Saturday, September 24, 2016

Oboe Delight

Every day I gather more evidence that music is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. Every day I educate children and adults as to why it’s so glorious. Every day I advocate for it’s fuller inclusion in schools. My efforts are constant, my results miniscule, but no matter. My TEDx talk on the subject has some 27,000 views over five years, the kind of attention that Trump gets in five seconds when he tweets his next ugly thought. But still I persevere!

The fully educated human being is one who has trained the body as an instrument of expression, strength and grace, cultivated an open, caring and loving heart, stimulated an active, analytic, imaginative mind. The three in conversation with each other helps nourish yet larger human faculties known as soul and spirit. Schools are—or should be—places that have this end in mind when planning each detail of the day—the schedule, the class size, the curriculum, the community values. They should ask themselves how each decision, each subject taught and the amount of time each needs and deserves, each way of presenting and assessing the material affects children and helps elevate them to their full promise. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing framework?

We would then see that P.E. (physical education) can be so much more than winning games and include yoga or martial arts or other means to fully educate the body. We would continue to celebrate math and science as means to develop the logical, rational, critical and analytic mind that actually attends to facts and the known ways things work in this world. We would make sure language arts goes far beyond the mechanics of reading and writing to open the heart to stories from all times and places that develop the capacity to empathize with characters and situations both familiar and foreign. We would make sure that poetry is fully included, ideally a poetry recited and memorized by the students as well as written by them.

Once we’re on track to include body, heart and mind, we arrive at music prepared to understand it. Music can be conveniently summarized as the conversation between three elements: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony. Each alone leads to a particular human faculty and together lights up the full territory of the brain (neuroscience confirms this, more areas involved than in any other subject) and the whole confluence of body, heart, mind, soul and spirit.

Rhythm leans toward the toe-tapping physical side of the matter, the one connected to the beating of the heart and the pulse of the breath and the rhythmic firing of nerve impulses. Melody is the thing that gets the blood flowing in the heart and awakens the feeling side of the brain. Harmony stimulates the mathematical mind, builds elaborate structures of great complexity with their own inexorable logic. So the musician and the listener stand at the crossroads of the physical, the emotional and the logical, with the emotion at the center. Harmony’s job is to further bring out the nuances of feeling in the melody, rhythm’s job is to propel it forward and dance with it.

The other two musical elements are Form and Timbre. Form is the architectural plan, the structure that houses the inhabitants and again, calls on the mathematical logical mind to plan a worthy home. Timbre is the sound of the sound, the orchestration of the many instruments that give a color to each feeling. A melody draws the emotion, but whether it’s played on a harp, bagpipe, voice, piano, flute or oboe gives the feeling a special color.

And so this blog’s title. Yesterday’s Jewish Home Musical Healing Session (ie, music) included our four wonderful Interns. Michele and Jessica danced the Charleston to the song 5 Foot Two and how everyone's eyes lit up as their bodies remembered inside the dance they used to do outside! The sound of Victoria singing Edelweiss so beautifully with Michele accompanying on guitar brought us all to a reverential hush. Jessica sang a Finnish lullaby accompanying herself with the delicate stringed instrument called the kantale and you could feel the 90-year-olds suddenly 2-years-old again in their mothers’ arms. And then Lila joined me at the piano and played classical music with me on the oboe. Heaven!

Truth be told, I’ve never played with an oboe before and know very little about it. But dang, it is a beautiful instrument! It carries legato melodies so purely, singing out over the accompaniment. It’s also pretty fun with some rousing polkas, waltzes and such. We went through a repertoire of some of the most haunting melodies I know— Bach’s Arioso, Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria and then Schubert’s, Elgar’s Salute D’Amor, Offenbach’s Barcarolle, Saint-Saen’s The Swan. Fran and Edie sat by my side entranced by the sound, shaking their heads at the end from the beauty of it all.

Thanks to Lila and her oboe, Jessica and her kantale, Michele and Victoria with their guitar and voice, Jessica's and Michele's exuberant dancing. At the end of the hour, there were fully educated human beings in that room. 

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