Symphony

| November 4, 2010
An essay by John Gardener

Music belongs to all those who make it – or, who like bathroom Pavarottis, would like to make it – and music belongs to all who listen to and love it.

Sir Roger Bannister – he of the first recorded four-minute mile – once said: “I have always had a theory that the person who really appreciates a sport for its own sake is one who is bad at it.” So, too, music belongs also to the musical duffers; to players and audience, all of us, even to you and me.

Movement the first

This introduces the leitmotif: music and language are the breath and blood of the human mind and soul. There is no barrier line between them. Some people say music is a language. You could also say that language is a kind of music. There’s music in language: sounds, rhythms, tempi, stresses, volumes, tunes. There’s articulate and eloquent language in music: ideas, emotions, information, persuasiveness, quotation, mimicry, idioms and values.

Music and language complement each other. Each is a lesser creation, a lesser experience, a lesser expression without the other. A translation of a poem, it has been said, is no translation unless it gives you the music of a poem along with the words of it.

Music and language are both essential, central, integral parts of the whole person, just like religion. And, like poems, everyone has a language, and a music, just as everyone has a religion – even those who deny it, or don’t realise it. Subjects, professions, lives that deal with the whole person are special. Obvious examples are medicine, teaching, nursing, those whose religions entrust them with the care of souls, and being a parent, spouse or friend. Other occupations are specialised and, for
many, they stay that way. But they are the poorer if that wholeness is forgotten. Their specialness must never submerge the wholeness.

Language and music have a vital, vitalising place in any community and, if a school is anything, it is a community. Language and music are pervasive; realise it or not, they are integral parts of us.

Movement the second

Back to music per se. Enter a special plea for listening to loom larger in music education, and indeed in all education for a whole life. In too many places, musical education tends to highlight performance – instrumentally or vocally and, far less so, composition – but surprisingly, listening not much at all. Surprisingly, because not everyone can perform – though the more the merrier of course, even those swans that Coleridge wished had died ere they sang – and not everyone can compose. We all hear music – often we can’t help it – but how many of us listen? Would that all listening were directed, knowledgeable, open-minded, sensitive, receptive, discerning and retentive. Such listening is also needed for language; and it is needed for listening to people as well, not just hearing them. We should listen to their needs, their dreams, and their fears – the very essences of their being.

Because it is so wide, so important, so pervasive, music, like language, is hard to confine or define. Louis Armstrong is quoted as having said: “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” The word ‘music’ comes from the nine mythical Greek superladies, the Muses, who were said to sponsor various arts and skills. Almost all of these would today fall under today’s narrower heads of language and music, but also embraced history, astrology, poetry, drama and dancing.

This all-important alliance of music and language goes back to the Greeks – or certainly the discovery that it exists does. When music and language are central, there is an instinctive sense of balanced rightness, of wholeness, wholesomeness, of holiness even.

This is how things were created to be; this is what makes sense of the universe; this indeed is the soil in which the flowers of truth and integrity and beauty and love can take root. Another flower that is important is the fun-flower. Fun – the right kind of fun, not travesties of it – is a product of perspective, balance and wholeness, the ability to see the different levels of meaning in words, ideas, situations, people. It is essential in a school and indeed in life.

Cadenza

Prep School Concert
Prep School boys with two washed knees
Play Mozart with two washed hands.
(Mozart would understand.)

Bizet, Bach and Britten in the Junior Hall,
Persuaded through young trumpets, oboes, strings,
For some for ever caged by father’s videocam.

Orchestra, precocious, serves up New York, New York,
Blowing strongly, cutting lush slices of that sturdy song,
Blasted out before the hungry, happy audience.

Tyros try: survive false starts, detours and cul-de-sacs;
The nervous brave made stronger by response affirming
That the taking part, Olympics-like,
Is more vital than to win!

There’s fun and zest and rhythmed joy from all –
But reserve, for some, a frightening awe:
Incipient genius,
Unarrogantly assertive,
Nerveless, so it appears,
Sure-fingered manifestos of sounds supreme to be.
We’ve sojourned in the realms of gold
Whose sovereigns are but ten years old.

Movement the third

Life in a school should be a symphony. A symphony is ‘sounds together in harmony’. All that is experienced and taught in a school, including what we call extramurals, play vital roles. We have singled out music and language as pervasive, and they are. But there are others that are almost as important and influential. Imagine what you would have learnt for yourselves, even if you had never been to school. Imagine what you would have made your own, even if only out of necessity but also because they are built into you as part of your very being.

You would have to include music and language, and also acting (or, if you like, drama) and its close relation, story telling; elementary aspects of physics – how movement and force operate; biology – one’s own bodies as well as other creatures and food; geography – the surroundings and weather; and elements of counting and calculating.

These are only some examples. They enable us to explain, understand, manage or express ourselves or aspects of our ‘selves’. Schools extend, amplify, coordinate and develop applications of these, and much else besides. But too often schools see such ‘subjects’ as compartmentalised ends in themselves, especially when they treat them as competitions – “Is this for marks, sir?” And they can – as with music and other arts – too often be treated as add-ons rather than as parts of human living as well as modes of expression, instruction and knowing more of one’s self.

And, whether you like it or not, religion also plays a role in a school. Religion is a set of beliefs that binds one to decisions and actions. Some schools may choose to term it a value system, but all schools believe in something; they put their faith in something. Their activities and priorities reflect what they believe. There is surely no school that would not espouse as one of its prime values the understanding and creation of harmony in the music of life, sometimes called love – a ‘symphony’.

A popular hit of some time ago has these simple appropriate words: “I only know there ain’t no love at all – without a song!”

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