Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What's it all for? (Part 1)

What would you ask yourself after experiencing one of these situations?

Situation #1:
You're sitting in a high school room for a Solo and Ensemble competition. The judge is going on her fifth hour in her duties, and yet another parent comes up to inquire:  "When will my child have their turn? The time table is confusing."  The tired judge, instead of answering, raises her voice and shouts to all thirty people in the room, "I want everyone to get this straight, I am in charge and your child will play when I say it's their turn, okay!?"

Situation #2:
You are a young musician participating in a competition. You've worked your fingers off and fried your brain to get ready for the 8 minutes you'll have in front of the judges. Your teacher has put the pressure on.   Those 8 minutes will dictate whether you earn the grand prize of performing with a symphony.  It would also look good on your resume.  You notice all those glittering accomplishments and prestigious performances described in your teacher’s, "Star Pupil Bios." Wouldn’t that feel cool to have important people think you played the best out of all the others your age?

As you wait for your turn to compete, you find yourself in an inner war, listening to those before you.  Should you wish them well, or secretly hope they make a mistake to make it easier for you to win?  When it's your turn, you walk into the room and try smiling at the three judges; one looks bored, the other too important to notice you, and the third is still furiously scribbling notes about the last performer.  The time has come to show what you're made of.  Here it is: six months of work played in 8 minutes.  Was it all for naught?  You have a memory lapse and some glaring wrong notes. You know enough to be certain you won't be getting any prize, but can you escape this room with your dignity intact? You begin to come to terms with the thought that maybe you’re not cut out for this.  You walk out and all you have to say in answer to your mother's questioning glance is, "Please mom, don't make me even look at a piano for at least a month." 

Situation #3:
You have decided to support the arts.  You figure the best place to start is with your local symphony and you pay 4x as much as you would for a movie to purchase the tickets.  You lament that the concert hall is only half full, but you wonder if you belong there yourself because there is such a feeling of superiority in the audience and orchestra that you feel you have to prove somehow that you're "cultured" enough to be there. "Should I have worn a different outfit, maybe?"  During the two hours you hear notes you assume are perfectly executed.  At least, the athleticism of the director seems designed to convince you.  When it's over, though, you clap more out of obligation than to express any stirring emotion within yourself.  You comment to your spouse on the way home that,  "Hey, the arts include movies, right?" Maybe you could just DONATE to the symphony and stick to going to the theater for entertainment.

When I am told of situations like these, I can’t help asking the question:

What is it all for?

Now, granted, those were all negative experiences with music.  More pointedly, they are all situations when the purpose of music was forgotten, unrealized, or hampered, in my opinion. Let me be clear - I'm not wishing to comment on these types of events.  Competitions, for instance, can offer positive benefits to aspiring musicians.  They have the potential to do great good.  The point I'm trying to make is that I've noticed our efforts in learning and playing music are increasingly not in harmony with the purpose of music.

I'm a musician. I've been participating in, listening to, or teaching music for 25 years - I know the usual “ad campaigns” for music: music makes you smarter, knowing how to play an instrument is great for the resume, music teaches you how to perform under pressure, music teaches discipline,  it builds self-esteem.

Those things don't really answer the question, "What is music really for?"

What effects are specifically unique to music? What purposes are unique to it? Couldn't we choose something else that teaches discipline - like washing dishes, or gardening? Couldn't we put our kids on the debate team to learn to think under pressure? Haven't people argued that video games or sports build good hand-eye coordination? Puzzles, reading and a balanced diet with lots of veggies can give the brain a boost, why do we need "Bach for Babies?"

I didn't ever think of the effect on my brain as the motivation for practicing or performing. I never once, when I was a child, thought to myself, "I really need to practice today because my self-esteem could use a boost." I never thought, "Piano teaches great hand-eye-coordination so I better keep at it."  So why did I practice? What was it that kept me going? What gets me to the piano these days? As an adult, I feel music and the arts are important. I have numerous experiences that are very dear to me that involve playing, listening to and creating music. Besides my parents and my faith, music has been the next most influential factor in explaining why I am the way I am.  It's shaped my life immeasurably.

I ask myself, though, could I articulate to someone else that hasn't had my experiences why they should pursue music? How do I motivate a child to learn an instrument? Should they? If yes, how and why?  If no, how do you determine who should?

Having children has prompted me to ask myself lots of questions about my methods and motives as both a parent and teacher.  Are there effects on the home, family and society that are strictly unique to music?  Is the way we approach music with our students and children having a negative or positive effect on the kind of music being produced and perpetuated? On the way it is played? What effect does the music I surround myself with have on me? On my children? Just because music is “classical” is it worthy of being perpetuated? What makes a piece of music a classic? Why do my children or students practice?  Are the reasons they practice capable of sustaining their pursuit of music throughout their lives, OR when they are independent, will they choose to leave that part of their life in the past? Would it all be a waste if they did? Is music dominantly something I require of my child or student OR is it something they feel inspired to do because of deeper reasons? Finally, would understanding the purpose of music guide me to find answers to all these questions I have?!?

Yes.  I believe it can.  And it has, and IS.

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