Music Doesn’t Fit In the Box

Music stands apart from many presumptions of modern life.

For one thing, there’s its sense of timing. I like to point out that music is not a to-do list but more like an appointment calendar. If you miss some notes, you have to get on to your next appointment on time, with the next beat or phrase.

Sometimes I speak of the Long Bows exercise (in Technique Video Group 1) as a great warmup because it can be a buffer between the demands of daily life and music. You have to settle into four beats per bow, allow for four bows per string, and all the while, you pay attention to sound, bow speed, pressure, continuity, differences in different parts of the bow. It’s not quantifiable.

Nobody picks up an instrument in order to make money (except maybe the Monkees, who apparently learned to play guitar so they could star in a TV show!). Those who teach music making did not aim for that as a great way to make a living but do it as a way to share their love of and perspective on the making of music, although some fall into the job for lack of gigs, money, etc. Still, there’s no guarantee of students coming back for more lessons unless something meaningful is being imparted, and all the MBA-inspired self-help advice about turning music teaching into a great business has nothing to offer when it comes to inspiring actual students to love and learn their instrument. The point is, neither music playing nor teaching quite fit in the box of the practical careers our society is comfortable placing a high value on. Strangely, however, we can hardly do without it.

What about the learners, the folks who pick up an instrument, regardless of their age? Are they expressing themselves, growing brain cells, keeping busy… or is there something more to it? Something that’s not quantifiable?

Joe came to me to learn fiddle because his boss wanted to get rid of him, and Joe wasn’t about to let it happen. In the midst of music lessons, he told tales of mistreatment at work, and the story of how he was taking his boss to the Labor commissioner. He started getting pretty good at the fiddle, but then his legal case came to a head, and the commissioner ended up deciding against him. The next lesson was all sad talk and no music, and in an unfortunate twist, he decided not to pay me because there was no music. (I should have charged him triple rates as a therapist!) He had chosen music as his refuge.

Years ago I saw a news article about a new recording studio in a cancer wing of a hospital, giving kids a chance to write songs and record them. The idea was not merely to cure the kids, but to heal them. Music has a holistic health effect that our pragmatic society has a hard time understanding. It doesn’t match up with dollars and cents, even if it makes common sense. Music therapy has become a real career and is now used by hospitals routinely, but back in the day when my mother’s piano teacher promoted music for its healing qualities, he was ridiculed in a Time magazine profile. Music’s qualities and benefits defy easy measurement.

I once had an older student named George, who was anxious about investing money and time in lessons and a new instrument, and vowed to do music for a strictly limited period of time. After that, if he wasn’t “good at it” by then, he would quit and move on to some other project. He kept after me about how much he should practice and how to do it correctly, and when he could expect to be as good as so-and-so, and sometimes wondered forlornly why he couldn’t get the same quality of sound that I do. Then George had a talk with Barry.

Barry was dedicated to his fiddling despite two jobs and a sick wife who needed his help. He happened to be scheduled for the lesson time right after George, and one day they had a chat. George asked Barry how much he practiced, and the answer shocked him: “three, sometimes four hours a day.” George practically threw up his arms in despair and said to me, “So that’s what you have to do?”

But before I could answer, Barry checkmated him. “I just enjoy it. It relaxes me,” he said. Suddenly George had a whole new perspective on learning music, and there was no need to say anything more.

Music just doesn’t fit in all the boxes.

©2019 Ed Pearlman

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