Monday, June 24, 2013

Music for All?

When talking to an audience about the need for quality music education, I finally have a shtick. (You can see this on my TEDx talk.)  I ask three questions:

1)    “How many of you are musicians?"
2)    "How many are musical?"
3)  "How many love music?"

Amongst American adults (not the kids at my school!), the percentage is fairly consistent— between 15% and 25% for the first, between 40% and 50% for the second and always 100% for the third.

Until today.

While giving a workshop to classroom teachers, I noted one teacher didn’t raise her hand for number three. “Really?” I asked. “Yes, it’s true. If I listen to music, it gets stuck in my head, so I prefer not to listen. I have no record/CD collection, don’t listen to the radio, really, I just don’t like listening to music.”

Well, here was a fascinating challenge. Not that I felt I had to convince her. But let’s face it, that’s a fairly uncommon response. I was intrigued. “All music?” “Yes, pretty much all music. Though I have thought about having Gregorian Chant sung at my funeral. I don’t mind that music so much.” Because it’s not repetitive enough to get stuck in your head?” “Well, maybe that’s it.”

That’s as far as we got before lunch. But note, she voluntarily came to a workshop on music. She participated fully in the activities, sang the songs (for an hour!) with the others after lunch, danced while singing, played percussion instruments and tried out the body percussion. I had to admire her for spending a day doing something she claimed she disliked.

At the end of the workshop, I brought out six Orff instruments to do a little improvisation exercise. I asked for volunteers, but I made a special point to volunteer my music-skeptic friend. And sure enough, she improvised a coherent and tuneful melody on the metallophone. At the end, she admitted it was okay. And then commented, “But I could never be a music teacher. It’s just so intense.” “Well, here’s the good news. You don’t have to be a music teacher! But you might consider letting yourself enjoy a bit of music now and then.” Now she was warming up. “Like an occasional rich dessert.” “Yes, that’s the idea. And it’s a pretty big banquet table to choose from. I bet you can find something that suits your mood.”

Finally, at the end, she said, “You know, I think it’s just that the emotions released in music are too intense for me to handle.” This was a long journey from “I get silly songs stuck in my head.” And I told her she had some exalted company. I remember reading that the brilliant psychologist Carl Jung had to ration himself listening to music because it unleashed such powerful forces in him. I suggested she try small doses of music too intricate to get stuck in her head (the Germans call this “earworms”) and choose some of the more cerebral or dispassionate styles. She is a mathematician, so I thought Bach might be a good place to start. She left with a thoughtful look on her face— “I just might try that”— and thanked me for the day.

It was a memorable encounter. I’m still thinking about it. 

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