What is the value of music in post-election America?
I do not ordinarily talk about politics in my blog, but these are not ordinary times. Indeed, life changed for a lot of us this Election Day when the country shocked us by electing someone whose vitriolic campaign espoused values that contradict the very foundations on which our country was built: freedom, equality, inclusivity and tolerance.
I am privileged to work with a group of talented, thoughtful, earnest young people who are using their education at the Yale School of Music to become both world-class musicians and tomorrow’s cultural leaders. These days, the students whom I teach and coach at the Yale School of Music are dispirited, wondering what the future will bring and even questioning the value of the music—an endeavor to which they have devoted their lives.
That’s why one of my coaching groups decided to unpack the election and its impact on our world. What emerged was a reaffirmation of the value of music—with a different twist.
For starters, many students are having a tough time. One person shared how she could not bring herself to practice excerpts for an orchestral audition. Others told of how fearful they are for the future of the country and how sad to see how our morals are being challenged. Yet another student could not sleep but somehow made it through her degree recital because her family was there and she was determined to make the best of the situation. Another student admitted to feeling cynical about the “power of music” and music as catharsis. Even the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein:
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
felt like a cliché at this point since that will not necessarily lead to change.
These students—and many others with whom I have spoken—have now been awakened from complacency and are committed to doing something meaningful with their lives. And they wondered how they, as musicians, can take meaningful action.
So what is the value of music in these troubled times?
First, let us acknowledge the importance of music in capturing the spirit of the people in difficult times. Last week’s New York Times book review of a biography of Kenneth Clark told the story of how after the outbreak of the World War II, Mr. Clark, then the Director of the National Gallery, organized noontime concerts in the museum that were broadcast by the BBC. The concerts, he said, “were the first sign that we were recovering from a sort of numbness which overcame our sensibilities for a week or two after the war was declared.”
Moreover, music has proven effective at healing those who have deeply suffered, including victims of domestic violence and war victims, including child soldiers. Indeed, one such organization, Musicians for World Harmony has as its mission “to use the healing power of music to reawaken the humanity in the hearts of displaced and distressed peoples affected by aging, disease and war in an effort to promote peace, understanding, health and harmony.”
That’s why one student is thinking about pursuing music therapy as a way to using music in a meaningful way.
Moreover, music creates community. In this day and age of social media where people don’t have to leave their homes in order to connect with “friends,” listen to music, watch movies or otherwise interact with the world, music provides a forum for human beings to come together and share a special experience. In the 21st Century, we may need to do things differently to create that sense of community through music. It may not be enough to play a symphony these days so why not engage the audience in dialogue and invite listeners to participate and interact with the musicians to explore the relevance of music in today’s world? These wonderful young people understand how important it is to share the experience of live music with others. Since these students the ones who are thinking about how to make music more relevant to our culture, they may very well be the change agents we need.
And speaking of community, teaching artists are committed to engaging with the local communities in which they reside. Many of our students participate in Yale’s Music in Schools program, which provides mentorship to young students along with active music making so that young students learn the skills of making music and YSM students discover how they can make a difference in their local communities.
Students related how after the election, their young students in the New Haven public schools—many of whom are immigrants—expressed their fears that they and their parents would be deported. Our students can serve as valuable mentors for their young students in these troubled times, as well as model excellence, achievement and community through music.
Music education is another way to change lives. One of our students feels that by educating the next generation of children and young people, we can instill the importance of music and inspire future generations to value music.
Another theme is a strong feeling among these students is that music no longer should be for the elites. One student was impressed that the New World Symphony projects its concerts outside on a screen for anyone to watch. Even the Metropolitan Opera offered free outdoor screenings of opera last summer. And the very structure of the orchestra, with hundreds of musicians auditioning for a few precious slots, may have to change. For now, it’s the way to gain entry into the orchestra world but by auditioning for and joining an orchestra, our musicians have the potential to effect change from within.
Similarly, today’s young musicians avoid the term “classical music” and are more interested in going beyond the distinctions among musical genres. In a changing world, music can be a model for inclusivity if we program music from a variety of cultures, hire musicians from diverse backgrounds and engage with audience members in our local communities.
As for me, what gives me hope is my work with our future cultural leaders: these talented, idealistic musicians who are committed to making the world a better place and using their musical gifts to do so.
So yes, music has a tremendous value in our society and I am encouraged to see that our students are committed to their path.