Wisdom from (non-music) books, Part 1

I read a lot. What I mean to say is that I’m addicted to libraries and books. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I go to a library about 2-3 times a week (the location varies, out of all the libraries in the twin cities). But books are a good addiction, right? The only downside is that I check out too many books to read during the few weeks that I have them, so I end up just reading a few chapters of a particular book and then I have to return it. The upside is that out of the paragraphs I do read, I occasionally come across words of wisdom that apply to music teaching, even if the book has nothing to do with music.

One of my favorite kinds of books to check out are books about writing. Recently, I checked out a book by Katherine Paterson (the author of young-adult books) called A Sense of Wonder: on Reading and Writing Books for Children. In the first chapter, a paragraph caught my eye, and if you substitute the word “music” or “music reading” or think about it in terms of learning music, rather than learning how to read words, you’ll get a sense of how it relates to music teaching and learning (the words in the brackets are mine):

“In all the furor about the right to read [music] and basic [music] education, there is often, it seems to me, something missing. Why are we so determined to teach our children to read [music]? So that they can read road signs [quarter notes]? Of course. Make out a job application [fill out a theory worksheet]? Of course. Figure out the destination of the bus so that they can get to work [work their way through a score]? Yes, of course. But don’t we want far more for them than the ability to decode [a musical score]? Don’t we want for them the life and growth and refreshment that only the full richness of our [musical] language can give? And when I say this I am saying with Joan Didion that we fail our children if all we give them are the platitudes, the cliches, the slogans of our society [commercial jingles, pop music] which we throw out whole to keep from having to think or feel deeply.

“We cannot give them what we do not have. We cannot share what we do not care for deeply ourselves. If we prescribe books [music lessons] as medicine, our children have a perfect right to refuse the nasty-tasting spoon.”

This last paragraph is especially poignant. I believe that kids will not grow up to be music-lovers and music-makers if their immediate family members and friends do not care for music or music-making on a deep level.

Also, it’s easy for music lessons to turn into decoding sessions: sight-reading, note-naming, etc. The reason we teach music reading is so that kids can become independent musicians and learn to interpret a score on their own. But reading music is challenging–I didn’t learn how to count rhythms properly until 7th grade: 5 years after starting piano lessons– and it shouldn’t be a barrier to getting right to the music. There are other ways kids can experience beautiful sounds other than through the decoding of abstract symbols: listening to high-quality music through headphones or in a concert setting, improvising, and playing by rote.

And what constitutes high-quality music? Katherine Paterson goes on to say, after naming her favorite books, such as The Secret Garden, The Yearling, and Ramona the Brave:

“There are countless others–really good books. Good or even great because they make the right connections. They pull together for us a world that is falling apart. They are the words that integrate us, stretch us, judge us, comfort and heal us. They are the words that mirror the Word of creation, bringing order out of chaos.”

Order out of chaos: this reminds me of another book that I just finished reading called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle (can you tell I love children’s book authors?). In the first chapter she talks about looking for a definition of art in the dictionary and only coming up with something that describes a skill in design. Then she says:

“Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words.”

And she goes on to say that the recreation of chaos, rather than cosmos, is not art, in her opinion.

Whether or not you agree with this statement, it is a start when choosing the kinds of music you want to expose your child to during music study. Why not go beyond the “platitudes/cliches/slogans” that Katherine Paterson talks about above? And during the year of music lessons when it’s easy to become entrenched in decoding abstract symbols, have them step away from the details so they can see/hear the bigger (and more beautiful) musical picture.

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