Friday, January 27, 2023

Why Are We Here?: Part 2

(The conclusion of my Keynote Speech addressed to Canadian music educators)

Why are we here? A student in a recent workshop I taught wrote the following to me:

“In all my years of taking piano lessons, and playing the recorder in college and beyond, NO ONE pointed out that music was there for expression.   I think I understood that it was about beauty, but not that that had anything to do with me personally.”


In evaluations written by my Conservatory students, several have made comments like; 

“Before taking this class, I never knew that music could be fun.”


These are sad testimonies to some of music education as it exists today. I’m sure we all have our own stories of music classes that were sheer torture or left us feeling dispirited, incompetent or confused. Perhaps we are here because we are determined to do it better.


Why are we here? Always a good idea to ask the students themselves. Here is what two grade 7 students in my school wrote:


"Music is very important to me. Why? Because it can fill in your blanks. It's flexible the way you are. You can always find music that fits your mood. You know that saying "misery loves company?" Well, music is a perfect proof of that. When you're sad, you can play sad music. It makes you feel like you have company—you know there is someone else out there who feels the same way you do. Music can share your pain and build your spirits. Music fills those bare silences. Music is like colorful emotion that spreads over the room whenever it is played.


Being able to play music is amazing. You fill yourself with color and emotion. You get that exciting, amazing feeling when you play it correctly, when you hit the right note.


Everyone should be allowed or able to feel that color, that emotion as it flows through them. "                  — Morgan Cundiff


“Music isn’t just notes written on paper or different frequencies you hear music, music isn’t a “thing” to me. Music is a way of life, you can live through music. You can feed on it, you can find relief in it. I use music as a passage and the passage can go wherever I want it to. Jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, the different passageways of music. Music brings you to a new dimension. Perhaps it’s an Ab major dimension or a Techno dimension, whatever that dimension is, it’s the one you want.” —Jackson Vanfleet-Brown


The one you want—and the one you need. The larger your experience is of music, the more possibilities you have of finding just what you need at the moment. A jazz ballad to soothe you, a salsa piece to pump you up, a Chopin nocturne to slow you down, a spiritual to help you bear your grief, Beethoven’s 9th to sing your joy. Music is one of the most powerful of human creations because, as we noted earlier, it works directly on your nervous system—it can change your breathing, change your musculature, change your brain waves, literally transform you so that at the end of listening to or playing music, you are a different person then you were before. And if the music has done its job well, you feel more connected—to your body, to your heart, to your mind, to your fellow human beings. 

At least until the next piece of music. Sadly, these changes aren’t permanent. Anyone who has worked in a music group knows that music does NOT solve our constant difficulties with ourselves and with each other. But it does give us at least some moments where everything makes sense, where we blend into a whole greater than ourselves and feel elevated, exalted, inspired. And I suggest that a daily habit of good music-making is not a bad way to develop closer to that mystery we all hope to be—a whole human being. 


It helps to speak these things out loud. But words will just be empty air if not backed up by the experiences that indeed awaken the slumbering soul. We cannot tell children that music is important and beautiful if we teach in a way that only cares about winning the competition or passing the AP test. We cannot shout at them to feel joyful or yell at them to take a risk. We cannot have them scrape away at scales mechanically and hope that it will magically transform to expressive music. We cannot let them simply decipher black dots on paper without hearing or understanding profoundly what they are doing. We cannot leave them with the idea that being musical means playing a particular instrument. (My friend from Ghana says he is always confused when he tells people he’s a musician and they immediately ask, “What instrument do you play?” He repeats, “I’m a musician. That means I can figure out how to play any instrument.”) We cannot convince them that music is for everyone if we treat it as a rarified subject reserved for the talented. 


In short, we cannot teach music unmusically, simply talking at kids, shouting at kids, rehearsing in disconnected fragments, just moving our fingers over keys without being able to sing or dance what we play. We have to revision the teaching of music as a musical practice in itself, where there is a constant flow, a development between all the themes, a sense of an inviting beginning to the class, a connected middle and a satisfying ending. There needs to be room for our students to contribute, whether it’s an improvised solo, an idea of how to develop a piece, a chance for them to lead an echo rhythm exercise or a chance for them to reflect and discuss what we did and what worked and what didn’t. 


Why are we here? I hope you will find many of your good practices affirmed in the workshops you attend here, but I also hope that you find some bad practices challenged and that you’ll leave re-considering how you have done things. You don’t need to add a layer of guilt or shame, because many of us are simply continuing to teach as we have been taught and sometimes that means poorly. Now’s the time to break the cycle of harm.


Why are we here? In your conference book is a letter I wrote to the wonderful grade 8 class I had last year. Knowing that my time up here was short, I leave you to read it at your leisure. It is one model of how I talk to kids about this. 


Why are we here? We can say over and over that art is important, but how do we bring that down into the gut? Well, I know one way. I just spent six months saying goodbye to an 88- year old man at the other end of life. He was my father. After triple bypass surgery, he struggled to recover until finally giving up. For the last ten weeks of his life, he never left his bed and didn’t eat a bite of food, subsisting on diet Pepsi and water. 


And how did we pass those ten weeks together? Did we sit admiring the watch his company gave him when he retired? Reading his old report cards? Doing math sheets? When the great matter of life and death came down to the bare essentials, what was important? I think you can guess. We sat listening to music—all of Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s Unfinished, the tape I made of his own piano compositions. I sang songs to him, played accordion and watched him drift into that place of pure peace and contentment, those moments when “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”—as long as the music is playing. He recited the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to me that he had learned in school some 75 years earlier and almost had it perfectly. He talked to me about the paintings he had made and which were his favorites and why. We even watched some of the old classic movies—Grand Hotel. Some Like It Hot. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In short, suddenly art in all its myriad faces was revealed as the essential thing it is in the face of the wonder and terror of human life and death. And I was here teaching in Toronto, Canada, when he finally passed away and there are people in this audience who helped me so much in my grief simply by singing the songs we were going to sing anyway, but now amplified with greater meaning and beauty. 


And I couldn’t help but wonder: what will today’s children turn to on their death beds in the years to come? Will they be comforted by the Brittney Spears song or the 50 Cent rap? Will they ask to play just once more the Mortal Kombat video game they spent their childhood mastering? Will they request a laptop so they can re-enter their favorite chat-room? What music will comfort them? What poetry will give them courage? What art will sustain them in the face of their mortality?


I’d like to think that they will sing or listen to or play the beautiful music that they learned from a very important person in their life— you. Think about that when you choose what to teach and how to teach it and remind yourself that you can be the most powerful person in that child’s life in ways that you simply can’t imagine now. 


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are here. 


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