In the second installment of our series on the state of the nation's music and arts education, we hear from an American parent, Maria Calidonna. She reads her essay first published in Newsweek magazine in September 2004.
Below is the transcript of her commentary.
Let's Give Our Kids Bach Before Britney
When children can't play an instrument or read notes, they can't appreciate all that music offers
Before I married my husband, my prospective mother-in-law told me, "Welcome to poverty." In those days, my husband-to-be worked as a high-school music teacher at a Roman Catholic school. I remember only vaguely sharing her worry. "Poverty" is a relative term, and while my fiancé did indeed have a limited income, I thought it was my good fortune to marry a guy who loved his job—and embraced music.
It was our love of music that brought us together. I met Steve when we both worked as ushers for the New York International Music Festival at Caramoor. I noticed him standing near the stage, decked out in his best, as I was. For weeks we strolled through the two lovely outdoor theaters, directing folks to their seats before sitting down beside each other to hear the concerts. Our nights there led to walks, dinners and, eventually, four children.
Now, a decade later, despite babies and busy schedules, we still make music an integral part of our lives. A few weeks ago we ventured to Caramoor's Spanish Courtyard to hear a trio play. We were enjoying an elegy by a lesser-known classical composer named Joseph Suk when we heard a jet fly overhead.
At an outdoor venue, planes are simply part of the experience. You do your best to ignore the distraction. I kept my eyes closed, trying to distinguish the more subtle chords of the cello beneath a resonant violin, and managed to overcome the urge to look up. When I opened them, I was surprised to see how many other people hadn't.
In Westchester County, we live beneath a legion of flight paths. You'd think the roar of jets would be something we were used to. Perhaps we were, until September 11. For months afterward I, like my friends and neighbors, couldn't hear the sound of a plane without remembering scenes of destruction and feeling a heavy pit in my stomach.
As I returned my gaze to the performers, I had this thought: we need music now more than ever. It allows us to transcend, if only for a few moments, the darkness that has hung over our lives since that terrible day.
That night at Caramoor, I observed the intense facial expressions and body language of the twin sisters who were playing the cello and the violin. I couldn't help but recall the look of concentration on my kids' faces as they play their own small violins each night after supper. When they struggle to play a particularly difficult bar, they are engaged in re-creating the composer's vision and passion. They may go on to play professionally, or they may choose to play for their own pleasure. Either way, they are gaining an understanding of music that will allow them to evaluate whatever they're listening to, whether it's a concerto or the latest pop hit.
My kids are lucky to have a father who is willing and able to give them an hour of instruction every night. As so many schools across the country scale back or drop their music programs to cut costs, more and more children are losing the only opportunity they may ever have to learn an instrument or even to sing in a choir.
I've felt a certain regret as I've grown older, a subtle yet persistent sense of guilt that I didn't stay with the piano, that I didn't make it happen when I could have. I wonder if my kids' generation will even understand what they've missed.
As a child I learned that my singing voice gave pleasure to my friends and family—it was a gift that could be freely given. Later on, there were profound moments I simply couldn't separate from the music that accompanied them. At 20, I found myself lying on my back beneath an Arizona sky while friends nearby played folk music around the fire. Looking at those stars, I grasped, for the first time in my life, the awesome concept of infinity. And then I encountered my own mortality.
I know I made some blunders, a few impulsive decisions on account of music, especially when music fused with romance, or when it allowed me to escape to the point of irresponsibility. A knowledge and appreciation of music didn't always guarantee true depth, or intelligence, or kindness in a person the way I would have liked it to. But it was a kind of bridge to build relationships, a contact point, a potential glimpse into someone else's life.
These days, we need music to reignite the sense of wonder we felt as children. Surely we could use something—anything—that diminishes our cynicism and reminds us that human beings can create as well as destroy.
Our kids must navigate a chaotic, complicated world. By instilling in them an appreciation and knowledge of music, we could be giving them the very thing that will sustain them.