The Essential Ingredient of a Life in the Arts

I read The Classical Teacher for the same reasons you do: to gather information and to garner inspiration. When it was suggested that I devote this article to reasons for studying the fine arts, I happily agreed. In truth, the short version of the topic would fit into three sentences. 1) The arts are critical to a child’s development. 2) Paths to studying the arts are many and do not have to involve significant expense or logistical challenges. 3) Children exposed regularly to the arts will absorb their value, even if this does not seem to be the case.

There it is. But let me amplify these thoughts (gratefully I am allowed more than three sentences per article). First, extolling the arts unabashedly comes easily at this point in my life, particularly after witnessing their value across nearly three generations of students. In addition, recent decades have afforded me unfathomable opportunities to travel to places I never expected to see. This means that names, dates, and ideas about the arts studied solely in books have sprung to life, convincing me even more of their importance.

But this realization was not always clear. My childhood was spent in one house, on one street, in a small Virginia city. Only three avenues afforded me an entrée to the arts. First, I studied piano as seriously as possible, although I would have quit a dozen times if my strong mother had not prohibited it. Yet my training was limited by my modest circumstances. Opportunities to hear orchestras in concert, play chamber music with others, or challenge my abilities (master classes, competitions) were largely unavailable. Chances to visit museums, see ballets, or attend plays lay outside of my experience, too. Once I stepped into the wider world of the arts, I lagged behind. The race to catch up continues to this day (or so it seems to me).

Regarding the other two avenues, both felt feeble and insignificant at the time. In retrospect, though, these two avenues were perfect arteries. One revolved around my mother’s love of music. She had no chance for musical training in her impoverished childhood, but she did grow up in New York City. That meant she went regularly as a schoolgirl to the Old Metropolitan Opera and stood for pennies in its top balcony. It also meant she could enter free into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as certain venues for theatrical performances. So despite personal hardships, she found ways to experience the arts at a high level.

My mother also had a beautiful voice. She sang along with songs on the radio and with the few recordings we owned. Radio offerings were different back then. Top hits of big band music (her generation’s pop), overtures from Broadway musicals, and tunes from the cabarets dominated the airwaves. She tuned in every Saturday to the broadcasts of matinée performances from the Metropolitan Opera, famously sponsored by Texaco (yes, the oil company is responsible for this long-lived phenomenon in our American cultural history). While maintaining I disliked opera until the light dawned at age nineteen, these broadcasts caused me to absorb it and to understand that opera had power to elevate those who heard its music.

The third avenue led to our backyard where my father, a rather good “hillbilly-guitar” player, sat regularly of an evening, strumming and singing the tunes of Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and recording artists who made careers in the 1930s and 40s. Old-timey ballads and folk songs were part of his repertoire, too. He even taught me songs he had learned in the army during World War II (the age-appropriate ones, at least). All told, he spent hours playing music for me or anyone else who drifted in to listen (particularly when someone added a guitar, banjo, or mandolin to the mix).

Clearly the two musical worlds of my parents were at odds—or so I thought as a child. Now though, I recognize them as branches growing off the same trunk, drawing their lifeblood from the same source. Uniting them was a garland of passion that each parent wove from love of his or her favored style. So between my practice of Chopin and Brahms, my mother’s lovely if untutored voice, and the strings of my daddy’s guitar, I grew up with music.

Would I have been a better pianist if I’d enjoyed pre-college piano instruction at a top university from a young age? Surely, I would have. Would a pattern of attending symphony concerts, professional operas, and dramatic theater have helped me in my scholarly aspirations? Of course, the answer is yes. What if I regularly could have roamed through art galleries and sculpture gardens, or held a season subscription to the ballet? Clearly, all of those opportunities would have made my life easier in graduate school and during my early years as a professor of music history.

But I did have the essential ingredient for building a life in the arts: namely, exposure to the passion that fueled my parents’ love of artistic expression. I did not hear Beethoven’s string quartets until my twenties, but I knew from age five that singing the songs from Carousel made my mother happy. I knew, too, that my father, tired from running his labor-intensive photo-finishing business on a seven-day-a-week schedule, was revived when he stopped his work to play and sing his beloved tunes. Though their music was different, both parents gave me a legacy of music that inspires my life to this day.

So, let me encourage anyone reading this essay to reach as high as reasonably possible in bringing the arts to your students and to the children in your family. Trust that your principal job is to plant, water, and nourish a love for the beautiful, the expressive, and the dramatic. A child’s wonder watching glass-blowing at a county fair or learning the basics of origami is as valid as exposure to renowned paintings in the Louvre or our National Gallery. In fact, without hands-on, graspable experience in how one molds a physical object to create beauty and meaning, a child has a harder time seeing the majesty of a masterwork.

Yes, we want to ensure quality for our children as they encounter music, art, theater, and dance. But when their first music comes from the voice of a parent singing lullabies, that music will form the foundation of a lifelong love of music. When an uncle shows a child how different colors are mixed to make paint, a neighbor demonstrates the difference between line dancing and square dancing, or a family friend explains how actors inflect their voices to become characters, that child is being empowered to pursue a life filled with the majesty inherent in the creative expression we call the fine arts.