Should children study violin—or rather, be forced to study violin? Or forced to study ballet? Mark Oppenheimer published a piece in The New Republic the other day asking this question in the urgent manner of a dad fretting over his daughter’s education. Oppenheimer tells us that, as it happens, his daughter is delighted by her own weekly after-school sessions on the violin and at ballet class, and would like the classes to continue, and this is fine by him. Still, what if, one day, her patience runs out and she wishes to stop? Should he respond by saying, no, those lessons are mandatory? Or allow her to quit?
These are good questions to ask because, in their family-routine fashion, they allow him to touch on a bigger matter, which has to do with classical music. To wit: Is there something special about classical music? Does the study of classical music offer something that cannot be found in the study of (Oppenheimer lists these alternatives) folk or pop music? Or origami? Or auto mechanics? The study of any or all of these things would confer obvious benefits—would encourage a child’s ability to master difficult topics, would develop finger and hand dexterity, would encourage an appreciation of aesthetics (except maybe for auto mechanics), would encourage certain kinds of sociability (pop and folk music especially, if you think of summer camp), would promote a can-do spirit of practicality (auto mechanics). And so forth. Why see anything uniquely valuable and overwhelmingly important in the study of violin and ballet, instead?
He tells us that, as a child, he himself never took up a musical instrument. At a dinner party, though, where he expressed his perplexity about music education, everyone else, some ten adults, had, in fact, studied music. And none of those adults appear to have reaped any benefits at all from private lessons and their years of study. The instruments they studied as children went unplayed as adults. Nor had anyone cultivated a taste for classical music. Those many years bent over a piano or contorted into a violinist’s posture—gone, in a wisp of smoke! Oppenheimer is confident that his dinner table companions are representative of the American educated class, 2013, and, in order to prove his point, he challenges his readers to ask their Facebook friends if their own experiences have been any different. But no one has any reason to inquire. I think all of us already know that he is right—if you leave aside a few prodigies who make their careers in music, not that music careers are especially easy to make in our present age of bankrupt orchestras.
Still, there is more to say, and if Oppenheimer will allow me to invite myself retroactively to his dinner party, I would tap my knife on a wineglass—I do this now, as I type these words (a very high A flat rings out)—and I would say:
Dear guests! I have been a Mark Oppenheimer fan for many years, and this is precisely because of the lively and warm qualities that he has brought to his present rumination on violin and ballet lessons. I applaud. But I am not convinced. The fact that not one of you at the table has continued tootling around on the instrument you studied in childhood is a little dismaying, I admit. But I propose an explanation for this phenomenon. You no longer play because the teachers who taught you musical technique never imagined that, in addition, they ought to have initiated you into musical mysteries. But the time has come.
The study of classical music is—I am sorry to put it this way, for fear of demoralizing any ten-year student musicians—a spiritual enterprise. I do not mean to say that classical music is better than other kinds of music. Any given classical composition or performance may be worse than worthless; and any given performance of some other kind of music may prove to be a work of genius; and even the finest examples of classical greatness may be inappropriate for one or another purpose. If the occasion calls for ukuleles (Oppenheimer mentions ukuleles, and thinks it wonderful if children choose to study ukulele), nothing else will do. But I do think that classical music is, in some respect, bigger than other kinds of music. The music has been going on for five hundred years as a self-conscious tradition, dedicated to an extended meditation on a series of musical structures so limited as nearly to be arithmetical. And the meditations have reflected on one another, and, over the centuries, sometimes they have advanced.
You are free to see in this 500-year meditation something very close to a mystical or Pythagorean inquiry into beauty, if you would like. Or you could look at the tradition in an intellectual light. But classical music does not ask you to demonstrate a mystical streak or a brainy disposition. The music asks you to engage. The music is an activity more than an entertainment, and you engage in it physically, you and your instrument and your fellow musicians. Or you can do without the fellow musicians. To play by yourself, alone in a room with a music stand, or without the music stand, is good enough. If you study Bach with sufficient ardor, instrument in hand, you ought to be able to discover that, at moments, you and Bach have merged. You ought to discover that Bach’s inquiries into mathematical figures are your own inquiries, and Bach’s ecstasies are yours, as well. Bach was a genius, and you, too, are a genius, when you perform his work—even if some person listening to you trample clumsily over the score may conclude that you are an oaf. Your purpose in playing is not to impress anyone else, though, nor to entertain. If you have explored the music sufficiently on your own, you may be able to engage with it passively in the concert hall, as well, or in front of your sound system. And if the music is any good, it should not just amuse you. It should throw you into something of a trance.
Dear dinner guests, you ask: is there anything special in the musical satisfactions that I am describing? Aren’t there grandeurs to be found in basketball, too, and in golf? Or in rock anthems performed at stadiums? I respond: Sure, OK, if you are into it. The centuries of sustained classical musical meditation are cumulative, though. You cock your ear, and cock it again, and you begin to notice the depth and intensity and logic of what you are hearing. In any case, the classical music tradition has managed to express certain ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed in any other way.
Oppenheimer happily acknowledges that, for all his skepticism about violin lessons, he loves Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, and he considers that people with suitable gifts are right to plunge into the kind of music education that will allow them to perform such a thing. But let me ask: What is Mendelssohn’s violin concerto? It is one of those nineteenth-century violin pieces that manage to express a combination of the plaintive, the grand, and the mathematical. If you are listening to a performance of the Mendelssohn in the right spirit, or, God knows, if you are yourself the performer, you will find yourself in the presence of a majestic something-or-other that is beyond all something-or-others. Feelings of triumph will swell your heart. You will weep. You will glimpse the musical structure, or, at any rate, you will recognize that a structure does exist. You will be in awe. This combination of emotions and thoughts is something that cannot be evoked in words or equations. The experience is accessible only musically.
Maybe you will experience something else, as well, which I will describe by following in Oppenheimer’s autobiographical footsteps. Some years of violin study marked my own childhood. My poor suffering parents came up with the money to pay for the lessons, which was, for them, a burden. And the lessons were sometimes a burden on me. I cannot say that, at age nine or ten, I was instantly delighted. Oppenheimer’s daughter has one up on me. Still, I remember those lessons, and I applied myself, and, in adulthood, I discover that, among the handful of people who most powerfully influenced me as a child was my violin teacher—a first-rate violinist, by the way, Sidney Polivnick, whose name will resonate with some musicians.
He encouraged me, and sometimes discouraged me. He let me know that I had a good enough ear, except in higher registers: a fatal flaw. He led me through Vivaldi and Bach. But also he initiated me into the culture that is classical music—the culture that leads back to one or another legendary teacher, who invariably turns out to have been the student of yet another legend, who turns out to have been a friend or colleague of Schubert or Beethoven. To enter into the world of violin studies is to enter into a sort of church, whose traditions wend back through the centuries to these musical gods. And the sense of grand and continuous and always lofty culture likewise contributes to the feeling of awe.
The dinner guests complain: Where is the practical advantage in any of this? I reply: Are you kidding? Here is a grandeur that seems to be more than human. The guests insist: Aren’t you speaking of matters of the past? I reply: The past is all that we have. Besides, the nineteenth century was great. Also the eighteenth century. Have you tried the seventeenth? In the world of music, I dwell anywhere I want to dwell. Music has liberated me from the iron bars of our present moment.
The guests reply: This is vanity on your part. Or it is snobbism. I reply: Classical music is not an exclusive club. If this snobbism, everyone is welcome to it. Maybe it is true that, if you never studied music as a child, you will be a little handicapped in trying to take it up as an adult—although those of you who did study, you ex-flute students, might be able to find your way back to the path, beginning with a search for your old flute in the closet. But the road is open to your children.
You should somehow lead your children to look for a majesty in those stupid scales they are practicing. They may find it! If not now, later. In any case, you should encourage the children to recognize that something in life is grander than the anxieties of the everyday, and Mozart and Beethoven were masters of that something, and the students of music are the students of those masters. Twelve-year-old violinists, run your bows across the E string! Let your body feel the vibrations. Mendelssohn felt these vibrations when he wrote the concerto that Oppenheimer loves today. The E string contains the secrets of the universe. You doubt? Listen to the concerto.
I can imagine that my argument may seem over-the-top. But I have no way to know. Those childhood violin studies of mine have shaped my adult ear and brain, and, when I listen to Mendelssohn or to any of the greats, I naturally respond in ways that are encouraged by the grand tradition. 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.
Paul Berman is a senior editor of The New Republic.
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