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Music Media Review

On the Need for Classical Music

May 21, 2003 - Durham, NC:

On the Need for Classical Music: Thoughts Prompted by Julian Johnson's New Book. Note: Julian Johnson's new book, Who Needs Classical Music? (http://www.oup-usa.org/isbn/0195146816.html [inactive 8/04] ), has begun to be discussed in online music groups. Here, Dorothy Kitchen, who has for years served music through her many educational activities and as a performer in her own right, sounds off a response.

Who Needs Classical Music? A new book with this title has come out in Britain, written by Julian Johnson, who addresses the reasons why classical music is necessary and not really interchangeable with other forms of music. I would like to add my own observations from over forty years of performing, teaching and conducting younger people.... It is clear that there are those born with musical gifts, voices, perfect ears, amazing memory for melody and remarkable dexterity. There is even a category of intelligence, identified by the psychologist Howard Gardner; he notes musical intelligence as one of four separate and discreet kinds of intelligence that are found in human beings.

In the thousands of people - not all of them young - with whom I have worked, in the USA, in Haiti, and in Peru, I have found that the organization that is presented in the art of violin playing, if it is presented with violin as the medium for the learning of the art of music, develops my students in a remarkable way. First of all, their learning - of note symbols, word symbols for the sounds and the time, rhythmic organization, and eventually key as a transformation of physical motion - involves all the senses except for taste and smell. The initial phases of reading music and connecting it with physical motion and visual tracking are helpful for all the necessary skills of modern life. It is a fact, rarely addressed, that sound is touch; even our own heartbeats have their mirrors in the heartbeats of music. Also involved are the learning of abstract symbols (easily done by four-year-olds, through musical notes that are big) and the development of digital independence, which - as far as I can tell - is taught in no other form of learning aside from music.

Another result of musical training that is significant for the development of young people from around age four (rarely younger than four, although some exceptional two and three year olds can do this...) is the sense of accomplishment from one's own efforts. In this regard, it matters not how fine the teacher is or how committed are the parents: no one can play the music for someone else, not even for the very youngest children! If young people succeed in creating even one clear sound, it is a matter of personal growth and accomplishment. The matching of so many symbols and motions, done meticulously and in orderly fashion (as it must be in classical music), is a model for all learning, no matter what the area may be. Precision of movement is dormant in human beings, but when they are taught music this becomes both necessary and possible.

The remarkable feat of creating meaning from a sound wave is an achievement of which many people, of any and all ages, are often unaware, but certainly people love to be "moved" by music - and they are, literally.

Why should classical music, for which we must be trained in a certain way, be of greater value to the general population than naturally occurring talents such as singing or country song writing or even playing in high school electronic rock bands? As I see it, the reason is that the knowledge that is contained in the classical format is usable in all other formats and gives even those who do not have spontaneous gifts a chance to develop, communicate with, and understand the language of musical sound. Anyone with training in classical forms can learn the other forms from this base. I have seen this happen so often that I could document it by citing many people by name. Natural talent springs up naturally and - if it is developed by training - it can expand in every direction. Look at the Marsalis family, whose members exemplify this in every way. Or consider country fiddlers - when one looks deep into their resumes, one finds that many are conservatory-trained. Many a classical violinist has played bass guitar in his or her school's rock band....

To deny our society the tools that have evolved in the training regimen of classical musicians is to encourage other forms of illiteracy that we can ill afford.

Responsibility is another outgrowth of young performers being called upon to learn, understand, and present musical performances, whether at school, at home, at religious institutions, with community groups, or simply for pleasure. There is, for example, much to be learned about poise under stress from having to present a piece of music. There is equally much to be learned about preparation, about consistency resulting in achieving a good result, and about successful communication as people react to one's best efforts. Here of course the proper attitude of the teacher and the parent or the guardian in seeking good effort and good will in the performer (but not anguished perfection!) is important. Personal fulfillment comes from such success.

Perhaps this is attributing too much to the possibilities available to young people (or, indeed, to any one, of any age) working within the developed art of learning classical music. On the other hand, musical training has evolved for centuries, and the music learned in classical training spans hundreds of years of both selection and success for millions of people.

We are currently involved in gargantuan wholesale experiences like Home Depot, Costco, Walmart, television shows that traverse the world, newspapers that are owned by conglomerates, etc. The study and presentation of classical music can never be on this scale. Musical skill always stems from personal development and reflects personal achievement, no matter how large the orchestra or the audience. It is the art, always, of one person who has connected all the dots of his or her physical senses, come to understand in a unique way someone else's language, and made it his or her own. Surely in our increasingly homogenized and ever more impersonal global life, this is an enduring value and one we must retain if we hope to continue to advance as human beings.