“Lack of attention to subtlety and nuance.”
That’s what has risen to the top of my ongoing “What’s Wrong With the World” list. I know it may seem incredibly precious and privileged next to, “the bombs are falling on my town,” “drugs are ravishing my neighborhood” or “my family can’t get enough to eat.” I recognize that. But we all stand on our own experience and my refrigerator is sufficiently full, my neighborhood relatively peaceful and the blessed absence of war in my land my daily reality. As the Irish say, “After a full belly, all is poetry.”
Or is it? Perhaps only if you’re prepared to savor the delicate flavors of words artfully chosen and feelings exquisitely expressed. Lately it feels like the dials around me are set to “mediocre, loud, assaulting, frivolous and all of the above.” People are more tuned into the Harlem Shake than Billie Holiday’s poignant Harlem revelations, so innured by the constant throb of the disco beat with no variation in tempo or timbre that they can’t appreciate the way Billie turned a phrase and bent a note and made your spinal chord tingle. Folks are more prone to revel in Gangnam style than allow themselves to feel how Artur Rubinstein could shade a Chopin chord to give a common feeling an uncommon nuanced expression. All is bright primary colors and the broad range of tints in-between are lost in the mix.
Anyone who knows my work as a music teacher knows I’m fine hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood of the quirky, weird, goofy and edgy, the land of “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play Pinochle on your stout” and “I told ma and ma told pa and Johnny got a whoopin’ and a Ha! Ha! Ha!” We’re not singing Mozart canons every day or playing haunting arpeggios on finely-tuned harps. But I do aim for at least a few moments of the sublime, whether it come from well-placed glockenspiel notes ringing in the silence, a time-stopping minor melody sung by a child with eyes closed, a beautiful conducted gesture in a musical game or a poem written while listening to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” Little moments of unspeakable beauty spoken through the child’s innate artistry risen to the top.
And it is the invitation of the teacher who welcomes it and notices it that helps it come forth into a world where it is welcomed. Because I am primed to be perpetually on the lookout for the grace of transcendance, I can walk through my colleague’s classes and be stopped in my tracks by the splendor of children cradled in beauty’s hand. But I see other people walk through and keep walking, untouched by the moment, unmindful of the nuances. Fed on a steady diet of sarcasm, it’s hard for some to spot the sincere. Pumped up to the nth decibel of the pounding disco beat, it’s difficult for some to feel the difference between piano and pianissimo. Content to merely shake one’s booty, it’s hard for some to spot the subtleties of polyrhythms in the West African’s dancer’s body.
Whether it be music, dance, painting, language, food or wine, it is the nuances that bring color and shape and tone and texture to life and we would be well advised to develop a sensitivity to them, an appreciation of them, a habit of welcoming them. And of course, pass that on to the children.