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Karen Allendoerfer

A Moral Issue?

June 9, 2008 at 11:45 AM

Pauline's recent blog, "The Devil or Me," has been on my mind, as well as the ongoing thread about Suzuki. The link between the two in my thoughts has been the notion of moral development in violin playing. Suzuki's subtext, that learning to play the violin is good for the soul, is an idea that has a lot of resonance for me on many levels, as a player and as the parent of a young violin student. I share his faith in the healing and transformative powers of music.

But I don't share his respect for authority. I never have been very good with authority, and that's gotten me into trouble more than once, especially with music teachers. Something as simple as the idea of having to bow to your violin teacher still makes me cringe. Maybe it's a cultural difference; I respect the role that bowing plays in Japanese culture, but that still doesn't make me want to do it. It brings to mind cultural moments like the Japanese figure skater, Midori Ito, apologizing on a world stage for winning "only" a silver medal in the Olympics.

It's not so much the idea of admitting imperfection that gets to me, but of having to view one's imperfections as something shameful that will be on display and that will let others down if they are revealed. And of needing to acknowledge and apologize for them by showing "respect." Or something. Whatever the purpose is, I admit I don't really get it. My response is a gut reaction, hard to put into words, impossible to put into music.

Pauline wrote about her experiences with students who can't seem to deal with imperfection. They'd rather just quit playing than be imperfect. Or would they rather just quit than have to load their playing down with all that moral baggage?

One of my violin teachers once quoted a famous conductor as having said "intonation is a moral issue." Apparently it is attributable to Carlo Maria Guilini, conductor of the LA Philharmonic 1977-85. According to this site, Guilini said "intonation is not simply a matter of acoustics or physics, it is a moral issue".

Really? I think most people would be helped far more by learning to see it as a matter of acoustics or physics, and leaving the moral baggage out of it.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 9, 2008 at 12:30 PM
I am clearly one of the most immoral people out there by this standard. Oh well. There are enough moral problems in the world to worry about without adding intonation to the list.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 9, 2008 at 5:58 PM
Thanks for the bringing up this important issue, Karen.

In one sense, intonation can bring about some moral baggage as you described. The deep fear that someone else is always able to find fault in my intonation, as I mentioned in a different thread, is a devastating psychological-moral aspect of it. But I find the quote intriguing because it has the potential to be on to something greater and more positive for our understanding of intonation. I’m just not clear exactly in what sense morality Guilini was referring to, but whatever the original quote means, I’d like to think that intonation is much of moral issue as is with an accent of a language. How we treat it is really up to one’s heart more than one’s ears or the norm. What do you think?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 9, 2008 at 6:52 PM
I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, Yixi. I'm pretty much with Tom on this one--if one uses intonation as a moral standard, I'm quite immoral, and I don't like to think of myself that way. At the very least, that kind of thinking doesn't help me improve--musically or morally--because it hurts my confidence and makes me feel bad about myself.

I tried to find out more about the quote on the internet but there wasn't much there. My teacher long-ago had actually attributed it to Zubin Mehta, but apparently that wasn't correct. I spent a fruitless few minutes searching under his name first.

And of course there's my role as a student in interpreting it. That I remembered it all these years later suggests that I am interested, and no doubt emotionally invested as well, in questions of morality. And I think many people are.

What I was most struck by recently was the implied contrast between "acoustics and physics" and a "moral" issue. I often find the neutral, non-moralizing, language of science to be a refuge from what I see as generally a harsh, judgmental world of human beings. And my experience of being a music student, especially as kid (less so now) was of being treated judgmentally and often found wanting. I like the thought of having a refuge from that experience.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 9, 2008 at 8:05 PM
Karen, you’ll be the last person I’d think of as ever being immoral! I think you and Tom both take the intonation issue to be amoral (something outside the realm of morality), and I think this is a generally accepted and sensible approach. I’m a bit nutty and I believe morality finds its way to almost everything we do and we care, so the quote strikes me as some a ray of bright light, which could let into something interesting and good.

By morality, I don’t mean to suggest any particular moral standards that people should follow; rather, I mean the normative aspect of our conduct and practice, the ‘should’ and ‘ought’ we tell ourselves that permeates everywhere that worth exploring.

When there is personal choice to be made, the line between pure technicality and morality can often be fuzzy. For instance, when I hear someone speaking with a strong accent, it can be distracting or cute or both. How I treat my own accent and that of others is not always a technical and amoral thing. It really depends on particular occasion and on how I react, as well as some hidden values, sentiment and taste. Similarly, when I hear a note that is flat or sharp, it is a note played by someone (a musician, a student, me, etc). Granted, intonation is not same as accent, but if it can be as subjective as some suggested, should I and at what level ought I choose to respect and even collaborated with this person, especially if I playing with him/her in a group? Does a technical issue ever become a matter of a tolerance, charitable interpretation or even love? If so, when and how? …

I don’t have an answer to my own questions and that’s why I’m asking basically in what sense, if any, intonation is also a moral issue.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 9, 2008 at 9:20 PM
I don't like "intonation is a moral issue." The only positive spin I can give to it is that musicians should always try to play their best. However, if I remember correctly, "intonation is a moral issue" was directed specifically to the woodwinds, and other instruments were specifically excluded. It makes me wonder whether the conductor had some bad experience with woodwinds and hadn't gotten over it.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 12:10 AM
Has anyone had the experience of preparing for something, only to have the person next to you show up to the concert half-drunk, or just not care enough to learn the part? That's when it feels like a moral issue.

One can lope along and play fairly in-tune, practice when you feel like it, respect your teacher when your teacher is saying what you want to hear.

But don't expect progress, or much of a concert, or an orchestra that sounds like anything. It's one thing when, with our best efforts, we are human and we flub.

It's another thing to protest giving effort to serve an ideal because one is so busy questioning the ideal.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 12:20 AM
Actually, no, I don't remember ever having had that type of experience in music.

It's possible that I've experienced something like it in another setting, maybe at work. I have worked in a company where research associates would sometimes gossip, be judgemental about, and resent others in the company whom they didn't think were pulling their weight (maybe this is somewhat analogous to the situation you describe where someone shows up unprepared to a concert and the others pass moral judgement upon him or her).

As a supervisor, I was sometimes privy to that gossip. It was extremely damaging to morale and to the company as a whole. The gossipers rarely knew the whole story anyway and all it did was create a poisonous atmosphere and set coworkers against each other. It never served to improve the behavior of the gossip-ee.

In my opinion, workplace environments are more functional and happier places when the culture encourages people to take care of themeselves, do their own jobs to the best of their ability, and to be objective, rather than moralistic, about others' perceived shortcomings.

If someone shows up drunk to a concert, maybe s/he is an alcoholic and needs help. I'm not saying that that person should be hired again--I don't think they should be unless they provide some evidence of reform and change. But I'm also not really sure how moralizing about it would help.

And I also don't think that those other things you list ("loping along", etc.) are equivalent to an alcohol problem.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 1:04 AM
Is doing one's best a moral issue? Is improving from day to day a moral issue? Is determining what's right and what's wrong a moral issue?
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 1:33 AM
Corwin, I'm not sure of the answer to the first two of your questions. To the last I would answer "yes." But I guess that's sort of the point of asking the question: I don't think that self-improvement and, especially, personal achievement, are necessarily on the same axis as right and wrong.

I think that a lot depends on what it is that you are "doing your best" at. If intonation is a moral issue, then is skill at playing Nintendo also a moral issue--if you're playing Nintendo at your very best and improving every day?

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:15 AM
Doing one’s best, including playing Nintendo, is definitely a moral issue. To say someone is doing one’s best implies a) one is trying to do what one believes ought to be doing and has done all b) one can to achieve it. The a) part is a moral belief and b) is taking the belief into action. Now, I may argue that it’s nothing virtuous in and of itself to be a great Nintendo player. That is another moral judgment based on my own standard of good and valuable.
For the same token, doing one’s worst is also a moral issue, so as a morally warped person knowingly harming innocent people. Yes, we would say these are examples of someone with poor morality or of being immoral, but we are nevertheless facing moral issues as opposed to amoral/non-moral ones such as 2+2=4.

So far, we can at least say good intonation implies good work ethics. Even if we all agree on this, it doesn’t follow that less-than-perfect intonation reflects poorly on the player morally. As Laurie said, if you tried all you can and still fail, that’s not a moral failure. Nor is sacrificing intonation for some color a moral issue, or is it?

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:27 AM
Oops, the 2nd sentence in my above post should read: “To say someone is doing one’s best implies a) one is trying to do what one believes ought to be doing and b) has done all one can to achieve it.”
Is there some way we can edit a response in blogs like we do in discussion?
From al ku
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:28 AM
online webster has this under "moral", among other definitions:
"perceptual or psychological rather than tangible or practical in nature or effect". if the author meant something along this line, i'd buy it, that intonation is "perceptual or psychological rather than tangible or practical in nature or effect".

or am i pulling rabbits out of a hat here? :)

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:35 AM
Cowin, determining what's right and what's wrong is not always a moral issue. 2+3=4 is wrong. It’s wrong to determine if I jump off a cliff I can fly safely home, etc. These are epistemic non-moral judgment. So are our ontological determination of what does and doesn’t exist, although a lot of such determinations can be colored by moral overtone, but at the basic level, a flate-earther can’t said to be having make a morally judgement about the shape of the earth. Sorry, if I sound like a cocky sophomore.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:25 AM
Yixi, I haven't been able to answer you, not because I think what you have to say isn't interesting, but precisely because it is so thought-provoking.

I don't really understand the difference between your two definitions of morality: "particular moral standards that people should follow" vs. "the normative aspect of our conduct and practice, the ‘should’ and ‘ought’ we tell ourselves that permeates everywhere that worth exploring."

To me those are essentially the same. But they clearly aren't to you and I'm really curious how and why not. Would you say that the second definition you offered has to do with "values" (which is something I view as related to morality, but not the same thing)?

I also think it's nice, and may be getting to the good spirit of the quote, to think about morality as being primarily about love and tolerance, as opposed to being about harsh negative judgements. Intonation could be a moral issue if it causes you to think better of someone else rather than worse . . .

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 3:52 AM
Okay, you've posted a lot more since I started. More to chew on! I guess I've always viewed the kind of wrong represented by 2+2=3 as being "factually incorrect." But not morally wrong.
From Mendy Smith
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 4:03 AM
Karen, your 2+2=3 analogy reminds me of a math "joke" I was told many many years ago: "1+1=3 for large values of 1" I can't remember what made this seemingly wrong answer correct at the moment. However, what may seem "wrong" to most people are "right" for others who understand a different view of the problem.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 6:13 AM
Karen, thanks for showing interests what I tried to articulate. Let me try again.

Often when asked what is morality or ethics, people will say that it is a sets of rules or standards that govern our conduct, something like the Golden Rule or code of conduct of a particular profession. I recall a so-called ethicist at a ministry told us when I first started my job to think ethical conduct is what my grandma would approve. What if my grandma was racist? Duh!

To me and I believe to a lot of moral philosophers, the moral rules are examples of the product of our moral thinking and efforts. These examples do not and cannot cover the entire field of our moral our life. In fact, I’m not acting morally if I blindly follow moral rules set by others, even if these moral rules are perfectly morally praiseworthy by whatever standard we choose.

Generally, moral issues are always explicitly or implicitly normative. Moral language usually contains or implies 'ought', 'should', 'must', etc, as opposed to descriptive/factual statements (“Today is Monday.” “Grass is green”). But statement such as 'tomorrow should rain.' is not a moral statement if no moral sentiment/value is attached to it. Morality entails individual’s self-awareness and rational self-examination of one’s beliefs and conduct. Moral issues almost always touch on our sentiment (likes and dislikes, the psychology aspect of it like what Al indicated), the deep sense of good and bad (your take), or the sense of taste that is not unlike in aesthetics (mine).

But the above account is still a bit over-simplistic. What’s fascinating for me is that moral issues are always closed related to the underlining theme of what kind of person I want to view myself and who I want to be or not to become. How different is "I want to be a good person." and “I want to be smart.” Is the former a moral statement and the latter not? What about “I want to be a good violinist.”? I find it often depends how the trail of thoughts started and where it takes us to. Here is an example:

I want play in-tue, why? Because I want to play well. Why? Because I want to be considered, by myself and by others, to be a good violinist. Good? What do I mean by that? Technically solid and musically mature? Having the right attitude and having a big heart? … What do I want all that for? It’ll make me or other people happier. It’s the kind of person I am and I’m proud to be!.….

You see, gradually, we are moving from descriptive language to that of morality.

Clear a mud I'm sure.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 6:45 AM
Oh and Karen, don't feel you are obligated to respond. I'd like to see the discussion go on but sometimes silence is gold.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 9:37 AM
Mendy, I saw a similar humorous button once that said "2+2=5, for extremely large values of 2." According to wikipedia, 2+2=5 plays an important role in George Orwell's _1984_. I'd forgotten that. In that novel, the totalitarian state exerts power by declaring 2+2=5 by fiat and expects the protagonist to believe it by using doublethink. And, the state tries to torture people into believing false statements such as that. There I think the wrongness of the fact does take on a moral dimension.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 9:49 AM
Yixi, just to comment on one small part of what you wrote, I don't think we can even all necessarily agree that good intonation implies good work ethics.

Certainly the two can be correlated, but I'm thinking of another recent thread, Intonation and its Implications. There the original poster started off by saying that no violinist he had ever heard played in tune to his satisfaction. He referred to this as a "burning" issue for him.

I got kind of lost in that thread and didn't keep up with it, largely because I didn't get it. That issue doesn't burn for me. While I am often not satisfied with my own intonation, I am quite satisfied with the intonation of, say, Hilary Hahn, or Joshua Bell, or pretty much any professional making and selling recordings.

The original poster probably plays with better intonation than I do, but I don't think this fact alone says anything about our respective work ethics. Rather, his ability to hear and make these fine distinctions in intonation sounded to me more like an inborn "talent". He even seemed to imply that it could be a double-edged sword, something that diminished his listening enjoyment. And, he didn't say that he had worked especially hard to achieve this level of sophistication in listening to intonation, it was more like something that he was stuck with and was wondering how to approach and use constructively. I wondered if it was based in unique brain wiring. (I do think about whether brain wiring is a moral issue . . . but I haven't really formed coherent thoughts on that.)

I was also surprised by the type of controversy spawned in that thread, and the defensiveness. People would say things like "braces for upcoming onslaught of stones" and "I am wearing a full suit of body armor"--why? Because they thought that saying that violinists don't play in tune was so shocking and/or insulting?

It seems to me that one would only think that if one felt--on some level--that intonation was a moral issue in the sense that I first used it, and that less-than-perfect intonation reflected poorly on the morals, and/or the intrinsic worth, of the player as a person.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 12:56 PM
BTW, I think the 2+2=5 joke originated with a Tom Lehrer record (I do not remember which one) in his commentary before singing a song.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 10, 2008 at 11:22 PM
“I do think about whether brain wiring is a moral issue …”

Karen, I would say that it can be a moral luck -- one is lucky morally to be wired in a certain way that he tends to be smart and congenial whereas unlucky morally to be, say, psychopathic due to some hardwiring. Other cercumstances beyond our control can also contribute to our moral good/bad luck, when we act in a certain way that leads to serious consequnce.

If you have time, check out Bernard Williams’s Moral Luck, a beautifully written piece of work that has kept a some of us awake thinking about these gripping issues for some time:)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 11, 2008 at 1:34 PM
Thanks for telling me about Bernard Williams. What a fascinating thinker! I'm sorry that I've never had a chance to study philosophy in an academic setting.

I've still been mulling over the idea of morality as individuals' self-awareness and rational self-examination of one's beliefs and conduct. That suggests a view of morality as a living, ongoing process more than an outcome. Which makes sense and explains a lot.

But I'm still having trouble with the idea of putting sentiment and aesthetics into the same category with moral (as opposed to factual) right/wrong, good/bad. It seems to me that then one is in danger of being led to the conclusion that physically beautiful people are more moral than ugly people--Fabio is more moral than Alan Greenspan, Heidi Klum is more moral than Madeleine Albright. Or that professional and Olympic athletes are more moral than the normally fit.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 11, 2008 at 2:36 PM
Or maybe, a way out of that problem is to consider aesthetic morality as an internal, self-directed process only. That is, you concern yourself with your own intonation and try to make it as moral as you yourself are capable of, given your unique resources, gifts, and limitations. But at the same time, you allow others their own moral integrity, you don't apply your process to them and judge them negatively just because their process arrives at a different outcome.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 2:06 AM
“I've still been mulling over the idea of morality as individuals' self-awareness and rational self-examination of one's beliefs and conduct. That suggests a view of morality as a living, ongoing process more than an outcome. Which makes sense and explains a lot.”

That’s exactly right. Morality can otherwise be so boring if it was something comes from outside. For one thing, we are moral beings. Children at very young age display strong sense of fairness, good and bad, etc. It makes good sense to take morality into our own hands. But even philosophy, it can be really dry and self-serving at times. The ethics courses I took all tend to be theoretical rather than anything living. Moral arguments are explored so much so that over the years, such education tend to enable some people to justify almost everything they do based on certain moral theories and the arguments supporting them. Some of the biggest jerks I knew were professional ethicists, believe or not. So I didn’t study much ethics as a philosophy student. I started to take morality seriously at a much later time when struggling with some real life issues, when I was pushing the limit of my intellectual integrity, when I was asking myself again and again the questions such as, why am I doing all this? Who I really want to be? Is happiness the final answer? Is meaningful life more important than a joyful one? I then start to see it’s about being. It’s a type of mode of thinking that helps to add clarity or intricacy to certain mood or sentiment I feel on daily basis. Some calls it spirituality; other calls it the heart. Whatever it is, it’s something just too good not to explore.

Why do I associate morality with aesthetics? I don’t mean to say morality is aesthetics. It’s an analogy appropriate for me to answer some tough questions. For instance, we all want to be with people who act morally, right? But why should I,/i> act morally? You’ll get all kinds of answers to this question and a lot of them are very good. For me, in the end of the day, the answer is that this is the kind of person I choose to be. But that still doesn’t explain why I choose to be this rather than an immoral person? If being an immoral person will benefit me in all sorts of ways imaginable, will I choose to be immoral? My answer remains no, because I simply can’t intentionally choose to do that which to me is morally distasteful while try to maintain some coherence or peace within me. In other words, the base for choosing to live a moral life is based on my moral taste. There are a lot of similarities between moral and aesthetic tastes. They are both very strongly intuitive, not easily changeable, can be cultivated, and in the end, entirely subjective.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 4:28 AM
Thinking about which moral issue might be involved in intonation, this is what occurs to me. "Een kan het voor allen verpesten", Willem Mengelberg, another director, said. ("One person can ruin things for everyone else".) The duty not to be that one person if you can help it is a moral one.
We have probably all come across the inclination to shut one's ears to one's own imperfections -- and let the rest of the world put up with them. That is a moral issue, and it is a director's duty to address and correct such attitudes.
This is what Giulini may have meant, I believe, and in a wider context it may be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote that stupidity is a moral, not an intellectual, category.
From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 4:58 AM
let's put a
stop to those italics.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 11:32 AM
Thanks for putting a stop to the italics ;-)

I actually think I'd disagree with Bonhoeffer. Although I would agree with Schiller: "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"

If the gods themselves contend against it in vain, it's unreasonable to use the ability to contend against it as a basis for a human morality.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 11:40 AM
We're all imperfect, and the nature of the beast is that we are all going to have to put up with each other's imperfections.

I wrote the original blog after thinking about students who become stressed and paralyzed by the fear of letting others see their imperfections. Perhaps it's a fear of "ruining it for everyone else," which is understandable in certain situations. But I still don't believe it's helpful for authority figures to stoke that fear, especially in a teaching situation. And in fact, it may be important to counter that fear just to live your life with integrity. Fear of admitting fault causes a lot grief and misunderstanding.

Maybe what's good for professionals in a world-class orchestra is different from what's good for students.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 12, 2008 at 11:44 AM
Karen, I was not satisfied either. Horkheimer and Adorno write about the way stupidity, or dumbness, comes into being (zur Genese der Dummheit, ). They say it is a sign of past injury, sustained when the young individual ventured past its original confines, and was harshly rebuked. This offers a much better guide to teaching children.
The German original has much more to offer than this short summary.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer directed his severity against those who deliberately ignore the difference between five hundred pigs and a chorus of trained voices.

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