• Learning music made me think in a way I never had before. It made my brain more flexible.
• Music forms your brain, helps you to think in a different way. It’s a way speak to people and a way to listen to people.
• For some kids, music is the voice they never had.
At the end of my six hours spent with Italian music teachers online, I shared these quotes from my 8thgraders. After dealing with the details of how to make music teaching more fun, engaging and effective, I arrived at the larger point of how music well-taught can enlarge our humanitarian promise. Certainly not a new idea for me, but I was particularly struck by how these quotes from kids resonated with the news of the day. Consider each in turn.
1) Here in this time of entering territory for which we have no map, our one best survival tool is the capacity to think differently, to have a flexible mind capable of encountering challenges we’ve never encountered before. A President encouraging followers to desecrate the Capitol and threaten the very lives of Congress-people, a pandemic that just won’t quit, severe warnings from the climate that we can’t keep doing what we have done. Which means we can’t keep thinking as we have thought. Which means that rigid thought, clinging to dogma, replacing thought altogether with fantasy fed my lunatics, is a threat to our very survival. And thus any form of education which doesn’t actively cultivate a flexible mind capable not only of actual thought, but new kinds of needed thoughts, is a strike against the future of the human experiment. According to that 8thgrader (and the ones that followed), the music program I led with my two colleagues was a vote for the future we need.
2) After independently affirming the first quote, the second student celebrates music’s capacity to help you speak and help you listen. Again, I would add, “music properly taught and understood.” Practicing a piece from written notation in the privacy of your home does not go nearly as far as improvising spontaneously on a xylophone and then improvising in a group joining the conversations of the other players. (I have two activities I call “The Secret Song” and “Duets and Trios” that show how to cultivate this level of speaking and listening). Would you agree that our ability to listen to each other in the U.S. at the moment is in severe disrepair? Once again, I offer my services free to Congress— that before they go into session, Republicans and Democrats work together in small groups and have musical jam sessions that require respectful, coherent and ultimately uplifting calls and responses. Then go back in and discuss the Bill on the floor. That would change everything.
3) And finally, the voice they never had because no one in the culture—the family, the neighborhood, the school, the church, the TV shows— took time to help reveal the hidden beauty in the person and gave them both the skills and invitation for it to come out of hiding and announce itself. Without that step, there is a gaping hole in the soul that fills up with hatred (both of oneself and others) shame, anger, blame, looking for an easy target to avoid its own emptiness and willing to give over its power to the next demagogue that comes along. Discovering that voice doesn’t solve everything, but it sure helps.
And so, fellow music teachers, a reminder about the supreme importance of our work and the supreme importance of doing it better than we ever thought we could. See you at the next workshop.