The most under appreciated virtue of a classical music education

July 22, 2017




Apparently, fetuses benefit from listening to Mozart. Also, there's a strong correlation between math and music. It also probably builds confidence right? That sounds right, let's put that down on the list of reasons to pay for violin lessons. It also teaches your child discipline probably, there has to be some experiment out there where children who learned an instrument enjoyed being locked in a room for hours on end much more than there normal counterparts. Hooray for us! If humanity was confined to  space ship for generations, classical musicians would definitely be one of the last groups to go totally nuts. Although all of the stores of vodka and cigarettes would be gone in the first 3 months. Perhaps it's best that I not represent the National Endowment for the Arts the next time they have to beg not to be de-funded, again. (underlined sections are hyper-links! I'm not just doing it for emphasis!)


Being a classical musician means to some extent being a classical music advocate, and being an advocate can be pretty exhausting. We all have our short list of benefits at the back of our mind, ready to be unleashed at an after party or a Facebook comment section. Personally, I find this whole approach misses the point, as it tends to miss the point in many other specialty fields. Yes there's a connection to math, but there are better ways to improve your math(probably doing more math). Listening to Mozart to give your fetus that competitive edge might make you feel proactive, but pregnancy is stressful enough without worrying about your prenatal education. Also, listen to Mozart because it's AWESOME, not because of some indirect medical/educational benefit.


The real, tangible, benefits of a robust classical music education are exactly what you might expect. Leading an orchestral section takes leadership skills. It's much more difficult than corralling cats and significantly less cute("omygawd he wants to do UP BOWS there I can't even") Whether you are playing, singing, or frantically waving at/with other musicians, interactions within classical music take an extra level of diplomacy and finesse. This is why so many of in the chamber music world rely so heavily on the passive-aggressive "we":


Violin 1: I think WE should really make sure measure 4-8 is perfectly in tune.


Violin 2/Cello: *murmured agreement*


Viola: ...wait isn't that just me




 Solo playing requires confidence and equal parts inflated sense of self-worth and crippling doubt.


This is all in addition to the ability to play your instrument, process written music, and organize a narrative out of the abstract. 



So what is the most under appreciated virtue of a classical music education? Don't worry, I'm getting there.


I recently finished teaching at a wonderful festival in Austin Texas( Texas Strings Camp and Festival! Check them out!). This festival is run by Pasha Sabouri, and he's doing it right for a lot of reasons. Chamber music, master classes, solo lessons, orchestra, the works. It's everything you could hope for within a string festival.


What really stuck with me after the camp wasn't just what was being taught, as marvelous as it was to witness great teachers in action(watching Paul Kantor teach is probably as close to a masterclass on being a Jedi as you're going to get). it was the willingness of the students to have their ideas presented, sometimes very publicly, knowing they were going to be picked a part in front of colleagues, teachers, and a couple rando's. And not only were they okay with it, the more advanced the student, the more they seemed to relish it. Think about that for a second. What field is there where potential public humiliation is listed as a perk?! Not that we're all trying to publicly humiliate our students. (not ALL of us)

Absolutely NOT, you'd be sued immediately and Salon would write a scathing op-ed about child abuse. But that is what a master class is! Essentially you go up on stage, play a piece you have spent hours carefully putting together, and then listen to a professional explain to an audience what you need to work on. I imagine someone trying to make an impenetrable suit of armor , and then being publicly mauled by a grizzly.


What a great music education fosters is more important than any of the individual tenants we usually think of. Yes, it teaches kids to think critically and problem solve. It teaches an advanced craft, and all of the lessons involved in the magic of making music. Chamber music and orchestra teach teamwork and personal responsibility. But for the era in which we live, the era of Facebook feeds, fake news, sarcasm, unaccountability, anti-intelligence, etc, classical music teaches us the power of being vulnerable. The anonymity of the internet is empowering, but it has also made it even more possible to live your entire life without having to entertain a different opinion if you don't want to. You can believe the earth is flat, and a quick Google search will lead to a plethora of other people who share your convictions. You can comfortably live in an alternate reality, where your opinions exist as factual absolutes verified by thousands of other people. 


It takes a special kind of resolve to spend years of your life constantly exposing yourself to varying degrees of criticism. A great teacher will show you how to get better, and that you can only do so by failing repeatedly. You are never right in classical music. You are closer than ever before perhaps, but you don't ever get the luxury of being right. You get better at defending your ideas, you get better at finding your voice, but there is no absolute victory. There aren't any absolutes in general. Try asking a historical performer and a member of the Vienna Philharmonic for an 'A', just make sure to cover your ears.


 These are the lessons we all learn in the practice room, in the library, on the concert hall stage, in the masterclasses. Your willingness to be vulnerable is your greatest strength, and it is far  and away the most compelling reason to make your life a musical one.



Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. 

Try again. Fail again.

Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett





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