Wednesday, May 9, 2012

About Music

Without something like this we wouldn't have something like this.

It's the week of the Ventura Music Festival. We went to hear the Emerson String Quartet last night. My daughters, themselves cellists, were especially taken with the cellist, whose face was marvelously expressive as he played, and who was indeed charming when they asked him to sign a CD. (But so were they all.) The music was gorgeous. 

The musicians played to a packed house. The audience was wildly appreciative of both the original set (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) and the encore (Charles Ives).

And yet, the audience--How can I say this?--almost everyone in the venue was well over 60. In fact, I'd say past 70. There was also a small contingent of young musicians--by which I mean teen-agers, all of whom play in a school orchestra. There were a few parents of teen-agers and a few young couples--and by "few," I mean you could have counted them and not come up with half a dozen. 

A friend of ours volunteers for the VMF. She was telling me that although they do a tremendous amount of fund-raising, and it has worked so far, their goal is to support the festival through ticket sales. She also said she didn't know how that could be accomplished, as ticket sales seem to be declining over the past few years.

I wonder--and I really do wonder, I'm not just offering that as a disingenuous rhetorical technique--whether this is related to the drastic reductions in education spending in the 1970s? (2004 NEA report on K-12 Education in the U.S. Economy here.) School music programs were certainly among the first to get thrown overboard in order to keep districts afloat. 

Music isn't just a luxury, though:
Studies highlighted in the review suggest connections made between brain cells during musical training can aid in other forms of communication, such as speech, reading and understanding a foreign language.

But if listening to or paying attention to or playing classical music is not part of one's life as a child, how likely is one to consider it a source of pleasure as an adult? (Instead, one most likely sees it as a should, and nobody likes shoulds. There's no quicker route to irritation than to be told what one should do.)

The benefits of music extend far beyond the realm of academics--there are studies that suggest that music can be used to accelerate recovery, reduce pain, elevate the mood, enhance athletic performance, and improve health. If we knew of a pill that accomplished so much and with so much pleasure and yet without negative side effects, we'd all be taking it.

Last year, on a trip to NOLA, I went to hear Bernice Reagon Johnson talk about bringing not just music into schools, but gospel--children need song, and they need to hear and sing the stories. (And yes, she sang. Beautifully. Her voice was so big--it filled that cavernous lecture room at the university. You could feel her voice pressing against you. And she roundly scolded the audience for singing in a muffled, embarrassed manner, pushing all of us to sing out loud. Some of us sounded better than others. I'm just saying that my voice appears to best advantage in the shower.)

In If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me, Johnson says
. . . you can hear a song, enjoy it for what is understood at that time and in that moment. Then, there is a future time when you have another message. Songs and singing become part of your life. . . .

Here's something else great about music: a talk with Eric Barnhill about music and the brain.

And the great Leela James performing "Music":

 (Part of the reason I'm thinking of all this is that fellow CCS alumni and writer Jo Perry wrote a terrific piece on music for a project I'm working on. We all inspire each other, don't we.)

UPDATE: Corrected a typo.

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