I received a phone call last week from the band director’s office, asking if I would be available to help with a reception during the opening night of the U of M’s The Art of Wind Band Teaching Symposium. The payment? Being able to sit in a speech by composer Libby Larson. The topic of her speech was “Why Music?”, which is a very good question that not a lot of musicians can even answer. But don’t take their confusion the wrong way, because she put into words what they’re all thinking: “Because.”
She went on, more eloquently. “Music is how we articulate what it means to be alive.” Ah, that sits with you like a nice warm drink.
Of course, this got me thinking about how I myself would justify music. What many of us musicians are wanting to do is squeeze a pair of headphones over your doubting ears and say, “It’s Beethoven. It’s beautiful. You like it. YOU. LIKE. IT.” But, oddly, this doesn’t work very well.
Standardized Tests: Making Me Shudder at the Sight of Bubbles
It’s the duality that, before we can convince you that music is worth its salt in our schools, we have to get you to like music first. Now, those are layman’s terms of course; we all know the doubter already likes music, and that they are not a grumbling antagonist who, after confiscating all the violins and puppies, will go around to each classroom locking up in the Detention Closet each student who lets their pencil roll off their desk (see what I did there?). They’re still on our side—on the teachers’ side—but with the horrible economic reality of low test scores, it’s understandable that to distract students from core academia could mean suicide. With this mindset, music is just a frufru flower on the frappé of fiscal responsibility. I understand.
And what good is that?
DO YOU LIKE BEETHOVEN YET??
We as music educators have lots of fun little facts to try to save ourselves. Students who participate in music show greater discipline, higher attendance, and better test scores. DO YOU LIKE BEETHOVEN YET?? However, compared to the time it takes for a student to develop their musical abilities enough to display these behaviors, the deadline for a budget proposal has already passed. No amount of facts, inspiring quotes, nor inspiring films can solve a problem that hard to avoid.
Well, unfortunately, I cannot articulate quite why we should keep music in our schools myself. I am still a fledgling, and my experiences in the way music affects us are few. But there are many others—like Libby Larson—who have explained beautifully how it works for them. To put all our emotions to words (when we snap our fingers, tips our heads back and forth, and can only come up with the answer, “because”), I wish to share with you portions from a welcome address given to the Boston Conservatory by faculty member Karl Paulnack:
“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school — she said, “You’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier — even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
And how is that tested? How is that evaluated? How is that measured, folded, cut, calculated, cooked? How is the musical experience, the “invisible relationship between internal objects,” digested into a PowerPoint and regurgitated in front of a school board? Can bubble sheets answer why no peace treaty can permit the disrespect of playing the music of Richard Wagner in Jewish Israel, whose public anti-Semitism brought him posthumous fame in the Nazi regime? Can it be put into a spreadsheet how a student was moved to be comfortable with himself once he learned that much of the underlying inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s compositions was his social struggle with homosexuality?
And what good is that?
It’s all the good in the world.