.

At first, I felt this was a sort of boot camp for children, a way to get four-year-olds to snap in line and work like musical machines. There is no laughter in this class. It is dead serious.

I knew a warmer, more kind and positive music school when I was five. We played plastic recorders as a group and individually. We could pocket them and practice anywhere: on the school bus, walking on the street.

In Russia, it’s all about having a piano. And for some reason it must be a real piano, not an electronic keyboard. Forget the fact that it is hard to get a used piano into your tiny apartment. Forget that they are freakishly expensive, and ask yourself, why so dogmatic? I asked the teacher and the other parents. They can only say, “Because.”

This is the dilemma of parenting in a foreign country. I also seem to tie my daughter’s scarf incorrectly, as every old lady in the street needs to shout at me, gesturing wildly at my healthy little girl. Square pegs in these Soviet kickback round holes, we never seem to fit in. 

Somehow we manage. My daughter has a real piano that I bought two years ago, in her mother’s house. She does not play it. She has a full studio in my house to experiment with as we create a cacophony on Sunday afternoons, littering the rooms with harmonicas and kid–size guitars, with a tiny accordion, drums, my Les Paul electric, pots, pans, spoons and whistles.

Yes, we find a way to practice scales in this free-for-all. But most important she knows the joy of music, the sheer pleasure of taking breath deep into your lungs and singing your heart out.  

Marco North is an expat New Yorker living in Moscow with his daughter. He is a professional filmmaker, published writer and musician, known for the singular nature of his work. Read more about North's life in Moscow via his blog, Impressions of an expat

Photos by Marco North.
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