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MAY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 5

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DR. DAVID MURRAY, Director of Research at Washington D.C.'s Statistical Assessment Service, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine.


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Send Us Feedback: A young girl, her flute, and a lesson in grace and perseverance

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Grace Notes

DR. DAVID MURRAY

"It could be soooo easy to hate Emma Easton," my normally non-savage 13-year-old announced to me last week. "She's just too perfect."

Emma's not her real name, but I think you know her -- at least, you knew her when you were in school. Blond, slender and poised, her grades are a glittering arc of A's spanning into the future. An eighth grader, she plays music superbly, her technical grasp crystalline, her sound full, wise and emotionally rich. As luck would have it, she chose the flute. Bad luck, it seemed because so did my daughter, C.

C's good too, but not Emma-perfect. They both play in the junior high school symphony orchestra, freshly returned from a triumph at Chicago's Symphony Hall, the result of a national selection. Emma played a brilliant solo to a full-house hushed audience. They came home in time for District Competition, an audition where nearly a hundred 13-year-old flute players faced their fate. Already the best of the best, each one is nearly perfect. But only 10 will make the cut.

I advise C. to just get used to it. After all, Northern Virginia is a powerhouse of talent, with ambitious families from all over the world competing and achieving. The schools reflect it. "Listen," I tell her if ever she gets down, "you could've grown up in Schnitzel, Wyoming. You might've been the best grey-eyed 13-year-old flute player that calf-ropin' town had seen in ages. You could have dominated the legendary Schnitzel's Own Marching Wieners."

That usually makes her laugh, and she goes back to the constant practice. "You know, Dad, the real reason you can't hate Emma is that she's so gracious. She's really kind and generous -- it's just awful." And then I see her laugh and shut the practice room door.

"Gracious," I say to myself -- an interesting word. To be touched by, and able to give to others, the quality of grace. And what is grace? Something divine, something beyond our smallness?

Coming more from the disgraced side of the tracks, myself, I have thought often about competitions and rankings. I believe in merit but am no innocent. I know there is injustice. How often it was the coaches' son who started at quarterback. And didn't the prominent family who donated $10,000 to the Arts Council receive the honour of ballet lead for their wretched daughter? And you want the Ivy League? Fuggedaboudit.

Well, the District results came out yesterday. There was a phone call, and then C.'s scribbled list on the kitchen table. It was stark and almost cruel -- just a girl's name, each one a friend of C.'s, and then a number. Some were above, some below hers. Two had joy. I had two pretty grey eyes staring out the window at the rain, fingering disappointment on the tabletop.

C. didn't make the top ten. But was it fair? There were some striking disproportions on the list; indeed, there are throughout the Northern Virginia orchestra system. In all the flutes, boys are hardly to be seen. More troubling, Black and Hispanic American boys and girls are nowhere near their numbers in the communities. Orchestra is dominated by whites and Asian Americans.

These are familiar facts, and they suggest unfairness. I had heard the same during my years of university teaching, where a comparable drama played out. Many accused the academic tests and grading of bias. How much greater must be the temptation in judging music, which seems so subjective, so a matter of taste. Could there really be a thing called excellence, fairly discovered? How, I asked, had the judging been done?

"They were really strict, Dad," she told me. Each performer, nameless to the judges, stepped onto a stage with the curtain closed. Tasks were assigned, and difficult compositions. The performers were forbidden to speak upon pain of dismissal. There would be no gendered voices, no accents, no social class or winning personalities. Just shaped sound, reaching for beauty within the formal figures of the trials. And then a number.

Hers was good, but not perfect. And somewhere there is perfection. A sombre C. walked upstairs into her bedroom, leaving the list. I scanned it again for recognizable friends. At the top of the list I saw the number one in Northern Virginia -- but who? There was a consensus; someone had stood out. From behind the anonymous curtain, pouring into the judges' ear, had come an undeniable claim of silver notes cascading. My finger traced across the paper to the name of Emma Easton.

C. has her role to play, makes her offering, and is getting better and better. She finds real joy in playing, in some measure precisely because it beckons just beyond her. Moreover, I can see the pursuit itself begin to shape her, giving her toughness and self-mastery.

In an admittedly unjust world, perhaps most in such a world, we need to remember that still there is something beyond injustice -- there is true excellence. Not all of us may be number one, but gifts wait for us as well. And however much we rise, we will find those lower and higher, as will Emma. Even in the face of real unfairness, it is right to honour Emma and her gifts, and honour them most with effort.

The day began its close. Upstairs, from behind the bathroom door where she sometimes plays for echo, I heard resilient C. begin again her practice scales, another step upon the ladder, fumbling upward step by step for grace. Watch out, SchnitzelWieners.

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