A reader writes, apropos of yesterday’s exchange about American orchestras:
Regarding your comments (and your correspondent’s) about the opening of minds to symphonic music, I think you might have overlooked a crucial element: instrument lessons. Or rather, the lack of them in American schooling. Take a survey of a group of symphony-goers, and you’ll find that one had some violin in school. Another still plays amateur piano. Another might have had a clarinet thrust upon her in junior high. While they never became professional musicians themselves, the instruction they received helped them unlock the secrets of music. Knowing something of what it takes to play a viola part, they can appreciate and admire those who do it brilliantly.
It’s a sad fact that music appreciation–that very optimistic style of teaching which consists in playing recordings of works and telling students why they’re great–doesn’t stick. It takes more than one hearing and a definition of sonata form, and even sympathetic
and awe-struck description of Beethoven’s deafness, to overcome the forbidding nature of a 45-minute work, especially in this era of ambient music and 3-minute songs. A mind can’t merely be open to music; it needs to be shaped to the music, through the rigors of practice and performance.
Where has the instrumental instruction gone? It’s a victim of budget cuts, at least in the public schools. It’s gone from the cultural landscape, too. A piano is no longer an essential item in a cultured household, and the very idea of aspiring to a cultured household is embarrassingly affected to some.
Not every member of a concert audience is an ex-trumpeter or fiddler, to be sure. But a good number are, and they bring their spouses and infect their
friends with their enthusiasm.
In short, it’s hopeless trying to get people into concert halls by telling them why they need to attend concerts. Love of complex, demanding music has to be engendered from an early age, and that takes the kind of involvement that music lessons entail.
Well…yes and no. Mostly yes, at least up to a point, and I speak as one who actually learned how to play violin in the public schools of a very small Missouri town–but, then, I was the one who wanted to learn. To be sure, the larger culture was encouraging me: I grew up in the middlebrow age of aspiration, at a time when the ideal of the “cultured household” was still taken with the highest possible seriousness. I saw classical music performed on network TV as a boy, which made me want to learn an instrument, and my public school system made that possible. Many of the links have been removed from that cultural chain in the past quarter-century, with dire results. Still, the initial impulse came from within me, in substantial part because of those selfsame music-appreciation classes about whose efficacy my correspondent is so skeptical. Mere exposure rang the bell, and my own budding interest did the rest.
The good news is that people can develop a serious interest in classical music, or any other “complex, demanding” art form, no matter how old they are. I’ve seen it happen time and again. For this reason, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as my correspondent, who seems to think that if you don’t get inoculated with classical music in childhood, you can’t learn to love it as an adult. On the other hand, I strongly agree that learning a musical instrument as a child puts you way ahead of the game, and the decline of our public-school music programs has made an uphill battle steeper than ever.
I also agree that “it’s hopeless trying to get people into concert halls by telling them why they need to attend concerts.” Would that it were more widely understood that high art is good for you–not in the fallacious “Mozart-effect” sense, but in the far more profound sense of soulcraft. Alas, that uplifting notion has largely vanished from American culture. In matters of high art, we must start from zero: we actually have to make the case that listening to operas by Mozart and Verdi and looking at ballets by Balanchine and Tudor are pleasurable experiences.
Fortunately, the strongest card in our hands is that we’re telling the truth, an amazing and miraculous fact that it’s never too late to discover, even if you’ve never held a clarinet or stood at a barre or wielded a paintbrush. High art is many things, but above all–before anything else–it’s fun. And I think it’s possible to make that clear without distorting the experience of art out of all recognition. That’s what I try to do in writing about the arts, here and elsewhere: I try to communicate the overflowing enthusiasm and excitement I feel every time I come into the presence of good art. Any arts journalist who doesn’t do that is part of the problem.