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Natasha Marsalli

A Response to Mr. Oppenheimer

September 20, 2013 at 5:02 PM

A provocative piece by New York Times writer Mark Oppenheimer titled Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument has been making the internet rounds this week. It seems to have caused so much of a kerfuffle that Mr. Oppenheimer issued a somewhat apologetic follow up piece today in which he still misses the point. Everything I am about to write has been said before and said better, and I realize that by publishing this on a blog for musicians, I am "preaching to the choir," so to speak. But, as any musician does, I feel the urge to articulate some of the cacophony of outrage, compassion, and sorrow I am experiencing over this article, and I fear I must try to rather sloppily construct my argument using Mr. Oppenheimer's medium of choice as opposed to the sound and time I am used to manipulating.

I would like to begin by addressing Mr. Oppenheimer's very first lines: "Our daughter Rebekah, who is in second grade, takes three after-school classes every week. On Monday there is violin; on Wednesday, Hebrew; and on Thursday, ballet. One of these classes connects her to a religious tradition going back three thousand years. Two of them are pretty well pointless."

Mr. Oppenheimer claims that studying Hebrew is important because it connects his daughter to a rich historical tradition. It is an excellent point, and one equally applicable to the study of both music and dance (although not so much the study of ukulele or rock bands, both of which Mr. Oppenheimer commends.) In playing the Bach Chaconne, you connect yourself (however tenuously) to a lineage of violinists dating back to the 18th century. You will encounter the same challenges, you will rejoice in the same successes, and, hopefully, at the end of your fifteen-minute journey, you will come to realize that the raw pain and sorrow communicated by Bach over the loss of his wife is just as pertinent today as it was then.

He goes on to argue that teaching music and dance to children have to lasting life-long impacts. Music and dance both require that foundations be laid at a very young age to be successful. A child who starts violin at 5 and practices diligently (but not with music as his main focus) has the potential to play Mendelssohn concerto by the time he reaches high school. But if a high school student hears the Mendelssohn concerto and decides he wants to take up violin and learn it, the odds are greatly stacked against him. A five year old, no matter how precocious, cannot see all the possibilities his life holds ahead of him. His parents, however, can see these possibilities and should provide him with as many tools as they can for future use. As a side note, I should mention that I have heard "I used to play (insert instrument here) and I wish I had kept up with it" countless times. I have never once heard an adult say "My mom forced me to play (insert instrument here) and I wish she hadn't."

Mr. Oppenheimer's essay is a perfect example of why we need art in our lives; by not experiencing them first hand on a regular basis, Mr. Oppenheimer has never developed the capacity to truly listen to music. He cannot hear the difference in finesse between The Lumineers and Mendelssohn. And because he has forgotten or simply never learned how to listen, he overlooks the human need to communicate through means other than words and writing. Music, to him, is a fun way to fill up time, no different from watching a few hours of television. By the same measures, we could equate browsing Reader's Digest with reading Dostoevsky. One is good for passing the time and one is an enduring work examining the human condition.

Modern education tends to forget the duality of the human person- that we consist of a body and a mind. When we do cultivate the mind, it is often only in relation to our physical world; the standard "line of defense" for arts programs is to cite case after case where music improves math and reading, improves fine motor skills, etc. These are all good and valid points but it provides an incomplete view of the human person. A computer can solve countless math problems, but it cannot feel the beauty of the sunrise in the opening moments of Daphnis and Chloe or understand the coquettish whimsy of the solo violin from Ein Heldenleben. And yet listening to and understanding what a composer is trying to communicate to us takes practice. When we fail to incorporate art into our lives, we forget how to listen. We forget how to be human.

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