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The XX files




When my family was looking for a place to set down roots a few years ago, we wanted to move here because of Rochester's high ratio of arts to people. For a town this size, we have a lot of public and private money and energy dedicated to visual arts, theatre, dance, and music.

            What no one tells you, though, is just how strong the city is in music education and performance. Sure, they tell you about how the Eastman School frequently tops the Julliard as best music school in the country. And they'll tell you how the international jazz festival draws some serious talent. They'll even tell you that many musicians who come for the schools end up loving it and staying, which might explain the extraordinary number of ensembles we have.

            This time of year it's abundantly clear that Rochester is a musician's wonderland, with performances by the Oratorio Society, Madrigalia, Harmonic Brass, Penfield Symphony, Musica Nova, and Cello Divas, to name a few, in every room and hall that can hold more than 10 chairs.

            But what they don't tell you is that nearly everyone in this town is a classically trained musician and/or a serious classical or jazz fan. And if you've spent your life devoted to rock's throbbing beat and wailing guitars, you quickly realize how alone you are.

            I don't know where I was when the rest of my cohort was learning about classical music, wine, and home decorating. I was probably sitting on a trash-picked couch drinking beer while a boombox blasted the Clash.

            Sure, it's great to live in a town with such a rich tradition of music. But, as an outsider, I see a sinister side. It's no accident that we have so many musicians here. Historically, Rochester has attracted all sorts of oddballs and activists --- spirit rappers, other cultists, temperance agitators, and early women's libbers.

            And, like those first rabble rousers, musicians are determined to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Everywhere you go you can see them --- shouldering big instrument cases down East Avenue, or dressed in black formal evening wear filing into Hochstein. They play classical music in churches and concert halls, jazz in clubs and meeting halls, and some even play folk music for the unsuspecting in coffee houses and schools.

            Like all suspect subcultures, musicians have their own vocabulary and written language and they often dress alike. Instead of the rhetoric of yesteryear, they persuade through music, a powerful drug. These highly trained professionals are playing the soundtracks of our lives. What do they want here?

            They want our children. They already have mine.

It started out innocently enough, when my husband and I signed up our two sons, then ages five and eight, for piano lessons at Eastman School's Community Education Division. I had read somewhere that kids who play an instrument grow a whole new brain lobe or something. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, during their lessons, I'd get to wait at Java's drinking cappuccino in the sun for an hour every week. Win-win.

            At first, I was impressed. It's hard not to be. We'd sweep up the grand hall and wide marble stairs to the tiny rooms jammed with pianos as college students hustled past. The whole place has the feel of an urban European university --- too small, too crowded, but totally worth it. And the halls are alive with the sound of music: In addition to the plink-plinking of piano lessons, we heard sopranos singing, violins stringing, and trumpets blaring.

            Newspaper clippings about Eastman teachers and grads who have made good papered the walls, causing dopey little thought bubbles to form over my head, "Maybe my kids will be famous someday." I felt we were part of something big.

            I was only half right: My kids were part of something big. About three months into lessons, when my son pointed to one of those little black marks in his piano book and asked me which note it was, I realized that I'd lost them. Note? I had no idea which note it was. I, the Giver of Life, Love, and all Baked Goods, couldn't help my child. The musicians had my children. They had taught them the secret language. And then they made me buy little ties and dress shoes so my sons could perform in their recitals.

My sons love to play piano. I should quit pouting. But I still don't get classical music. I harbor little fantasies about a School of Rock fate for my kids, where they ditch this fancy music and start a rock band.

            The sick thing about classical training, though, is that once they've got their hooks in you, they've got you for life. Trust me, I learned the hard way.

            When I fell in love with my husband, he was playing lead guitar loudly and badly in a great band. He had it all --- the long greasy hair, the torn jeans, the snarl. When we got hitched, he traded his ax for grad school and a haircut. I've never forgiven him. It turns out he played piano and clarinet as a lad and, when he became an adult, his classical background emerged like an alien clawing its way out of his chest.

            So, tonight, like musicians all across Rochester who will gather to make merry, my husband and sons will play the piano together. They do this every night. With their neat hair and sweater vests they form a lovely Norman Rockwell vignette. Take no notice of that skulking figure in the background wearing headphones. She doesn't belong here.

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