Sunday, September 22, 2013

Arguments between a musician and non-musician brings light to our dilemma

One of the biggest dilemmas all musicians agree on is that the art of classical music is dying.  We see it in the schools that cut funding on the arts first, and the major American orchestras going bankrupt.  The reasons are all very complicated, which is why one cannot offer one simple solution.  Musicians know why the arts are important, but what matters at large are those that are not in the world of classical music.

Mark Oppenheimer writes an incredibly provocative article, Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.  Oppenheimer compares taking violin and ballet lessons to that of folding origami or auto mechanics.  He describes it as a "pointless activity," similar to that of watching Dazed and Confused multiple times.  He suggests more practical instruments, such as the guitar, over the violin.  He mentions the huge population that have taken lessons on a musical instrument, but have not touched it since, nor benefited from learning an instrument.  He brings up these people who do not necessarily listen to classical music because they have had said training.

Paul Berman offers a comedic rebuttal in his article, Parents Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons.  Berman has a flowery description of how classical music is "bigger" than the other types of music.  He says the music brings you back to the great music of the nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century.  The vibrations we perform in the music are the same vibrations the composers heard years and years ago.  He compares music to a spiritual experience.  Interestingly, he states that "classical music is not an exclusive club," and ends in saying, "I do not know what it is to be a person without access to that tradition, and I can only picture a lack of access as a kind of poverty."

Lastly, Oppenheimer writes another article titled I Have Nothing Against Classical Music-But That's Exactly My Point.  He apologizes and mentions his respect for classical musicians and ballet dancers.  He explains guitar being a better choice than violin, though violin has a richer culture and repertoire, being easier.  Children should access instruments that are easier, especially with violin being "less relevant" to our lives.  He mentions musical lessons no longer being necessary in 2013, because we are no longer trying to establish an upper middle class culture.

I think the argument between the "musician" and the "non-musician" is an important topic.  However, the writers are short-sighted on both sides.  Neither are able to see the point of the other person, though they are respectful to each other.  There are some questions to be answered in these arguments:
  • Should children learn the arts?  Why is it relevant?
  • Is Classical music accessible to everyone?  Is it an "exclusive club?"
I believe Oppenheimer fails to see the real point of music besides its "practicality."  Choosing guitar over violin because it is easier and more relevant is hardly a reason.  Shall we teach children to make decisions based on what is easier?  What is his judgment on what is more practical?  His example of playing guitar at summer camp hardly seems to be a good enough reason.  In many ways, an instrument is simply a vessel to music.  Yes, most of us prefer certain instruments, but an oboist is not a lesser musician than a cellist.  I would go so far as to say that the challenge is what brings musicians back to lessons constantly.  In a talk with Eric Booth on Teaching Artistry, he describes art as our capacity to expand the sense of the possible.  This art then becomes of value to us, and we learn from it, building character from it.  The character Eric Booth describes is a yearning.

This brings up the problem with Berman's argument.  I wholeheartedly agree that classical music is not part of an exclusive club.  However, in his article, he somehow makes it seem that way by saying that classical music is "bigger" than the other types of music, and especially in his last statement of someone without access to the tradition with "a kind of poverty."  Many classical musicians do come off as "snobby" to other people.  As mentioned in Highbrow/Lowbrow by Lawrence Levine, we have brought up the tradition to be another world, too high class to be understood by other people.  Even I had this notion until very recently, after realizing that every person has access to this exclusive club.  For example, the biggest argument against the practicality of music is El Sistema.  Their ideals of creating a better citizen and connecting children to music has worked better than anyone can imagine.  I doubt the people in Venezuela are thinking about the practicality of spending hours and hours in orchestra rehearsals.

I agree with many of the points Berman brings up, but the delivery is flawed.  He brings up a good point in comparison with music and spirituality. Eric Booth draws the same connection by saying music, education, and spirituality go hand in hand.  If we can tap into the interest of non-musicians with the spirituality we feel, then perhaps the arts will continue to grow beyond our expectations.  I offer some solutions that may help:

  • Stop making classical music seem like a different world, an exclusive club, or a higher class activity.
  • Stop having the belief that we are better than other musicians and/or non-musicians, and that we understand the music because we are better.
  • Encourage the people not in our world to be in our world, and believe it to be possible.
  • Bring up reasons for why the arts are important by letting them experience it.  Experiences are more powerful than words.
  • Instead of being infuriated with articles written by people like Oppenheimer, see it as a way to look into their side and how/why they view classical music the way they do.
Links to the articles:
Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument
Parents Absolutely Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons
I Have Nothing Against Classical Music—But That's Exactly My Point

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