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Musings on a Middle School Music Festival by someone who doesn’t get it

This Saturday, I was privileged to attend a middle school solo ensemble competition. It’s an opportunity for middle school students from neighboring schools to perform and be scored on their solo and small group (duet, madrigal) performances using voice and various instruments. I am an outsider here. Music is something of a mystery to me.

It’s not for lack of trying. I washed out of band as a middle schooler and though I subjected myself to guitar lessons twice as an adult, I cannot crack the code. I can strum out a few simple songs but that’s about it. Music is similar to a language. It has rules and conventions and even modestly proficient musicians achieve a mastery of that complexity that, I think, most non-musicians fail to appreciate. I should be able to get this. I have mastered several technical disciplines including a practitioner’s knowledge of a rather specialized branch of applied mathematics.  I am even considered an expert in one of them. I can do technical stuff but music escapes me so I admire it as an outsider.

I’ve studied enough physics to know that part of the technicality of music reduces to the wave properties of tone and rhythm, essentially density patterns that travel through the air and vibrate on my eardrums. But why does a minor chord sound sad? How is it that these patterns of vibration on my eardrum can trigger such an emotional response? I have been moved to tears (quite literally) by a rich, magisterial, orchestral performance of Handel’s Messiah and by the relative simplicity of an acoustic guitar and a woman’s voice or a familiar hymn. There’s even a mathematics at play here but the relationship is – what? – strange. Music theory suggests formulas for producing chord progressions that trigger certain emotions. A mathematical formula for a physical phenomenon that triggers an emotion??? There’s an early Dire Straits song that I heard by chance recently that plucked a long-dormant heartstring leaving me with a memory of an almost forgotten former girlfriend and a momentary bittersweet and particular pain that I had not felt since I was a teenager half a lifetime ago. How does that work?

Our music/band teacher is a gifted young woman whose personality fairly crackles with enthusiasm for music and joy in teaching. She wears her love for her students on her sleeve and as a Dad and a member of this community I love her for it. I actually ran into her on Capitol Square a few years ago when the Madison protests were at their peak and I liked to think that teachers like her were the reason that I chose to march and carry signs as the days and weeks wore on. She deserves better.

She takes our kids from the basics of selecting a first instrument to try to (for some of them) the reality that they themselves are proficient enough to study and perform music beyond high school.  This is a wonderful thing to contemplate. Imagine being the person who gets to say to the next Yo Yo Ma, “Here, this is a cello. Why don’t you give it a try?” Music teachers get to play those averages.  But, proficiency is more than technical mastery. Proficiency is the ability to surpass the mere mechanical understanding of the language of music and to use those rules to create art. It’s like teaching grammar and learning poetry.

I have a powerful sweet tooth and when I ramp up my exercise, I crave sweets and carbs. Last weekend after a particularly long day on the ski trails I ate a juicy bratwust that tasted almost criminally delicious. I get this. My craving for sweets and carbs and greasy salty sausages is an evolutionary legacy dating back to a time when these cravings were adaptive for human ancestors needing to struggle daily to assimilate enough calories for survival. Is a craving for music a similar evolutionary legacy? Why would we humans have evolved such a powerful reaction to certain patterns of sound?  I cannot come up with a plausible explanation. We evolved spoken and written language to coordinate activities and build societies. What’s the adaptive value of a very real and powerful response to this abstract thing called music?

Good musicians seem to me to grow from some optimal mix of technical training, dedication, and talent. Many reach the point where their mastery of the technical and artistic conventions comes effortlessly during performance the way I might use English in a conversation with my friends. In my mind the analogy only partially captures what’s happening (I realize that dedication and practice are required to reach this point).  To listen to Eric Clapton improvise on a guitar…is nothing short of amazing. I freely admit that as much as I envy this ability, I cannot wrap my mind around it. It must be an extraordinary experience to create wonderful music and have control over it and to have the mental and technical dexterity to manipulate it at will.

And so I find myself sitting in a music classroom of a local high school waiting for my daughter to perform. There’s another young woman seated at the piano when I sit down and I am reminded that for many students, middle school is a time of painful awkwardness. There’s a real vulnerability in performing.  But she introduces herself and says that she plans to play a piece by Beethoven. She explains that the piece has an irregular rhythm by design and history since it was written before the invention of the metronome. She begins playing and I close my eyes and give my imagination to the music…and it’s beautiful.  Vulgarian that I am, I even recognize it as a piece that I’ve heard before. I open my eyes and thoughts of awkwardness are gone. At the piano sits a young musician – one who just took me to a place that I cannot reach on my own. It’s so important that music education remain a part of the public school experience. Every student should have the opportunity to learn music if, for nothing else, than for our society’s selfish interest in avoiding failure to identify and foster the next generation of gifted musicians because their families couldn’t afford private music lessons.

And now its my daughter’s turn. She introduces herself and her piece and begins playing. It’s a piece that has been part of the evening atmosphere at our house, wafting from her room at various tempos after dinner because of her practicing. The piece has layered chords and rhythms intertwining and sounds rich and flowing and complex to me. And then the rhythm breaks. In her nervousness, she has become lost. I look and I see her face grow flush. Her eyes cloud and I can feel her tears welling. My own chest tightens. She finds her place again and soldiers on to the finish but she looks broken. I am her Dad but I am powerless. My impulse is always to fix it for her, to make it right. We walk out and I tell she did great and that I’m proud of her and I give her a big hug (she probably knows that I am doing my best to put a brave face on the situation). But she’s fighting back tears of disappointment. I release her into the care of her three best friends who are hovering nearby. I know that they can salve her disappointments in ways that I can’t. As I walk away I steal a glimpse of the 4 of them in a huddle smiling.

This stuff matters. Learning and performing and appreciating music matters. Teaching it in our public schools matters.  And it’s worth fighting for.