We all do it, don’t we? We carefully defend the bold choice we’ve made to educate our children seriously and rigorously. Friends or relatives may assert that we are choosing outdated traditions, irrelevant in our techno-saturated world. Latin in elementary school? Whatever for? The Great Books? Aren’t they terribly boring? Handwriting and memory work? We have computers for that kind of thing.
Then, there’s the decision to commit ourselves to our priceless tradition of the Fine Arts: painting and sculpture, theater and dance, plus, of course, music. That, to many, seems even more of an accessory or frill. How do we explain laboring to instill an understanding of the masterpieces our modern society no longer values?
Teaching the fine arts is not about turning children into professional artists, dancers, or violinists. It’s not even about taking lessons. It’s about teaching the substance of the fine arts. It’s about opening students’ minds to a world of color, movement, and sound that they won’t encounter easily otherwise. It’s about training the ear to listen, the eye to see, and the soul to drench itself with beauty.
The case for what we tend to call “classical music” is one of the hardest to make. Music can seem so ephemeral. Literature more easily conveys a sense of heritage and ongoing relevance. Visual art, such as painting and sculpture, confronts a viewer with a physical presence.
But music? Its substance disappears once the notes no longer sound in the air. Music’s meaning can be hard to grasp. So classical music, lacking a clear connection to daily lives, seemingly can be dismissed without much remorse.
Yet in some parts of the world classical music is flourishing as never before. Look at the roster of names from the string sections of today’s orchestras or international piano competitions.
The players come from nations, many of them non-Western, where the discipline required to achieve virtuosity continues to be taught and culturally embraced.
This phenomenon may be encouraging, but can classical music flourish in parts of the world where such traditions have never existed? Can it speak to people fully unversed in such musical styles?
The answer is an enthusiastic “yes.” I’ll share one story to underline the searing power of classical music to communicate. To my own surprise, I learned this story while giving a lecture series on a ship sailing the Indian Ocean.
A musician named Panos Karan was performing on the same ship as I. An impressive British pianist of Greek parentage, he has plenty of credentials to his name. As a youth, he set himself the iconic goal of performing in Carnegie Hall. Through talent, persistence, and good fortune, he did. But afterwards, still in his twenties, he found himself thinking, “Now what?” Or, to use his own words:
I had gotten all this training and failed to ask the most important question: Why am I playing music? … Why am I only playing for people that can afford to buy a ticket? In the middle of this crisis, and with the thought very clearly in my head that perhaps I should stop playing music altogether and do something else, I thought I would give it one more try and go as far away as possible from the concert hall that I knew and try to find a completely new audience that knows nothing about the music that I was playing.
Unsure what he might accomplish, he set out on a voyage to the source of the Amazon River. Trekking through the jungle with a full-scale electronic piano and a power generator, he proceeded to play the same music he had performed on the concert stage for whomever would listen. As he says, “I wanted to see with my own eyes and feel in my hands what the music I was playing can really do.”
Those accompanying him first to the Amazon and then to West Africa were able to film the most extraordinary scenes. You can see these for yourself at www.panoskaran.com. The children in particular sat with rapt attention as Karan’s fingers flew across the black and white levers. They couldn’t get enough of the sound or the magical techniques he employed to make the sounds. Adults who had never heard the music of Bach or Handel were dancing—clapping and moving to these “old Baroque pieces” as if they were the newest popular blast. In cultures where dance holds a nearly sacred position, this spontaneous response was deeply meaningful.
Building on these experiences, Karan moved to the next stage of his endeavor. With Western backers, he began to put instruments in kids’ hands, supported their training, and even launched youth orchestras that later were able to perform in places like London and Boston.
You can take many lessons from Panos Karan’s experiences. But the most important lesson, for me, involves reemphasizing Western classical music’s vital content. It is not an elite, dusty remnant of the past. It speaks across time and place to everyone. Its complexity and refinement are not barriers, but rather invitations to experience its continuously gratifying richness.
The notes may vanish in the air once sounded, but the power of classical music makes a connection to the listeners’ daily lives—one not easily dismissed. We who have such easy access to the treasury of Western arts can experience this daily. So let us educate our children with music of the most uplifted and uplifting kind, music rich in melody, vibrant in harmony, strong in structure, and transcendent in beauty.