It happened again this year. The metamorphosis occurs in a flash of light against pressed, white cotton, the dull gleam of black polyester, the light-swallowing glow of velvet, and sometimes denim. They change in a quickening of mahogany and sinew, of nickel, brass, and uplifted voices. Before the houselights dim, they are familiar, our children – boisterous larval forms of potential.
Something changes: not as they poke, giggle, and shuffle onto stage, not even perhaps in the glare of the footlights, as they wave with varying degrees of enthusiasm at smiling parents, or grin in self-conscious tolerance at the yells of a younger sibling, and as they correct each other with grins while taking their marks. Something changes: at the uplifted finger of teacher, raised bow of conductor. For the older children, we see it as they wrestled battered rental instruments into submission before their music stands. The instruments change, too, in the borrowed glow of the stage. My daughter’s rental cello, chipped and scratched by the erosion of years of students, with its colored tapes to mark finger position, and iffy bridge, gleamed against her black trousers. With the older children, it changes with the first strike of a tuning note.
They shuffle in their seat as the prelude plays, yell to their friends as families wander in staggering herds to upright seats. They slouch, slide, and sulk, tucking aggravating shirttails into submission and finger-combing hair mussed by contraband ball caps. They giggle, whisper, and finger-shoot each other, run in packs to bathroom and drinking fountain. Even the 7th and 8th graders playing the carols as the theater fills do not take this seriously. They’ve been at this long enough to recognize an audience, and they don’t have one yet; they are background. Then, the teacher hosting the evening takes his mike, low voice – the one that always has a grin behind it – carrying the room. Restless grownups settle down, poising cameras and shooting one last whisper to a friend. The first piece is introduced, and it’s on.
The same junior-high students whose pleasant holiday tunes accompanied the filling of the hall transform as their instructor raises her bow. Around the semi-circle, bows meet strings, and in the breath before the first notes of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” sound, faces change. The shift is in their faces; it is there, too, in the crook of elbow, arch of finger, but mainly in the face. In the moment of performance, they are no longer children – no longer the rough, proto-people. Idiosyncratic touches: Santa hats, ties, skater-inspired modifications to concert attire, Beatles haircuts, and varying posture slide into the union of purpose. They are not children, they are performers, and in their faces, we glimpse the outlines of the people they will present to the world.
Something in this transformation is, I think, unique to their schooling. The arts inform and infuse the daily curriculum of a Waldorf school. Kindergarteners create “people-plays” from the stories teacher tells. First graders begin playing wooden flutes in class, a year before they will perform on stage. Lessons are acted as well as absorbed. Complex songs and rounds are learned from early childhood on, and by fourth or fifth grade, Waldorf students argue as knowledgeably and casually about multi-part harmony as other kids do about movies and video games. By the time they take the stage with their classmates in second grade, the performance grows from the child.
I think this is the difference with this winter concert. I remember the Christmas programs of my own youth, of the roles into which we had been jammed around Thanksgiving break, roles that fitted about as well as the polyester angel costumes and that, like the costumes, itched in all the wrong places. It is this memory of awkward hesitation that cringes when my son refuses to tell me what his class will perform, or my daughter announces a few weeks before the concert that she finally has the music for the piece her class will play. How can I help Aidan memorize his songs? How will Caitlin be ready in time; she’s not the most devoted cellist. Each year, I fret, bound by the shadows of my own stage frights, the memories of tolerant faces of pained grownups as instruments squeaked and lines were forgotten. Each year, I forget what, by now, I know. Aidan doesn’t need my help learning a song. Caitlin will play whether she has the music for a year or a week. This is what they do. The words, the music, the performance comes from them; it flows outward, fitting each child. They will have their share of rough rehearsals, of missed lines or missed notes. They will display varying degrees of talent and enthusiasm, but, from earnest second grader through veteran teen, each will claim a spot on the stage without fear or irony.
The second grade teacher will kneel before her class, finger conducting and mouthing the words, but she will not carry the song. Even for the younger children, when they open their mouths, the shuffling, muted shoves, and nose-wiping fade to the back. They sing. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the junior-high teachers needn’t worry about pranks or rebellion. By sixth grade, art has become part of their physiology. Whether they can carry a tune, regardless of level of home practice or private lesson, each face on stage says the same thing. “Here I am. This is what I do.” And this is the gift that I hope my kids will take into the world: the ability to step onto the stage of humanity and to say, “Here I am. This is what I do.”