Over at The New Republic, writers Mark Oppenheimer and Paul Berman recently engaged in a spirited but friendly back-and-forth sparked by Oppenheimer's article titled "Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument." Click on the title to read Oppenheimer's piece, where you'll also find links to Berman's reply ("Parents Absolutely Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons"), and Oppenheimer's last word ("I Have Nothing Against Classical Music — But That's Exactly My Point").
Me? I think that parents are perfectly capable of making decisions for their children without my help, so I'll stay out of it. But I would like to weigh in on a question Berman asks...
Is there something special about classical music? Does the study of classical music offer something that cannot be found in the study of (Oppenheimer lists these alternatives) folk or pop music? Or origami? Or auto mechanics?
...then goes on to answer:
The study of classical music is—I am sorry to put it this way, for fear of demoralizing any ten-year student musicians—a spiritual enterprise. I do not mean to say that classical music is better than other kinds of music. Any given classical composition or performance may be worse than worthless; and any given performance of some other kind of music may prove to be a work of genius; and even the finest examples of classical greatness may be inappropriate for one or another purpose...But I do think that classical music is, in some respect, bigger than other kinds of music. The music has been going on for five hundred years as a self-conscious tradition, dedicated to an extended meditation on a series of musical structures so limited as nearly to be arithmetical. And the meditations have reflected on one another, and, over the centuries, sometimes they have advanced.
OK, fine. I kind of said something almost sort of similar (have I equivocated enough?) in an earlier post on whether classical music is better than other kinds:
Is classical music better than any other kind?...My short answer is: Sometimes, but not always. And in some ways, but not in all ways. For the ultimate in scale, in permanence and in profundity, the greatest classical works by the greatest classical composers are without equal. To express oneself musically in large forms, big ideas, fine detail and maximum impact, classical music provides a tradition and a range of resources that other genres can't match, great as they can be.
But one word in Berman's answer sticks in my craw: spiritual. The way he sees it, no matter what other benefits one may gain from studying (and I presume listening to) the musical "others," only classical possesses the spiritual dimension he would have the succeeding generations imbued with. And with this, I have a big problem.
Now, I could take my literary sledge hammer to Berman's piece to make my point. Or, I could unleash a veritable hurricane of counter-evidence, citations and good old-fashioned bluster. But, for my blood pressure and your sitzfleisch, 'tis better I simply illuminate my views with one recent example of why I think Berman is quite wrong.
Earlier this month, several family members, friends and former colleagues gathered at the Haydenville Congretational Church to pay memorial tribute to Jorge Luis González, a smart, warm, dear man who worked at New England Public Radio for six years. For over an hour, the church was filled with stories, poems, laughter, tears and, not least, music, for which Jorge's tastes were unusually broad and deep. I hope the other participants won't mind if I single out as a highlight when "our" Jorge's beloved nephew and namesake, known inside the family as "Little Jorge," picked up the electric guitar provided for the occasion by NEPR's chief engineer Charles Dubé and, with the church's choir director Jeff Olmsted accompanying at the keyboard, launched into a scorching rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile."
Well! Not only did young Jorge demonstrate impressive instrumental command for a fourteen-year old (or anyone of any age, for that matter), but the spirit of his music soared into every heart within earshot, and perhaps a few in the beyond as well. Jorge's Hendrix was an act of commitment, achievement, self-expression and love, every bit as spiritual as would be mastering Felix Mendelssohn's Violn Concerto, as Paul Berman exhorts twelve-year old violinists to do in TNR. I'm sure that if Mr. Berman had been there, he'd have agreed — and so would you.
Whether or not young Jorge makes the guitar his career, his hobby or his long-ago pastime, you could not question that his life has so far been enriched by the rock guitar, and would only wish the same on your own children and grandchildren. So, before we proclaim our belief in "classical exceptionalism," or indeed in the exceptional artistic and spiritual benefits of any music that happens to be our own favorite, perhaps we might spare a moment to consider the young Jorges in our lives, and ask ourselves whether we're really certain that we know better than they the direction toward which their spirits want to soar.