It’s been a good many years since I’ve thought of myself as a musician, notwithstanding my brief stint last year in a performance-art Patsy Cline cover band. But until my sophomore year of college, my primary identities were, about equally, writer and musician.
I played string bass from the time I was 9 until I was 19. I also took piano lessons from pre-K through 12th grade and taught basic piano through high school to earn extra cash. I sang in church choirs. But what I really did, if you asked, was play the bass — the big old bad-ass bass.
I had the good fortune to live in a town — small and remote as it was — with a strong investment in music education. My family was a musical family. And I had a strings teacher who believed that music and musicianship were fundamental to a healthy human existence. On more than one occasion, Melvin K. DeWitt teared up while trying to convince his youthful orchestras that we had the potential to play — to really play — the music he put in front of us, from Beethoven to Bryan Ferry.
Mr. D was probably the most important teacher I had as a child. He once prophesied — wrongly, it turns out — that I would fund my college education with a bass performance scholarship, and for years I believed him. (In the end, carpal tunnel syndrome tipped me toward my English major and the rest is history.) Mr. D’s confidence in my ability drove me to regional and state competitions and ensembles as well as to summer music camps. Those experiences, which exposed me to a range of music and allowed me to play with musicians who far outstripped the majority of my classmates back home, were my first real glimpses of the world outside my rural Arizona valley. Being a musician ushered me into modernity.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Melvin DeWitt lately, ever since the New Yorker‘s “Education Issue” appeared in my mailbox late last month. In it, Alex Ross offers a compelling essay on the distressing decline of music education in recent years. (Ross’s article didn’t appear in the online edition or I’d link to it; he did, however, include some relevant links on his blog, The Rest Is Noise.)
Ross reports that the fraudulent No Child Left Behind Act, among its many other atrocities, has accelerated the end of arts education in America. The punitive treatment given to schools that underperform in subjects like reading and math guarantees a fundamentalist winnowing down of the curricula across the land; California’s music ed enrollments dropped fully by half between 1999 and 2004. “In the past few years,” Ross writes,
advocates have issued studies, pamphlets, and talking points that marshall alarming statistics on the diminishment of music programs and argue passionately for their preservation. But there is something maddeningly vague at the heart of the literature. Why must music be taught? … Anyone who has loved music from an early age feels certain that it has a unique and irreplaceable value, but it is difficult to translate that conviction into hard sociological data.
Moreover, as Ross goes on to argue, the answers to the “why” of music education are contradictory. Cultural elitists believe Brahms is just plain better for people than hiphop. Some economically depressed parents, hoping to get their kids into a better life, apparently believe the same thing: “Classical music is for people who have class,” one urban mother said, when explaining why she wanted her daughter to play the violin. Others believe (as Ross paraphrases the arts advocate Maxine Greene) that “children can gain deeper understanding of the surrounding world by looking at it from the peculiar vantage point of a work of art. … They also can experience a shock of perception that shows them alternative possibilities within their own lives, whether or not those possibilities or those lives have an obvious surface relationship with the art work in question.”
That description comports, for the most part, with my own experience, though as a kid, being a musician meant most of all the chance to demonstrate proficiency — to receive praise for technical mastery of an instrument or a difficult piece of music. But taking up a piece of someone else’s music and learning to play it well also meant opening a dialogue with the past, with past acts of creation. It’s an experience unique, I think, to this specific artistic discipline, though being an actor may bear certain resemblances. More than simply broadening my sense of the “alternative possibilties” in front of me, performing others’ works encouraged me to be creative myself.
I thought again about Ross’s essay and about my own musical past last week when I took a group of students — some who were performance or composition majors, but others who had never heard classical music peformed live — to the opening night of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Chamber compositions are so entertaining, in part, because they allow audience members to isolate performances, to recognize which player is responsible for which specific sound. (Typically chamber pieces have only one performer per musical line.) I was also struck by how much drama performers brought to their pieces, making it plain that the interpretive dimensions of their performances were as creative as they were technical. But it was the fact that the program was arranged chronologically, from Vivaldi in the 18th century to three living composers at the turn of the twenty-first — Bright Sheng, Nicholas Maw, and Leon Kirchner (the last of whom was in the audience) — that made it virtually impossible not to think about each piece as a dialogue between performer and composer, to think about composition and performance alike as creative acts in which an artist wrestles with and transforms tradition, demands a new name and a blessing.
Sitting in that Lincoln Center audience I realized how much I’ve lost by letting go of that wrestling process myself, how much I need the intangibles of that childhood exposure to music back in my life somehow. Sure, to some extent I still get that rush as a writer, as a critic, as a literature professor (though the process of becoming an academic in some ways threatened to kill off my identity as a writer, too: material for another post another time).
I do my fair share of music listening, of course, though more rock and roll than anything else. But there’s a string bass-shaped hole in my heart that has to do with a different kind of connection to music — with thinking of myself as a musician, a performer. Nothing in my current life quite matches the thrill of working with a full orchestra to pull off a difficult piece. I can begin to fill that gap by spending more time at Lincoln Center, I suppose, which is something I’d certainly like to do, dragging my own kids in tow. But my life will improve dramatically when I somehow, someday, reclaim those old fundamental senses of identity, when I find the time and space to take up my instrument again and reopen conversations I had long ago with composers who showed me the way out of the provinces and into the modern world.