Mark Oppenheimer started a conversation over at The New Republic on whether parents ought to force their children to learn a classical instrument. He contended that, despite arguments for the education’s lifelong value, his grown associates have experienced few benefits from their former musical training:
All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago. And the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.
In light of this, Oppenheimer argues that only the inspired student should delve into classical training. Although he sees the benefit of the perseverance and self-confidence learned, he notes, “Studying anything over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. There is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin. Otherwise, you’re learning the same valuable lessons that you’d get from karate class, or from badminton. Or from endless hours of foosball.”
Oppenheimer is right: many of the lessons learned from the practice room are also inculcated on the basketball court, tennis field, or machine shop. Why should students be forced to pursue classical music? Paul Berman, a Senior Editor at TNR, responded to this question on Friday. He contended that the study of classical music is, in his words, “a spiritual enterprise”: “I do not mean to say that classical music is better than other kinds of music,” he writes, “…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.”
This is true of my experience with classical music, as well: it is the “mother art.” When you pour your heart and soul into learning her quirks and essence, she rewards you immensely – not just in the classical strain, but in every other realm of musical study. Those trained classically usually find other genres easy to pick up. I’ve met several classically trained guitarists whose jazz and rock solos put others to shame. They learned the “mother art,” and her demanding rigor made other styles accessible.
I began piano lessons at age seven. Though auditory memorization came naturally to me, sight-reading was a long and painstaking process. I wonder at times whether building that reflex also enhanced my speed-reading. Early on in my classical training, I developed a love for Romantic music—especially Debussy, Brahms, and Beethoven. During one of my first competitions, I played a simple romantic-era waltz. I was so in love with the piece, I forgot where I was. I forgot anything and everything—except those soulful, otherworldly notes. Indeed, I was so swept up in the moment, I almost forgot how to end the piece. But after the song’s conclusion, when I turned around, the judge was smiling at me. Despite my trance-induced memory hiccup, he awarded me the highest prize for my age group. I think he knew I was in love with the music.
My love of baroque music didn’t come until I played violin and began lessons with a wonderfully gifted Bulgarian violinist. She was the most demanding, detailed, and brilliant teacher I’ve ever had. Through her rigor and attention to detail, Bach came alive. I saw the beauty in his Sonatas and Partitas, the complexity and artistry blossoming in every note. I realized the truth Berman describes, how
If you study Bach with sufficient ardor, instrument in hand, you ought to be able to discover that, at moments, you and Bach have merged. You ought to discover that Bach’s inquiries into mathematical figures are your own inquiries, and Bach’s ecstasies are yours, as well. Bach was a genius, and you, too, are a genius, when you perform his work—even if some person listening to you trample clumsily over the score may conclude that you are an oaf. Your purpose in playing is not to impress anyone else, though, nor to entertain.
Through hours of repetition with a metronome, practicing specific bowing techniques, perfecting my vibrato, and listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter, classical music became my own. It became part of me. Although I do not play seriously anymore, I still enjoy performing with friends. I don’t constantly listen to classical, but I still enjoy it—and believe its artistry taught me to hunt for jazz, rock, and even pop music that employs similar complexity.
But we must return to the question of force: did my parents force me to play piano or violin? No, they did not. There were times when I wanted to stop playing: for instance, in the first few months of violin, when everything still sounded squeaky and dissonant, or when my months of vibrato practice still resulted in sickening see-saw sounds.
But whenever I went to my father and said I wanted to quit, he responded with this story: “You know, my parents wanted me to play piano and signed me up for lessons. But after only a short time, I told them I wanted to quit. They let me—and I’ve regretted it my whole life.” He would always ask me to “give it one more month, just to see if it gets better.”
I would always agree. And lo and behold—after one month, everything felt better. My tone had improved, the vibrato had finally crystallized, the painfully difficult piece was becoming a personal favorite. In my opinion, this lesson served me better than any force would have: my father taught me that what we want is not always clear in the present moment. Our emotions are rather fickle, but true love is built through perseverance: if we persist through the moment of distaste, we may develop a true passion.